Obduction is, if nothing else, a promise well kept. It was Kickstarted as a true successor to Myst and Riven, and Cyan Worlds, the developer, delivered — even the game often feels a bit less smart and intricate than its predecessors.
Transported into an old mining town oddly peppered by glimpses of advanced technology, it’s soon apparent to the player that there’s a weird, alien world surrounding the town, the way to which is blocked by a barrier of seemingly impenetrable energy. The townspeople, in the meantime, are nowhere to be found. Notes, diaries, and holographic logs presented in delightful FMV cutouts all hint at something having happened, at a life peacefully lived until something upset the balance.
If my description seems a bit cryptic and/or evasive, that’s because there really is not much point in playing Obduction if you come forewarned about the events that transpired in the mining town of Hunrath and its alien outskirts; that is the carrot that the game dangles before your eyes: “Here’s a mystery, aren’t you curious now?”
Earlier this year, I was captivated by Jonathan Blow’s The Witness. There was, no doubt, a mystery to figure out on that game’s island, but it was a muted thing, hidden away, kept in the background, there if you wanted to look for it. But what pulled you to progress in that game, the thing that kept you going, were the beautifully designed puzzles, the way basic rules were progressively melded together to create some truly wicked conundrums.
The author narrative was secondary, left in most party to be fleshed out by the player’s imagination. The true narrative of that game was your exploration of the game’s mechanics, and your own intellectual growth, climaxing not at any predetermined point, but at the moment you, the player, had an epiphany-like moment where you are able to see beyond the dictates of common logic and into the truth of the game world.
Obduction, in the meantime, presents you with a succession of scavenger hunts for door codes, a handful of spatial puzzles, and a lot of levers to push, pull, and experiment with. There are some highlights that require you to use some true brainpower; figuring out an alien numerical system was a real treat, even if all the tools to do so were conveniently bunched together into a single room. Overall, though, the puzzle design feels disappointing — a far cry from Myst or Riven’s intricate designs.
So, you’re left with a bare bones detective mystery to pull you through as a carrot to work out the puzzles. What happened to the people of Hunrath? Why was the town spirited away into this alien world? Hopefully these will be compelling enough questions for most players, but the way clues are delivered feels a bit off.
Great video game worlds are made for themselves and for the people than inhabit them. They are a place a player can visit and, sometimes, if they are really great, become a part of.
But Obduction’s world, for all its beauty and smartly designed layout, does not feel a place independent of the player. It feels like it was made exactly for the player. It feels perhaps a bit too smartly designed. Everything fits a bit too neatly, while written notes and documents are perhaps a bit too conveniently cryptic. Messages and characters often seem to be withholding important information from the player, but as you progress through the discovery of the events that transpired, you start feeling that there was really no reason to mask these events in the first place, apart from that one, true reason: it wouldn’t be “fun” if the player knew it all in advance.
That’s Obduction’s major flaw in a nutshell: its mechanics and conundrums are just not interesting enough by themselves, and as such must force themselves upon the player, holding the promise of juicy story behind their backs if only that player can jump through this one more hoop.
Hunrath is a beautiful and interesting place to visit, as are other areas you’ll get to in due time, but there is the real danger that, eventually, you’ll decide that pushing through to the next vista or cryptic piece of paper is just a bit too much busywork.
Obduction was reviewed on PC (Windows) with a copy provided by the developer.
Developer: Cyan Worlds | Publisher: Cyan Worlds | Genre: Point & Click Adventure, Puzzle | Platform: PC (Windows, OSX, Oculus Rift, HTC Vive) | PEGI/ESRB: NA | Release Date: Out Now (Windows), 4th Quarter 2016 (OSX), TBA (Rift / Vive support)