Sunday, 23 April 2017

OBSIDIAN


For us adventure gamers, the huge popularity of Myst is something of a catch-22. On the one hand we had some amazing games that used the formula to great effect. On the other hand, it also spawned a huge number of quickly produced copycats that flooded the market that did nothing but sully the genre's name. Rocket Science's expensive 1996 effort, Obsidian, failed in the marketplace perhaps suffering from the expectation that it could be the latter. It is in fact the former and has since gained a following for being a shining example of what storytelling in video games can achieve.

Right from the off, you can tell the amount of care that's gone into the story and presentation. It begins with a live-action trek through a woodland area where a strange monolithic structure has arisen in the distance. Exploring a nearby tent will reveal some clues as to who you are and what you're doing there. Hidden in a sleeping bag, you'll find a PDA device with a plethora of information on it. It tells you that you are Lilah, a nanotechnologist in the near future of 2066. You and your partner, Max, are taking some much needed R n' R after the successful completion of the Ceres Project, a meteorological satellite that will clean up the pollution man has caused over the past few centuries. This seemingly unimportant fact won't come up again until much later in the game, so make note of it.

Dubbed 'Obsidian', the structure has become something of a holiday research project for the two of you, but things soon go awry. While recording data on the ever-growing structure, Max goes missing. In your attempt to find him, you head to the monolith where a door opens up from the featureless surface and takes you too. Where does it take you? A beurocratic nightmare of 'Vidbots' and red tape, that's where.

This intro is not simply an opening cut scene. In fact, no video beyond the company idents are played until you start looking around and head towards the camp site. This unconventional presentation works incredibly well and signals how unique and thoughtful the game will eventually become. As you enter Obsidian and leave behind the real-life footage of the great outdoors, the grey and robotics offices of the 'Bureau Realm' come as a stark contrast. The colours are muted, the graphics are entirely pre-rendered CGI and a huge, imposing statue of the Greek god Atlas holding the Earth resides in the centre. Scattered around the area are several Vidbots to guide you in their own special way. When talking to you, their screens will show the actor's mouth, hiding their identity (in a knowing wink, one will ask you to 'find the blue pages' - a reference to Myst), but you may nevertheless recognise them from some of the videos you saw on the PDA earlier. This begs the question; is this real or are we in a Wizard of Oz style dream state? That question will stay with you right up until the end.

The are four 'realms' to travel in, each pretty much contained on their own CD (there was originally a total of 5!). As well as the Bureau Realm, there's the Spider Realm, the Inspiration Realm and the Conductor Realm. Each are as surreal as the others. As well as the Vidbots, the Bureau realm requires you to defy gravity and investigate the four walls and ceiling, each with their own fiendishly entertaining puzzle. The Spider Zone plays host to a dormant mechanical arachnid that needs to be awakened. To do this you need to travel to four zones - each themed after the elements - and get their respective 'keys' (or 'constellations'). The Inspiration Realm looks like a giant junk yard with spherical worlds and picture frames hanging from the sky. You can travel to each planet to visit different lands. The last realm, Conductor Raealm, is an area filled with light and energy, but the less said about that the better. This is where the overarching plot will become clear. Or at least as clear as such a storyline will allow.

As well as the overall theme of man's choices and responsibility for the world in which we live in, each realm also delves into different themes of what it is to be human. Reminiscent of Terry Gilliam's 1985 movie Brazil, the Bureau Realm is very much about order and chaos and their difficult yet necessary co-existance. In order to progress in the game, you have to actively defy the bureaucratic rules. The Spider Realm obtusely deals with the spiritual and the scientific. After solving the puzzles in each of the four zones (based on Earth, Air, Water and Fire), they culminate in a rather monastic view of the stars with a preacher acting as voice over. Yet despite this religious undertone, the zones are mostly solved through manipulating technology and empirical reasoning. Not to mention that the (resurrected) spider itself is a mechanical construct.

The Inspiration Realm is another world whose themes are at odds with each other. This time, the art and trash are in contradiction. What is revered and what is disposable? The hub of the area is an ugly, rusty junk yard with a never-ending skyline of garbage. There's a promise of beauty up above, just out of reach. The picture frames frame nothing but darkness, yet when you're able to access the skies and travel to the planets, art becomes the main focus. Be it sculpture, painting, music or theatre, it's obvious these areas are designed to be in startk contrast to what's below them. I'll leave you to discover and interpret the final realm.

Maybe I'm thinking too much about all this. It's rare for any game to be open to interpretation like this and I do enjoy it when they do. However, if the game itself is bad, no over-thinking can save it. Obsidian is not bad at all. In fact, it's anything but. The puzzles are almost all fascinating brain-benders that rewards self discovery (is this a theme?). The majority are incredibly unique and well thought out. For example, in the Bureau Realm, you're tasked with retrieving a Standard Damages form. One of the walls holds a vast number of documents listed under several different words. Is it under Standard or Damages? A quick look at both will tell you it's neither (although you may want to take a look at some anyway - they're quite funny). The answer lies in a nearby computer that really wants to play a word game with you. Type in the two words and guess the longest word you can make out of those letters. That's the word the correct form is filed under. It's humourous, it logical (to a degree) and it's great fun to figure out. Outside of a couple of outliers, all of the puzzles are an equally good time.

This is what you get when you type in 'Collection Chamber'.

The game cost a whopping $2 million to produce, making it one of the most expensive games at the time. It shows. The graphics are as detailed and creative as 1996 would allow and the inspired design means that it still holds up. Unfortunately, the game didn't sell well enough to make its money back and Rocket Science Games was no more.

But that doesn't mean that the game should be forgotten. Obsidian deserves to be revered as one of the best examples of games as art, adventure games and games overall. It truly is a hidden masterpiece that everyone should play. And now you can!


To download the game, follow the link below. This exclusive installer uses the DOSBox Daum build of DOSBox 0.74 running Windows '95. Manual included. Tested on Windows 10.

File Size: 1.8 Gb.  Install Size: 3 Gb.  Need help? Consult the Collection Chamber FAQ

IMPORTANT - Remember to shut down the emulated version of Windows before exiting DOSBox. This could potentially result in errors, lost saves and corrupt data. Press Ctrl-F9 when it is safe to do so.

Download


Obsidian is © Rocket Science Games
Review, Cover Design and Installer created by me

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15 comments:

  1. Thank you for this. I remember this game quite vividly. The design is astonishingly beautiful with great care put into the details.

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    1. You're welcome. I do love the quirky design. Those vidbots will stay with me forever. Whether I'd like them to is another matter...

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  2. Thanks, totally grabbing this! It would be cool to see "Dark Side of the Moon" someday too :)

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    1. Yep! Not played that one, but another SouthPeak game will be my next release. Just getting round to writing the review.

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  3. One of my fav games ever, still own my cd's! :) Decided to try your download, and everything worked fine...except the mouse keeps jumping around erratically. :( Tried googling around for a fix and nothing seems to help. Not sure if you check old comments or would be willing/able to help but thought I'd try. I played this when it came out, have been trying to find a good way to replay ever since and this download is SO CLOSE if not for the jumping mouse. :/

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    1. This started to happen to me recently in the Windows 95 games too. The rest game will run fine. I'd just bought replaced a broken mouse a cheap Logitech one and assumed it was a driver issue on lower resolutions - no one seemed to mention it and like you I couldn't find information on it. Nothing in the conf file will help so I believe it's potentially a driver issue. I'll do some more research.

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  4. Question on these Windows 95 games. Do I need to also install Windows 95 in the Dosbox Daum or does it come with it installed.

    I love those windows adventure games and would love to get them installed on my windows 7 machine!

    Thanks!

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    1. Everything is there in order to play. All you need to do is run my installer, then play. I try to make them as easy as possible.

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  5. Thank you! I’ll give it a shot!

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  6. Damn you're right, easy.

    You're doing God's work my friend :)

    One quick question: is there safe changes I can make to the dosbox conf file to try and get the aspect correct for my widescreen monitor. Usually I change fullscreen res to 0x0 and opengl rendering and that seems to fix along with aspect=true.

    I just don't want to tinker if you think it might break something lol

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    1. What I do is back up the conf and edit things at your leisure. Fullscreen resolution should be 'desktop' which I think does the same as 0x0. Opengl rendering doesn't work for all but you can try it anyway. Look at the Windows 95 section of the FAQ for more info.

      Whatever you do, don't do fullscreen=true. The image tends to screw up that way (it stays at the ratio upon loadup). Use Alt-Enter when the Windows splash screen comes up instead.

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    2. I had the original game when it came out, couldn't run it because the hardware requirements were too high for me. Then when I actually upgraded, I actually forgot all about it. A year ago searching in my games for something my 9 years old daughter to play, i found it (tried running it through a virtual machine but was too much hassle for my kid to actually enjoy the experience, plus i was afraid of too complex themes for her mind).

      So, thank you for your efforts on it, I will definitely download it and try it out (for myself this time around :) )

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  7. Hey, just discovered this site, and it's fantastic! I'm sort of obsessed with this era of PC gaming, especially the obscure and oddball titles. I've been considering working on in-depth write ups of some of them, and these pre-compiled installers make that a hell of a lot easier.

    Any chance you could look into You Don't Know Jack: 5th Dementia? The whole series runs shockingly well on modern PCs... except for that one, which is notoriously difficult to get working, even in a VM.

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    1. Thanks! There's an absurdity in them that most modern games don't have.

      From what I understand 5th Dementia isn't on Steam because of its online features. It's not sold but it is from a series that's very much supported from its earliest title so I don't think it will show up on this site. There will be plenty of other abandoned oddities coming though so look out for them.

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  8. Hey! First let me state that you're clearly doing gods work on this blog.
    Really has inspired me to dust off a bunch of my ancient, not available digitally/out-of-print games, and start learning DosBox. I've been making my own covers in photoshop and everything, trying to get certain titles in my library at least looking physically decent alongside newer releases. It's awesome.

    I haven't tried the other Win95 games you're providing but this one is acting pretty tricky. I'm pretty confident in my hardware, but I think the sound in this game is chugging it to an unplayable mess. The first time you walk forward everything essentially turns into a slide-show before being normal again. And because there's no music that follows immediately after that initial walk animation, everything then starts behaving fine.

    Hit ESC and jump to the menu, and, well: You get the idea. The audio just begins to chop out and stutter like crazy.

    Is there anything in the config that may be messed with to perhaps remedy this? Or at least I should start testing with?
    Thanks, and keep up the good work.

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