It’s a strange thing to think about now, but there was a time when Myst was the best-selling computer game of all time. Shifting more copies than even the almighty Doom, Cyan’s enigmatic puzzle game about a series of peculiarly crafted islands stirred up feelings of awe, reverence and curiosity. Much of this was due to Myst’s extremely abstruse premise. It contained no immediate backstory about you being a hero on a quest to save such and such. It didn’t offer an exposition dump grounding you in its pristine world. And it didn’t offer much in the way of character interaction. It simply dropped players on a surreal island of monuments – a rocket, a Greek palace, a contemporary lodge – and asked them to have at it until a more recognisable story came into focus.
Comparatively, Obduction’s intro leaves a little less to the imagination. It begins with narration, for one (though it’s intentionally unclear if this is spoken by the player character or someone else), and it grounds the story in a more mundane setting: earth. Set along a starry campsite, your character encounters a floating seed that whisks them away to an alien landscape that resembles a desert ghost town surrounded by clumps of levitating rock. It’s eerie, as one might expect being teleported to an alien planet to be, but not creepy. The bright desert canyons bathed in a the warm violet glow of an otherworldly sky offer a calming, serene sort of wonder.
In fact, the most unsettling aspect of this place isn’t the unnatural scenery – because we expect that sort of thing from a genre video game – but rather the more man-made finds. This is a world that’s littered with the remains of a thriving earthly civilization that’s all but vanished for reasons unknown. It’s up to you to uncover what went on here. Think Stargate meets Gone Home.
Pro-tip: Change the options to ‘always run’. It will make life a lot easier.
It’s hoaky, but that isn’t really a problem as Obduction’s endearingly sincere about its aspirations. This is the fantasy of every geeky adolescent who grew up in the late 1970s. It feels like vintage Spielberg – or at least late-era Spielberg trying to recreate his glory years with questionable success.
Indeed, trying to recapture the feel of Myst in the 21st century is like trying to recreate Star Wars or Indiana Jones. At worst you get Kingdom of the Crystal Skull and at best you get something like The Force Awakens that hits the same notes, but can’t help but feel derivative in the market its predecessor spawned.
Obduction falls somewhere in the middle then: probably ending up being better than you feared but less than you hoped. Aside from its more concrete opening and free-roaming first-person movement system (though there’s an option for purists to use the classic Myst point-and-click system, which I wouldn’t recommend), Obduction feels of a piece with its predecessors.
Thankfully, both the views and the puzzles are tantalizing enough to carry the adventure. The move to full 3D was an initially ugly gesture when Cyan first started experimenting with it around the turn of the century, but modern technology has finally allowed players to lose themselves in the strange terrain the studio has specialised in since its inception (there’s even a PSVR mode coming as a free update). Always too sedate to really be imposing, yet offering fleeting glimpses of something sinister, Obduction’s world(s) are a joy to drink in. Not leaning too far in any one direction, Cyan’s varied palette offers subtle tonal shifts from tranquil rural country towns, to lush tropical forests, all peppered with shimmering alien artefacts. In a game where the core delight in solving a puzzles stems from the the environments you’ll get to lay eyes on, Obduction’s artistic achievements offer a worthwhile carrot at the end of the stick.
Cyan has always been skilled at varying the sorts of mental challenges it tasks players with, asking them to do a lot more than just shift gears and decode cryptic languages. One of Obduction’s smartest designs it to make it not only challenging to solve its puzzles, but often obfuscate what even is a puzzle. Simply tinkering around with its various machinations, trying to draw connections between seemingly remote objects, is a pleasurable process in and of itself before you even really start cracking the underlying code.
And cracking that code? That’s where Obduction is at its most divisive. Like Myst before it, Obduction is a slow game. Compare to The Witnesses’ plethora of panel puzzles and Fez’s dozens of collectible cubes, progress in Obduction can be glacial. Sometimes this adds to its appeal; having to takes notes, stop, think, experiment, stop, think, have a eureka moment and try something else, is the core appeal of puzzle solving. The problem with Obduction’s mechanical enigmas is that they can require a lot of mindless traversal to put into practice.
Some of this trekking almost becomes charming to a point; it’s fun to fantasise about a potentially successful solution and these lengthy hikes offer time to build up that giddy excitement of putting it into practice. And when it works? Oh boy is that a treat! But when you’re still in recon mode trying to sort out how switch A affects mechanism B, it can be a chore to hoof it across Obduction’s sprawling terrain.
Obduction charmingly brings back Myst’s use of live-action actors. Contextualised as holograms and screen recordings, these weirdly fit the aesthetic.
Worse is that Obduction features some of the most intolerable load times of any game I’ve ever played. Transitioning between environments can leave you stranded in (admittedly very stylish) loading screens for upwards of a minute. These horrible hitches are strewn about with alarming regularity that really ratchets up in the late game. By its later stages this drudgery nearly unravels all the goodwill Cyan earned throughout the rest of the game. It’s not often that I listen to podcasts whilst playing a game, but Obduction all but requires some sort of extracurricular distraction.
Outside of the loading screens, Obduction is otherwise technically amateurish. The PS4 build crashed on me several times and the framerate frequently took a hit as the game would stop and stutter in busier areas. Occasionally the controls would cease to function as intended, making certain switches impossible to flip without shutting the game down and rebooting it. For such a serene game devoid of any combat and few moving pieces, it’s somewhat shocking that it was released in this state of affairs.
Ultimately, Obduction is a game about wanting to return home, just as for Myst developer Cyan it’s about trying to recapture the glory days of when its obscure puzzle adventure was the most prestigious product on the market. And in its best moments, it absolutely nails what made the Myst series so special: the wondrous vistas, the clever logic puzzles, the calming pace. But the needle has shifted in the near quarter century since Myst. We’ve had The Witness, Fez, and The Talos Principle grappling with similar terrain in ways that feel new. Slowly punting about an unearthly terrain solving mechanical puzzles and piecing together a dime store fantasy plot isn’t nearly as novel in 2017 as it was in 1993. While Obduction proves that you can’t go home again, you can at least have a pleasant time visiting. There’s some comfort in that.