Several hours into Obduction—the latest game from Myst developers Cyan Worlds—I stumbled upon an elevator hidden at the top of a cliffside amidst the desert mining town of Hunrath. I could have mistaken Hunrath for John Ford’s beloved Monument Valley if it weren’t for the purple, alien mountains towering over it on all sides. I’d made it to the top of this cliff in roundabout fashion. I’d undammed a waterfall; I’d used the creek that waterfall unleashed to operate a swing-bridge; I’d restored basic electricity to Hunrath and found a… secret passage that let me reach this cliff (I won’t say more for fear of spoiling one of the game’s many surprises). And suddenly here was a tower and an elevator and a strange device that was half high-tech electronics and half ancient rotary phone. It would be another couple hours before I understood what any of this meant.
In the twenty three years since Myst’s release, Cyan’s influence in the “adventure” game genre has begun to dissipate. Developers like Telltale (The Walking Dead) and Fullbright (Gone Home) have replaced an emphasis on puzzles with a focus on emotionally charged narratives. Jonathan Blow’s The Witness was a direct response to the idea that puzzle-driven gameplay is incompatible with a complex, interwoven narrative. And The Chinese Room (Everybody’s Gone to the Rapture) places faith in players’ ability to find meaning and drama through largely environmental narratives. Despite the rapid splintering of the genre, Cyan has found a way to not only embrace the roots of the type of game it helped to create but to also integrate puzzles and narrative with a deceptive degree of elegance.
Obduction begins with an abduction: the player’s. A strange beam of light snatches the player from a contemporary lake to the alien Hunrath at an unknown point in the future. The town is abandoned and players only have a handful of recorded, holographic projections to orient themselves in this mining community. One living soul remains in town, locked in the basement of a workshop that you can’t enter, and although he gives you occasional pieces of advice, the majority of Obduction’s play is wandering around and attempting to figure out not only what happened in Hunrath but how you now fit into this new scheme of things.
Obduction commits to this idea of being stranded on an alien world whose history (and physics) you don’t understand in the slightest. If you aren’t willing to spend hours wandering around totally lost, Obduction is going to be frustrating. Minus the occasional goals that the one remaining resident of Hunrath doles out, progress in Obduction is mostly up to the player. The game’s playspace gradually expands (I’m being vague again because the game’s gradual increase in scope is one of its best delights and surprises) but even its more limited opening area is large enough for you to spend an hour or so just acclimating yourself to this town. But that space gets larger and it does so very quickly and it does this without any increase in explicit direction for the player. And so you find locked doors or inoperable devices and you hope that the key to making it work is nearby. And if not, you wander around for a couple more hours hoping that inspiration strikes or you’ll figure something else out.
If that sounds like directionless gameplay, it is at first blush, but Obduction does offer you breadcrumbs to set you down the path of your journey. Also any clues that were too obvious would feel out of place in Obduction’s world, which is an equal mix of desolation and the slowly fading reminders of the life that used to occupy this town. You know nothing because you should know nothing, and when you piece together what’s happened in Hunrath, you feel like you figured things out and this game’s lore wasn’t just served up to you in easily digestible bits.
Alongside From’s Souls series (and Bloodborne), I’m hard pressed to name contemporary games more willing than Obduction to reward players’ imaginations, or one that attempts to do so through such a traditional gaming skillset as puzzle-solving acumen. You wander Obduction’s spaces not because you know that the next little checkmark you have to cross off on a quest list is there; you go there because you want to know what little secrets are hidden around the corner, or because suddenly you’ve understood why there were driver’s licenses in that gas station near the power plant. Obduction nudges you forward when you need it, but you’re the one who ultimately pieces its mysteries together.
Occasionally, Obduction can perhaps put too much faith in players’ ability to parse its obscurities. Those driver licenses I alluded to earlier are part of a particularly elaborate sequence. It requires you to realize that one page of one of the game’s many documents that are lying around (the way the game delivers its most explicit exposition… although even those are couched in a realistic, utilitarian prose/technical writing style that attempts to mask their expository purpose) has a pun related to one of the objects in the room you’re standing in. You then need to figure out how that pun/object relates to said driver’s licenses. I had to look up the solution. Of course, eventually giving up for one puzzle or two is something most of us have done in a Cyan game. Who can forget the piano puzzle from the original Myst?
What Obduction lacks in the more emotional story beats that much of the contemporary adventure genre provides, it makes up for in a carefully cultivated sense of the unknown. Once again, I’m wary of spoiling too many of Obduction’s secrets, but it’s a game built around activating the pleasure principle of anyone who can’t help but push buttons and see what happens next. If the game asks you to wander around in a confused haze for hours at a time, it rewards you with breathtaking vistas and new wrinkles to your understanding of its world that constantly goes deeper and stranger than you think. And in an age where so many games guide players from Point A to Point B to Point C with little room for players to figure things out for themselves—or open world games on the opposite end of this spectrum that give dozens of points with no real structure binding them together—Cyan’s trust in the intelligence and imagination of its players is a refreshing change of pace.
Obduction was developed and published by Cyan Worlds. It is available for PC.
Don Saas is a music and games journalist based out of West Virginia. If you want to see his rants about movies and pro wrestling, you can find him on Twitter here.