Let's talk about Obduction! (And MYST, and Riven, and first-person puzzle/adventure games, too!)

Maybe this is a slightly dated topic given that Obduction hit PCs a year ago. But I didn’t see a dedicated thread for it, and it only just hit PS4, and I just finished the game, so I thought, “Why not?!”

As someone who was fascinated with MYST as a kid but was too young to “get” it, and as someone who would count Riven as a top 10 favorite game of all time, Obduction very quickly won me over. The classic mysteriousness and cohesive atmosphere of the world was in full effect, which worked incredibly well with the gorgeous Unreal engine to immerse the player more than ever before. Some puzzles were way too easy, though, or just straight-up spelled out for you. I feel like the developers dumbed down the experience overall, for better and worse. But the game mostly felt satisfying and true to the Cyan ethos. I think there were only two times that I couldn’t believe how poorly they progressed the game, and a couple instances that felt like missed opportunities. Still, my first thought after finishing last night (with the bad ending) was how long it would be until I played it again.

Obduction is certainly not perfect, but it’s well worth playing for anyone interested in Cyan or the genre they proliferated. I’m crossing my fingers in the hopes that this isn’t the last we hear from this team. So, I’m curious what everyone thought of this game, both in the context of its historical series and as a standalone puzzle/adventure game in the modern era of “walking simulators” (not that I support that term). I think this is a prime example of what new games of this ilk (including puzzle-heavy titles like The Witness) should aspire to in terms of world building and player interaction.

Oh man, I’m totally down for this conversation!

I grew up on the Myst games and actually built my first computer specifically so I could play Uru: Ages Beyond Myst. Myst, Riven and Exile were three games that I played over and over again and made me think a lot about how games could transport you to fascinating, wondrous worlds. I wouldn’t get a game that gave me a feeling like that again until I played Morrowind.

Obduction is such an elegant modernization of a lot of the ideas from Myst. As much as I adore those first 3 games, they were definitely of their time and the puzzles here were more forgiving while still being quite tricky and clever at times. I didn’t feel they dumbed down the puzzles, more that they dropped the obtuse logic of some of the more frustrating puzzles from Myst and Riven.

Also, just the core idea fascinated me in a similar way that the linking books. Once I realized how it worked it blew my mind and made the whole world and structure of the place make much more sense.

I’d love to hear more about the games after Riven. I was never sure if they were any good/worth revisiting, so I haven’t taken the plunge yet. Curious what you make of them!

As for Obduction, I totally agree that it’s an elegant modernization. And yeah, the more the world started to come together, the more everything made perfect sense. It was a satisfying and beautiful moment of realization once I figured out what the “swappers” were for and how I could utilize them to solve puzzles. Those particular puzzles, though really intricate and time consuming, were so good and a huge reason why I think this game is really good. However, I still maintain that they “dumbed down” certain puzzles, and I’d even argue some of their “obtuse logic” remained intact. SPOILERS!

[spoiler]When I talk about Cyan oversimplifying things, I’m mostly referring to the instances where clues are literally highlighted for you or written in a special color that screams “I AM IMPORTANT INFORMATION.” It’s as if they expected most people to not read through every note and book they found, which is probably true and also sad. There’s even a point near the end of the Kaptar world that flat out puts the code solution on a flashing screen, when just across the room you could have done a tiny bit of brain work and figured it out just fine. Or the Russian code machine puzzle, which you literally just find a scrap of paper with a number on it to solve. That machine had so many knobs and switches that could have been fun to decode, but you end up using none of them.

As for obtuse logic, the puzzle that requires you to notice the license plates in the garage for no rhyme or reason was pretty upsetting. But not nearly as upsetting as the part just before the end, where an obstacle in the workshop that had been around for the whole game disappears with out warning or explanation. That just screams sloppy to me, like they ran out of time to make a worthwhile final puzzle and then forgot to even point you in the right direction. I very nearly finished the game without consulting a walkthrough until that happened.[/spoiler]

Point being that these games are at their best when they make you feel smart for figuring out how their alien world operates, and then make you build on that knowledge as you progress. It hurts the immersion and the experience when things happen randomly or are inexplicably spelled out for you. Thankfully, that’s pretty rare for Obduction, and it gives me hope that the next Cyan project will be even better. I still think this is a game that a lot of modern “walking simulators” could take clues from, in that dialog choices and passive story points are far less satisfying than using ones brain to make sense of the unknown.

Oh, you want me to talk about the other Myst games? I’m not sure you realized what you just unleashed.

cracks knuckles

Myst III: Exile is the first Myst game not made by Cyan. Presto Studios took the project and made a deal with Ubisoft to produce this game. The graphics are gorgeous and still hold up quite well to this day. At the time, it was mind-blowing to play this game and get immersed in these worlds. The story was quite good and the performances were perhaps the best in the series, especially the unhinged and terrifying Brad Dourif.

The problem with this game is was after Riven rendered such a palpable sense of place and world, Exile reverted back to the design of the first Myst where each world was more of a giant puzzle and less of a place you could believe was a real world. It tried to build it into the fiction, but it felt kinda clunky. Still, it’s the game that got me into the series and is probably second in the series after Riven.

Myst IV: Revelation was kinda a mess. Some fans adored this game but I hated it. There were some gorgeous, lush graphics but my goodness I still think this has the most sadistic and obtuse puzzles in the game. This game was made in-house at Ubisoft. There was a bigger focus on story and a lot of real footage seamlessly put into the world, but they just couldn’t design a good puzzle to save their lives.

It also turns super hokey in the final act and tries to give you this emotional payoff it never earned. I consider this the low point in the series although I’m sure a lot of fans would argue with me. It looks great but the puzzles are either mind-numbingly easy or make you want to throttle the puzzle designers.

After that was Uru: Ages Beyond Myst which saw Cyan return to the property. As I mentioned in my first reply, this was the game that got me to build a PC. It was envisioned as a MMO about story, community and puzzle-solving but Ubisoft lost faith in the product early on and axed the online side of the game before the game even launched. There was a short beta period, which I didn’t get to experience, but when the game launched it was strictly single-player.

The result was these huge, vast worlds with impressive sense of scale for the series that just felt terrifyingly lonely. You wander this great city and just feel how depressingly alone you are the whole time. It had so much of the atmosphere and the lore that I loved from Cyan’s first two games. But you could tell this was never meant to be played alone and since Ubisoft ripped the soul out of the game before launch, the final experience was rather empty.

They ended up releasing an expansion down the line of some worlds they had developed with the plan to release them online and it was an okay time. Eventually, Uru would be picked up by the short lived GameTap service and properly launch as an MMO. Well, sorta. It was super instanced and not a lot of people could be in the same space at the same time. I enjoyed it some, but since it wasn’t being backed by a big publisher, Cyan just didn’t have the resources to populate the world with interesting stuff to come back and see. They just dropped it into the world and let people enjoy what little content they could add to the experience.

And it’s a shame because the game reminds me so much of this time when a new release could be a mystery. Someone would post on a forum about some weird noise they heard, then someone else would hear it and then we’d figure out if you waited for the server to hit a certain time you could hear it too. What did it mean? Cyan had little threads like this left in this game to tease some bigger world and story but it never lead anywhere since they didn’t get the backing to take those threads to a satisfying conclusion.

After that came Myst V: End of Ages. This game was a bit ahead of its time. The main conceit was puzzle-solving through using a tablet system to issue commands. This would probably have worked better in the mobile era but this was back in 2005. I have less of a memory of this one so I couldn’t tell you if the puzzles or story were actually that good. I mostly just remember the game giving a sense of closure to the series, if nothing else. I never adored it like the first three games or Uru, but it felt like a satisfactory way to end the story. It was clearly for the fans and I appreciated that but I’m not sure if it’s a good game and I don’t think I ever replayed it like I did with all the other games.

And those are the other Myst games. Cyan would get back all the rights to the games they made, but they never did do anything new with the property besides some remasters and mobile ports. There have been several times where people have talked about a Myst movie or a Myst TV show, but I’m not holding my breath anymore. Honestly, I’m not sure it would be a great story to adapt to another medium. So much of Myst is immersion, and exploration which isn’t something that films are always great at conveying.

I’m glad they didn’t try to revisit the Myst IP. As much as I love it, I think they knew in 2005 that it was time to close the book on the series. It’s a series I dearly love, almost obsessively so, but one I think the concept ran its course. With Obduction, they captured the spirit while crafting a whole other universe that’s ripe for exploration. The possibilities excite me. It reminds me of those early times with Myst. That’s a feeling I never thought a game would give me again and I’m so happy I got to feel that again.

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Woah, thanks for the meaty response! Super excited to read all of this.