Obduction, spiritual successor to the likes of Myst and Riven, opens in an abandoned campground. In front, a placid lake, burning campfire, the moon, and something else entirely. Throwing a player into an unfamiliar world, left to their own devices to figure out where they are, what is happening, and why. Even the game’s title is a puzzle, filled with multiple meanings, and left, largely unexplained, for the player to figure out.
Obduction’s entire existence owes its thanks to the legacy of Myst, the runaway genre-breaking/creating/redefining multi-million copy selling title of the early 90’s. The game was funded by a 1.3 million dollar Kickstarter campaign. It is a love letter to Myst and its successors from the very people behind that title, going so far as to use CD-ROM era full motion video for all the game’s NPCs.
The first meaning behind the game’s title is a play off of “Abduction.” The game, fittingly, places its title-card at the end of its short prologue, as the player is teleported away by an alien seed-pod. Spinning like a firecracker, it appears shooting through the sky only to come to a physics defying hover. “Mesmerising, but unnerving,” someone whispers in a crackling voice as the player tries to move closer and closer.
The second meaning refers to geology, and comes from a Latin word meaning to cover, or envelop. Abduction comes with a literal obduction, as the player’s immediate surroundings have been taken with them to an alien landscape. To be more specific, the alien landscape sits outside a bubble, with the player character and a settlement of several dozen abductees trapped on the inside. Welcome To Hunrath.
What does it mean to play Obduction? No enemies, no inventory, no UI and a single introverted NPC make for a compelling game experience that still feels fresh and innovative, despite its aged origins. The interface is a throwback, but it’s also a fundamental design choice at the heart of Obduction. Myst‘s innovation, working just as well in 2016 as it did in 1993, was to pare down everything except the bare essentials of gameplay. Immersion was the watchword: there should be as few obstructions between the player and game-world as possible.
“Death steals everything, except our stories.”
Jim Harrison, American Novelist
“We all lost everything. Everything but our stories, and they shouldn’t be forgotten.”
Caroline Farley, Hunrath Resident
Hunrath itself is beautiful and quirky, a hodgepodge of eras, technology and style. Mayor Josef offers audio-guided tours of its unique features, but the majority of the information about the place isn’t delivered in a conversation, it’s discovered. A series of professionally carved gravestones have painted plywood tacked over the names of the original occupants. An old diary gives an account of how its owner found a giant crater where a nearby mining town had vanished overnight. In a subtly funny moment, the player finds the engine car of a train connected to the intact pump of a 1940’s era Gas Station: the town’s improvised source of power. Hunrath isn’t the only world to explore in Obduction, but like Myst’s first island, it’s thoughtfully crafted and dense, a full realized and lived-in world. Naturally, nobody’s around.
“Exploring everything around you allows you to read between the lines and to begin to answer your questions. Why is there an old, abandoned farmhouse – complete with white picket fence – in the middle of an alien landscape? You’ll find out. From this point on the story becomes your story.”
– Obduction: Kickstarter Description
Obduction has no other English definition: in German, it simply means autopsy. As the game points out repeatedly, all these stories have come to an end on Hunrath, or another dome-enclosed settlement in similar circumstances. The player is alone, and they’ve arrived too late to meet any of these people, too late to change any of their stories. Well, except for the bristly C.W., locked in his workroom. The fact that he has no in-game model, and he only talks to you after you push a button on his door probably doesn’t have anything to do with the button activated voice-capable hologram projectors seen around town.
Dissembling the experience of playing Obduction is a difficult task, and ultimately a futile one. The game’s design philosophy is such that each portion of the game is designed to complement the whole, and while certain portions of the game may be more memorable or emotionally compelling than others, their context is often the same.
The soundtrack, composed by game’s director Robyn Miller is rich and enthralling, giving different environments their own distinctive feel. In a few situations, the cues can be a little jarring, but when they hit their mark, they hit hard as with this melancholy melody, which plays when first entering the disused community center.
Myst was one of the best looking games for its time, and Obduction keeps that standard even when held up against contemporary titles. Textures pop, painted signs have noticeable cracks and flecks, and even smear at the edges. It’s hard to think of another title that has caused this reviewer to stop and stare at wood grain.
Adventure games used to be a genre with stunning appeal: Myst was the best selling computer game for almost an entire decade after its release. Now, with over twenty years of games spanning the distance, some parts of the point and click adventure irritate more than they used to. Playing in free-roaming mode, for example, the difference between a climbable incline, and an impassable ledge isn’t as clear as it could be, and the mine-cart sections could stand to be a little faster. Overall, these are momentary hiccups in what is otherwise an enthralling experience.
More troublesome are a number of hardware and software hiccups. While the developers have taken care to address them as best they can, a number of outstanding issue can impact the game’s performance on low-powered systems. Lower-end hard drives can make load-times take a matter of minutes, and in-game text becomes unreadable with certain default settings. In-game screenshots can become corrupted. Fixes for these are available, but their persistence becomes an annoyance, and breaks the oh-so important immersion.
Obduction is the adventure genre returning to its roots: downgrade the visuals far enough, and the game could’ve easily been released twenty odd years ago. It is a stunning reminder of what made the genre the behemoth of its time, and a equally compelling addition to its ranks.
Obduction is available for purchase from Steam, GOG and the Humble Store.
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