The Art of Worldbuilding in Obduction

This post was also published on Derek’s Website.

This week I finished Obduction, an original title from Cyan Worlds. Playing it highlighted for me what makes the creators of MYST and Riven stand out in the world of games developers — a rigorous dedication to worldbuilding in which almost every element of the game adds to the sense of place experienced by the player. I want to capture what I think is laudable about Cyan’s approach, because its a part of why I love their work and its a big inspiration to me as a designer.

By “worldbuilding”, I mean the process of creating an environment in a game that conveys a sense of narrative depth beyond simply the visual and auditory assets. Done well, it’s something of a magic act; the developers convince the player that the collection of polygons, billboards, and skyboxes are a place, that events have transpired within it, that the setting occupied by the player is a part of a larger world, and that elsewhere, beyond anything that has been rendered by an artist, something exists, entirely within the mind of the player. In a world effectively established, a hollow mesh tower could well be imagined filled with all manner of inhabitants and equipment. A city in the distance could be filled with people, politics, and civil structures. An entire world undrawn by any artist could lie just beyond the bounds of the level occupied by the player.

Dark Souls has some of the best worldbuilding in the business.

What’s interesting about Cyan Worlds is that approaches the craft differently from many others. Team ICO is minimalist in their method; the world is defined by architecture, an empty plain, and a few vague lines of exposition. On the other end of the spectrum, teams like Bioware create vibrant universe articulated by verbose denizens, lengthy cutscenes, expansive dialog trees, and (bless them) page upon page of lore conveyed through a menu-accessible codex. There are many ways to do the deed, and any of them could work, depending on the story or the emotional tenor the sought by by the designer.

(As an aside, I recognize that worldbuilding is more important in some games than others. World 1–1 of Super Mario Bros. is instantly recognizable for many people, but the pleasing, friendly environment’s main function is to facilitate the Mario platforming experience. This is just fine when the primary aesthetic of play is challenge, but when a game seeks to please through conveying narrative, worldbuilding — in the environment and otherwise — is vital.)

The creators of Obduction seem to have found a comfortable middle ground between minimalism and the word firehose, and they seek to create a world through carefully selected, minimalist dialog, discovered texts, and, significantly, the puzzles of the world.

Spoken dialog in Obduction is rare — I’d estimate that there’s less than 15 minutes of it in the whole game — and what there is of this is used to provide some basic exposition and set the player’s next goal. The vast majority of language the player encounters is text form. Scraps of paper on a work table, a journal in a hidden vault, a notepad in a scattered community center. In an industry largely convinced that gamers won’t read, Obduction is comfortable forcing it, placing solutions to puzzles and crucial exposition deep within the pages of in-game literature. That’s refreshing, in and of itself.

But it’s the way the written word and the interactive world connect that I think illustrates what makes Cyan good at its craft. The text deepens the sense that the environment is real and possessing of history. A notebook in a junkyard lists in detail each item, revealing that the yard was carefully documented by a people with limited supplies and materials. A journal references in passing a race carving temples in stone out of respect for another — and later, in the game, when the temple is encountered, that piece of knowledge infuses the setting with a sense of history. This technique helps to make environments more than simply a collection of 3d assets or provide a visual “theme” to the puzzles encountered by the player. It helps to make the environment a place, and to have the player feel as if they truly are exploring another world.

Can I also just say that the art in Obduction is superb? I remember when playing MYST and Riven thinking that the creative directors were right to stick to pre-rendered images instead of a live CG world, because the level of detail in the former would always be so much greater. We’ve come a long way since 1997, when Riven was released, and it is great to see the design philosophy and attention to detail of the Cyan team in a fully explorable space now that the technology supports it. The worlds are rich, and unique, and varied, and jaw-dropping in their emotional tenor.

Puzzles, too, are an inherent part of Cyan’s worldbuilding process. Depending on the angle you use to look at them, Obduction’s puzzles are both laudable and frustrating.

Frustrating, because many of the puzzles require a large amount of time to complete. Often it is not time spent actively interacting with a logical challenge, making choices and seeing how those choices play out. Because of a central mechanic of a game involves “swapping” — lifting a spherical chunk out of one world and exchanging it with another, bringing the player along with it — addressing any puzzle inevitably involves going through an (admittedly gorgeous) teleportation loading sequence, running across one level to find a way to get back, and then backtracking to the location of your original swap. This in some cases results in minutes between making a decision and seeing the impact of this decision, which can seriously interrupt play flow if the player needs to do this multiple times.

This “swapping” sequence looks better in video form

It really is a double edged sword. On the one hand, you have lengthy puzzle solving sequences where a large portion of the player’s time is spent simply getting back to view the puzzle. On the other hand, you have a unique mental challenge that asks the player to hold two environments in their head and imagine how they fit together. I remember being thrilled to discover that a spherical artifact I encountered early in the game with seemingly no purpose could be rotated and swapped into another world to enable me to explore further, only to be frustrated as for an hour I employed trial and error (and five minutes of running at a time) to learn a crucial rule in how swapping worked.

But looked at another way, the puzzles are laudable in the sense that they are highly integrated into the world and its narrative. Many other puzzle games (including the first MYST itself) have struggled to link puzzles — which often employ very different style of gameplay from the rest of the game — to the world that they occupy. Some, like Jonathan Blow’s The Witness, make little attempt to link the puzzles to the world in a narrative sense; the game is first about the puzzles and second about the environment that seeks to serve it. Other games make the puzzle an element of challenge necessary to complete another action — I’m thinking of the original BioShock’s hacking mechanic as a way to add challenge to the combat tactic of taking control of machines. Obduction goes out of its way to try to link the puzzles to the narrative and the environment of the world, sometimes explaining through text how a puzzle device impacted events prior to the player’s arrival, or explaining how various interfaces have their origin in the world’s history. It is nothing short of amazing that the developers developed a base four visual counting system for one of the races in the game that, once mastered, enables the player to interact with that race’s technology.

A control panel for teaching yourself a base-four number system.

The linkage isn’t perfect by any means. Some of explanations for obstacles placed in the path of the player stretch credulity — e.g., a super advanced race has developed bridges that would require the user to perform math every time they use them? — but by and large the effort succeeds in driving what is clearly Cyan’s driving mission — to create immersive worlds. The puzzles enrich Obduction’s sense of place rather than distract from it.

As someone looking forward to the time in my life when I again have hours of time and mental/creative energy to dedicate to game development, I relished Obduction as a chance to see worldbuilding at its finest. I had major issues with other elements of the game (I got the “bad” ending of the game because I failed to interpret somewhat vague signals from a journal buried in an optional room, and several times I needed help from an outside guide over a particularly obtuse puzzle) but the sense of place the game conveyed was an absolute pleasure to experience. I found myself wandering the environment and filling in the historical gaps inside my head, wondering about the social dynamics of the communities I discovered inside this world. If one of the appeals of games is exploration, and the transportation of the player to another world, then Obduction is a textbook example of the way it can be done.