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The year’s best video game puzzle reminds us no world is an island

Screenshot: Obduction
Screenshot: Obduction

Special Topics In Gameology explores a specific corner of the gaming world in a miniseries of articles. In this special end-of-year edition, we’re examining some of our favorite unsung odds and ends from across the games of 2016. In this installment, William Hughes revisits a puzzle from Obduction.

Earlier this year, we talked to Myst creator Rand Miller about the art of crafting adventure games. During the conversation, he posited that an effective adventure balances its foundations on three equally important legs: puzzle, story, and world. At the time, Miller noted that he personally favored the crafting of elaborate brainteasers, leaving the other legs to his fellow Cyan developers. That division of labor paid off, apparently, because in a year that had some great, brain-bending puzzles—from the lo-fi hacking pleasures of Brendon Chung’s Quadrilateral Cowboy, to Jonathan Blow’s beautiful, frustrating, intellectually daunting The Witness—Miller’s new game, Obduction, stood out for the elegant way it brought those three vital pillars together.

Obduction opens with its faceless player character being abruptly dragged across the universe and unceremoniously dropped in Hunrath, a slice of Arizona desert that’s been transported to a distant world and sealed in an inescapable dome. It quickly becomes clear that the residents of this ramshackle abductee colony recently reached some kind of crisis point, locking down the entire town with security systems before vanishing into thin air. The player spends most of their time in Obduction undoing those precautions, first on Hunrath and then across the alien worlds it’s become inextricably intertwined with, trying to figure out what the hell, exactly, is going on.

Screenshot: Obduction

The game’s most important puzzle shows itself shortly after the player makes the first of those extraterrestrial leaps, using a strange device called a “swap seed” to send themselves to the stony foreign world of Kaptar. Once they land amid its rock walls, elaborate clockwork mechanisms, and half-sentient insects, the player sees a giant red laser beam shooting into the sky, “locking” the planet’s dome and blocking access to distant portions of its world. Back in Hunrath, players used a device mounted on a modified mining cart to deactivate a similar obstacle, but any such device is absent on Kaptar.

Solving this problem requires the synthesizing of a lot of different pieces of information—in-game notes on alien technology, half-hidden environmental details, learned rules about how the world behaves—but it also requires an epiphany. And that leap of understanding is what makes this challenge Obduction’s perfect moment, because it doesn’t just require the player to understand the mechanics of its cold, adventure-game logic; it forces them to grasp the inner workings of its story and its world, as well.

Screenshot: Obduction

At its core, Obduction is a game about trust, interdependence, and mutual survival. The center of that philosophy is the swap seeds, which—as the name suggests—aren’t merely teleporters. Instead, they literally trade portions of the planets surrounding them, forming an interconnected patchwork of orange sandstone, gray rock, and lush green jungle that’s stronger and more interesting than the unswapped worlds could ever be on their own. The player later learns that the story’s villains ignored this lesson, and doomed themselves to isolation and death. To push forward, the player will have to learn and internalize it for themselves.

The solution, naturally, is to bring the modified mining cart you used in Hunrath over into Kaptar. The swapping allows the tools of one planet to be used to aid another, the dome is unlocked, and Obduction makes it clear that none of its worlds can truly operate in isolation. Most importantly, that leap—that realization that “it’s all connected”—doesn’t come from some lecturing non-player character or optimistic coda to an apocalyptic journal. It came from the player’s brain itself. When a player solves the Kaptar dome puzzle, they’re not just having an epiphany about one specific puzzle, they’re having one about Obduction as a whole: what it means, what its designers believed, and what it hopes to achieve. That’s a rock-solid leg for a puzzle to stand on.

Previously in the 2016 Odds And Ends series: