Obduction let Cyan experiment with VR in a non-Myst universe

Obduction, which is out today, is Cyan's first game in 25 years that isn't set in the Myst universe. We talked to Rand Miller about world building, puzzle crafting, and designing for VR.

After more than 20 years of games set in the Myst universe, Obduction, out today, is a chance for Cyan to finally work again with a clean slate.

It's a new adventure within a new world and a new set of technological constraints — most notably, the constraints associated with developing for both virtual reality headsets and traditional flatscreen monitors. Most excitingly for Cyan co-founder Rand Miller, it's a new opportunity to drop players in a world they don't comprehend — a world that's strange and mysterious and waiting to be explored.

Aside from a few small puzzlers, Obduction is the first game Cyan has made outside of the Myst universe since Spelunx and the Caves of Mr Seudo in 1991 — a quirky HyperCard playground that predates Myst by two years. Miller calls it "refreshing" to "not have to look at those same walls for a period of time" and to take a break from dealing with the baggage of 20 years of decisions (from Myst, its sequels, and its Uru spinoff series).

We caught up with Miller recently and quizzed him about world building, puzzle crafting, and designing for VR.

VR complications

Miller explains that Cyan saved a lot of headaches by planning for VR in Obduction from the beginning, but the process of designing for both traditional screens and VR headsets has still been a challenge. Their approach has been to design the whole game around the constraints of both modes.

Vertical changes in position, for instance, are disorienting and uncomfortable in virtual reality, so Obduction doesn't have ladders and wherever there's a change of plane — say, a small drop off that players would normally just jump down — they've created a ramp that the player must walk along.

They also co-opted the first-person point-and-click navigation system that Cyan's older games used. Players can walk around freely if they like, but for traditionalists or people susceptible to motion sickness in VR Obduction offers node-based movement. This significantly changes the experience, but not necessarily for the worse. "In some ways, node-based is a little more satisfying because you go down fewer bunny trails," says Miller. 

"So for somebody who's a novice and somebody who is not interested in exploring all the nooks and crannies, they get to just the good parts. We're not gonna put a node down this little crevice — this little seam in this rock wall — if there's not anything there you can interact with. But in free roam you can go up there and explore that little crevice in the wall and appreciate the aesthetics."

The bulk of Obduction players will not be in VR, so the team has been careful not to get too far ahead of the curve — to offer a good virtual reality experience, but not to invest resources into features that will benefit VR players only. That said, even just designing the game for both types of screen has highlighted VR's strengths in Miller's mind. 

He argues that VR makes game worlds feel more alive, and he's excited by the potential for VR in exploration-heavy games. "When you put somebody in the world in VR they are much more likely to spend time looking around at everything," he says. "It's almost like even like the texture on the rocks on the wall or the details in a door are suddenly more alive because they have depth and scale. It seems like it is a thing there that you can move sideways and see the angles of. And somehow that's really satisfying. It slows you down."
"In the flatscreen you come up to a door and click it, and it jiggles and it's locked, then you walk away," he continues. "But in VR you click the door, it jiggles, and you look at the door and you notice 'oh, the paint's chipping off of this' and 'oh look at that, it's got inset carvings in here.' And 'oh, that window I can kind of see through if I move back and forth.' 'Oh! There's something way behind that window. I can tell how far it is back there.'"

This is the dream he and his brother Robyn have been chasing for nearly 30 years. Everything they've done can be traced back to their first interactive world: the 1988 exploratory HyperCard adventure The Manhole. Miller argues that Myst and now Obduction simply expanded the concepts from The Manhole. Exploration in VR especially just builds on those first steps on a black-and-white Macintosh. The new technology merely offers a more sophisticated way "to paint your presence in a space," says Miller.

Your eyes, ears, and the touch receptors in your skin all constantly refresh your inner model of the world around you, and Miller thinks VR taps into that. "It builds on those very natural senses to construct the world in your head," he says. "And boy, it's convincing."

Breaking free of Myst

Myst was a product of its time. Its journals full of character narratives, background lore, and tiny embedded live-action videos were a response to technological constraints — books were a great pretext for the postage stamp-sized QuickTime videos that advanced the plot, and they allowed the world to hold more detail and depth than would be possible through the series of still screens that players navigated through.

Miller has relished the opportunity to tackle world building and storytelling without Myst's crutch of journals. "You want the environment to tell some of that story, and you want the devices and some of the notes and some of the signs and some of the disarray, and some of the order, to all contribute to that story in some way," he says, further noting that even a locked door can tell a story.

"That's not done frivolously," says Miller, who emphasizes the importance of purpose.

"Game worlds follow gameplay," he adds. The world should fit the mechanics. In a first-person shooter, for instance, some things can just be there to look cool or to push the player in the direction of the next gunfight, and only level geometry (like walls and crouching cover) really matters. "Not every locked door is necessarily going to be opened in that kind of game," he continues. "Not every journal needs to be relevant."

But when story and puzzles become more central to the mechanics, so too must the world be filled with more relevant and less throwaway material. In Obduction's case, the challenge is to balance an environment that wants to be explored with a story that the player needs to unravel and puzzles that provide friction between player and world. And to craft a world that feels like a real place, and as such is teeming with mystery.

"People liked Myst because it felt like you were plopped into the middle of a story with no idea what was going on," Miller says. "And the sequels to Myst, by their very nature, could not feel that way. You knew what was going on now. You had already played Myst; it wasn't like you could ever land on that dock again and completely not know where and what everything was."

Placing blame

Miller has not shied away from the fact that some of Myst's puzzles were horrible, and he fully expects to field similar criticism on Obduction. But he says Cyan has tried to design all Obduction puzzles according to a simple principle: players should blame themselves for not getting it sooner. If their reaction is instead "ugh, that was silly. There was no connection. There was nothing there that hinted," he explains, that means Cyan failed.

No puzzle solution should be arbitrary. In practice, however, Miller explains that sometimes things just get lost in translation. 

He gives an example that they caught in testing where players had to activate a steam-powered generator. Miller and designer Richard Watson put all the appropriate breadcrumbs in place to show players what they needed to do: connect the water source, turn on the hose, then turn on the heat source to boil the water and power the generator.

It seemed so obvious. So easy. "The first person through it goes 'oh, this is a motor, and if we get this motor started by turning the fire on, it can pump the water out of that pond over there,'" Miller continues. "It was completely backwards of what it was supposed to be. And it never, ever occurred to us that anyone would look at it that way."

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