It takes a lot of courage to stand staunchly against a rising tide, especially when the water is already over your head. Sometimes that’s what it takes, though, when you want to make something so decidedly, well, old. And that is exactly what Obduction is.
The game even moves and speaks like an elder of the industry, which makes sense as it is made by the same folks behind the Myst. Yes, that Myst from 23 years ago. It’s slow, deliberate, and steeped in the ideals of that era of game design, standing alone among the raging, interminable flow of modern forensic narratives.
There is no wildly expansive landscape to crawl through (Cradle) or academic statement on puzzle structure (The Witness) or even poignant character moments (Firewatch). There is instead a singular and tightly constructed desert that slowly unfolds into an increasingly intricate diorama, and through that, you are lovingly marched across a world of obsessive detail and reason. In a word, it is Myst.
You get that bewildering sense of labyrinthine design immediately as you are almost unceremoniously dumped into a world that defies description. It’s simple and bucolic while still containing an incongruous level of anachronistic architecture and technology. Is this the Old West? A slum from the 80s? Perhaps a 60s-era country cottage. The variety is almost theme park-ish in a way.
And in that moment, it has already deceived you. It fills you with a sense of exhaustive exploration being each of the next 37 items on the docket, but it really is a pointed journey down a single path. You’ll be unraveling the thread for the next 25 or so hours and when you look back on it, you’ll wonder how they managed to tangle it up in such a beautiful way.
There looks to be an insurmountable wall of problems in your way to some indeterminate goal, but you’ll slowly but surely find that it’s instead funneling you down to exactly where you want and need to be. And as you continue, you begin to revel in the way this unbendingly linear game folds over on itself to play with its scope. Your comprehension of the whole of the world it presents is just as important as what you see in front of you.
Just one part of why that works is that it makes you feel so unbelievably satisfied in solving even the most minute thing. The act of finally taking a lever across its arc is such a tactile reward, but when the seemingly infinite number of gears and switches beneath and around you being to spin up and shift around, it feels as if you are moving whole mountains. The sounds imply such a grand scale through the game’s terse language, giving more power to your imagination than anything else.
And this is while it gives you a delectably inscrutable yet impactful tale about fate and crossed paths. It’s the same philosophy as the game’s puzzles abstracted out into something amorphous, connecting dots across space and time onto a cosmically romantic scale. There’s beauty here in this perspective on what it means to be a part of the universe, even if it says more about what you think than what the designers do.
I guess it speaks to what co-creator Rand Miller said in a 2013 interview with Grantland: “We’re not game designers; we were place designers.” Rand and his brother Robyn have crafted this immense and dense place, one that we are meant to slowly pull apart while putting back together. And in that way, they have made a graceful statement on what it means to be somewhere.