The year was 2013, and gaming studio Cyan Worlds was running a crowdfunding campaign for Obduction — a spiritual sequel to Myst, one of the most beloved adventure games of all time. When the campaign launched, Cyan co-founder Rand Miller dropped by Reddit, and somebody asked him a tantalizing question: would Obduction support a young, but increasingly exciting, new platform called the Oculus Rift?
Miller’s answer was vague, but it seemed like a perfect match. In 1994, Myst had pushed computer graphics to new levels; anecdotally, its immersive and atmospheric worlds helped make the data-dense CD-ROM format mainstream. Obduction, it seemed, could do the same thing with virtual reality. And Cyan had already started to dip its toes into VR. The studio had gotten one of Oculus’ early development kits, and they’d used it to walk around the world of RealMyst, a 3D remake of the original. And Oculus Rift support soon became an official Obduction stretch goal, reached in the last few hours of the campaign.
Three years later, in late August, Obduction was officially released. But while the game has gotten critical acclaim, Cyan is still working out bugs in its virtual reality version, which is set to appear soon. When the update comes out, it will be in a radically different VR landscape from the one in which Obduction was announced — one where we’re figuring out what immersion means, and what we want out of it.
While Obduction isn’t set in the same world as Myst, it follows the same formula. You’re collected by an alien power (the name is a homophone of “abduction”) and dropped into a nearly empty series of interconnected worlds, where strings of puzzles will let you uncover its secrets. Besides a few holographic figures, Obduction is a lonely game, inviting players to piece together the lives of people who have long since disappeared. And like Myst, Obduction is beautiful. Its first world is an anachronism-filled Old West town apparently transplanted onto another planet, complete with towering cliffs and the withered remains of abandoned gardens; it’s both compelling puzzle box and eerie fictional space. It’s the kind of place that would be fascinating to walk around in real life, and that’s exactly why it sounds like such a great VR project.
“VR really raises the experience up to some crazy level.”
“We're kind of just an indie developer in the middle of nowhere that loves making these otherworldly experiences,” Miller says, in the wake of the game’s release. “And let's face it, so far, VR really raises the experience up to some crazy level for putting people in a new world.” In virtual reality, every moment of Obduction becomes weightier, every piece of the world more worthy of awe. “On the monitor, when I look up the canyons, there's not much,” says Miller of the game’s first world. “But something as simple as that, even, on the VR version — it makes you stop and just look around. You get your sense of scale there, which is a really special feeling.”
Once you’ve stopped and looked around, though, Obduction faces the ultimate problem for a VR game: how do you move through virtual space that feels so disconcertingly physical?
Virtual reality is well-known for its propensity to cause motion sickness — years ago, Miller joked about throwing up after playing VR Myst. First-person adventure or exploration games, where players usually move rapidly while looking around for objects, are particularly bad. In order to get around this, Cyan has players use a gamepad’s analog stick to travel between points in the map, a few meters at a time. This kind of teleportation is popular in VR games, but in Cyan’s case, it’s actually a callback to Myst, which rendered worlds in a series of cards that players would click through to move.“It was really nice for us to be able to, in some ways, embrace that option again,” says Miller. “It's nice actually feeling like that's a part of some new experience, instead of being relegated to a legacy experience.”
The prerelease build of Obduction I tried in the Oculus Rift didn’t nauseate me, although it suffered from the occasional frame rate drop — one of the issues Cyan is still ironing out. But ironically, the more visually immersed I was in the game, the less immersed I felt in the gameplay. The first time I saw something like Obduction’s canyons, it was incredible. The second time, though, I’d started canvassing the area to figure out what I should be doing. By the 10th or 20th, I was too busy looking for a button or lever to really care about the scenery. Having to painstakingly pick my way across the game’s large, intricate maps point-by-point just became frustrating. Eventually, I switched to playing on a screen until I reached a new area, donned the headset again to absorb the space in its full glory, and took it off to get down to business.
This is partly a result of personal preference, since I’ve always found the methodical jumps of Myst’s HyperCard format disorienting. But I think it’s also a sign that the old dream of VR — a magic spice that makes your favorite video game spaces even cooler — is a flawed one. “Put it in the Rift” seemed like a good rallying cry a few years ago, when everything from The Witness to Doom was promising VR support. Today, plans for the former have been completely abandoned, and the latter is appearing as a hugely reworked tech demo, not a VR mode for the full game. Cyan has been weighing a virtual reality Obduction nearly from the start, and Miller says there’s never been a point where they thought it wouldn’t work. Still, there’s a difference between working and feeling like the right way to play the game — and between designing with VR in mind and designing something that’s experienced best in VR.
“Just add Oculus Rift support” no longer seems like good advice
Besides, Obduction’s world can be better when it doesn’t feel quite real. Part of the process of playing adventure games is getting stuck on a puzzle and stopping to collect your thoughts, hoping that the answer will come when you get some distance between yourself and your immediate in-game surroundings. That’s tougher to do in a VR headset, where you’re either totally present in the game or completely checked out.
Obduction’s virtual reality support will evolve over time. Miller would like a version that works with the simpler Oculus Remote instead of the headset’s Xbox One gamepad, and support for Touch motion controllers is in the cards once they’re released this fall — in the end, he says, “Who wants to move a handle with your head turning, or with an analog joystick controller?” It’s not clear, however, that there will be any way to have both the deep sensory experience of VR and the ideal puzzle-solving environment.
What is clear, though, is that Cyan has an enduring interest in virtual reality. “We definitely jumped in, and realized that this was going to work, but it also allowed us to get a nice head start on what's coming next,” says Miller. “It definitely seems like what we do, making these worlds, is definitely going to be amplified by VR.” One option would be a virtual reality reboot of Myst — “Everybody kind of thinks that's a no-brainer,” he says. But there are also VR-specific ideas on the table, ones that the studio isn’t ready to talk about yet.
And a Cyan game truly designed for VR, and only VR, could make immersive worlds feel right in a way Obduction’s Oculus Rift version doesn’t. Working with technological constraints instead of patching over them hasn’t just produced some of the most interesting VR games so far, it’s helped shape the distinctive tone of Cyan’s own work — particularly the isolation of their worlds, which are so quiet in part because video game characters still feel artificial. Obduction is a great game. It’s not a great VR game. But I’m convinced that a perfect VR successor to Obduction, whatever form it takes, is possible.