In 2013, developer Cyan Worlds used Kickstarter to fund a spiritual successor to its adventure games, Myst and Riven. Obduction is not a continuation of the Myst series, but adopts the same basic format of lush environments packed with thought-provoking puzzles.
With Obduction, the team at Cyan Worlds had to serve two very different audiences; tenured fans who have been following their work since their initial success in the 1990s, and new players unfamiliar with challenging quirks of Myst and games like it. The question is, how do game designers set about creating puzzles that cater to these two sets of players?
He’s got some story in the environment, but he really likes to emphasize the puzzles.
According to Myst co-creator and Obduction lead designer Rand Miller, Puzzle games not only need clever puzzles, but a engaging world for those puzzles to live. If you truly allow yourself to settle into that setting, and be aware of all the things happening around you, then you’ll have everything that you need to solve the puzzles. Whether you realize it or not, hours of pain-staking work has been done to make sure that this is the case. And even after 20 years in the business, there are always going to be imperfections.
All Things in Balance
Whether we’re talking Myst, Obduction, or any game in between, puzzles are what players have come to expect from Cyan Worlds. However, they’re not the sole component of the games that the studio has produced. “I really like putting the puzzles in,” Miller said. “But there’s so much tugging.”
Anyone who has played Myst or Riven will go into Obduction expecting an experience that offers amazing, otherworldly environments to explore, and a plot with a little more depth than your average video game narrative. “All those things have to balance,” Miller said.
“You sit down and you try and make the aspects of this world fit together well; all the beautiful places that we build have to fit with the storyline that we’re developing at the same time,” he added. “And that has to fit with the fiction — the puzzles that we’re trying to put in your way, to impede you and slow you down a bit. All those things fight with each other in this crazy way.”
This sense of balance between the three tenets of story, environments, and puzzles has been developed over the course of three decades since Cyan Worlds was established in 1987. However, Miller acknowledged that other approaches can be just as successful.
“Many people are OK with emphasizing the puzzle end of things,” he explained. “Like The Witness, for example. I think Jonathan Blow really likes the puzzle side, so perhaps the environment and the story are not his big concerns. He’s got some story in the environment, but he really likes to emphasize the puzzles. I think our approach is more balanced — not that there’s a right and wrong, that’s just what we like to do.”
In addition to ensuring that different elements of the game are given equal focus, the team at Cyan Worlds spent plenty of time fine-tuning the difficulty of the puzzles included in Obduction to satisfy all corners of their audience. As Miller discovered from the critical response to the game, it’s difficult to please everyone.
“When you read the reviews, it’s funny,” he said. “Because so many of them are at opposite ends of the spectrum.” He references two critical responses to the game that he read following its release; one described the puzzles as “intricate, devious, and really difficult,” while the other noted that they “weren’t tough enough.” Both were positive reviews.
Offering multiple different difficulty levels in a puzzle game isn’t as easy as in other genres. Whereas a game that focuses on combat could simply give enemies more health and/or make the player less powerful, then call it a day, an “easy mode” here would effectively require a new, simpler set of puzzles. The fact that Obduction was funded by Kickstarter, however, limited Miller’s options.
“I think the only other option you have is to try and build a dual solution into the game, where you pick a path at the beginning — do you want the hard version, or the easy version?” Miller said. “If you had a much larger budget, I think you could do that.”
Connecting the Dots
“We’re trying to give people a satisfying problem-solving experience, but at the same time, building the game is a problem-solving experience for us.”
In the game, the team resolved to make a single set of puzzles that carried a high level of challenge, while putting all the necessary pieces of the solution right in front of the player’s nose. Miller referred to the way that the team “meticulously cultivated” players’ progress through the early section of the game, as they’re first being introduced to Obduction‘s world. “Your experience at the beginning is very linear,” he noted. “You’re in a canyon, there’s no place else to go. You’re in a dead-end canyon and you can only walk forward. But almost literally as the canyon opens up, your world starts to open up, and your options start to open up as well.”
“Our approach to puzzles has to do with one key word, and that is connection,” Miller said. “You get pieces in various parts of the world — and if you’re alert, and you’re paying attention, we want to give you a way to connect those pieces together.”
This strategy is all about getting players comfortable in their surroundings before opening up new avenues to explore. Once the canyon begins to open up, a non-player character directs you to a bright, white house that shines like a beacon against the desert backdrop. Once you reach that location, an eye-catching red laser is visible as a hint to guide them to their next destination, and another NPC with his own set of instructions.
“The first ‘quest’ that this person puts you on is to get him power,” Miller explained. “If you step out from where he is, you’ll notice that the power lines very purposely lead right to his house — so that you can follow those power lines to exactly where the next puzzle is. It has to do with a gate that’s in the water, and if you follow the water, you get a clue to where the next puzzle is. Everything is meant to kind of lead you from one spot to another as you move forward, and it becomes less and less linear as the game progresses.”
“Ultimately, when you get the solution — whether you cheated or you did it yourself — we want you to feel like, ‘yep, those connections were there,’” he added. “And if you cheated, you may look back and go, ‘I should have seen that! I should have seen that connection!’ You blame yourself for not seeing them. I think if we can get that, we’ve done our job.”
Art Imitates Life
Whether you’re grappling with one of the new puzzles offered up by Obduction, or thinking back to that damnable fire marble grid from Riven, you may well have wondered where the team at Cyan Worlds get the inspiration for challenges that provide frustration, followed by satisfaction. Their visual design and their specific solutions come from all manner of places — but the inimitable feeling of overcoming something demanding comes from game development itself.
“The very thing that we’re trying to give people in the game is the ‘aha’ experience.”
“We’re trying to give people a satisfying problem-solving experience, but at the same time, building the game is a problem-solving experience for us,” Miller said. “Every day, we fight these problem-solving battles.” He went on to describe some of those “battles,” ranging from gameplay issues, and money management, to the allocation of human resources, and problems that might rear their head late in development, threatening to undo progress made elsewhere.
“That’s the stuff we fight everyday, and I love that aspect of this,” he added. “I love sitting down with people and trying to solve those problems.” In fact, you may have experienced evidence of Miller’s love for this aspect of his job firsthand — because it’s woven into the fabric of the games that he’s designed.
“The very thing that we’re trying to give people in the game is the ‘aha’ experience; when they solve a problem, when the game storyline reveals itself to people and it ‘clicks’ for them,” Miller explained. “They solve it, and they move forward. In many ways, that’s the same feeling that we get when we do that at the office.”
“When we come across something that we think is like ‘how are we going to do this? We don’t have a solution for this, it’s impossible to get this part of the game done right, because of something,” he said. “We solve that problem, and we all get that same ‘aha’ experience.”
“If you’ve solved all the problems well, and you get your project out there, and people enjoy it,” said Miller. “That’s the ultimate ‘aha’ experience of satisfaction, for us.”