The Hype Train: Obduction

Posted on: April 4th, 2014 by Aleks Samoylov

All Aboard

Before I start off on what will likely be an extremely emotional trip down memory lane, I must sing out, with an open heart and a brazen voice, in praise of the Gods of Crowdfunding, and of Kickstarter in particular. Kickstarter has served as a wild, wet, beautiful storm in the desert of the gaming industry; it had bid that desert bloom, bloom like never before. Without it, the world of games would be a much darker, sadder, uglier place. So much of what I’ve loved, or at the very least enjoyed, these past few years (Shadowrun Returns, Blackguards, Expeditions:Conquistador – yes, I’ve been on a serious tactical role playing kick lately) and what I look forward to enjoying in the near future (Dreamfall Chapters, Wasteland 2, Sunless Sea) can be directly attributed to crowdfunding. It is no secret that I am a big believer in the model, and in non-traditional methods of publishing and creating in general.

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And now I can gladly add Obduction, currently in development by Washington based Cyan Worlds, to my “most anticipated” list. In fact, it pretty much takes the very top spot on said list. For me, there is simply no contest. This is, of course, a very subjective assessment, entirely based on subjective, and extremely personal experiences with Cyan’s former products. But that’s what the Hype Train is for: personal passions, unreasonable expectations, excitement, anticipation, hope.

Obduction is fully funded as of November 16th, 2013 and has managed to reach several, though not all, of its stretch goals. For those of you who like stats, the current total (as of March 10th, 2014) stands at $1,375,559.21. Obduction is an entirely new property, as opposed to a continuation of Cyan’s best known franchise (sometimes referred to as the Myst Saga), but it does promise to give long time fans of the series much of what they loved about it: open ended exploration, investigation, and discovery set in mysterious, surreal locales. Cyan hasn’t revealed a great deal about the game itself, aside from a few intriguing examples of concept art. We do know that it will begin with the player being whisked away (abducted) to a strange, alien world by some sort of glowing, flying, coconut shaped thing (possibly the durian from that one episode of Portlandia), and that the alien world in question will mysteriously feature what looks to be a very earthly farmhouse encircled by a white picket fence. We also know that the game will likely be released in mid to late 2015, that all three of the Miller brothers (Rand, the older one, Robin, the cute one, and Ryan, the bad boy) will be involved in one way or another (though Rand Miller will most definitely be the head honcho and primary auteur behind the project), that it is being developed by a fairly small team, that it will use the Unreal Engine, and that it will most likely be a PC centric release, with Steam, GOG, and Humble Bundle being the most likely channels of distribution.

Remembering The Golden Days

Whatever the case may be, I’m excited, in the true, genuine, fan-boy fashion. I’ll go so far as to say that for me this is a great deal more than standard hype. Every gamer has his or her favorites, and I suspect that many gamers have at least one game or series that they didn’t merely enjoy but loved. Myst, the property for which Cyan Worlds is known, has always been special to me, magical even. It was a series that grew with me, that lived with me, a series by which I marked the seasons of my life. It sounds entirely too sentimental, and perhaps it is, but what can I say? It’s just plain true. When it comes to Cyan and Myst, this author will never be able to claim objectivity. There are certain works of art, certain cultural products, that aren’t merely entertaining but important, at least to those with whom they resonate. And boy, did Myst resonate. And I was hardly its only victim.

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 In this age of Call of Duty, it might be difficult to understand how something so seemingly…demure could have taken up such a prominent place in more than a few hearts (as the success of the Kickstarter campaign, which was heavy on Myst nostalgia, indicates). I think it’s important to note that while the original Myst feels extremely dated now, it was a legitimately groundbreaking title in its time, in more ways than one. Myst was among the first games to feature pre-rendered, three dimensional imagery, the first game to integrate live action footage, animation, and voice overs in a truly meaningful way (basically defining the concept of “multimedia”), and, incidentally, the very first game to ship on CD Rom. At launch, it looked and sounded better than anything else out there. As to how it played, well…Call of Duty it wasn’t, but that may well have been part of the appeal. Myst was a game that actively eschewed violence. Instead, the player was invited to explore, entirely at his or her own pace, a moody, atmospheric, and mysterious environment while unraveling a deep, thought provoking storyline and solving tough-as-nails but ultimately logical (and therefore extremely satisfying) puzzles. Believe it or not, the game did rather well. In fact, it held on to the title of best-selling game of all time well until the Sims came around (that’s 2002, folks).

I wasn’t one of the early adopters, of course. I was much too young. I first played Myst on the Sega Saturn, believe it or not. Like most of my favorite games of all time, I picked it up on a whim one fine summer day (well, to be fair, I picked it out, and my parents paid for it, as I was rather still a tyke). At the time, there were already prettier, more advanced, more dynamic games out there. The original Myst was essentially cobbled together out of still images in a program called Hypercard (a very versatile, but now basically ancient, ancestor of PowerPoint). It was a multimedia slide show, and, to be honest, this did put me off at first. Still, I’ve never been the kind of gamer to toss something aside without giving it a fair chance (an hour or two at least), so I kept on playing. And then I kept playing, and playing, and playing. It wasn’t long before it had infected my imagination. Having stumbled into the library, I picked up and read the journal on the Channelwood Age (one of the five worlds one can visit in the game). Ryan Miller is a fairly capable writer, and it was the text that truly drew me in, or, perhaps, the sudden discovery of a rich context. In a way, Myst was one of those titles that showed me what games, as a medium, were truly capable of. It didn’t need much to do what it did, and did it better than anyone else at the time.

Cyan released Riven: The Sequel to Myst in 1997, but (having come late to the party) I didn’t get around to playing it till the heyday of the Playstation 2 generation. It continued the story of the original, and upped everything by at least a few notches. While Myst is the game that made me fall in love with the series (and, by extension, the genre), Riven is the game that made me want to marry it. In fact, as I am typing this, the very first copy of Riven that I’ve ever owned (it was actually regifted to me by a friend who found it too boring for his own tastes) is only a foot away. Those very same five disks still sit on my desk, right where I can see them. That beautiful brown box has become a keepsake of sorts, a talisman. And yes, the darn thing came on five whole disks! You had to swap them out every time you moved from one of Riven’s five islands to another. And yes, even then this was considered to be a serious pain in the butt. But I did it, and I was damn happy to do it. Riven stands, to this day, as one of the most immersive, in every sense of the word, virtual worlds that I have ever had the pleasure of visiting. Yes, I’ve been to Skyrim, and I’ve enjoyed the trip. I will certainly go again when the time is right. But this…this was different.

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While Riven was still basically a “slide show,” it was a slideshow that literally haunted my sleep. As I lay in my bed at night, I would walk along its beaches, through its caves and its forest, past and through its many iconic structures. I would see its cliffs, its sun, its sea in my sweetest dreams. In class, I would drift to Riven’s many mysteries, so very eager to return home and explore them further. I’d rush through my homework just so I could take up pencil and paper again and chip away at its fiendish, mind bending puzzles. And it wasn’t just that the game was beautiful, or that the puzzles were interesting. The amount of world building, well beyond the code and the art assets of the game, that Cyan had done was nothing short of astounding. I felt as though I was exploring a fully fleshed out universe, with its own clashing cultures, languages, traditions, and logic. And, perhaps most amazing of all, the puzzles and the world were of a piece. While Riven is by far one of the most challenging adventure games I’ve ever played (with some of the investigation missions in the Secret World coming pretty darn close), there is nothing in it that one can’t solve by simply paying attention, by making the effort to understand the islands themselves, their culture, their politics, their nature. Playing Riven was a sort exercise in meditative openness, a wonderful dance of intuition and deduction. Every time I managed to move forward, to discover a hidden chamber or a new path, I was overcome with a sensation that I can scarce describe. It was, in a word, sublime. There was something downright spiritual, something transcendent, about my experiences with the Myst series, especially with Riven.

The Decline

The magic of that seminal sequel, however, didn’t prove easy to recapture. Being hopelessly in love with something like Myst has all the hallmarks of an addiction, and carries with it all of the pitfalls. However amazing Riven felt during that first play-through, the freshness of discovery can only be felt once. I will never be able to experience it that way again, short of wiping my memory of it completely, Eternal Sunshine style. If I load it up now, it will just be a collection of beautiful and painfully familiar images, or, if I strain just a little bit, a beautiful and painfully familiar place.

While Myst III:Exile and Myst IV:Revelations are both excellent adventure games in their own right, and do fit perfectly within the rather complex canon of the franchise, neither of them was developed by Cyan Worlds. The good people at Presto Studios served admirably as stewards of the series, and there were some truly fantastic moments and performances (Brad Douriff as Saveedro comes to mind) in both games. Alas, the difference is still quite tangible, especially when it came to puzzle design. The puzzles in these interim titles, while certainly interesting, serviceable, and occasionally even memorable, only rarely attained anything close to the level of Cyan’s artistry.

There was, of course, a perfectly good reason for the hand-over. The publisher (Ubisoft) needed to cash in on the brand, and Rand Miller, who had always been the driving force behind Cyan, wanted to do something else, something bigger, more ambitious. As a result, after the release of Riven, Cyan apparently became focused on its mysterious new project, initially code named “Mudpie.” Mudpie, as it turned out, became URU Live, which was, believe it or not, an MMO set in the Myst Universe. Well, it was an MMO in that it allowed multiple players to coexist in a digital world: avatars, dance animations, and all. Aside from that, however, most MMORPG trappings were conspicuously missing. There was no grinding, no killing, no quests, no levels or classes. Players were simply invited to explore the world, “alone or together,” with, of course, the promise of more worlds to discover, more places to see, more puzzles to solve as the game grew and was updated. URU would be, essentially, the Riven addict’s dream, all the beauty, wonder, and intelligence that the fans had come to expect in a dynamic, fully three dimensional, fully animated world that felt alive and, in a sense, was. New “ages” (the Myst term for a discrete reality, usually accessible by a magical/quantum physics powered book) would be added on a regular basis, and the story-line would be dynamically developed by in-game “actor” NPCs.

If that all sounds too good to be true, that’s because it was. Wishful thinking. Poetry doesn’t do well in any medium, I suppose. The original incarnation of URU Live was shut down before I could even play it (I lacked, at the time, a PC powerful enough to run it properly). Thankfully, a single player variant of it was released a short while later. At the very least, I was able to experience the new worlds, though not exactly as they were originally intended. In fact, despite the initial failure of its online component, URU basically became the only game I played consistently during my rather busy college years. And yes, URU did bring that sublime sense of wonder back, if only for a little while.

During my junior year, I learned, much to my great excitement, that URU Live was getting a second chance, a new incarnation, on the now nearly forgotten Gametap platform (it was actually pretty cool, for a subscription service, but that’s a whole other story). That second incarnation lasted till the second half of my Senior year. My girlfriend at the time broke up with me on New Year’s Eve, and the announcement that URU was shutting down again, this time seemingly for good, came in February. I am not sure which one I was more upset about. Whatever the case, It had been a bad start to a bad year.

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There was, of course, Myst V, aptly subtitled “End of Ages.” It was created as a sort of “send off.” While it was developed by Cyan, it somehow failed to hit the mark, at least for me. Some of the magic was gone. It was beautiful, and it was interesting, but it felt, in some ways, like a shell of what might have been, salvaged as it was from scraps of content originally intended for URU.

How are the mighty fallen! Cyan laid a large portion of their staff off, focused on doing quality assurance for other studios, adapted the URU engine for a children’s game about witches, or wizards, or some other such Harry Potter nonsense, and made a rather uninspired puzzler about a fat alien dude who liked to eat hexagons or something…I don’t know. I mean I bought it, of course, as a show of loyalty. This was before Kickstarter, so purchasing it (plus, if you could, the iphone port of the original Myst) was the best any of the fans could do.

All was death. There was no love, no god, only the brutal, rusty kiss of Cronos’ scythe. We were all starstuff, but not in the inspiring Carl Sagan way. Oh, the emptiness! Oh, the bitterness!

Life Goes On

Practically speaking, the world of game publishing, fickle as any publishing establishment, no longer seemed interested in artistic, thoughtful, slow puzzlers, especially if they required MMO grade server architecture. I guess they just weren’t selling anymore. From an economic perspective, the success of the original games began to seem more and more like a bizarre fluke. “I hate this game,” said the friend whose copy of Riven I’d inherited, “it won’t let you kill anything.” And then dawned the new console generation, with Guns of the Patriots, and Assassin’s Creed, and Grand Theft Auto IV, and Red Dead Redemption. All of these were good games, of course, but I couldn’t help but feel like gaming had come full circle: guns, murder, death, but now in glorious high definition.

I’m glad that I was wrong. There will always be artists and visionaries among us who are willing to push a medium in new and interesting directions, even if it doesn’t look like anybody is willing to throw money at their efforts. And they’ve been coming out in force as of late. In fact, it would seem that we’re approaching a sort of golden age. We have more alternatives, more flavors, than I would have thought possible less than a decade ago. Point and click adventures, of all varieties, are most definitely back and better than ever. Better yet, they are now rubbing shoulders with a whole slew of innovative new experiences.

But I don’t think that I’d ever truly recovered from the melancholy and disillusionment that the slow collapse of my beloved franchise bred in me, not until now. Not until the warm, nourishing rain reached the patch of the desert that I’d cared about most of all. Ironically, I wasn’t there to fund it. I didn’t even make the “slacker backer” window. I simply had no idea that this was happening, that it could happen, that Cyan would make another original adventure game at all, let alone venture forth to develop a new IP. URU refused to die (it is still playable now, and even moddable, with Cyan’s official blessing and under a new Open Source license), and the relatively small but dedicated fandom remained vocal and active, but I personally just couldn’t take the heartbreak anymore. I haven’t logged into the Open Source server in years. I haven’t been on Cyan’s website, or on any of the Myst/URU forums that I’d once frequented, in just about as long. I really wish I had, because there is a certain tragedy, I feel, in my not having spotted this campaign in time to back it.

And On

The truth is, I’d never had another game make me feel quite like Myst, and Riven, and URU did. I’m afraid that I never will again, even with Obduction in the works. It doesn’t mean that I haven’t come across the sublime in gaming on multiple occasions. I’d marveled at the sunsets in Red Dead Redemption and cried my eyes out at the ending to the absolutely wonderful Gone Home. My experience with the Myst series, however, is simply unmatchable. It was a blend of cerebral delight, aesthetic wonder, and a nearly metaphysical sensation that I really can’t put a name to. I am, of course, afraid that my own youthful imagination, my youthful excitement to explore the universe at large, my…well, my innocence are as much to thank for that exact experience as the extremely talented folks at Cyan Worlds. It would be silly of me to contend that these memories aren’t colored by sentimentality, or that they weren’t as much a product of who I was, or who I wanted to be, as of the game itself.

I don’t expect Obduction to be the second coming of Myst. And I don’t think I want it to be. In the Kickstarter video, Rand Miller says that making yet another Myst game would have been the easy thing to do, and therefore the wrong thing to do. I am inclined to agree. However much I love the series, I know that it is best to let go. So long and thanks for all the fish, Myst. It was one hell of a journey, but its ending, it would seem, has been written. And there is no reason to begrudge endings.

I expect Obduction to be different, in tone and in content if not in format, and, in a way, that excites me more than another iteration of the saga could have. I want to see what else Cyan can do, what kind of stories they’re capable of telling, what kinds of worlds they are capable of creating, with the tabula rasa of a brand new IP. Even if I’ll never feel that inexplicable, transcendent sense of wonder again, perhaps because it lives in my boyhood, I suspect that someone out there will. And as for me, I have another awesome adventure to look forward to. Knowing the studio, it will probably be something special. I hope so, in any case.