Friday, September 9, 2016

The Obsession That Is Obduction

Second Review: Obduction by Cyan: 5 Stars Despite Glitches and Slow Loads

After some years away, returning to your parents' home as an adult, you may find the home folks frustrating, sometimes infuriating, yet still endearing. For those of us who fell into the worlds of Myst and Riven—and never quite returned—Obduction's single-player theme of landing alone in a world filled with puzzles to solve before you can proceed feels like that.

I learned, playing Myst, to question everything, take notes, draw and revise maps, write down my questions—and any answers that I uncovered. That experience served me well in Obduction. The artwork for all these worlds is stunning, even dialed back to allow for speedier play, so it isn't hard to keep looking around as I proceed. New for this interface, though, is an optional clue that makes items I can interact with gleam slightly as I pass them. Otherwise, my only clue is an altered cursor (and that only appears if the cursor is unlocked.) 

Music and other sounds also supply sensory clues. The well-managed paths through the scenery twist and turn confusingly; you must pay attention to your shadow (if you have it turned on; this is also optional) and the shadows cast by other objects to keep yourself oriented in the landscape. Few straight lines exist, but plenty of outlooks and views provide a way to acquire a broader picture of the environment.

I started with a small window to reduce image load times, but had to abandon that for a full screen because many of the clues to solve the mystery arrive as notes or diagrams that were simply unreadable in my reduced window size. Hopping out of the game window by calling Task Manager to adjust the window size frequently left parts of the "text" images unrenderable, black. (Though this may have been due to proportion changes; the proportional sizing tool doesn't work1 to resize the window while the game is loading or running.)

And load times are ridiculously long. Several glittery "dissolve" effects take five to ten minutes to compete2 on my system. There are distracting "drops" as I move through the world of Hunrath, as bits of the "scenery" are not rendered at the same time. Riding the mine car makes these appear more frequently, even though the car's speed seems unrelated to the controls—it rather seems to be throttled down by the loading time for scenery you are passing. 

Riding the car is still simpler than progressing through the landscape using point-and-click. You can lock and unlock the cursor at will with a right-click, but every few moves, the unlocked cursor will suddenly convert from a straight-on cursor to a turn, or lock on its own to match mouse movements to the center of the screen. Lag times between command and response can make it hard to guide things with the mouse.3 When all movement is slowed by image loading, that adds to player frustration.

Yet discovering anything still is thrilling: Wow! I can throw a track switch without getting out of the cart! Hey—I can step through this opening even though I see no will-o-the-wisp guide! You feel it the first time you step through a membrane or figure out a cryptic clue and get access to a heretofore locked room.

Complex, rich in detail, frustrating and rewarding by turns, the obsession it invokes makes it deserve every one of my five stars. I'll keep playing Obduction until I unlock the final achievement, connect the final dots (or cables), and solve the last puzzle. After all, I've only worked my way through the simplest layer of the game so farand all it took was 72 hours of game play.

Liner Notes:

  1. I fell back on an old-school graphic-design trick to size my window proportionately: you lay a straight-edge diagonally from the lower-left to the upper-right corner of the window—on the monitor—then guide the resize tool from one of those corners along that "line."
  2. I learned to take my Kindle along to read while waiting for loads and dissolves to complete. I read 75% of one book just waiting for them to finish!
  3. Scenery and machinery are good matches to real-world equivalents, so some clues come from your own life experience with the world. (Priming a gas-fueled generator, for example, or maneuvering equipment with an industrial joystick.)
  4. My letter-sized notebook has 46 filled pages of notes and sketches so far. I may need two notebooks before I'm done.