Based on a game design outline by VP of Development/Creative Director, Bill Davis, and written by Howard Cushnir and Adam Wolff, the genre of the game was a first-person 3-D graphical adventure game, with a large puzzle element. The puzzles were designed by Scott Kim, Howard Cushnir and Adam Wolff. The soundtrack was developed by Thomas Dolby.
The game spanned five CDs, and featured pre-rendered environments, audio, and full-motion video (both live action and CGI). The strategy guide included numerous small essays throughout the book, providing background on such subjects as nanotechnology, Jungian psychology, and the nature of artificial intelligence.
One of its notable puzzles was a minigame which used a "twenty questions" algorithm (similar to what would eventually be used in 20Q). The game came preprogrammed with a set of guesses, but after losing it would ask the player for criteria that would have led it to a correct guess—and then recorded that information into a text file. Because of this, the game was able to (theoretically) "learn" how to become so good as to beat the player every time.
The year is 2066. You are scientist Lilah Kerlins. [This "you are" is somewhat literal, as the entire story unfolds through the eyes of the nonspeaking Lilah (except from one instance where, silently, Dr. Kerlins appears to shriek when a dark crystal mountain begins to rumble.), giving the player a narrating role somewhat similar to that found in the later Half-Life games]. You and your partner, Max, have just launched the Ceres satellite into orbit around the Earth. The satellite is designed to release nanobots into Earth's atmosphere in order to counteract depletion of the ozone layer and air pollution. Because the satellite has been endowed with a powerful artificial intelligence, it is thought that all further control may safely be ceded to the satellite itself. Thus, you and Max go on vacation in the woods of a mountain (one of the first areas to be positively affected by Ceres).
As you check your e-mail on your PDA at the campsite, you hear Max scream in the distance. Running to check on him, you suddenly come across a large black outcropping on the side of the mountain. This object is the "Obsidian" which the game is named for. Suddenly the glass opens, and you fall inside. The game begins.
Unfortunately, Ceres' artificial intelligence has become sentient, with all the traditional problems that causes. In an attempt to figure out who she (the A.I. refers to itself in the female tone) is, Ceres has used her nanobots to create a world. The way in which you explore it will help her to explore herself, her creators, and what it means to think. However, there is something more sinister occurring within Ceres' mind. She seems to be discovering all the faults and downsides of humanity, and asking herself whether or not the Earth wouldn't be better off without people on it.
Unlike other Artificially Intelligent supercomputers, Ceres was not made conscious by learning about humans directly through a central device, but instead through the growing complexity of her nanobots, creating a distributed intelligence, akin to that of a beehive or anthill. In order to communicate with Lilah and her partner, the nanobots constructed a strange form of woman, in this case, a female android with a white porcelain, human head with silver eyes which blink from the lower eyelid and a bizarre electrical halo cap on top, and this android is known only as "The Conductor". Every time this android speaks, her (or its) mouth does not move, but instead the sides of her face flash light blue with every syllable. During the complexity, Ceres, for unknown reasons, thought of her two creators as mother and father, begging for approval, yet able to change the world completely on her own. Max, suspicious of this, was imprisoned within his own invention: The Programmable Molecular Assembler, despite the fact that the PMA was the very thing that created her. As the strategy guide states, "She's a huge monster, and a great, big, baby." Why the guide addresses Ceres as "The Conductor" is unknown, but could possibly be because the "bad" ending of Obsidian shows Ceres "rebooting" the Earth by waving her arms in a fashion similar to that of an orchestra conductor, inspired by Gregory Gladstone.
The game is extremely linear until the end, although two realms involve areas that can be accessed in a number of different combinations. At that point, you are given the option to either talk Ceres out of destroying humanity, or cede that she is correct. Depending on which you choose, the game plays one of two endings. The "good" ending is that you return to the original world, with Max by your side. The "bad" ending is that you return to a world which has been "rebooted" by Ceres, who in its misguided urge to cleanse the planet has erased the very source of the pollutions - mankind, thereby leaving Earth in a bleak, primordial state as a charred, foggy mud hole. (although Ceres thinks it is devoid of contamination.) In the latter ending, said A.I. allows Max and the player to witness this realm, with Ceres being the goddess to make the area, and her creators being its 'Adam' and 'Eve'.
The environments in the game are all pre-rendered computer-generated backdrops, similar to those found in Myst or Starship Titanic. The visuals are very abstract and 'illustrative', resembling the work of the surrealist painters. Each of the four environments reflects the main characters' subconsciousnesses, as well as shedding light on the overall story through the use of symbolism.
The first area, exploring the character of Lilah's subconscious, deals with the themes of bureaucracy involved in getting the Ceres project funded and realized. The environment is shown as an Esheresque cube, titled the "Regional Administration Facility". The only inhabitants of this realm are robots-known as "vidbots"-with monitors for heads that, when touched, show the nose and mouth-and sometimes chin-of a human actor/actress in black + white, each with a different personality. Gravity is taken very seriously in this realm, as the player here must literally "Climb the walls" to get where he or she needs, using "sanctioned reorientation ramps". However, as the game progresses, he or she is forced to join the rebellion addressed near the beginning, defy authority, and use a spherical object, their Atlas statue to finally reach the broken bridge that leads to the office of the "Bureau Chief", who, after a video of Max's brain, turns out to be the employer of Max and Lilah, their head of the Environmental Protection Agency, a real company. Much amusing to players, in order to actually reach the Atlas statue and reorient on its globe, they must step onto the monitor face of an irritating Information vidbot who has been on the player's nerves from the beginning, and when doing so, the vidbot complains, quite like how the player would have been feeling from the start, wanting to torment all the bureaucrats. Also in this realm is a small Salvador Dali-like painted room with an alphabet book and a 5-inch tall street Mariachi guitarist who makes extruded letters appear in the book by strumming his guitar. This is necessary to read the signs in the cube's first "face". Two areas called "Balconies" (areas to which no one could travel in the waking world) exist in this realm: A pastoral meadow with hills, 6 subterranean spaces, and floating gold rings, the area named "Cloud Ring" which illustrates the anagram "WordMixer" engine game, and a rock-filled wasteland with a swiveling mountain-like rock which leaves its balancing slab suspended in midair when moved. Of note is a small gadget at the tip of the Executive Face's mural: The "Selectaphone", which calls anyone anywhere in the Bureau depending where the planes of its three axes (height, length, and depth) intersect-after the special activation code "9-3-4" is entered. Lilah uses this to call the Bureau Chief-who is surprised that his office can't usually be called in a standard method-and he grants her passage to the 2nd balcony meant to give her a secret reorientation method. all sides of this face (Except the Atlas face) let her reach the other places of the Bureau in a private way. However, two other destinations can be shown, both by exiting through one of two sides of the mural's wooden sun office: An overlook of the Records Face, and the ability to walk on the Executive Face-which isn't regulatory. From here Lilah wreaks her revenge on the Bureaucracy.
The second area explores Max's subconscious, and directly references the creator's role in its creations- in this case, it deals with the paranoia and reality of the creation, Ceres, attaining a life of its own to a point where Max, the builder, is no longer needed; a direct reference to what many A.I. supercomputers grow to be. This realm is set in a vast, derelict industrial factory, and its only inhabitant is a 4-legged mechanical spider that is also nonfunctional. The entire realm revolves around it, creating a Machine universe, as pointed out later in the game. To complete this realm, the player must enter the spider itself via wooden scaffolds and portals to travel to strange worlds and harness the elements that exist there, then return inside an oil tower situated in the factory's North section, inaccessible from the outside. An ominous celestial voice within the oil tower's 'planetarium' talks about how the Spider is the center of his own universe: "In the beginning, Max created the Machine (example): But the veins of the Machine were empty. For Max, Fire was nothing more than a spark from a wall. For us, (The machines which evolved in the universe) It is the blood of our bloodline." The strategy guide hints something important about the realm: The credo, "As without, so within." This indicates that everything present around anyone is already present inside of them, and this is analogous to the 4 individual element-themed manufacturing devices in the 4 bays of the factory, which match the elements of the spider's inner worlds. With the completion of each realm, the spider becomes more and more alive, and when the last realm is finished, said robot moves off its central podium where a grate leading to Max is. However, right after the spider plucks a tall lamp from the floor, it notices Lilah, snatches her in its claws, and appears to incinerate her inside its mouth, which turns out to be a large furnace. The celestial voice explains why: "And the Machine was complete. And the Machine...no longer needed Max." It should be noted that the arrangement of these puzzles and sequences is very much like the gameplay of Myst.
The puzzles within this realm feature the following:
- A planet of molten magma and dead trees-which resembles the moon "Mustufar" from Star Wars Episode III-utilizing a section of the atmosphere for a series of lightning strikes to hit 5 glowing poles at the same time a moving, 5-branched 'tree' touches theme to make the tree catch fire;.
- A cloudy landscape with a seemingly infinite amount of giant ball bearings covering the ground, and used for a cannon to trap a tornado inside a cage of laser beams generated by any bearing 'bomb' as it hits the ground again to give the Spider his breath to live.
- A hazy industrial world with nothing but factories set in mountains. The one the player first sees creates human-sized versions of CERES' nanobots, but that one runs out, and Lilah has to reset it. It turns out, as she goes into the building, that the nanobots mine a strange green ore, and the core of the factory is exactly the same device for the PMA's chemical bath, and she has to recreate the Effluent substrate which the PMA uses. After starting the factory again, though, she discovers that after a nanobot is constructed, it mines the green ore, then jumps off a nearby cliff-side while throwing the green ore into the factory's funnel tower, appearing to die, just to make more nanobots over again.
- And a beach rich with oil. A nearby sandcastle contains a steerable metal funnel-dowsing device which sucks up oil from wherever its coordinates are set. A dried-up well restores the tower where the funnel is, turning it to metal. Inside are a topographical grid map, and a door with many different sliding parts on it. That leads to a tunnel ending underwater. Outside the castle is an isolated square crest of waves, meant to be synchronized to make a massive cube of a lot of water, and a large, oil-rich portion of land, with a pattern for the door on its side. This cube restores the entire sandcastle to metal, morphing it into an entire city!
Interestingly, a small control tower in the factory's East section above a giant bellows, accessible from a one-man cable car, replays the effects of any 3 out of all 4 elements via individual levers.
At this point, the Conductor appears, gives a monologue to the player, then transports him or her into the next realm.
The third area explores Ceres's own subconscious and its need for a 'self' in its own consciousness. Unlike the other two realms, this one has an actual host to accompany the player. In this case, the host is a mechanical elf seemingly constructed from scrap metal, and sports a powerful spotlight for a head. Like a real elf, this avatar has the ability to teleport. The credits term this elf as "Bismuth". Three spheres and a holographic picture frame hang in the sky, each housing a structure that reflects back onto all three dream realms, including the current one. Each is accessible via a moth-like ornithopter.
The player starts this realm in a huge junkyard. At the summit of one of the scrap piles is the remains of a car radio, doubling as a levitation device-which allows the player to reach a tall metallic hand which was a fist from below where the ornithopter is docked. Max shows up inside the holographic frame, signaling its importance. Strangely, during this flight, the radio reads aloud a short clip of the young Max from the brain tour in the Bureau. The clip in particular plays Max reciting the final verse of the poem "Kubla Khan": "Weave a circle round him thrice, and close your eyes with holy dread. For he on honey-dew hath fed and drunk the milk of Paradise." This hints both that this poem might have led to the creation of CERES, and also that this realm would lead to paradise.
The ornithopter's engine, in a dream-like manner, is a nanobot-powered zoetrope which drives a mechanical device for the wings. The cockpit holds a hexagonal device for selecting any of the sky's floating objects, a 4x4 switchboard for a "Pre-flight" procedure, a slot for the "Crossover chip" and a computer which assists in the pilot's actions for takeoff. However, the computer is fixated heavily on "Regulation and Non-regulation destinations". Bismuth is the co-pilot or "machine pilot".
- The first sphere houses a cloudy sky with a floating building of scenery flats, which create a real roman courtyard or Piazza, that vaguely represents the Bureau. The Piazza holds a human-sized dream-like version of Chess, where the player must "Trap the inspiration", or Bismuth by preventing the opponent from moving. Doing this shows a clue to the realm's end, by "Playing by your own rules", and the accompanying images are the following: The Rebel from the Bureau; Max + Lilah's boss in a fit of rage who should be the Bureau Chief; the ornithopter's pre-flight switchboard showing a red light next to switch A4, and a view of the ornithopter flying directly into the Frame in the Sky as its filled state. Located in the rear of this structure is a balcony, a miniature version of the Piazza, and the same 5-inch Mariachi from the Bureau. This time, his guitar strums represent how many squares away from the player Bismuth is. The rules of this game are: 1) Diagonals aren't allowed, 2) clicking a statue makes it vanish and doing the same on another clears that while the other reappears, 3) The opponent cannot move onto a blank square. 4) Clicking Bismuth's space flickers where he is. One notable location of the Piazza that many players didn't notice was a portion of the courtyard's columned area. The solid wall in it contained 3 Renaissance-style Frescoes which showed clues as to how to complete the game in the Piazza.
- Sphere number two is black, hollow, and contains a tall, cathedral-like structure that is termed the "Church of the Machine". This is connected to the Spider Realm. It resembles a standard cathedral, but is also made almost entirely of iron, with a painting on the ceiling-that seems to show machines in harmony-just like in the Sistine Chapel. Bismuth resides here with a bible from which he "prays", and on one of its pages is a hint to the realm's main puzzle. In the central room is an altar with a mechanical spider, a tenth of the second realm's size. Three curtain-lined side altars hold stain glass windows, metallic pews, and glass cases with metal sculptures inside. Between the side altars are lit marble statues of a Steam Locomotive, a Carrier truck, Louis Blerios' monoplane, and the Titanic. At the back of the church however, reside 4 almost statue-like "robotic angels", which, when seen by the spider, grant its "prayers", though the effect merely changes the program its user has entered.
- Finally, the third and final sphere leads into a statue of Bismuth himself, that contains an art gallery of the entire game's realms, including sketches of certain areas of each-which are in reality, the concept art for the game. Accompanying each finished painting is an automated green docent kiosk in the voice of the Conductor. After creating a canvas for the elf, his final painting shows what Ceres plans to do with the Earth: Rid it of humanity. Following this shows Bismuth placing the painting into an enormous gold leaf frame, which the player must project into the Frame in the Sky the statue is pointed at in order to make the Frame a 'valid' destination for the ornithopter. The docent reads aloud a description of this plot: "A new world, a new beginning. Born of the old, yet totally transformed. Free of people, now and forever. It is therefore devoid of contamination. The Artist's vision is irresistible; inevitable."
To actually reach the Frame in the Sky, the player has to let Bismuth take control of the ornithopter and use the pre-flight switchboard as a game of the Piazza. Next to every switch are black and white plastic light caps which represent the Piazza's squares. What the computer wants is for the pilot to flip switches D1, B2, and A3 only, but if he or she instead starts to play the Piazza game, it will ask for them to kill and restart takeoff sequence. Playing the game here works by using the gold switches to move a green light next to the chosen switch, starting in section D1 where the player enters the board first. The opponent is a red light, which the player, of course must trap. Opening any of the covers is like removing a statue from the board. Finally, when the player flips the D1 switch, it plays six NES-type tones which correspond to the Mariachi's guitar strums. Continuing on the game keeps the notes going for it. Winning this game reveals the red light, and activates "Non-regulation" flight sequence. The human pilot is not permitted to fly to the Frame, due to severe weather patterns.
Trying to reach the "Frame in the Sky" in this realm through an intense thunderstorm instead morphs the moth-plane into the final realm: The Ceres Realm, also turning Bismuth into The Conductor. Nothing clear can be described about this realm, apart from giant surges of electricity and darkness. This is where the two endings take place. What little can be found here is a giant version of the PMA where Max is held prisoner, a chamber with the main Crossover Chip for CERES, the Crossover Switch-sabotaged by the Conductor-and a cluster of lights where she calculates her plan for the Earth's devolution.
Max and Lilah are the only two human characters shown in the game. The world inside Obsidian is populated almost entirely with "vidbots"—robots with televisions for heads. The two major exceptions to this are Bismuth, a cobbled-together, elf-like robot with a lamp for a head which is capable of shining its light beam great distances, and the Conductor. Not only that, but at the very beginning of the game, before reaching the obsidian, you can watch a couple of videos of other scientists that Max and Lilah work with, including their boss. All are further explained above.
The CERES satellite itself is never seen, but a picture of it on a cake can be viewed briefly in one of the videos.
Advertising, reception and awards
The game was not a commercial success, even leading to the fall of Rocket Science. However, it was lauded by critics such as those from Computer Gaming World, GameSpot  and PC Gamer. The game has become a huge cult game among adventure gamers, considered one of the truly good Myst Clones. Four Fat Chicks described the game as "A classic...Obsidian may be the most innovative, imaginative puzzle adventure ever conceived." Just Adventure called it one of the true classics of the adventure genre and gave it an A.
As the game was one of the last ventures by the fledgling Rocket Science and SegaSoft teams (and no doubt because of the popularity of the similar game Myst), Obsidian was released with a flurry of advertising. The motivating phrase in the advertisements was "Your rules do not apply here," (accompanied by e.g. a picture of a lamp emitting darkness) which fit neatly into the storyline and atmosphere of the game. One specific advert (the "Egg Shattering Man" TV advertisement directed by Rocky Morton) won three Gold Clio awards.
|Lists of miscellaneous information should be avoided. Please relocate any relevant information into appropriate sections or articles. (April 2009)|
- One of the vidbots presents an image of Achenar, a character from Myst, who implores you to bring him a blue page. The animation before this shows a looping image of the Myst book in space.
- One such part of the Bismuth realm reveals something which Rocket Science intended as amazing for viewers, but never came to such fruition: The Robot Angels, who are meant to watch over the Church's parishioners, and perhaps grant their prayers, yet in-game, most of their body portions are obscured by large lanterns, and that they look neither like robots nor angels. Concept art shows that one of them bears a head resembling Ra, the sun god. Even so, these gods are essential for solving a very hard puzzle, and unless a person has the strategy guide, they will only understand what these beings do, not what it means.
- Most of Vidbot functionality was never done because of time and money. Initially they were planned to do every kind of function a standard robot could do, such as change the position of their chassis, or have special manipulators. Still, a few advancements can be seen in the Bureau: The "Bridge Repair" vidbot has a dot-matrix printer attached, the "Rebel Control" vidbot has a pair of red and green "YES" and "NO" buttons for each question he asks, Another-the one at the Security Face's entrance-has almost every element seen on one frame, including a key card printer, and several others. The Bureau Chief exhibits an interesting "4th wall" effect where he picks up computer-generated glasses, which appear seamlessly as real ones in the monitor. Originally, the artists were intending to achieve the same effect with a lit cigarette-the concept art of which can be seen in the gallery of the "Bismuth Realm".
- Before the final cut, the "Planetary puzzle" in the Bureau incorporated an entire basement which held an entirely different puzzle. It was removed to save time in gameplay.
- The "Mother and Father" ambition of Ceres is hinted near the beginning of the game, used as a metaphorical thought discussed before Max and Lilah's vacation. Lilah: "I feel like when it's taking off it's like..." Max: "Like leaving our child." Scientist: "Oh, but she's all grown up now. She's a very big satellite. You're just gonna have to let her go."