Obsidian is quite simply a unique and memorable game that’s highly surreal and innovative yet surprisingly coherent. Actually, words alone are not enough to do this game justice, because it really needs to be experienced. But I’ll give it my best shot nonetheless…
Obsidian takes place in 2066 AD, in a bleak but not-so-unrealistic future where pollution has destroyed most of the ozone layer. A team of scientists, led by Lilah, your character, and Max, your partner, develop ‘Ceres’, an artificially intelligent satellite capable of dispensing nanobots in Earth’s atmosphere and controlling those nanobots as they ‘fix’ the ozone layer and combat the air pollution. When Ceres is in orbit for over 100 days (and Earth’s ozone layer is largely intact again), Lilah and Max take a well-deserved vacation, camping in pollution-free woods.
While on vacation, they discover a small black glassy stone-like structure not far from their tent, which they dub ‘Obsidian’. The structure seems to expand exponentially in a matter of days and when it’s over 50-foot tall, Max disappears into it. Lilah follows after him and is thrust into the surreal world of ‘Obsidian’.
When the game starts, you’re immediately thrown into forest surroundings. This first ‘realm’ in the game (and the only part that takes place in the real world) serves as a way to get acquainted with the point-and-click controls, and to provide us with most of the backstory for the game.
The game sports a really simple and intuitive interface, and there’s hardly an inventory in the game (if there is, it’s tied to a specific stand-alone puzzle).
After this short introductory realm, you go to the first of four ‘Obsidian’ realms. That means the game essentially has 5 different worlds to explore, of which the very first and last ones are the shortest.
A lot of imagination and creativity went into this game, resulting in sometimes bizarre environments that each hold their own unusual logic. Obsidian uses “your rules do not apply here” as its tagline, and with good reason.
The ‘Bureau’ realm for instance, which is the first of the Obsidian realms, makes clever use of (dis)orientation by warping your own perspective of the inside of a cube, and defying gravity along the way. It’s a superb (and somewhat quirky) approach that’ll throw you a curve ball at first, but that you can ease into once you figure out the game’s rules.
Obsidian really comes down to solving a bunch of (more or less stand-alone) puzzles. Some of these are quite devious, but all of them are consistent within the logic of the game world. They’re also very varied and original, which helps the overall quality of the game.
You get rewarded for solving a puzzle, and more so for finishing a realm, with a cutscene. These cutscenes are especially outstanding (one even has the potential to scare you). They’re gorgeous to look at and, like the rest of the game, consist of beautifully crafted 3D environments with some FMV seamlessly integrated within it. The graphics were beautiful and state-of-the-art when the game was first released, and they still hold up pretty well today.
Sadly, the game has no subtitles whatsoever. Fortunately all spoken lines are well articulated and I had no problems understanding what was being said. If anything could bother me, it’s the very wooden performance by the actor playing Max, but that’s not really out of the ordinary for FMV games…
The musical score, composed by Thomas Dolby, is somewhat surprisingly uneven at times. The music doesn’t always feel compatible with the visuals, but for the most part remains forgettably in the background.
Despite the game coming on 5 discs, there is minimal disk swapping, partly due to the efficient use of ‘realms’ to divide the game into pieces.
Content-wise, the game is highly satirical in nature (the ‘Bureau’ realm especially is an often hilarious exaggeration of bureaucracy), and works very effectively that way. It creates immersion for the player by clever use of symbolism, and as such touches upon a few philosophical questions about artificial intelligence. Unfortunately it doesn’t really explore these questions deeply. However, it still provides an interesting theory on how artificial intelligence forms ideas (starting with child-like imitations and finally developing its own original ideas).
The game uses the exploration of dreams to get these points across, but ultimately falters near the end precisely because the carefully built-up story falls back on a generic and underdeveloped moral decision.
This is the main reason why this otherwise great game falls just short of being excellent: the disappointingly lackluster and underwhelming conclusion (with two different endings that both provide us with an overly short and unsatisfying cutscene). The ending makes me feel like the game was rushed out the door, due to either budget or scheduling constraints. Sadly this is really unbefitting for this creative and innovative work of art.
In short: ‘Obsidian’ does a lot of things right, from its very good-looking graphics to the well though-out puzzles to its unique and surreal story and environment. The entire game is poised for greatness, but it’s ultimately marred by a seemingly rushed ending. A real shame because otherwise this game would be a true classic…
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Time Played: 10-20 hours
Difficulty: Just Right