Review: Obsidian

Official web page ( regular / low bandwidth ) at Rocket Science Games (creators); official web page at Segasoft (publishers).

Review written by Andrew Plotkin

Excellent to superb
Good to very good
Dialog and writing
Starts easy, gets harder (very hard in one place)
Pretty good
Forgiveness rating
You cannot get stuck or make a mistake, except for the final choice in the ending.

You're a famous scientist, a nanotechnology designer, but you're on vacation with your boyfriend. But, gosh, you stumble across this strange black crystalline mass in the park... and it looks like it's growing by itself! Whatever could that mean? Oh, and then Max disappears.

Heh. Pardon my cynicism. Obsidian doesn't have a bad opening. It just didn't seem all that relevant to the game. The point of nanotechnology, of course, is that it can do anything; so when you're catapulted into a surreal world of mechanical creatures, nanotech could be the underlying explanation. But so could magic, or a trapped demon from the Elder Days, or a psionic configuration of quantum field vortices.

Anyway, none of this is the point of Obsidian. The point is the surreal world you get catapulted into, a world which is somehow intertwined with your own designs and dreams. Plus, it looks really cool.

Oh, okay, look: Obsidian is not a ground-breaking work of interactive fiction. You can probably guess the entire plot from the opening information. What you have is five CDs worth of art and a big pile of puzzles.

The art: Just as good as you'd expect. All the views of the world are 640x400, 16-bit color, and so are the copious transition movies (the ones you see as you walk around.) The art has a distinctive style -- several styles, in fact, as you move from one world / zone to another. It looks really good. I'd rave more, but let's face it, all CD-ROM games these days look really good. Is Obsidian better? Yeah, actually, it is. Big images, finely detailed. A tremendous sense of scale, of vast structures, immense unknown worlds. Yay! Call it spectacular; let's move on.

The puzzles: An impressively wide range, in every respect. The first several puzzles are very easy; redundant clues, even a hint booth in the game world. Then they get harder. Then they get very hard. (Actually, only one very hard puzzle; more on this later.) Some of the puzzles are word games; some are image-manipulation puzzles; some are competitive games, or figure-out-how-the-weird-thing-works puzzles. Some require logical analysis; some require visual memory. Some have audio components. Some could be called hand-eye coordination puzzles, although the amount of coordination needed is modest. (At worst, you can hold the mouse still and wait for the right moment to click, and you'll do fine.)

All the puzzles have the True Way of Surreal Puzzles, which is that nobody explains the rules, but if you fiddle with them, you realize there's only one way the rules could go. This my favorite kind of game, and Obsidian does it very well. Usually. There is a sad tendency to emphasize clues and important information in flashing boldface, or patient... slow... emphasis. They're well-written clues, but it's hard to miss the fact that clues is what they are. This is deliberate, I guess; the authors weren't trying to write a hard game; but subtlety has its charms too.

And there are a couple of places where the unexplained rules are just too damn obscure. You're supposed to figure things out by experimenting, but -- in one example -- a critical rule is only observable in circumstances which you are unlikely to stumble across by accident. I tried setting up those circumstances as a wild-ass guess, not knowing what would happen; I did observe the rule, but I would never have guessed it. (I later found a hint pointing at the circumstances, but I don't think I would have recognized what the hint was saying without benefit of hindsight.) And even knowing that rule, it was not at all clear how to generate a solution to the puzzle. I eventually gave up and found the solution on the Net. When I saw it, I didn't say, "Oh, yeah, that'll work!" I said "Er, I guess I never tried that combination of moves before." And I had figured out all the rules at that point. No, sir, I didn't like it. Enough said.

I wound up going to the Net for help in three places. Once for that puzzle; once for a very early puzzle (I had figured out all the relevant info, but I misconstrued their diagram); and once for a later puzzle where I missed an important analogy. (At the time I thought it was unfair, but I later decided I could have figured it out. Interestingly, the Net solution I found seemed to misunderstand the puzzle, and had a rote solution.)

But, leaving aside my detailed nitpicking, the puzzle design is very nice. All original work, lots of variety. Several puzzles which show off the flexibility of their programming; some of the word puzzles clearly make use of a built-in dictionary, and at one point you can play Breakout. (No, the Breakout isn't part of the plot; they just threw it in. :-) I should add, though, that the puzzles aren't very excitingly integrated with each other, or with the world. Nothing really gets used twice, and everything you come across is more or less a hoop for you to jump through.

Where are we? The interface is typical; you have a cursor which changes to arrows and hands and things. Objects you're carrying are lined up along the bottom of the screen, but there are very few of these, and you never keep them longer than a single puzzle-scene. (As I said, nothing gets used twice.) Navigation isn't too hard, although paths are a little skimpy; you sometimes see what look like walkable paths which really aren't. (Perhaps because they couldn't fit in any more of their gorgeous transition movies.)

There is a strong tendency to shepherd you in the right direction. For example, a puzzle area is very often blocked off after you solve it -- not by a closed door or anything; the hotspot to get there simply stops working. There's shepherding in the other direction, too, places where the computer cheats to keep you from solving things by accident. This is a little frustrating, but it does make for very smooth game-play. The authors are keeping you on track.

The plot... well, I said it was pretty uninspired, but that doesn't mean there isn't any. There is a story, an underlying theme, which runs through all the various hoop-jumping. Gets all the hoops lined up and running in a coherent direction, so to speak. In a few places it even approaches what I sometimes call "thematic apperception", a true integration of theme and plot and puzzle; you have to think about what the story means, what's really going on, to understand what to do. Not many places, and not with any vast subtlety. But it's a start. And it wouldn't work at all if there wasn't a layer of metaphor running through the game.

Dialogue and acting are not a particularly strong suit of Obsidian. There really isn't anyone at all that you interact with. In the first world / zone that you explore, there are a number of (heh heh) bit players, but they're all deliberately shallow and stereotypical, and they don't do much. (Amusingly written, though.) Your missing boyfriend stays missing through most of the game, barring the (predictable) distant cries for help. And the villain is a typical ranting bad guy. Ho hum.

(What is it about computer games that generates such vapid dialogue? "Don't go! Don't leave me here!" "Ignore him, and listen to me. It is your destiny!" "And now, I have the power to DESTROY THE SUN!") (No, forgive me, that last one isn't from Obsidian; it's from another prominent CD-ROM game, whose title I will conceal out of lingering mercy and a desire to avoid spoilers.)

Strangely, the most involving character is a rusty mechanical figure who is entirely mute. With nothing but gesture and body language, he/she/it manages to convey quite a bit of emotion and personality. I was pleased. (And, hey, any excuse to keep the dialogue-writers out of the game. Heh. But I shouldn't complain. I've written a couple of mute game characters myself.)

I had a couple of technical problems with the game. At first, it crashed every time I ran it, on my 9500/120 running System 7.5.5. I did a clean System re-install, and it started working fine. I re-installed everything I had in my old System folder, and it still worked fine. I have no idea what the difference was; but I expect it was my fault, not Obsidian's. On the other hand, after I got it running, there were three or four times when the game froze up entirely during play. That was a bit unpleasant. Save after you complete any major puzzle. The save files are small.

(One nitpick. The installer on the CD drops an alias in your Apple Menu Items folder to "Play Obsidian." I may be a lone voice in the wilderness, here, but I find that incredibly tacky. The whole point of a Mac is that I can do stuff like that for myself. The computer does what I expect, not vice versa. End nitpick.)

Conclusion: I turned the lights down and the speakers up, and I had a pretty good time for a weekend. I spent about ten hours playing Obsidian. (Of course, that was with three hints.)

Availability: I called MacWarehouse last week, but they said they were back-ordered for a while. I called Segasoft, the publisher, and they shipped it to me the next day. Do what works. :)

System requirements: The box says Power Mac, 80 MHz or faster; 16 meg RAM; 4x CD-ROM; System 7.5 Update 2.0 (which I believe is the same as System 7.5.3.)

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