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In Games Begin Responsibilities

Obsidian, the elaborate and much-anticipated new CD-ROM adventure game from Rocket Science, takes the genre that Myst defined to a new level. Herein an early preview of the product -- and a consideration of what it may suggest about the future of digital arts.

by Ralph Lombreglia

Developed by Rocket Science Games
Published by SegaSoft
Five CD-ROMs
Windows, January 10, 1997
Macintosh, February 1997

Obsidian December 21, 1996

It has become something of a truism to say that the future of "serious" computer software -- educational products, artistic and reference titles, and even productivity applications -- first becomes apparent in the design of computer games. And so my real motive in looking at Obsidian this month is to look beyond the game-product itself for glimpses of the future of digital art and the role of imaginative writers in new-media projects.

Obsidian belongs to the genre of computer game epitomized by the famous Myst. In this type of game you don't move through dungeons swiping at monsters with swords. No person or thing is "after" you. Rather, you find yourself in surreal surroundings where you must uncover clues and solve puzzles to fill in the story history and advance the plot -- or whatever strands of plot emerge from your particular interaction with the elements.

The Game's the Thing
Ralph Lombreglia interviews Howard Cushnir, co-author of Obsidian

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Though there have been a few other classics in that market (notably The 7th Guest and The 11th Hour, produced by Trilobyte), Obsidian's most obvious competition is the long-awaited Riven: The Sequel to Myst, which it beats to market by at least six months. Obsidian arrives on no fewer than five CD-ROMs, and in most respects it takes this type of game-design to a new level. If you know what goes into the modeling and rendering of 3-D graphics, you'll be impressed by the virtual environments of Obsidian -- if not flat-out awestruck. Otherwise, you'll just think they're pretty cool. Considered strictly as an example of its genre, all the production values of Obsidian are similarly first-rate, with the strange exception of the music and sound design (by Thomas Dolby and Headspace) which is inexplicably bad -- a shame, since music and audio effects are an important part of these productions.

Obsidian's plot is an elaborate and politically correct science-fiction story. In the year 2066, a computerized device called Ceres has been placed in orbit to use nanotechnology (the manipulation of matter at the molecular level) to repair the Earth's fatally damaged atmosphere. One hundred days after its launch, when all seems to be going well, the two chief scientists, Max and Lilah, go on a camping vacation to celebrate. As the game begins, you're standing, without explanation, somewhere in the woods. One path opens onto a view of a distant, highly unnatural outcropping of rock. Down another path you find a campsite, and inside the empty tent you find a futuristic PDA (Personal Digital Assistant, like an Apple Newton), with your first clues inside it. During the development of the satellite each of the two designers has had -- and recorded in the PDA -- an unforgettable dream. Lilah's dream is about a maddening futuristic bureaucracy that smothers her in red tape; Max's dream is about a gigantic mechanical spider that devours him.

While examining the PDA, you hear a scream outside and proceed to the base of the strange rock structure. In its mirror-like surface, you see Lilah's reflection. You, it turns out, are Lilah. You see Max's hat on the ground, and then the mass of shiny black rock (Obsidian) sucks you inside. On your long trip in, you fly past a vast colony of nanotechnology robots working on the planet's atmosphere, from which you might infer the premise of the game-story: the Ceres satellite, apotheosis of human technology, has become conscious of itself up there in orbit and has now crashed back down to Earth to look for its creators -- you and Max. You need to find Max, figure out what's happening, and stop it. You are deposited inside the first of many amazing interior chambers, and if you've been paying attention you might recognize the place: it's the maddening bureaucracy of Lilah's dream. The orbiting device -- Lilah's offspring -- is re-creating her dream. Eventually you'll also find the mechanical spider that Max dreamed about. And since its creators are dreamers, the device dreams too. That's the third dream of the game, and it's a weird one.

Obsidian In the course of all this you'll learn to fly a plane that looks like a moth (complete with android co-pilot) and that takes you to the game's abundant store of realms, including a place called The Church of the Machine. You'll meet a female robot called The Conductor (the manifestation of machine consciousness) and will encounter a plethora of brain-busting puzzles, among them a series of floating rings that spew clouds and morph into the letters of a word game; a surreal, chess-like game played at life-size in a floating piazza; a set of blocks made of ocean water; a gigantic balancing rock, a chemistry set, and a jigsaw-like puzzle that sends your proposed solution through a printing press for an android inspector who shakes its head sadly and crumples your answer in its mechanical hands -- one of the truly funny moments amid the game's mostly campy gags.

Obsidian is a "story-driven" production, but "story" here means a large, overarching plot that doesn't have much to do with individual human beings. Even though the game-player technically assumes the role of Lilah, her identity -- as a woman, a woman who may be intimate with the missing Max, even a woman who happens to be a brilliant scientist -- doesn't really inform the game-play. Nor does the player interact in any real way with other beings. Character doesn't complicate the story. The complexity (and it's considerable) comes from the design of the game's "realms" and their many difficult puzzles. To give serious gamers their money's worth, a game has to be ingeniously tough, and Obsidian is certainly that. But its difficulties, though not strictly arbitrary or random, are those of a diversion, devised because the genre requires obstacles for their own sake.

. . .

Obsidian is a cool game and hard-core gamers -- the audience for which this product is primarily intended -- will probably love it. But if the future of software often appears first in games, what glimpses of digital arts and letters does Obsidian afford? When I look at Obsidian's synthetic environments , I certainly feel that artists should be able to "do something" with such techniques. And in my recent conversation with the game's co-writer, Howard Cushnir, he reported that his two years working on the project were spent pursuing a similar hunch about the validity of interactive storytelling, even though he knew that Obsidian itself was first and foremost a commercial game product. In the end, though, Obsidian probably holds out more implicit warnings than invitations to would-be multimedia artists.

First of all, there's the matter of money. In his interview, Cushnir makes the point that in theory there's no reason a game could not also be a serious work of art and vice-versa. In theory, I agree. But then there's no theoretical reason that big-budget Hollywood movies can't be works of art either. High-quality multimedia production costs a fortune, and the drive to reap a return on a financial investment is seldom the noble path to the true and the beautiful.

Regarding the role of expensive graphics in interactive narrative, less may turn out to be more. Just as Obsidian's rogue satellite literalizes the dreams of Max and Lilah, elaborately rendered and animated story environments literalize what would have been the imaginative involvement of the user. Obsidian, for example, makes a distinct technical advance beyond Myst by flying us through spaces rather than using a simple slide show of still pictures (and Riven: The Sequel to Myst is expected to do the same). Yet Myst's non-animated transitions between images are a factor in its offering a more "literary" experience than does Obsidian. Another factor is Myst's periodic use of text -- pages from mysterious journals and fragments of old letters -- as a design element.

And then there is the ever-present bugaboo of interactivity itself. For artists, especially narrative artists, interactivity is proving remarkably similar to what artificial intelligence and speech recognition became for computer scientists: something that's a lot harder than it looks. An enormous amount is lost, artistically, when you relinquish "authoritative" control of an experience to offer interactivity. There ought to be commensurate gains, but so far they've been rarely sighted.

The technical accomplishments of a product like Obsidian remind us that new-media artists need to choose and fight the appropriate battles. They can't compete directly with high-end entertainments or use new technologies simply because they exist. As always, art requires an alchemical fusion of content and techniques. In another sense, so does a good commercial product. Since the great rush to do multimedia treatments, or "repurposings," of books, visual art, and music began (around 1990), the memorable successes have amounted to a tiny fraction of the attempts. And yet certain kinds of artistic projects could lend themselves to interactive multimedia pretty well, even with the current technical limitations. To take two obvious examples, the CD-ROM projects of the rock band The Residents and the musican/media-artist Laurie Anderson (both published by Voyager) have managed to seize some of the ground where new-media entertainment converges with serious artistic intent. Thinking again of storytelling in particular, I've often felt that the late Donald Barthelme would have known exactly how to make use of these opportunities. In his collage-influenced fiction he often verged on non-linearity, even in linear print. So far, however, there's no indication that more conventional writers (or musicians) will make anything other than expensive, time-consuming advertisements for themselves.

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    Copyright © 1996 by The Atlantic Monthly Company. All rights reserved.
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