"Actually through the course of designing [Obduction], it swung back around much further to the spirit of Myst games than it ever was at first. It's Myst in space," says Cyan's art director Eric Anderson. "We call [the different worlds] Ages, in-house. We have the equivalent of Linking Books. So yeah, when people play it they're going to say 'Oh, they made another Myst game.'"
I've made the four hour drive from the PAX convention in Seattle out to Spokane, Washington to a small little studio hidden in a grove of pine trees on the side of a highway. It's the building that houses Cyan Worlds, creators of the classic adventure games Myst and Riven, and there's not even a sign out front to let me know I've come to the right place.
But I made it, and now I'm getting to see something I don't think anyone in the public has really seen: A first look at Obduction, the game Cyan successfully Kickstarted to the tune of $1.3 million last fall. Cyan showed off a bit of the "introductory level" at the annual Mysterium conference this year, but I'm getting a real look--a glimpse of two out of the three major worlds that make up the game, albeit in very early stages.
Unfortunately I return without many pictures. Why? It's pretty simple. "We're sort of at a stage in development right now where most of the work we're doing is not very photogenic," says Anderson. Cyan is busy refining the puzzles and making sure the mechanics work before prettying everything up, because as Anderson jokes-but-is-totally-serious, "Turns out art's expensive!"
"We've got a lot of money to do this project, so we're trying to be really smart," chimes in Myst co-creator Rand Miller.
So allow me to paint you a word-picture, I guess.
Forest for the trees
I did get a look at what Cyan's prepping towards--it wasn't all untextured models. The team constructed a demo of the introductory "level" for Mysterium, which is now serving as their target for future assets.
It's gorgeous. Obduction is built on Unreal 4, and wow. The introductory area places the player in a small moonlit forest clearing, a campfire off in the distance. All of the lights in the scene are currently dynamic, including an oil lamp that Anderson picks up and ignites. There's a very strong TheRoom-esquepresence in Obduction--you can now pick up, rotate, and interact with objects in the environment, and those objects might have (for instance) secret doors to uncover or codes scratched into the bottom. "It's the kind of stuff that you wished you could do in Riven when you'd pick up the stuff on Gehn's nightstand," says Anderson.
Take it in while you can--"The only place in the game I think you currently never go back is the starting forest," says Anderson. Overall, Anderson says the game is "not as non-linear as Myst, and it is slightly less linear than Riven."
I also got a few details about the node-based navigation system that Cyan's building in addition to a freeform WASD/Mouse mode. The early system was freeform in large outdoor areas; in other words, you could click anywhere and it would walk you towards that spot. Only in areas where there are objects to interact with does it resort to hard-set nodes. This means node-based players will get to explore more than, say, realMyst, while still being able to control the entire game with a mouse.
Myst in Space
I point to a whiteboard in the conference room where I'm seeing Obduction and ask if it's secret game design stuff. Rand Miller laughs, then does a double-take. "Actually...That is actually super-secret. That's some of the key gameplay towards the end that we just changed."
Don't worry--none of it made sense to me. It's a nice lead-in to discuss how Cyan is developing Obduction, though, compared to its past Myst titles. "Richard [Watson] and I are sort of the first front of design," says Miller. "Then we present to the whole team, and they have the chance to mull it over without us in the room, and it's kind of like 'Put down your ego time.'" He laughs. "Oh, I dread these days."
"Before when [Cyan] was this big, big machine, it was Rand sort of designing in a vacuum," says Anderson, later. "Nowadays it doesn't really work that way. I think, as much as it's tough for him to have to flex with all this feedback, he likes it because we have this iterative 'make it better, make it better, make it better.'"
I got an abbreviated look at the entire design process and it starts, believe it or not, on paper. Ryan Warzecha, Project Manager on Obduction, pulls out one of these maps for me to see--the first large environment you'll go to, which is a bizarro, alien Old West/Mad Max-type world known as Hunrath. It's literally a circular map drawn out on a piece of paper with words and scribbles everywhere.
That map then literally becomes the basis for the 3D model stage--it's scanned into the game and projected onto the ground as an initial layout.
"They definitely have an old-school design process, so taking their puzzle design and mapping it into the tech is always an interesting challenge because they don't draw things to scale, they don't think about the verticality," says Anderson. "It's really fun--and frustrating some days--but mostly fun."
As Anderson walked around this early, early version of Hunrath, which is in what Cyan terms the "massing model" stage (a.k.a. mostly untextured blocks) there were literally words and arrows on the ground describing what should be in each area. For instance, "House" with an arrow pointing to an area where someone has built the house in question. Those words and arrows all come from that original real-world map.
"That's literally how it was done for Myst and Riven," says Anderson. "People are like, 'That doesn't seem very detailed.' You should see some of the Riven maps."
Hunrath, Mofang, and Villein
"I would call this three or four Myst Islands put together. And we have three of these," says Anderson. I asked him how big Hunrath is, after watching him wander around the space for a few minutes and having it seem enormous.
Miller, for his part, says the game as it currently stands is most likely larger than Riven which is...well, a pretty stunning assertion. We'll see whether the game ends up that size once everything is in full production--the team fully admits the content and scope are in flux still.
"It's big, but I think we can pull it off. We're pretty good at this after the years," says Miller. "It's getting deeper and deeper and it's really satisfying." Recently the team pushed Miller and Watson to create an alien language/numbering system, a la Riven, to give it extra depth. Whether you think that's a good thing or not, well, that probably depends on your affinity towards Riven.
But back to Hunrath. As I said, it's sort of a Mad Max/Old West feel, with all sorts of cobbled-together structures and desert. Of course, at the moment it's mostly untextured yellow structures, but you can get a good idea of the size and scale.
"When you first arrive here there are only so many places you can actually go," says Anderson. "You can't get into the house yet, you can't get into this big structure in the middle yet, all you can see is there's a tree inside this wall, and there's these kiosks around that give you... almost like imager messages. People that lived here left these messages for you.
"There's no one wandering around, there's signs of struggle, there's a graveyard with fresh-dug graves, and you're like 'What the hell happened here?' And it has this sort of Wild West feel yet it's surrounded by this alien landscape."
I also get a glimpse at an early puzzle, which has you [MILDEST OF SPOILERS] redirecting the flow of water to open a gate to a new area--in other words, a very Myst-like series of events. "It's funny because they started off very Myst-like in the puzzles and then they moved in a different direction towards the end," says Derrick Robinson, who's doing much of the concept art on Obduction.
He shows me a finished conceptualization of the gate we just opened--how this yellow mass will turn into corrugated metal and old car doors. It's all very familiar and Earth-like, until it's not. There's the tree that has water spraying out of its leaves, for instance, or the enormous floating stone sphere. And, of course, the aliens--three alien races, all of which will be present as NPCs in the game (though they're not in there yet).
And Hunrath is by far the most Earth-like environment. Mofang, which is affectionately called the "Chain Age" internally, is a city built into a cliff. Oh, except the cliff is floating in the sky. Originally an idea for a Myst Age, Anderson resurrected the idea for Obduction and the team liked it enough to make it a full world.
The last world, Villein, is more of a swamp world. However, I don't know much more than that--we bypassed the 3D models and looked at a few pieces of concept art instead, so I don't even know what alien twists will show up there.
"[The three worlds] are very closely linked but they are three very distinct worlds with distinct races and distinct cultures. They're as separate from each other as Myst Ages were from each other," says Anderson.
You know what? I could go on about Obduction forever. And I already kind of have, even without discussing all the stuff I sort of know but am not supposed to talk about because spoilers. If you want more spoiler-free information though, feel free to check out this transcription of the interview I did with Rand Miller and the rest of the team, and if you're an old-school Myst fan I also took some pictures of the fabled "Myst Vault" and Cyan's offices.
But overall Obduction's already looking good. Early in development, for sure, but still good. The game exists--it's not just the handful of concept art we saw during the Kickstarter last year.