obsidian.jpg (16938 bytes)Obsidian begins offline. The story commences with a holiday feel in a forest. Rummaging around a campsite, we discover a personal assistant that fills us in on the narrative details. It is 2037 and the central characters in this story have been involved in a research project called Ceres. Ceres epitomises the dream of the digital revolution to solve the earth’s material woes by means of nanotechnology, provide a pollution-free and resource-infinite way of continuing to service the earth’s population. It seems the project has gone astray and one of the pair, Max, has become trapped inside their invention. Ceres seems to have invaded Max’s dreams and created worlds to mirror them.

Not yet feeling the narrative urgency, we linger a while over this rather worn looking device. Its owner has clearly artistic talent. The sketches of nature are shown on screen in the time they are drawn so that you can appreciate the strokes. Not all the functions are working, however. Inability to send and receive messages reinforces the rather unnerving feeling that we’re offline here—one of the few places on a densely networked earth beyond the reach of the Net.

As we follow the path, a shout is heard in the distance. We arrive at a black edifice, occasionally glimpsed in the game’s credits. In the face of the stone, we finally discover our identity. We are Leah, Max’s partner in research and other matters.

The world we enter has very little to do with high-tech. One of the central ironies of Obsidian is the enduring presence of the mechanical world in an entirely digital universe. But more of that later.

We soon find ourselves in a bureaucratic labyrinth looking for a ‘pre-approval form’ to get a bridge repaired so that we can make a meeting with the boss. It’s a deliberately torturous and frustrating project. Those we meet—screen-bots with mechanical bodies and faces on screen—hinder rather than help us. To navigate our way around this world, we must explore the walls and ceiling, which turn out to be faces of a cube that can be turned to become floors.

Puzzles mark the progress, but these are puzzles that are more poetic than brainteasers. Arranging rings on a cloud exists to suggest a way of dealing with an errand rather than directly unlocking a new level. Obsidian require less skill than persistence.

Eventually we are led to begin breaking rules, which takes us into the next realm, straight out of one of Max’s dreams. A large mechanical spider must be repaired. During this process, we come to a remarkable place in which the drama of nanotechnology is played out by cartoon-like nanobots. This is an almost Disney-like vision of digital engineering as they line up along assembly lines to construct their assigned worlds.

A few more realms later, a climactic scene or two, and the game is over. We are left scratching our head, wondering what it is all about.

One of the first themes to puzzle us is the enjoyment of bureaucracy. The kinds of hazards we face during the course of Obsidian seem like the nightmare conjured up by re-engineers responsible for flattening organisations in real life: decision-making fragmented into departments, meaningless replication of process, long waiting times, excess paper work. In one of the more over-acted moments, we hear the voice of Leah learning from her dream ‘too must red tape’. Here’s a curious piece of cultural recycling. Just as the Western world is throwing out its hierarchical organisation structures, along comes a computer game which turns it into entertainment.

A similar paradox occurs in the mechanical realm. Just as the world is turning digital, the widely heralded Obsidian turns out a piece of mechanical entertainment. To an extent, Obsidian turns on a clichéd man versus machine scenario. However, it does take a little extra effort to show you the machine point of view. At one stage, we are admitted to an art gallery with works made by machines. Our host celebrates the burst of creativity resulting from the liberation of machines from human bondage.

With such a strong theme, the Church of the Machine was slightly disappointing. It consisted mostly of alcoves with cabinets containing old parts and statues. It was the action necessary to bring everything into motion that provided most interest. Operating a spider with exaggeratedly mechanical movements, our task is to write the code for a program that will enable the machine to take flight. This culminating in a bolt of light that inscribed the relevant chip with necessary information.

Indeed, if there were a religion of the machine age it would celebrate the nexus between mechanical and digital. As has often been pointed out, despite the transcendence of the material world promised by digital technologies, they still require physical existence to function.

In the history of the CD-ROM genre, Obsidian walks a path blazed by the much-celebrated Myst, winner of just about every digital accolade you could mention. Like fellow traveller, Bad Mojo, Obsidian cannot resist making the occasional jokey reference to the old testament. One of the booths dispensing information has a figure from Myst demanding ‘blue pages’.

Though a little joke, this perhaps touches on one of the central flaws in Obsidian—an inability to resist sweetening its fascinating worlds with little jokes about this strange world. Rather tired looking stock footage is used to suggest old-fashioned forms of life.

Myst won minds, if not hearts, from its purity of vision. Obsidian attempts to combine both mystery and humour, and they don’t mix.