Obsidian is a first person perspective game very much in the style of Myst with a limited inventory and puzzles that rely on interpreting and interacting with objects in the game world. In the beginning you are deposited in a photo-realistic, lush, wilderness setting where, after a small amount of exploration, you learn that you are Lilah and your partner is Max, and that together you were largely responsible for launching Ceres into orbit. The year is 2066 and Ceres is a complex piece of machinery that utilises nanotechnology to repair the Earth's heavily polluted environment.
Once you locate your Personal Digital Assistant and access your mail and your journal some of the background to this project is revealed. In a couple of video clips your PDA provides an intimation of what you will encounter when you enter the mysterious growing structure that you have named Obsidian.
It is within the strange, even nightmarish, world of Obsidian that the game really begins. The green wilderness is left behind to be replaced by chillingly graphic images of a largely metallic/mechanical environment that is completely devoid of humanity. It's as though the writers sought their inspiration in Mary Shelley's Frankenstein, Orwell's 1984 and Blake's "dark, satanic mills". The underlying premise of the game, for it can't really be said to tell a story, seems to be that a "blind faith" reliance on technology to solve our world's ills may have unintended and, potentially, disastrous consequences. More on this later, but for now I'd better return to the game itself.
In a complete reversal of the trend of most of the games produced these days Obsidian allows you to play a female character who must rescue her male companion and save the world. Although the writers undoubtedly deserve recognition for daring to offer us such a scenario the lack of any character development and the minimal reminders that the character is female means that most players will simply play as themselves without too many conflicts of interest, so to speak. This is not a criticism and nor am I suggesting that there should be gender identifying interludes where Lilah appreciatively ogles a beefcake pinup, for example. To my mind it merely strengthens the argument that most first person perspective games should try to remain gender neutral.
As you progress through the Obsidian structure you will slowly learn more about this strange environment and how the various sections seem to mirror the dreams that you (Lilah) and Max had when you were working on the Ceres project.
Essentially, Obsidian is a smartly-dressed logic puzzle game based on an intriguing premise but with little story development. The puzzles are, on the whole, quite imaginative and well integrated into the game world so that they don't spoil the atmosphere that has been painstakingly built up, as logic puzzles in some games are prone to do. The problems include the usual variations on getting a piece of machinery to work, 'programming' a computer to manufacture a chip, negotiating a novel maze, moving blocks to complete a bridge, etc. Some are fairly simple and a few may well test your perseverance.
The game warns that "your rules do not apply here", but this refers more to the game environment rather than to the actual puzzles as the solutions to these are quite logical. If the objective is not immediately clear a little trial and error will soon have you on the right track -- and there are no penalties for making an error other than the usual resetting of that particular puzzle. Other puzzles have contextual clues and even examples to follow to give you some inkling of what you need to do. There is also some help in the manual to assist you with the first section of the game which is something of a bureaucratic maze, in more ways than one.
Movement is largely by step mode similar to Myst where you can move ahead or back or to the left and right, but there are also many full motion video transitions where you just sit back and enjoy the ride. There's a lot to admire here for players who appreciate these effects or if, like me, you become bored with these transitions you can press the space bar to skip through them. You won't miss anything of significance.
Navigating your way around the game is fairly simple as the cursor changes to a directional arrow when you can turn to a new viewpoint, look up and down, or move to another location. The cursor, a small diamond shape, turns green when you can interact with something on-screen or remains red indicating there is nothing to do. Sometimes, the cursor changes to a hand allowing you to pull a lever, for example, and occasionally you will find an item to pick up, but your inventory is generally limited to one item at a time. Anything you do pick up will appear just beneath the game window which occupies about three quarters of the screen.
Pressing the 'Esc' button brings up an options screen from where you can save, load and quit your game and also adjust your music and sound settings. Unfortunately, there is no on-screen text option. The game runs in Win 95 and uses the Windows menu for saved games. There are five CDs which seem to be taken up mainly with the full motion video as the game itself is not that long and there is also quite a bit of disk swapping to do, especially early on as you explore the strangely cubist, bureaucratic section. Thankfully, you can return to the game no matter which disk is in your drive. As the specifications suggest Obsidian requires a high end machine to play it on, though I played it on a P60 with a 1 MB video card and it ran quite well with only slight hesitations in the video sequences.
Graphically, Obsidian is very good, but sometimes a little too dark and mechanical for my taste. I found some of the imagery to be somewhat confusing and it was partially this that started me questioning what the game was trying to say. For example, why was nanotechnology depicted as using polluting, heavy industry reminiscent of scenes from the Industrial Revolution to, purportedly, repair the Earth's pollution? Or did I simply miss some subtle, or even blindingly obvious, explanation? Perhaps it was all just surreal imagery on which to hang a series of logic puzzles.
There are two possible outcomes to the game and one of these was clearly supposed to be a brave new world free of humans and their pollution. Why then did Lilah and Max survive like some latter day Adam and Eve? And is Ceres, the machine/creatrix, then God? Or, perhaps more appropriately, a return to the earlier Mother Goddess archetype as the name suggests?
Also, another curious inconsistency surfaces when you realise that the game takes the usual swipe at 'the bureaucracy', but ultimately it is the bureaucracy which, much to Lilah's disgust, insists on the Ceres project having a human override capability (Max agrees with this after his particular nightmare). Needless to say, this facility eventually saves the day -- raising the question were the bureaucrats right for once?
If you can allow yourself to take time out from puzzle solving and admiring the graphics the game does provide some food for thought, not least of which is the proposition that technology may evolve with a consciousness that finds little use for the carbon-based life forms that created it. This, the game seems to be saying, may occur when we worship at the altar of technology without due regard for the possible consequences and without adequate safeguards and control. On the other hand, I may be reading too much into it, although it is good to come across a game that invites questions in this way.
After I got over my initial aversion to the mechanical, metallic and, to my mind, depressing environment and became absorbed in solving the puzzles I thoroughly enjoyed it. But, I repeat, it is more a series of well integrated logic puzzles based around the premise of intelligent technology running riot rather than a traditional adventure game that tells a story.
And just one last question ... whatever did become of Max's technicolour shorts?
Copyright © Gordon Aplin 1997.
All rights reserved.
Windows 95 IBM PC or compatible with Pentium 90 processor, 4X CD ROM drive,
16 MB RAM, 16 bit video (2 MB Video RAM strongly recommended) Sound Blaster 16 (SB AWE32 strongly recommended)