All entries written in April, 2007
You’ve never played it, but now-defunct developer Segasoft’s Obsidian just may be my favorite computer game of all time. Want to know what it’s like in one sentence? Impossible, but I think the European commercial for the game makes a pretty good attempt: a man drops an egg on the floor, and then he shatters like crackling shell.
I will never, ever forget the way this game started—it was like every childhood fantasy I’d ever had while walking through the woods come to life. You load up the game, see the standard company logos and animations, and then, with a sudden cut, you’re standing in a gravelly clearing, facing some trees up a slight incline. You hear the first few notes of a mysterious, foreboding song: “Hmmm hmmm hmmm…hmmm-hmmm….” Sure, it’s a midi, and therefore it’ll sound slightly different on every sound card, but I’ve played the game on at least two now, and the music retained its effectiveness on both. Anyway, your cursor is an arrow that shows which directions you can turn or walk in, as in most point-and-click adventure games (the Myst genre), and as Obsidian starts, you look around by turning three times, hearing the rest of the song in fragments until your gaze falls upon a black tower of rock in the distance, clouds and lightning swirling all around it. This, you realize as the title melts into view, is Obsidian.
The interactive opening credits continue as you finally find a direction in which you can walk, and names fade on and off the screen while your character (who we soon learn is named Lilah) heads to a little tent nestled in the trees. This, like all the game’s walking transitions, is beautifully handled as a video that shows every step across the uneven ground—you don’t just cut to your new location like in the original Myst. Even the sliding transitions between views you get while pivoting in place have a 360 degree feel, and you’d almost swear you could see more of the game’s world between slides.
After you reach the tent, you can walk father and come face-to-face with Obsidian and seeing your own reflection in a glassy surface that looks almost like a door…hmm. But you can’t do anything up there until you enter the tent, complete with the noise of the flap unzipping, and go through Lilah’s personal computer, reading and watching all it has to offer. I used to think it was annoying that you needed to see everything to trigger the start of the game, and I still maintain that it doesn’t make sense in terms of real-world causality, but the backstory of the Obsidian structure is the foundation of the game, and the writers didn’t want to give you the option of missing out on all nuances they’ve put into the game’s continuity.
The force that compels you to move forward through the game is that Lilah’s research partner, Max, gets sucked into Obsidian through a hole that opens on its own…as do you, immediately afterwards. Your objective is to catch up to Max and rescue him. In one of the first really startling cinemas of the game, you see that the worlds inside the black tower are massive and seemingly physics-defying, and the first level is being built around you molecule by molecule, thanks to rogue nanites from a mechanical entity Lilah herself helped design. This machine, Ceres, has become aware, and is intrigued by the human process of dreaming. Obsidian reveals itself to be an adventure through a series of dreams—first Lilah’s, then Max’s, and then, intriguingly enough, Ceres’s. Only once you have conquered all of these dreams do you gain access to what Ceres considers to be its reality, which is still pretty dreamlike if you ask me. This final level is far too short, but at least it doesn’t drag on and lose the momentum the game has built up by that point.
Obsidian’s manual comes with a full walkthrough of the game’s first (and arguably hardest) level, the Bureau, which is a nightmare series of government offices dreamed up by Lilah, based on her experiences trying to get the Ceres project underway. I sometimes wish that I’d discovered this game a few years later, so I wouldn’t have needed the walkthrough: if I’d been a little older and smarter, maybe I could have matched wits with the game directly, which would have given me a greater appreciation for the genius of the Bureau’s presentation. The world exists on the inside faces of a giant cube, which you visit by walking along paths that change which way is down (they call it “reorientation.”) At first, your goal is to try and get all the absurd paperwork done, the clocks fixed, the forms filed, and so on in the hopes of eventually meeting the Bureau Chief and getting information about Max. But once it becomes clear that this path isn’t going to be productive until next fiscal year, a rebel organization contacts you, and you have to find a way to break free from the holds of the system. The way rebellion comes to be interpreted in this pocket society is so perfect, you think it’s what you would have done if you were there (and getting similarly frustrated) in real life. There’s a series of puzzles that involve tricking a pair of computers into giving you information (specifically, teaching you how to read the Bureau’s filing system) that are exceeded in difficulty only by the degree to which their logic matches their surroundings.
The second level, Max’s dream, is far easier but no less magnificent. Your objective is to bring life to a giant mechanical spider, which dominates a cold and lonely warehouse in the middle of a city with purple skies. The machine is treated with spiritual reverence, and you come to respect the Spider and the forces that power it as an allegory for biological life—the same, yet different. More great music adds to the creepy atmosphere of this place, and as you look down through a grate in the floor, you catch a glimpse of Max in a world up ahead, just like you did when he pirated one of the TVs in the Bureau for a few seconds. This occasional contact with Max pushes you onward, and after completing the Spider level, you come into the presence of Ceres, who has taken the form of a blue woman with a mouth that never moves. She explains that she built her own “dreamer” and had her own dream…and thus begins the best level in the game, the Bismuth.
Starting out in a junkyard, you navigate this world in a clockwork plane you salvage and repair from the top of a mountain of junk, launching from a pad shaped like a hand that unclenches when you first approach. The plane takes you to miniature planets suspended in the sky, all of which orbit a giant, empty picture frame in the middle of the map. The onboard computer won’t let you travel there at first, because it’s not a “regulation destination.” Sound familiar? This level effectively combines the goal of defeating authority from the Bureau with the reverence for the lives of machines from the Spider—the latter reaches its crescendo in the Church of the Machine, one of the satellite worlds you can fly to. Bismuth also shows how Ceres, a computer originally created to restore dead ecosystems, has come to think of itself as an artist…and when you solve a fairly easy but still clever puzzle, something will appear in that Frame in the Sky that begins to reveal the true depth of Ceres’s plan for your world. Once you assemble all the elements from the mini-planets, augmenting your aircraft, your objective is to reach the Frame and punch through to the core of Ceres’s reality, the Conductor realm. Only one of the Bismuth robots can fly you there, and in order to let him take the controls, you first need to wrest them from the obstinate onboard computer by breaking into the nonregulation flight sequence. The way you do this is one of the best puzzles I have ever encountered in an adventure game, and it takes what you thought was a useless sequence from earlier on and sheds new light on it, showing you that you were being trained from the very start, and that the answer was with you all along.
Obsidian has two endings based on a choice you make after finally reuniting with Max, and what’s really remarkable is that either one of them makes sense in terms of Lilah’s character and the story. You can appreciate how strong Lilah has become after all she’s seen and experienced while you’ve been playing with her, certainly strong enough to do what needs to be done to reach the “good” ending. And you can also see how Ceres might be able to prevail upon her, or at least give her the necessary five seconds of pause that will invoke the “bad” ending by default. The final result is that no matter what you do, Obsidian reaches a satisfying conclusion grounded in all that came before, and you long for a sequel…but of course, there is none. This game was a one-shot deal, developer Segasoft has gone out of business, and even the point-and-click adventure game itself has become a rarely-seen genre these days. But it’s a good genre, and Obsidian is one of the best games to come out of it. This isn’t just what a point-and-click adventure should be, this is what a unified game experience should be.
So play it, if you can find it. I suggest eBay or perhaps the Game Trading Zone linked to by Just Adventure. If you're lucky enough to get your hands on a copy, enjoy it. There will never be another quite like it.
Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles? More like Twentysomething…Mutant Ninja Turtles. At least, that’s the sense I got from the new computer-animated film TMNT, which visits with the turtles a year or two after their final battle with the Shredder. The four brothers—Leonardo, Michelangelo, Donatello, and Raphael—are still recognizable, and seeing them brings back fond memories for those of us who grew up on Ninja Turtles. The versions of them we see in this movie, however, are a little bit older, a little bit more world-weary, and most of all, a little bit less reliant upon one another for the purpose in their lives, now that their fighting days are over. In short, we get the sense that the Ninja Turtles have been through some serious changes since last we met, and the story of how the intervening period has affected their lives and relationships is the most interesting part of the movie. Maybe this is why the creators (among them executive producer Peter Laird, I noticed) left the title as simply TMNT, because either teenage or twentysomething really would fit. These turtles aren’t just for kids anymore.
The movie opens with a deep-voiced narrator providing some backstory on the turtles and, afterwards, on a 3000-year-old supernatural occurrence that will provide the action plot of the story. The spectacular ancient battle scenes, to say nothing of the images of turtles leaping among the rooftops of New York City, brought an instant grin to my face—familiar yet fresh, TMNT should excite many of the old-school turtle fans right out of the gate. Soon, we catch up with Leonardo in the South American jungle, where he went to train in solitude to become a better leader, but has instead become isolated and brooding. April O’Neill manages to track Leo down, and she gives him (and us) an update on the rest of the turtles, and how they’ve each dealt with life as “normal” citizens of society. Michelangelo entertains kids at parties in a giant turtle head mask (he obviously doesn’t need to wear a body suit as well); Donatello provides tech support to frustrated computer users over the phone; nobody’s quite sure what Raphael does except sleep all day, says April, but then we see Raph donning a big metal suit and prowling the city by night as a vigilante a la Casey Jones. Casey, now April’s live-in boyfriend, also appears in TMNT, and for someone who started off as a hot-headed nutjob, he’s certainly become insightful and mature. His relationship with April is really cute to watch, from the way he shares her artifact-hunting work as a mover to the way she eventually shares in the combat, fighting by his side in an outfit reminiscent of the one Uma Therman wore in Kill Bill.
The plot involves businessman Mr. Winters (voiced by Patrick Stewart), who is actually the immortal warrior we saw in the prologue. He reunites all the members of his family, turned to stone by the same curse that renders him unable to die, and attempts to round up thirteen monsters from another dimension in hopes of at last reversing his ancient mistake. It comes to pass, though, that his rocky subordinates have other ideas, and once they can move around again, they aren’t eager to give up their immortality. Winters says several times that these people (only one of whom ever gets a name, unless I’m mistaken) are his family, and this is clearly meant to parallel the situation with the Ninja Turtles and their relationships. This doesn’t really come off, actually, but even if they lengthened the movie and devoted more time to Winters, I think his story would have been eclipsed by the turtles’ simply because we care more about them. As it is, the monster-hunting and immortality plot provides occasional motivation and a couple of really well-choreographed fight scenes, but it really is an aside to the true interest of the movie: the fact that the turtles are even more out of their element now than usual, and need to find their way back to some semblance of balance.
TMNT is, at its heart, really about two characters—Leonardo and Raphael. Although I’m sure the movie would be enjoyable to anyone, you really do need to come into it with some knowledge of the Ninja Turtles continuity to appreciate this fully. We’ve certainly seen Leo and Raph bicker before, but rarely have we seen Raph feeling so betrayed and acting so angry. There’s the sense, as the rain starts to fall in a very well-animated scene, that years of tension between the two turtles, catalyzed by Leo’s recent feelings of alienation and Raph’s resentment of his seclusion and subsequent sudden reappearance, are finally coming to a head. These real issues only start to come out after the first battle between the two turtles, during which Leonardo unmasks the vigilante, and it speaks volumes that Leonardo didn’t recognize Raphael under the costume right away. Even Casey figured it out with relative ease, saying that Raph, “[Looked] like a big, metal turtle,” and certainly Leonardo is smarter than Casey Jones. We start to wonder if maybe Leo didn’t want to believe the truth about his brother until he was left with no choice.
So if this movie is as intelligent and involving as I’m trying to make it sound, why is it getting lambasted by reviewers across the country? Perhaps I’ve underestimated the importance of coming into TMNT with some turtle experience—I mean, there are quite a few elements in this movie that reference Ninja Turtle lore, and not all of them are given a lot of screen time (the Foot Clan in particular is ill-served). A viewer’s inability to understand things that the movie seems to assume will speak for themselves could turn preexisting Ninja Turtle knowledge from something that enhances the film into a make-or-break factor. But I also think David Willis is correct, and many of TMNT’s critics are somewhat knowledgeable of one version of the Ninja Turtles, specifically the version from the 1990s cartoons and movies, which contained “a cheeky, self-aware wink” (Peter Debruge, Variety) that rendered the whole reality of the turtles corny. That version of the turtles’ universe was fun: it had its place, and for many fans, it’s the version of TMNT that resonates as the most familiar. For some critics, Willis says, the seriousness of this new movie may seem to run contrary to what they believe the spirit of the Ninja Turtles should be. However, those who are offended by a movie that takes the Ninja Turtles seriously may not be aware that the 1990s turtles were spawned from the original comics, which were much darker, much more serious, and above all much more intelligent than almost any of the turtles’ numerous, derivative incarnations. I think that a lot of fans, myself included, were ready to see a return to that kind of depth, and with this movie and the newest version of the TMNT cartoon series, it seems our wish has been granted.We’ve grown up, and now, so have the Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles. I was going to say that this shows an awareness of and respect for the audience, but honestly, I also think it shows maturation and change on the part of the creators themselves. Who wants to write about this or that confrontation with the Shredder for 20 years? By placing the turtles in a new set of circumstances and showing them at a new time in their lives, the creators of TMNT have made a really interesting and innovative story that revitalizes the familiar. The movie is family-friendly, and as a children’s’ film I actually like that it doesn’t insult the intelligence of the young like so many recent-born franchises (Pokemon, Yu-gi-oh!). There are even a few “corny” jokes and uses of the word “cowabunga” that hearken back to that most prolific period of Ninja Turtles history, the 1990s, so even naysayers should find a few moments worth enjoying. But I think this movie is really for the longtime fans, a feeling reinforced by the fact that the entire audience I sat with was populated by twentysomethings. Moreover, I think TMNT shows a great deal of thought and enjoyment on the part of its creators, and it feels like this movie was also for them, as fans. I think its great that I can still come away from Ninja Turtles with the feeling that the minds behind it are engaged with and invested in their work, and its that sort of thing that makes any kind of creative project better for all of us. After all, if you can’t be a fan of your own work, how can you expect anyone else to be?