There’s a pleasure in epiphany. It’s the moment when the clouds part and fuzzy incomprehension finally burns away. It’s the moment that reassures you that your brain really is a complex system designed for abstract puzzle-solving, and not just a useless lump of meat. It’s the moment when you stop feeling dumb and start feeling smart, at last.
Cyan Inc. and its co-founder, Rand Miller, have been peddling that particular joy for years, largely through the massively successful Myst series of first-person puzzle games. Now they’ve unleashed Obduction, Cyan’s first major non-Myst game in decades, which was planned for years and backed, in part, by fans contributing money to a successful Kickstarter campaign. Although it swaps linking books and isolated isles for alien trees and Arizona deserts, Obduction has all the hallmarks of one of Cyan’s meticulously crafted puzzle-box worlds. And, happily, it serves as a lasting reminder of how lonely, beautiful, and mentally empowering this kind of game can be.
After a brief prologue, which sees the player scooped up from the Earth by a shining seedlike object and deposited some unknown distance away, players begin Obduction by emerging from a humble cave, only to be greeted by the stunning sight of red rock canyons and the distant spires of a bizarre and brilliant alien world. (It’s one of several jaw-dropping vistas the game offers up with a regularity that’s almost boastful in its artistic success.) Nearby, a prerecorded message—filmed with such loving and nostalgic live-action grit that it wouldn’t look out of place popping up in an old QuickTime window nestled inside one of Myst Island’s magical books—waits to welcome you to Hunrath, a community built out of interstellar detritus by fellow abductees. The place is supposed to be filled with happy, smiling people, all ready to welcome the new arrival. It’s up to the player to figure out why it’s an abandoned Old West ghost town, instead.
One of the Myst series’ greatest accomplishments was the sense of loneliness it evoked as players explored empty worlds that were clearly once teeming with life. It’s a trick Obduction copies handily, imbuing Hunrath and its environs with a lived-in quality—abandoned toys, jury-rigged devices, and hastily scrawled notes all abound—that suggests the townspeople vanished as abruptly as they once arrived. The effect is complemented by the switch into a fully 3-D world, allowing players to explore every cranny of the abandoned town, instead of viewing it only from the preselected vantage points of earlier games. (Players looking for a more traditional Myst-like experience, or those playing in VR, can switch to a point-and-click presentation on the fly.) It’s a beautiful, melancholy experience, even if the lush visuals have an occasionally heavy price.
The game’s stability issues, which crop up most often when using the in-game camera, are more annoying than crippling, delivering the occasional fatal crash and forced restart. A more persistent problem comes in the form of Obduction’s numerous load times. At first, these are more or less negligible, but as you explore more of the game’s world, and as puzzle solutions force you to travel to and from its central locations over and over again, wait times begin to pile up, often stretching for several minutes at a time. These interminable pauses can end up feeling disastrous, both for the game’s hard-earned sense of place and for the pacing of its otherwise uniformly well-crafted puzzles.
The problem is compounded by Miller and company’s dogmatic devotion to treating their virtual worlds like real spaces, complete with consistent rules and conundrums that are less about cracking codes and more about understanding complex machines and their places in the world. That design philosophy generally serves Cyan well, anchoring each puzzle and giving it meaningful weight. But the fact remains that some of these machines can be obtuse as hell to operate and experiment on, culminating in a few situations where I spent as long as seven minutes (load times included) testing a single solution or potential fix. That failure of timing can be absolutely lethal in an inspiration-driven game like Obduction, where players need to be able to test ideas as quickly as their minds can spit them out. It’s in these rare moments that Obduction ceases, briefly, to be challenging and descends into frustration instead.
But that’s never for very long. Cyan has decades of experience when it comes to serving its players’ “Eureka!” moments, and Obduction is a near-perfect expression of the developer’s devotion to fair, thoughtful problem design that’s tuned to make players think without wanting to tear out their hair. Meanwhile, that commitment to realistic spaces means the thrill of a puzzle solved is rarely just the promise of progress. Instead, it’s the warm glow of understanding a complex, complete system, of seeing all the pieces come together in a deeply satisfying and holistic way.
Obduction succeeds in almost everything it sets out to do in its 10 to 20 hours of play. It succeeds in the way it tells its lightly sketched, emotionally evocative story. It succeeds in its goal of presenting authentic-feeling alien worlds. But when it comes to providing players fair, satisfying challenges and the epiphanies that they crave, Obduction doesn’t just succeed; it triumphs and proves itself a worthy successor to the Myst name.