Obduction Review

August 30, 2016

Myst and Riven were some of the most popular games of the 90’s. You could argue they sold so well due to their simple gameplay, or amazing (but pre-rendered graphics), or just as a showcase for CD-ROM technology. However, I would say that where they excelled was in their amazing atmosphere and worldbuilding. In these games, you found yourself dropped into an alien world with minimal explanation, where nothing was working and nobody had time to help you, because hey, screw you. You were on a lonely journey of exploration, of trial and error and many hours of banging your head against the wall. But, each puzzle and every discovery didn’t just reward you with access to a new level, but they increased your understanding of the world you were in. By the end of both games, you’d be almost an expert in the history, culture and mechanical engineering of each world because that’s what you needed to know in order to get to the end.  Their ability to engross a player in a storyline through visuals and (sometimes copious) journals and notes was unmatched. And, at its best, Obduction is able to replicate this precisely.

Obduction is Cyan Worlds’ Kickstarted spiritual successor to the Myst franchise, with enough similarities to that series to please old fans, but enough updates to modern technology to entice a new audience. Chief among these is an Oculus VR mode (which as of writing has not yet been released), but even without that, Obduction‘s real-time graphics once again place Cyan at the front of the pack when it comes to visual design. Take a look at any of these screenshots and you’ll see why the company is known for their visual fidelity – it’s not just the number of pixels or shaders you throw around, but the actual look and form of every environment. Obduction blends the familiar with the alien in many unusual and arresting ways, and the developers know you’ll be taking lots of screenshots, with the spacebar key bound by default to a photo mode. The music, too, is obviously inspired by Myst but is dripping with its own unique atmosphere.Screenshot49

The game’s premise resembles Myst on a surface level. While on a night-time stroll in a park, your character is ‘found’ by an alien seed, which transports you to the world of ‘Hunrath’. Hunrath appears to be a chunk of Arizona that has been scooped off of Earth and plonked on an alien landscape, with structures from across Earth’s timeline cobbled together, as the town’s inhabitants have had to make a living on this world. However, by the time you make it to Hunrath, it’s deserted – save for a few pre-recorded welcome messages around town and a grouchy engineer, C.W., holed up in a shed. With evidence of a recent alien war, and with no other option, you set about working with C.W. to find a way home.

Most of Obduction‘s story is told through notes and journals found throughout its worlds. Your only human encounter is with C.W., portrayed via classic cheesy FMV (a staple of 90’s adventure games) by Robyn Miller, who was Sirrus in the original Myst. Outside of C.W., who’s reluctant or too busy to give you too much information, it’s up to you to unravel the history of Hunrath, the aliens its people are warring with and have allied with, and the function of the ‘seeds’. For most of the game, it’s well told – early sightings of spherical structures in odd places give clues to how the alien technology works, and Hunrath’s junkyard aesthetic really conveys how its population has been accrued from hundreds of years of Earth’s history. However, as the game moves towards its climax it seems unfinished – an antagonist of sorts is built up, you’re encouraged to learn information that would reveal them, and then that plot thread is resolved on its own without any involvement from you. The endings themselves feel abrupt, rely on information only hinted at in one specific note, and also fail to tie up loose ends. It was made public last year that Cyan was forced to scale back Obduction after a nightmare business decision that left them without funds they were relying on, and I wonder if this coherence was a casualty of that.Screenshot13

Let’s not dwell too much on the ending, as the journey itself is where Obduction makes its best impression. You can spend literally an hour or more at the beginning of the game simply exploring town and examining its structures. The first major puzzle you’ll deal with, having to turn Hunrath’s power back on, is expertly designed because it requires you to form an understanding of how the townspeople have had to tie together elements from multiple abductions to form a working system, thereby increasing your understanding of the game’s world itself. Worldbuilding done right! Further puzzles see you starting up ancient machinery, deciphering cryptic clues and even learning alien numbering systems. This puzzle design and general gameplay of Obduction is exactly what you’d want to see in a successor to Myst – just hard enough to force you to keep a notebook handy to devise solutions, but not so hard as to be unfair.

However, there is one significant area where a flaw in the game’s design and programming is tied into its puzzle design, and makes for the most frustrating part of the game. Without spoiling too much, a key element of Obduction‘s alien technology involves ‘swapping’ between different worlds. Each of these swaps involve a minute-long load screen, as particles dance around like a cute screensaver. At first, it’s introduced as a method to first enter and exit a location, which is fine and understandable. However, several puzzles towards the end of the game involve a lot of swapping back and forth between worlds just to understand what each swap does let alone come up with a solution. The challenge doesn’t necessarily come from the puzzle itself, but waiting through the numerous load screens and remembering what it is you were doing when you finally come out of one. While the mechanic itself of swapping between worlds is a fine one, the execution leaves a lot to be desired, to say the least.


There are four ‘worlds’ to explore in Obduction, much like the Ages of Myst, and they all have their own unique style, look and mechanics. Hunrath, the hub world, and two of the worlds will have you stuck for hours as you investigate every nook and cranny to solve their devious challenges. However, by the time you’re ready to take on the final world, most will be disappointed to know it’s a five minute walk to the objective. There’s literally nothing challenging about it, and the only point of the world itself seems to be a brief branching path that reveals some story information (if you interpret it the right way, that is). Once again, this appears to be cut content after the production challenges Cyan faced.

Bugs are also a problem, as I’ve had the game crash several times. This isn’t usually a problem if you have your game backed up – the game is autosaved, and you’re unable to make a simple manual save to a new slot, instead just ‘copying’ old saves to new slots, which seems odd. Your character can get stuck on level geometry, but flicking back and forth between ‘free movement’ and the game’s optional ‘point-and-click’ mode can alleviate some of these problems. The worst bug for me came when a puzzle solution failed to activate, then made me fall through the floor. When I tried to get back on the floor with by toggling back to point-and-click mode, the game advanced me past the solution and ensuing information it would have given me, with no way to go back as it had already autosaved. Not game-breaking, but definitely experience-breaking for a game that relies on following every clue and morsel of plot information.

These problems hold Obduction back from being the experience it could have been – but what it is remains extremely impressive. The visual and audio design alone make it one of the most absorbing experiences I’ve played in years on PC, and most of the game’s puzzles make intelligent use of their environment and worldbuilding. Old-school fans of the Myst series will find a lot to love here, and Myst virgins would do well to check the game out, if solely to marvel at the kind of visuals their graphics cards can push. That said, both audiences will be frustrated by the hundreds of loading-screens they’ll face. But warts and all, Obduction is still a marvelous update of the Myst formula. Cyan effortlessly weaves creativity the way other developers can only dream of, and I’m excited to see where they can go from here.


Fantastic visual design
Tough puzzles
Great soundtrack
Cheesy FMV! I love it.


Load screens and their frequency
Abrupt endings
Still buggy
Fourth world is barely a world

Overall Score: