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Obsidian

Review by Enigma
June 2002

A classic. That's what it is. Obsidian may be the most innovative, imaginative puzzle adventure ever conceived. It will plunge you into an Orwellian dream of bureaucratic lunacy. All its elements contribute to a coherent, high satire that might just elevate the game into the realm of art. People either love it or hate it, but no one can deny that Obsidian is a standout.

Welcome to Your Nightmare

Obsidian's plot tends toward the dreamlike, allowing the developer's imaginations to soar into the weird and spectacular. The main character, Lyla, and her boyfriend Max live decades in the future, when the environmental mistakes of our time have nearly ruined the Earth. Using nanotechnology, Lyla and Max have created a highly sophisticated satellite designed to clean up the atmosphere. Danger looms when the satellite unexpectedly develops a mind of its own, then builds, or rather, grows, a strange structure near the couple's vacation campsite and lures Max into it. Hearing his scream, Lyla runs to the place and is sucked into a vortex that leads her into her own nightmare come alive.

In her search for Max, who appears in the game from time to time, Lyla and the player contend with the satellite's twisted mind. As the game tells you, "your rules do not apply," and that's true, especially when it comes to gravity. Ironically, the satellite has concocted devious rules that it's your task to break. In the first segment, the best of the game, you're trapped in a bureaucratic nightmare world. The playing areas extend from the floor, up the walls, and eventually to the ceiling. Sliding, climbing, and elevating through this area simply astonished me. You'll be interacting with "vidbots," television screens with mechanical bodies, who insist that everything be done according to their rules. In order to repair a damaged bridge that might lead you to Max you'll have to satisfy their demands, designed to be impossible to meet unless you learn how to get around their requirements.

Rules Are Made to Be Broken

In order to break those rules you'll have to solve some of the most creative, devious puzzles of my gaming experience, especially the bureaucratic maze. Maze haters don't need to worry about this one. It consists of nine cubicles, all of which you can see easily. The task is to gather the right combination of colored cards, which you must spend to enter the last cubicle, your goal. Along the way you'll meet more vidbots who deliver hilarious spoofs of medical exams and family photos. I found this puzzle to be the bull's-eye of the game's satirical punch, a perfect hit in the bureaucratic solar plexus.

Not only the maze, but the puzzles in the rest of the first segment of the game contribute to the satire seamlessly. Finding a document in the filing system, making a telephone call, and repairing a clock figure into the warped mindset of the satellite. Later, the game's approach becomes a bit more standard, but it contains some of the most notorious puzzles in gaming history. Oddly, I found some of the most infamous puzzles to be fairly easy, while some of the more standard fare stumped me. The lightening tree and the broken-up waves require patience and frustrate many players, but I had little trouble with them. The chemistry puzzle and the "Church of the Machine," however, sent me to a walkthrough almost immediately.

The final puzzle is one of the most perfidious in adventure games, considered to be virtually impossible by many players. Walkthroughs won't help you with it; it's randomized. You must simply bludgeon your way through it, perhaps getting lucky. Yet, again, I've solved it six times by focusing my eyes slightly above the playing screen, which allows a wider range of vision. The endgame payoff, however, is a real letdown. After all that imaginative humor and innovative design, both of the two possible endings are too short to satisfy players. I had the impression that the developers ran out of time and/or money.

Hold, as 'Twere, the Mirror up to Nature

I found the acting in Obsidian, with one glaring exception, absolutely marvelous. The vidbots, whose mouths are the focus of their television screen faces, hit the precise pitch of sneering arrogance required to drive you mad. When you return to them they have nasty new things to say. In the maze, the vidbot who gives you your cards at the main entrance plays out a little drama, ever more unsatisfied with your failed attempts to get through to your goal. The sardonic humor these actors provide lifted Obsidian to a level far above most games. It worked perfectly.

But alas, the actor playing Max simply isn't in the same league as the rest of the cast. While not actively bad, he delivers his lines but not much else. Rather than the mirror of a real man in love and caught in a trap, all I could see was an inexperienced, struggling actor. The interracial aspect of the romance between Lyla and Max was nice to see in a game, however.

Obsidian's cutscenes and music also contribute enormously to the game's surreal atmosphere. Gorgeous skies, the little robots that comprise a recurring theme, and a tiny Mariachi guitarist keep the eye candy popping. During the maze sequence, sappy elevator music perfectly enhances the mood. The music in the Piazza sequence kept me entranced enough to wish the puzzle there were more difficult.

With the exception of Max, everything fits into a coherent whole that leaves a lasting impression of a wild dream come alive.

But Is it Art?

I've been arguing for some time that adventure games not only represent a breakthrough in entertainment, but have become something of a new art form. By giving the player control over movement and choices about what to do next, adventures become rather like interactive movies. Especially when the game takes a first-person format you become a participant rather than a mere spectator, never knowing what's around the next corner. "Adventure" is the very best name for it, because you personally experience whatever the developers' imaginations have cooked up.

In Obsidian, the developers cooked up a feast of sly, acid satire supported by perfectly matched artwork that's as upside down and sideways as the game's humor. The snide comedy, the startling, mind-bending layout of the backgrounds, the mesmerizing locations, the clever puzzles—all fit together, perfectly tuned.

In my humble opinion, it's art. Obsidian is more than worth the money. I found it unforgettable. The End

The Verdict

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The Lowdown

Developer: Rocket Science Games
Publisher: Segasoft
Release Date: 1996

Available for: Macintosh Windows

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System Requirements

PC:
Windows 95
Pentium 90 MHz Processor
16 MB RAM
16-bit video
Sound Blaster 16
4X CD-ROM drive
20 MB free hard disk space

Macintosh:
OS 7.5
280 MHz
4X CD-ROM drive
16-bit, 640x480 display
1 MB video RAM
16 MB RAM
20 MB free hard disk space

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