Obduction is the rare puzzle game that manages to make its narrative a vital part of its core puzzle-solving experience.
The puzzle game genre is an expansive one, and contains all sorts of mechanics, but the unifying principle that makes a puzzle game is the application of deductive logic to manipulating game mechanics, in order to accomplish objectives in the game.
In The Witness, there was only one mechanic – drawing lines that connect two points in a maze, repeated in various forms across the entire span of the game. In The Talos Principle, there were a few well defined ones – lasers, boxes and disruptors – that interacted with each other to create complex puzzles, often requiring emergent thinking. Both games were sterling examples of the craft, but their mechanics were decidedly synthetic – they were orthogonal to environment and plot. Swap the island of The Witness for another environment, or the Greco-Egyptian setpieces of The Talos Principle for Medieval castlery, and the games would fundamentally be the same, because their mechanics are the same.
In Obduction, by contrast, the mechanics are part of the environment and the narrative of the game space. The puzzles and conundrums in Obduction are diegetic – they require you to observe how the world is laid out and understand how things in the world affect each other. A diesel engine lies dormant and there are switches and dials and a long snaking cable that extends to something that vaguely looks like a gas station. It’s up to you to figure out the logic of starting the engine with the visual and environmental clues laid out before you. While the inventory of actions that you can undertake is limited – pushing buttons, pulling levers – the challenge is to operate those buttons and levers in ways that make mechanical sense, and to find clues and context while exploring that enable you to piece together the required constituents to find a solution.
That’s what makes Obduction stand out as a puzzler – its gameplay is inextricable from its setting. And in turn, its setting is inextricable from its narrative. And the act of piecing together its narrative from the clues is the crowning meta-puzzle of the game. Swap out the environments for other ones, and you swap out the puzzles and the narrative, and you end up with another game – a spiritual cousin, but not the same.
And the narrative is brilliant – once you make sense of it all. As you start the game and get past its enigmatic opening sequence, and first stumble into an inexplicable world – an Arizona ghost town seemingly scooped out of the earth and plonked in the middle of a vast, purple alien landscape – you would be forgiven for being utterly nonplussed. The game’s only clues are environmental in nature – old recordings from vanished people, paper signs posted on walls, and the idea is to begin to look around, read the clues, and understand what on earth is going on in this fantastic landscape.
Solving each puzzle in the world gets you another narrative clue – and slowly, you piece the pieces together. Despite its seemingly nonsensical premise, Obduction is undergirded by an intriguing, utterly original science fiction premise – which I won’t go into because explaining it would ruin the experience of going into this game blind, as the protagonist does, and experiencing that sense of initial confusion that blends into a greater surety of purpose as you feel your way around the world.
The narrative isn’t perfect, by any means – there is still a bit of ludonarrative dissonance. Everything is just cryptic enough to be challenging to decipher, and yet clear enough that the clues are all there. The one or two actual speaking humans that tell you to do stuff are almost irritatingly stingy with giving clarifications to their enigmatic statements. Of course, if they were to tell you how to do everything step-by-karffin’-step, that’d be no fun at all, would it. And so it goes.
The beauty of Obduction is in how it gives the act of puzzle-solving a narrative significance. In The Witness, there was no narrative to speak of, only the inherent appeal of puzzle-solving to get you through the game. In The Talos Principle, the overarching narrative existed on a different plane than the puzzle-solving. In Obduction, the story is the puzzle – and to figure out its many moving pieces to form a coherent and satisfying storyline is the chief pleasure of the game, and possibly the most challenging – and high-stakes – puzzle of all.
I give this game: 4.5 out of 5 batteries