Recently I’ve been sucked into the new game from Cyan, Obduction. That said, I don’t want to talk about Obduction much, it’s a very new game with a rich world and plot, which means potential spoilers abound. Instead, I have some thoughts about the genre Oduction exists within, the first-person puzzle game. It’s a genre that, with the help of Cyan, revolutionized PC gaming, and was used as a platform to make a wide variety of games of wildly varying type and quality. And I’ve played my fair share.
Myst was not Cyan’s first game. That credit goes to one of three (because I don’t remember the order they were released in) children’s titles made in the late 80s and early 90s. I played all of them. Manhole was actually one of if not my first PC games; I was around four years old. However, my memories come from a heavily remastered edition that came out years later which my father purchased for nostalgia reasons. Manhole involved wandering around a world constructed of a combination of physical impossibilities (you could at one point pilot a Venetian gondola inside a teacup), talking animals (the teacup belonged to a rabbit), and literary references (including a few literal books, Jack’s beanstalk, and some more obscure C.S. Lewis and Tolkien references). I will remember the painting of the walrus that shook his jowls and proclaimed “Indubitably!” for the rest of my life. I was also the only child in my kindergarten class who knew what ‘indubitably’ meant, thanks to the wonder of my Dad buying a very early sound card.
The other two games, Spelunx and Cosmic Osmo, did not have as lasting an impact on my childhood, but they were also older and belied Cyan’s hypercard roots (as such, both were only available on Macintosh computers until Steam came along). There was a similar sense of surrealism and wacky world-building, though only Osmo had the same level of character and weirdness as Manhole (Spelunx was more a set of interconnected minigames set in a cave). None of these games had win states, they were worlds intended for young children to explore and interact with more than anything else.
The Main Event
The first thing I remember about Myst was that it was on a CD. That, and it took no time at all to install. I remember the opening, vaguely, and other than the world with all the trees and the one with all the gears, I don’t remember much of the game. I remember the endings, though. My dad was the one actually playing, but I remember getting trapped by the brothers, and basically figuring out the “good” ending through trial and error. Myst was a long time ago…it might be time for be to give replaying it a whirl.
What I remember, though, was Riven. Oh man, my dad was excited about Riven. And then Riven took us a long time to beat. My dad by that point was not really a serious gamer, so he’d play Riven, make some progress, get stuck on a puzzle, and then put it down for a while. A while was usually months. And so we beat Riven, but it was years after the game came out. And the ending was…well, a tad anticlimactic. But the relief at having beaten it was more significant than the disappointment at having so few questions answered.
What Myst and Riven had in common for me was that they were really my dad’s games more than mine. I saw some of the puzzles and experienced the plot salient parts, but I didn’t really play them. I have both games on Steam now, but until recently have had minimal interest in replaying them. The rest of these games, though, were more my own experiences.
The Weird Japanese One
My dad brought home an odd game, some time between Myst and Riven. It was called Gadget. Gadget was less of a game and more of a visual novel in the style of Myst, which left my dad kind of cold on it. My brother and I, however, were taken by it. Gadget had an incredible art style which mixed surrealism, art deco, and steampunk, with just enough uncanny valley to make it unnerving. The setpieces of the game were these incredible trains and other insane vehicles, including spaceships and Da Vinci-esque flying machines. The people…well, the uncanny valley was a huge part of the game. One of the recurring characters was this boy you met in the elevator at the beginning of the game. He looked…well, see for yourself.
And he would just SHOW UP. Without warning. Scared the shit out of me. Anyways, between the art style and the dystopian story about mind control and an impending asteroid collision, I found the game to be fascinating. There was even a companion novel by Marc Laidlaw, which I read. I wish more was done with the world, but instead it remains a weird artifact of the 90s. After that, my explorations took a more gamey turn.
The Time Travel Adventure
When I was in elementary school, my parents bought me a game called “Buried in Time”. In this game you played something akin to a time travel cop, trying to solve the mystery of who framed your future self. Along with a couple of my friends I played through parts of this game, solving some puzzles but not others, and eventually getting stuck. I returned to the game a bit later, having figured out where I went wrong. Though there was no indication of this in the game (though if you put it in walkthrough mode it told you), you were supposed to go to the one non-historical zone in the game first. While the other zones were medieval castles and Mayan pyramids, there was a fictional mining station orbiting Saturn which was intended to be your first destination. The mining station was the home of an eccentric artist who had created an AI companion, the only NPC in the game. This AI, named Arthur, was supposed to be your guide through the rest of the game, pointing out historical incongruities and making jokes. Of course, trying to play the game without finding Arthur was significantly more difficult than it needed to be. After figuring out the Saturn issue, I was finally able to beat the game.
Buried in Time was the second in a series of three, and was by far the best. The first, The Journeyman Project, had the cool time travel premise and some interesting puzzles, but the environs were so-so. Buried in Time was much better, and the puzzles were more consistent. The third game Legacy of Time, featured much more FMV and took out the ability to die which had been frustrating in the previous titles. It was a bit easy but was by far the most polished of the three. Presto Studios, the authors of the second two, would end up making the non-Cyan Myst games, probably at least in part due to their work on the Journeyman Project series.
I greatly enjoyed this series, though with a functional inventory and cross-zone puzzling, it owed as much in design to the old point-and-click games as it did Myst. Still, Presto going on to actually develop the Myst series after Cyan licensed it shows just how well they did with the pre-rendered puzzle game format. Unlike some who tried it.
The two tie-in games I played during my childhood were symptomatic of how easy it was (relatively speaking) to throw together a pre-rendered game compared to some others. And these were…well, weird.
First, there was Bill Nye: Stop the Rock! As a Nye Labs associate, you must solve byzantine trivia questions posed to you by the troublesome AI controller of an asteroid defense system that has gone rogue and refuses to save humanity. Yeah, that was the plot. You had five days, and winning the game was dependent not only on using the science lab equipment to perform “experiments”, but also to set in motion relatively convoluted chains of events to exactly answer all the questions. It was not a shining star of games, though it was fun enough at age ten.
Second, was a game that tied in to the Discovery Channel series Connections, by James Burke. Yeah, seriously. It was a bizarre game, where you had to go through historically incongruous zones that were apparently symptomatic of Maxwell’s Demon screwing up the universe (yeah, seriously), and put things back together by making strange chains of connected objects that had connections similar to what Burke discussed in his book and in the documentary series. Also, Burke himself was in the game as a guide. It was incredibly weird, though not what I’d necessarily call bad.
I know there must be more of these weirdo games out there. It was this latter part of the pre-rendered game’s lifecycle that helped kill it, though in reality what did the format in was when graphics were finally good enough that pre-rendering was no longer necessary.
After the FMV puzzle game had started to look shabby thanks to advances in 3d graphics, there was a shift for puzzle games in terms of design. The last Myst game released by Presto (i.e. not Cyan) was Myst 5, and it was the first to actually render the game in real-time. Two years later, Portal came out and all of a sudden puzzle games were cool again. Portal was still at its heart designed like its Half-Life 2 forbear, where jumping and movement were key. After Portal, though, the emergence of more narrative and deliberate games (sometimes called ‘walking simulators’) using first-person engines paved the way for games like The Talos Principle, The Witness, and then finally, Obduction.
To me, Obduction almost plays like the version of Myst the Cyan guys would have made if they had had the computing power. It takes a lot of the elements of Myst, including puzzles that span whole environments, and turns them into something entirely different. I’ve been having a lot of fun with it.
I’ve had fun with the trip down memory lane, as well. Just found out that the entire Journeyman Project trilogy is on GOG.com, including a full remake of the first game which I’ve never played before. I may be making some purchases.