The protagonist of Obsidian and the co-inventor of the CERES satellite. Her engineering thesis on the atmospheric crises of the mid-22nd century leads her to teaming up with Max Powers. Together they propose and execute the CERES project to great success. She feels a motherly attachment to CERES, referring to its launch "the greatest moment of [her] life."
An organic chemist and the inventor of the Programmable Molecular Assembler. His innovations in nanotechnology are invaluable in the development of CERES. In spite of his questionable taste in shorts, he becomes Lilah Kerlin's romantic partner. It's his disappearance during their vacation in the woods that is the catalyst for Lilah's adventure.
Although the orbiting satellite – designed to repair the atmosphere with nanomachines – is never witnessed in-game, CERES's presence is felt throughout. The dreams and inspirations that went into developing CERES come back to haunt Max and Lilah in ways they could have never imagined.
The bureau labyrinth is occupied by a number of these dysfunctional robots. Some have arms, others merely buttons, and only a few are particularly helpful. Fact: many of these Vidbots are portrayed by members of Obsidian's development team!
Abraxas – or the Spider – is the center of its industrial realm. Max conceives the mechanical spider as a kind of god, and the repairs made to it as "offerings." But once it is made whole, will it obey its creator?
Normally these nanomachines would be too small to be seen by the naked eye, but in Obsidian they are larger than life! Their roly-poly forms appear in several of the realms, both in cutscenes and puzzles. Their scurrying behavior resembles that of ants in a hive.
The mute avatar of an anonymous dreamer, Bismuth appears to be made out of the detritus of cast-off dreams. Anxious and inquisitive, Bismuth has a tendency not to stay in one spot, preferring to jump from place to place in a shower of light.
A mysterious character who appears several times throughout Obsidian. Are they friend or foe?
Quite an amazing dream you had, wasn't it?
One of the last remaining National Parks, recently salvaged by the atmosphere-repairing work of CERES. It's a dead zone when it comes to electronic signals, effectively isolating Max and Lilah from the outside world.
A literal bureaucratic nightmare managed by the Bureau Chief and his dysfunctional crew. The labyrinth is a six-sided cube with many hard edges -- its denizens fear circles and curves, viewing them as apart of a subversive rebellion.
The realm of Abraxas, the Spider, is evocative of the elements that comprise machines: oil, wind, fire, and metal. The factory setting further emphasizes the culture of automation which powers the Spider.
This realm is comprised of several small planetoids floating above an enormous junkyard. These areas synthesize all that has come before to help Bismuth understand the role of inspiration in decision making.
The final form of Obsidian is a machine onto itself filled with unimaginable power. Whose hands will guide it is a decision ultimately left up to you.
Weird day. Started on the Hill, where I to spoke to yet another Congressional subcommittee. Had talk to treat them like kindergarteners -- "Can you say nanotechnology? Gooood. Who knows what a cellular sized robot is? Thaaaat's right, a string of molecules assembled to interact with organic matter.
"No, it's not the Series Project, not the Sirrus Project... it's the CERES Project. "Ceres was the Roman god of weather and the seasons. Get it?" Later, when I went to my niece's kindergarten class, I swear they caught on much quicker. One of them, a six year old, no joke, asked me this:
"If the CERES Project will use nanotechnology to monitor and repair earth's atmosphere, why will it be in space instead of on earth?" Softball question. Told 'em all about safeguards, and gave 'em a top-secret briefing on my nano-propulsion modules. Then I begged them all to run for Congress.
btw -- I think Max is cracking under the pressure. He came to work this morning in his boxer shorts, and then later fed his ulcer medicine to the cat. And I live with this guy? If he weren't the most brilliant man I ever met -- he'd be a total idiot.
One week till Ceres launches. Today was more of the same old grind -- the President stopped by for a briefing, three magazines bickered over the single interview slot, and you couldn't get from the coffee machine to the comm link without bumping into a whole slew of international news crews.
The eyes of the world are upon us. It's gratifying, humbling, and a huge pain in the ass. Must be like when we first walked on the moon, way back in the 20th. The whole world focused on a single goal. Only this time it's more immediate, more critical, since Ceres and its orbiting nanobots will be coming to a neighborhood near you and delivering a high-tech spit-shine. No more carbon monoxide in Manila, so long melanoma in Madagascar.
Which brings me to the main crisis of the moment. The PMA is not living up to its name. It's acting not like a Programmable Molecular Assembler but more like a Pretty Major Annoyance. It's engineering all my commands but randomizing the chemical sequences. Which would be a disaster if I didn't get it fixed by launch. So I work, sleep when I have to, tell no one, and then the rest of the time I just pray.
By the way, I think Lilah is cracking under all the pressure. Yesterday she washed her hair with toothpaste and dropped off a bag of laundry at the post office. And I live with this woman? If she weren't the most brilliant scientist I ever met -- she'd be a total idiot.
she launched. ceres is up. less than an hour ago she blasted into orbit and began first pass at automated configuring. i have dispensed with punctuation and stuff so i can get down basic feelings here before being transported by some new emergency. actually i'm in the stall of the women's room, only place i could get away without being hounded. three people have already come looking for me.
i havent slept in days it seems and my whole body clock is off. who cares though -- ten years of work has finally reached fruition. in the last week crisis after crisis -- mostly with my dispersal system -- but all in all there's one salient point to make... it didn't explode.
when that first test launch blew up some years back, it was all we could do to get any more funding. this morning i thought my heart would go through my skull. the whole world was sitting around wondering -- will lilah fail again? i know that's not true, but it felt like that. it wont be another week until ceres begins to actually target and repair atmospheric damage, but just the fact that she's up there is enough to send me careening through the halls and screaming with glee. that's what i'm going to do next. then max and i will escape for some kind of victory celebration -- a good ten minutes or so, and then back to work. did i say work? today its not work -- it's bliss.
Last week's launch was the greatest moment of my life. Until today. The news crews had gone, the limelight had faded, and it was just us team members glued to a monitor. Human control. Machine control. Been flipping through old journal entries to remember how it all came about. I was sick. Went to bed early. Had this dream about a universe comprised of machines. It's eerie how dreams, and the irrational, have played such a vital part in all this science.
Anyway, with a few keystrokes here at the Command Center, we employed Ceres' Crossover System and took her from Human Control to Machine Control. Now, with each of her orbital passes, its Ceres herself that analyzes the cue of atmospheric anomalies and prioritizes the repair work.
It's as if Ceres is now controlling her own destiny.
Only people and politics stand in her way. There's word afoot that we may have to reconfigure Ceres' work routines to please this or that politician, but for now, I'm just going to enjoy what we've accomplished.
Sometimes I have to say it out loud to believe it. Max and I have perfected and launched the world's first functioning nanotechnological machine. A reporter called it the "second Big Bang." Anything's possible now. We can tear apart the fabric of existence and rebuild it to suit our needs.
First, we should all step back and take a deep breath. Which, thanks to Ceres, we'll be able to do soon.
There's that empty nest syndrome, right, where the parents feel worthless and aimless because their children have left. Well is it supposed to feel like that when your "child" is an orbiting nano-tech computer? Cause it does.
Now that Ceres is operating under machine control, our jobs down here are more like managers than creators. First, we watch the incoming feed to make sure Ceres is locating pollution events correctly. Then, we contract with testers in various countries to verify the results of the nano-actions.
Truth is, you don't have to be a rocket scientist to do any of that. I mean you could almost be half-senile and kicking back in your empty nest. Unless something goes really wrong. Which I can barely allow myself to think about. So I won't.
Truth is, I can't remember any time like this, during the last ten years, when there wasn't at least one hair-raising crisis a week. It's so peaceful its eerie. Which is why M and I are planning a vacation.
Hawaii would be great, except Ceres won't be all done with fallout cleanup from the Rim War for another few months. Someone suggested one of the national parks here on the mainland. Which is weird, because I didn't even know there were any parks left. I mean I knew there were parks, but I thought they were all too trashed to visit.
Dream. Last night. Sketchy. Grasping for details.
There was a fish at a track meet. It was swimming alongside the sprinters, taunting them. No matter how fast they ran, it would always out-distance them with one swish of its fin. Then, it would look back at the sprinters and smirk. Said something like, "I am Science. Bow to me." A talking science fish? What the hell is that?
Looking up "Clark's Interpretation of Dreams," pretty much THE reference ever since it was published in 2030, I learned that images of fish are generated by a series of synapses in the G-7240 chain. This is the same string that generates spiders, and the last time I had a dream from that neck of the woods it was the most important of my life.
Clark found that injecting neuro-transmitter inducers to a designated area, while the subject is awake, can often reproduce dream images in a waking state. I think there's someone here in DC who's got the apparatus to do that. Might be a good idea to set up an appointment.
Just read somewhere that Agnatti, Clark's protege, used the same technology to locate and affect the brain's "religion core." Noticed that it's very close to the spider-fish chain. Hmm. Agnatti found, by accident, that a controlled series of injections could cause someone to convert. From Hinduism to Buddhist, from Quaker to Presbyterian.
I'm an atheist, thank God, so at least I don't have to worry about that.
Vacation. It's a word, a concept, nothing more. Been working so hard that the very thought of time off seems like a dream. And not the kind of seminal dream that led to the creation of the Ceres Project -- just a distant impossible mirage.
Yet soon it'll be time to actually go on vacation...but where? Do what? I'm tempted to just take a few hits of ZONE, that new drug they just legalized. It's supposed to create a beer buzz AND visions of a tropical island. Might even have a little cocoa butter scent laid in. But Lilah would never go for it. She swears that the real thing is worth all the extra time and effort, but I think she's a little too nostalgiac for the old days, when people actually HAD to visit in person.
Also, I'm a little pudgy, and could use a break with some heavy exercise.
Maybe jog the monorail route from DC to Atlanta -- it's fully enclosed now --except Lilah thinks jogging is a synonym for torture.
What does she LIKE, anyway? Oh yeah, nature. Hiking. She keeps bringing home brochures about the last remaining wilderness in this state or that continent. So I keep downloading articles about scorpions and rattlesnakes. It won't dissuade her, though. That's why I love her, she's as bullheaded as...as a bull.
I think what we oughta do is leave it up to Ceres. She's the one who knows the planet better than anyone. We could ask her to find the a) greenest b) cleanest c) least populated place left. And hell, if she can't fine one, we could phone up a take-out order and have her make one.
Just kidding, Federal Regulators, if you're eavesdropping. "It is a violation of Code 7-6-DRN to use nanotechnology for any unsanctioned purpose." I know, I know. So don't come arrest me for joking about it. Especially just before my vacation.
When they called me from the International Nanotech Research Association about the annual conference, I thought it was to get my money in on time. Instead, they asked me to give the keynote address. Keynote address!
Jury of my peers. Totally rewarding. More than the pop magazine covers and the TV spots. My staff is acting very nonchalant about it -- like, OF COURSE you'd be the keynote speaker -- but these are the visionaries at this conference, not the implementers. Maybe it's just a confidence thing, but I feel as excited as...as...a five year old.
And then there's Max. And that's another story. Someone at the conference decided that I should give the speech, alone, not the two of us together. I think it's because I'm an engineer, and Max is an organic chemist, and there's the usual rivalry about all that. Politics as usual.
But Max is really upset, thinks maybe I should turn down the invite. Sorry -- no way. I started looking through all the old files, creating the barebones of a Ceres outline, and timeline, and just those few minutes as a historian gave me a big charge.
I suggested to Max that he come along and make a vacation out of it. But that only offended him more. He started ranting about how much he hates sushi and how there's no room to turn around in Japan. But that worked to my advantage, because where I really want to go on vacation is somewhere pretty, natural...and ISOLATED!
I'm so angry I could kill. We've got Ceres functioning perfectly. She's prioritizing atmospheric repair exactly according to the matrix. The major focus seems to be China, where some newly discovered fall-out along the Yangtze has been threatening to infest the population with some virulent cancers.
So what happens? Mayor Richard Daley VII, up for reelection and badly in need of a vote boost, starts thinking about Ceres and comes up with a big idea. Why not pull some strings and move Chicago, which is currently low on the matrix -- since no one is really willing to LIVE there anymore -- to the very top?
Daley calls some backscratchers in DC and next thing you know the Commissioner is hemming and hawing and apologizing that our scientific miracle has been taken hostage to politics as usual. I HATE IT!
And Ceres must hate it, too, as much as an unconscious machine can really hate anything, since we have to take her from Machine Control to Human just to execute the stupid priority shift. Did I mention how much I HATE THIS?!!
Anyway, Lilah is just as steamed as me. Maybe even more. She wants to argue the whole thing in Congress, go to the mat on it, but I'm not so sure. Maybe I'm just too cynical, but I don't think science is any match for the old boy network. Them old boys have run this town since long before the Potomac was a freeway.
Calm down. Breathe -- 1,2,3,4. There, that's better. About an hour ago, M and I got back from the UN. It was a nightmare. What happened was this: The Chief is sick and asked us to pitch in at an atmospheric summit. We were honored, really, and walked into the General Assembly like conquering heroes.
Instead of applause, we were met with a barrage of angry questions from the delegates. It seems there's still a deep suspicion of superpower domination. They wanted to know when the Ceres records would be made public, when the lab would be moved to Geneva, why there aren't many fourth worlders on staff, and on and on.
I don't know why, but this stuff still gets to me. I mean, sure the U.S. has been the biggest polluter ever since pollution was created. And sure, it's our responsibility to clean up our own mess. But -- what other country could've tackled this project anyway? What other country had the science, and the trillions of dollars to get Ceres into space?
I keep having to remember the difference between governments and their people. To these angry governments we're still big bad Uncle Sam. To the people, we're the only thing between them and a permanent gas mask. And they know it, too. You can tell from all the grateful email we're getting.
Oh, well. Don't think I'll be running for office any time soon. Or traveling abroad. That national park vacation idea is looking better every day.
During the last ten years, Ceres took up all my time. So when things calmed down, I imagined there would be so much leisure. But nature abhors a vacuum, and this last week has been one mini-emergency after the next.
First, the bathroom sprung a leak. Then, the car died. It's an old electric model they stopped making since solar became practical, so it took me all day on the network just to find a power cell. Then, my dad came to town. Took him on a tour of the Ceres lab. Showed him the PMA -- and what did he say? "It's so...small." That's dad. That's families, I guess.
Point of all this is how normal I am, outside of Ceres. It's me that's small, not the PMA. I mean on one hand the fate of the world is directly linked to the success of my work, and on the other hand I'm no different than the carpenter upstairs or the nurse downstairs.
Guess it's the same way with presidents and generals. If you knew 'em well enough to hear about their own dads, and their own plumbing, you might not want 'em making life and death decisions for you.
Is this insecurity talking, or what? If something ever went wrong, if I had to make a split-second decision that would affect millions of people, would I be up to the challenge?
Why am I thinking about this, anyway? If I believed in them, I'd say this was a premonition.
Vacation. I can't believe it's actually happening. We've chosen the spot, bought the tent. The tour company is going to drive us so far from civilization we won't encounter another soul the whole time. If wild bears weren't extinct, we'd probably see one.
For a long time I've had this picture in my mind of a whole week of silence and isolation, but I'm learning that's just not me. I've decided to bring my PDA, since these days you can easily access the global network from anywhere. I'm downloading just a few of the things I need to work on -- mostly the stuff about my Japan speech. The rest I'll leave in my remote cache, easily accessible if anything comes up.
It's amazing how reliant I am on the network. If something went wrong one day, and I was cut off, I think I'd just cease to exist.
Isn't that funny, how my mind is going towards the negative? Of course nothing bad's going to happen. Max and I will hike and sleep and recharge and find out what it means to be human again after a nonstop decade. The best result would be this: we get back and people ask us what happened on our trip. We smile, take a deep breath, and tell them "absolutely nothing."
I had the good fortune to correspond at length with numerous members of the Obsidian design and production teams. All were most gracious with their time and knowledge, which I have attempted to put into a semi-coherent format. It's all very fascinating stuff, and it quickly becomes clear how much creative energy and effort was put into this exceptional game.
Obsidian was in development for more than two years and boasts an impressive team of artists, designers, and special effects creators. While the term "authentic Hollywood talent" is bandied quite a bit in the gaming industry, the chief designers of Obsidian's world have quite a resume - no spaceships-on-strings here. Read on...
The original inspiration for the game came from a set of surreal artworks that Mark Sullivan and Rich Cohen created. These two designers both worked at Industrial Light & Magic, George Lucas' state-of-the-art special effects house (Mark Sullivan was nominated for an Academy Award for his matte paintings in Steven Spielberg's Hook, while Rich Cohen worked on such well-known projects as Death Becomes Her, T2, and Star Trek VI). Together, they created the characters and several "strange, otherworldly places".
From there, it was underway, according to Tom Laskawy, Obsidian's production supervisor:
"...Adam Wolff and Howard Cushnir conceived of a story and designed the puzzles (with some help from Scott Kim) that took place in these first few environments. As we went on, Adam and Howard's puzzle ideas drove the art design for the remaining environments (which constituted the bulk of the game) with Jay [Shuster], Mark [Nonnenmacher], and Honza [Konopasek] following Adam and Howard's lead."
"Designs for the Bureau were supplied mostly by a young, brilliant designer named Jay Shuster. You'll see more of his stuff when the new Star Wars movies come out. The other main designer was Mark Nonnenmacher. Mark came out of product design and he's been at Rocket Science for several years cranking out amazing stuff. Some of Mark's designs include the doors in the Spider Realm, the Plane you fly, the factory the spider lives in, and the final realm of the game where you save Max."
"We also had contributions from a designer named Honza Konopasek. He, like Jay, is one of those people whom you hire for one reason and, after a little while, you discover jaw-dropping skills. Honza gave us the green rock factory, the beach environment, the maze of glass cubicles, the spider's church, and the painting gallery inside the giant statue."
"We also had some work done by a man named Roy Forge Smith who's an old-time Hollywood art director. Roy designed the movie-set piazza and the junkyard."
Scott Kim, one of the lead designers, has since moved on to work for SegaSoft, where his business cards have the enviable title of "Puzzle Master". Obsidian fans may be interested to know that Scott has confessed to being the creator of one of the more devious puzzles in the game:
"Yes, I designed the cubicle maze. Though I agree that it turned out very well, it proved to be a production nightmare. The cubicle maze probably took more production time than all the rest of the Bureau, which in turn might have taken more time than the rest of the game. As the game progressed we figured out better and better ways to realize our visions while keeping production time down."
If you just can't get enough Obsidian, warm up your Shockwave plug-in and head to SegaSoft's site - you'll find a dozen new puzzles Scott has created. They're all excellent. Scott is also known for his artistic lettering designs known as "inversions" - words which read the same when viewed upside-down. For more, check out his gallery - pretty cool stuff!
Howard Cushnir was one of the chief desiners for the game, and is currently doing the majority of the writing of the official strategy/hint guide, due out soon. From what Howard has told me, the book will contain "most everything we'd want the player to know." It sounds like the book will contain a generous amount of detail and background information, not simply hints and tips. In addition to designing, Howard got a chance to perform as one of the more memorable characters:
"Anyway, the truth is that I'm...the Bureau Chief! At first I was just filmed as a stand-in, then they decided to keep me. I'm also in the movie of the goodbye party from the journal, as their real boss, which makes sense since the Bureau is Lilah's dream, and am also the boss in the win animation from Max's brain at the end of the Bureau. Think about it -- As the boss in Lilah's recreated dream, I show Lilah a memory of Max's in which I also appear. Trippy, eh?"
Again, Tom Laskawy:
"To build the world in 3D, we primarily used SGI workstations running Softimage. That's where we constructed the environments and did all the character animation. Many of the models were built in form-Z, Mac-based modeling software. We did all our painting (texture maps, matte paintings, and sprites) in Adobe Photoshop. The vast majority of our 2D animation (lightning, flame, smoke, particle effects, etc.) and digital compositing was done using Adobe AfterEffects, also on the Mac. We had 12 SGI workstations and an 8 processor SGI Challenge server with 2 GB of RAM to do our rendering. For a few months during our heaviest production, we got an extra 16 processor SGI server!"
This massive amount of graphic output was then compiled into a cohesive world with mTropolis, a multimedia authoring system, with sound and music added. The mTropolis player is what the end-user runs to interact with the world. Currently, mTropolis is a Mac-only platform, while players exist for both Mac and Windows platforms. Bryn Dyment works for mFactory, the company which created the mTropolis system:
"...we're especially proud of Obsidian in that it really showcases the capabilities of mTropolis. Rocket Science was one of the earlest adopters of mTropolis, and have been using it for well over two years (more than a full year prior to our 1.0 release)."
All the sound and music for Obsidian was created by Thomas Dolby and Headspace. I asked Tom how closely the designers worked with the sound gurus at Headspace.
"We worked incredibly closely with them. There was constant back and forth. As you can imagine, designing truly interactive sound involves a deep understanding of the puzzles and intentions of the designers. That only happens when the sound team and design team work hand in hand..."
It sounds like some further adventures are in the works; here's some preliminary information. Please keep in mind that this is all unofficial, off-the-record, tentative information, so don't bother the nice people at Rocket Science or SegaSoft with questions.
A tasty rumor from Tom, just in case you can't get enough...
"Rumor has it that there's a lost realm of Obsidian. Something that didn't make it into Obsidian, but might come out as a low-priced game on its own and continue the Obsidian story. This is just a rumor, mind you, but we'll see..."
More foreshadowing, this time from Gary Griffiths, president of SegaSoft:
"...We've started work with Rocket Science on a sequel - much of the work in fact was done as part of the original game, but was left out due to the size. Nothing official yet, but we'd like to release "the lost levels" before Christmas."
It's unclear to me if they're both talking about the same thing; a smaller game, or if Mr. Griffiths was referring to a full-blown sequel.
That's a good question, I suppose, and one worth asking. To be perfectly honest, I'm not entirely sure myself. Surrealism isn't really supposed to mean anything, except to the artist who created it. This is the thought that drove the Surrealism movement in the 1920's and 30's, inspiring artists like Rene Magritte and Salvador Dali. Anyone else who derives any sense of meaning from a surrealist work is doing so only according to their own senses and sensibilities, not from anything the artist intended for you to feel.
Obsidian draws very heavily upon one of the key tenants of surrealism: the dream. In fact, Magritte was said to have envisioned many of his most famous works based either on dreams or from what he saw in the "hypnagogic state" - the curious realm of half-asleep and half-awake. As such, it's very fitting that Obsidian is comprised of realms based on the dreams of the two main characters, Max and Lilah. At an even deeper level (the deepest I'm descending to in this FAQ), note that the realms based on their dreams can be taken both literally and figuratively - what their minds showed them while asleep, and also what they aspired to in their lives.
Adam Wolff, the game director of Obsidian, shares some detail about the "meaning" behind the Church of the Machine puzzle...
"To solve this puzzle you have to make the spider modify its own code. Since this is something of a recap of the Abraxas [Spider] realm and since it's accordingly about "the power of the machine" this solution seemed appropriate. Most AI theorists assume that self-modifying code will be a key facet of future AI systems."
"The symbols on the chip have an intended meaning that is relatively obscure. The three symbols represent (as you can see in the movies) an ant hill, a cell and a city. Each of these things has the property of having a kind of "collective intelligence" or "hive mind." For more on this, I suggest Douglas Hofstadter's excellent article "Conversation With An Ant Hill." It's about how the intelligence of an anthill supersedes the intelligence of any individual ant, and it's really cool. It's written from the perspective of an anteater. . . "
Also, Adam points out how the three realms each have a specific theme. The Bureau, based on Lilah's dream of an oppressive bureaucracy, is about opposing authority. Max's dream of the mechanical spider is all about the "power of the machine". Bismuth combines elements of the first two in an interesting way: the piazza puzzle is reminiscent of The Bureau, and disobeying the automated instructions to initiate non-standard flight is an opposition of authority. The Church of the Machine puzzle is again all about the power of machines. The Statue is, according to Adam, all about inspiration and the power of imagination.
Online Gaming Review had the chance to speak with Howard Cushnir, designer of Obsidian; Matthew Fassberg, producer of Obsidian; and Adam Wolff, director and designer of Obsidian. I would like to thank them for participating in this interview. If you have never played the game, be warned there are a few spoilers (mainly game area descriptions) below.
Online Gaming Review - Was there any inspiration for elements of Obsidian's storyline -- such as the environmentalist Lilah, CERES, and nanotechnology?
Howard Cushnir - We knew the core of our concept was traveling through dreams, and we wanted those dreams to be real physical places. No existing technology could build them, so we looked to the speculative tech of the future.
Adam Wolff - Eric Drexler's work provided a lot of background for our ideas on nanotechnology. Douglas Hostadter's essays on AI and hive-mind also provided much fodder for our discussion of the particular abilities and inabilities of a thinking machine. In fact, the Church of the Machine puzzle was based on a kind of Turing machine, which was one of the first theoretical computers, and which Hofstadter treats at length in his book, Godel, Escher, Bach.
OGR - The graphics in Obsidian are excellent. What can you tell us about the creation of the visuals?
Matthew Fassberg - There's a lot to tell. The visuals always begin on a sketch pad and go through so many phases and different hands before they end up in the final game.
In this case, we had two very talented artists who came up with the fantasy characters (Bismuth, Conductor, Spider, Nanobot) and the Obsidian structure concept. That was Rich Cohen & Mark Sullivan.
Rich & Mark left Rocket Science early on in Obsidian's production, but the brilliant imagination, strangeness and attention to detail that they brought to those first few ideas were a standard that was set for the entire project. Throughout the project I hired people who were used to working at a very high level of quality -- not all of them were gaming people. Industrial designers, feature film art directors, Animators with feature film experience, all sorts of people contributed.
I can say that as producer, my hardest job was keeping one eye on the quality level we wanted to maintain, while keeping in mind that this was a computer game, not a feature film (yet!). It was a very difficult place to be, wanting to get the best out of people, but always needing to pull the plug and move on in order to complete the project. Of course for players to see all the work we put into making the game, we needed to make sure the final stills and movies looked great as well. That's why we went with 16 bit images.
OGR - The Bureau, Obsidian's first realm, is an incredible place, where just navigating the walls and ceiling is a puzzle in itself. What was the inspiration for the Bureau and its unique "look"?
Matthew Fassberg - Like so much of Obsidian, creating the Bureau was a strange collaboration. Scott Kim had the idea to make a room where the player had to traverse all the walls to find a way out. Our artists referenced large old bank and government building interiors. The story called for a bureaucratic place where learning to break rules was important. We wanted Obsidian to feel populated, but technically people would have been impossible to do in our time frame, hence the "Vidbots". Added all that up and you get the Bureau.
Howard Cushnir - Scott Kim, puzzlesmith extraordinaire, created a six sided room as a plastic model. It was inspired. We set out to build it in CG, not knowing if we could clearly simulate the specific gravity effect. It turned out we could, which created an opportunity for the player to have an experience that could ONLY be found on a computer. But the space itself was not enough, so we had to graft an appealing story on it that would pull you through. The "Brazil"-like Bureau came naturally, and then the rebellion followed. We took great pains to make the bureacracy fun, not tedious, and in the end the fact that you have to subvert it adds a lot to your satisfaction.
OGR - The player will meet the "VidBots" in the Bureau -- who not only help you (well, I use the word "help" loosely") but also provide some humor to the game. Did you feel it was important to add humor to the game -- why?
Howard Cushnir - Even "Hamlet" has humor. We always need humor. Adventure games take themselves much too seriously sometimes. It was important to us while layering in the jokes, though, to make sure they fit the style of the games. No ha-ha fall-down stuff, or "groserias" as they say in espanol.
Matthew Fassberg - We thought touches of humor that didn't interfere with the over story would be a welcome break for the player. It has to be just the right amount. We had to maintain humor in order to survive the project, so some of it was bound to find its way into the game.
There are lots of funny things I pushed for including, but they didn't make the final cut. Editing is a wonderful and important thing when it comes to attempting humor in a "serious" setting.
OGR - Are any of you VidBots in Obsidian?
Howard Cushnir - I, believe it or not, am the Bureau Chief.
Matthew Fassberg - Yes. I'm the ID bot. In fact, many of the designers and production people got to do VidBots. We used actors as well, simply choosing the right people for the right bots.
Adam Wolff - And I'm the document disposal vidbot in the cubicle maze.
OGR - Some readers have asked me -- Just who is that mariachi guy?
Howard Cushnir - He's tiny, he's magic, he's…a real mariachi! We hired him from a Mexican restaurant and brought him to a blue screen stage. I directed him in Spanish. It was a blast. He likes doing parties better, though. Very proud of his work. His place in the game, however, is just trippy dreamstuff. Blake Leyh composed a cool groove for him to strum with. It lasts five minutes. His riffs are all different, always in keeping with the other, invisible, cats.
Matthew Fassberg - I was booking an actor and costume person. Suddenly I realized we could do the whole thing cheaper and better by using the real thing. He had fun doing it! OGR- Obsidian uses elegant moving transitions when navigating from place to place. Why did you use this type of navigation instead of the usual "slide-show" type movement?
Howard Cushnir - Gotta push the envelope, or you're yesterday's news. When's the last time you sat through a slide show and enjoyed it? Uncle Louie's vacation to Barbados?
Matthew Fassberg - Because the real world isn't seen in a slide show. We wanted the experience to be as immersive as possible given the limitations of watching at computer monitor. Adding the realism of real transitions seems worth the effort, and it WAS a major effort and expense to include them.
Adam Wolff - I think that the ultimate promise of the adventure game is: be the star of your own movie. I think the rendered transitions, and the fluidity of the game in general, make Obsidian a very cinematic experience.
OGR - The music and sound effects in Obsidian were created by Thomas Dolby and Headspace. Did they work seperately creating the music and sound effects or did they work closely with the Obsidian team?
Matthew Fassberg - Thomas Dolby was involved in the project very early on. His interest in creating interactive music was of great interest to us. Headspace was contracted and attending meetings from the very start. We worked closely with Thomas, Blake and Kim all the way through, though they did the work out of their own offices.
Howard Cushnir - The meetings were relentless and went on forever. We're talking days and days of painful meetings, going over each note and theme and feel and button sound.
Adam Wolff - But that was good. Headspace was working in mTropolis and so were we, so they were actually designing the sounds right into the game, making sure they were appropriate in every instance. On most games, the sound designers just deliver a DAT tape with a few musical cues and 50 different sounding button clicks and say, "good luck."
OGR - Obsidian's music is quite varied. What feelings did you want the music to convey?
Matthew Fassberg - That varied from place to place. In areas where the player might spend a long time we had to make sure the music wouldn't drive them crazy. So we'd talk about the mood we were after and then try and put in an ambient sort of soundtrack (like in the plane) In places where we wanted to build towards a climax and didn't think anyone for would stop for long (climbing the statue) we could be a bit more dramatic. Lots of times they went away and come up with their own great ideas and surprised us.
Howard Cushnir - Everything needed to be just right and also a little bit off-center. Like the muzak in the cubicle maze or the jazz in the gallery. It needed to draw you in and comment on itself a little and also be something you can listen to for hours.
OGR - What do you consider the biggest factors in making a great adventure game?
Matthew Fassberg - I think the biggest factor is elegantly weaving together the basic elements that make up the game: story, environment and gameplay. In some ways great adventure game are like great movies. They can should be enjoyable from a number of perspectives. Whether a player loves solving the puzzles, unraveling the story or simply exploring strange places, they should be satisfies in a well thought out game.
Howard Cushnir - Inspiration! You should walk around the block and talk about your design and beat your head against the wall not five times, but a hundred times. You shouldn't be satisfied until YOU love it, until you can't point to another project and see it all done previously. You need to break new ground, not just in tech, but in concept. Some simple games are wonderful, like "Bad Mojo," for instance.
Integration! Just like in a great movie, you should go "That was great! The whole thing rocked!" You shouldn't be picking it apart or focussing on pyrotechnics because the whole should be much greater than the sum of its parts.
OGR - I've read that it was a goal of the Obsidian team to make the puzzles well-integrated into the storyline, not just obstacles to impede progress. What can you tell our readers about that and why do you think it is significant in an adventure game?
Howard Cushnir - I hate puzzles. There, I said it, my dirty secret is out. So when Adam and Scott were designing them, I tried to make sure they would emotion, and resonance, and relevance, and would feel like something that comes naturally…so you might forget for a moment that is was a (yikes!) puzzle.
Adam Wolff - Early on, we honed in on a philosophy for puzzle design.
It shouldn't take you too long to figure out what your ultimate goal is. We wanted to avoid the problem some people had with Myst, which was, "what-the-hell-do-I-do-now?" You should always know what the next step should be, you just don't necessarily know how you're going to take it.
When you're actually working on the puzzle, you shouldn't have the sense that there's something simple that you're missing. There shouldn't be any pieces in the other room that you needed to pick up, nor should there be a hidden switch that you don't find until you give up in frustration and start clicking everywhere on the screen. A good puzzle should have very clear parameters that don't get violated. (ie, don't have a switch in one room that opens a door in different room, unless you set that up very clearly.)
Once you figure out what the deal is, it shouldn't take you too long to solve it. This seems like the major downfall of a lot of puzzles. It's just not that satisfying to realize, "I need to put all the black knights on the white squares" and then spend two hours making random moves trying to accomplish that. The best puzzles should have a series of "A-ha!"s that lead directly to a solution. Another way of saying this is that the player should know that they are nearing the solution as they do. Puzzles where you just get it and you're not quite sure why, are distinctly unsatisfying.
OGR - What went into the puzzle creation process? Are there any ideas that almost went into the game, but didn't?
Adam Wolff - The puzzles largely grew out of our conceptualizations of the realms. We'd decide "there'll be a puzzle here" but we often didn't quite know what shape it would take -- more that it would be on an appropriate theme and that it would have a specific result. Then, once we came up with a puzzle, we'd often go back and make small changes in the story and environment to weave it in more tightly to the game. Working back and forth like that, we found that we could enrich both the gameplay and the story.
In a few cases, we tried to adapt puzzles we designed for other purposes to spots in the game where we felt we needed more interactivity, but that almost never worked. In every case in Obsidian, we were making sure that the puzzles were germane -- that instead of just slowing the player's progress through the game, they were contributing to his or her appreciation of the environments and story of Obsidian.
At the top of the junk heap in the third dream, you can see the vestige of a puzzle that we didn't have time to make. That radio you listen to before flying to the hand used to be a rather difficult puzzle. When it became clear that we wouldn't have time to finish everything, that was our first candidate to cut, since it lifted out without disturbing any of the story or gameplay surrounding it.
There was a whole realm we created for Obsidian called the Incubator, which was a very ambitious, very conceptual environment. In then end, we didn't feel we had enough time to make it up to our high production standards, and we felt that it actually strengthened the story to take it out. It was a strong design, though, and there's talk of building out from that realm into a sequel.
OGR - Do you have a favorite area in Obsidian?
Howard Cushnir - I think the Bismuth realm, with it's bizarre environment and interlocking storyscapes is our best work. I enjoy how you learn the story as you come to understand the puzzles. I love how you have to use what you learn in one place later on in another place. I love that the games central themes -- rebellion, machine power, inspiration -- all become central to your gameplay.
Matthew Fassberg - The Bismuth realm. It's the third one in the game and brings together the entire story with some wonderful puzzles. I love showing it to people. We designed it and built it in-house, and a company call Pixel Liberation Front from New York did the final animation, and lighting.
OGR - What is next for Obsidian? May adventurers find themselves in the strange realm once again?
Matthew Fassberg - We have ideas, but because it costs so much to create a game like Obsidian, we need to watch sales of the first game before committing to a second one.
OGR - Thanks very much for participating in this interview and good luck on future projects!
Studio Creative Director
Interactive Story & Design
Adam Wolff & Howard Cushnir and Scott Kim
Project Creative Director
Laurance Courdier, Barry Gear,
Bruce Gottlieb, Charlie Koehl,
Alex Laurant, Roy Forge Smith
Inspired by the Concepts and Artwork of
Rich Cohen and Mark Sullivan
with Additional Concepts by
Hona Konopasek, Mark
Nonnenmacher, Jay Shuster
Additional Production Design
Erik Chan, Cliff Iwai, David Gordon
Rich Cohen, Mark Sullivan
Erik Chan, Brian Chee, Wade
Childress, Rich Cochen, Honza
Konopasek, Mark Nonnenmacher
George Chang, Zygote