Obduction: Dive into the metastory

I want to try something new today: Write about philosophical topics, because those have been catching my interest for a while. I'll start looking into the story of the game Obduction which has caught on to me, so I think it's worth exploring. If you haven't played the game yet, lots'a spoilers ahead, so probably go play it first.

Story

So first of all, here's what happens:

The player originally arrives on the scene by following a bright light in the night sky, which zooms around and eventually reveals itself to be a giant, flying seed of a plant. It unfolds right in front of the player, and then all of a sudden the scenery dissolves and the player is transported into some remote location. We're greeted by a few messages that try to be friendly and calming, but one of them is overdubbed and pretty bluntly warns us that a battle is about to go down and we should be careful.

It soon turns out that nature has invented a way for teleportation to occur, by means of these seeds that are produced by a special tree in the middle of the area we have been taken to. These seeds teleport a spherical area of space to a different location, swapping it with whatever the target sphere contained. So basically, we go somewhere, and whatever's there goes where we came from instead.

These seeds come in different sizes: The smaller ones can be controlled more or less at will. It is possible for humans (albeit not for the player) to define where they go to, and to control when they're triggered. Then there are the ones that seek out new people to bring in from earth, where the seed is said to go looking for specific people that are in immediate danger of dying (even though they might not be aware of that, which makes it hard on some folks), and then brings the person to whatever area it is that we just woke up in. And the whole area that we woke up in is itself contained in another sphere, the borders of which teleport you to the other side, but you can't get out of the sphere. However, it turns out that the sphere is located on another planet, indicating that whatever has been on that planet is now on Earth.

So as time goes by, the player discovers the history of the place. It seems the same thing has happened on four different planets, so there are four bubbles like ours. Each bubble gives home to a Tree located in the middle of the bubble, under which there's a chamber called the Heart which allows to freely walk between the four bubbles, going to the different bubbles on other planets. So if we want to see Earth again, we can go to the bubble that came from planet Soria, which is the planet we're seeing outside of our bubble. Our sphere took the place of the one in Soria, so the sorian one is placed on Earth, to replace the part of landscape that now makes up our world.

Over time, nature has brought more and more stuff in, sometimes bringing just the people (like what happened to the player), sometimes bringing in a spherical portion of the room around them, which can be as large as a house or even a train yard. This means that in the Earth sphere, people built a complex city with all kinds of gizmos that you can interact with. Interestingly enough, the bubbles from other planets don't seem to work the same way: Those planets do not look like they're comprised of a mosaic of smaller things that were each brought in from different parts of the world. Instead, it seems those were just taken as a whole and that was that.

So anyway, as time progresses, the player gets to discover these worlds and their history, trying to explore and make sense of it all. Everything is shut down, and the player has the job to get things going again in an attempt to go home. Through the course of the game though, it becomes questionable precisely how much of home there's actually left: First of all, we may have been teleported not only through space, but also through time, as new arrivals are recorded to come from completely random times of the 19th and 20th century. So for all we know, everyone we knew may have just died already hundreds of years ago. This notion seems to be confirmed when we finally arrive on Soria: We get a glimpse of earth, and boy does it not look good. Everything's basically in ruins. The only guy we're able to talk to, named Cecil, is desperate to get back home and our task so far has been to facilitate that. But not everyone from the Earth bubble seems to agree that this is a particularly good idea: A woman named Farley has left us a pretty intense warning in her diary that nature is not to be messed with and we better let the natural flow of things take its course. For all we know, it saved us once before, so there's probably a purpose to it all, other than just getting everyone killed.

But at this stage in the game, it has also become evident that the Mofang, which is the species originating from Soria, also made plans of their own. For reasons that are not really made clear, they decided they were going to wipe out the other species, and wherever the whole situation was going to take them, they were not taking anyone with them. So they built huge-ass bombs that were able to destroy a whole bubble all at once, intending to teleport those to the other spheres and detonate them within.

Not every Mofang agreed with this plan though. Three Mofang leaked the plan to the other species. The others made a plan on how to counter the attack, the gist of which is that they'd teleport the bombs back to Soria before they exploded, leaving the Mofang to taste their own medicine. Farley expressed serious concerns about this plan in her diary, pointing out that maybe they were the ones being evil instead of the Mofang. She concluded that well, better be evil and alive than innocent and dead. She was not about to just let herself be killed just because the Mofang decided they were the better species.

It's hard to tell how long ago this battle has actually taken place, but it seems that the player appears right the day the battle went down. In fact it seems to be coming to its conclusion right as we arrive at Maray: We witness explosions from a distance, and when we finally get to the site we find that the person contacting us all along has in fact been a disguised Mofang, who brought one of the bombs along with him and basically tried to get us to detonate it. If that happens, the bomb kills everyone on Maray, which is also the place where everyone else was hiding, so then everybody dies and that's that. Fortunately, the folks who inhabit Maray were expecting the Mofang, and had a counter-weapon ready that we can use to destroy the bomb. So we do that, and head back to our little part of Earth.

With that knowledge in mind, we finally get to visit Soria. We have gotten a pretty decent impression that a complex teleportation scheme has happened in order to fend off the Mofang attack: Back on Kaptar, we found a piece of Kaptar wrapped in a piece of Soria, so it seems that some back and forth teleportation has happened. Right on the edge of the Kaptar side, the upper half of a Mofang body lies dead, still wielding a thing that looks like a laser gun of some sorts. The whole scene is pretty unsettling and conveys the impression that something big has gone down that we do not yet fully comprehend, which is of course precisely what's happening.

Now that we're standing in actual Soria, we see that the place is just gone. All the surfaces look like they're molten. There's not a single Mofang to be found anywhere. The only thing that's alive there is the Tree in the center of the bubble. Combining that with the knowledge of the plan to swap WMDs around, it seems like it worked and the Mofang just blew their own planet to hell. (How the Tree survived is not made clear, but it has superpowers anyway, so that's probably one of them.) Apparently the plan was to booby-trap the sites where the Mofang would teleport their bombs to with another teleporter. An operator would then sit around waiting to be taken to Soria when the Mofang bring in their bomb, and once that has happened, immediately trigger another swap which would take them back home, and the bomb back to Soria.

So now that we found out what happened and reconnected all the Trees that had been disconnected earlier, we head back to our Earth bubble. We sabotage Cecil's plan to go "home", and the Tree proceeds to take us to a completely new world. We're re-united with the other people (and others) there, and we probably live happily ever after.

Metastory

Like any good game/book/movie, this game tells a story that sticks. But why is that so?

First of all, the whole thing is set in motion by Mother Nature, who makes the whole teleportation shenanigans happen. Her plan is unknown, but it appears there is one, and the characters are left to believe that in some way it makes sense, even though it does not care about them personally. Farley expresses precisely these thoughts in her diary. She also refers to a dream, which is a resource where people draw this kind of information from.

The player spawning with pretty much zero context into a world that is far more complex than we initially think, even though we don't have much of a clue to begin with anyway, is also pretty akin to the basic human experience: When you get thrown into this world, what the hell do you know? The model of the world has to be uncovered bit by bit, and it is not at all obvious who tells you the truth and who tries to deceive you. Some even deceived themselves so much that they think they're doing the right thing, like our friend Cecil: When he realizes that his plan has been sabotaged (and that there really is just one person around to sabotage it), he completely panics because he was absolutely positive he was right. If we choose to go with his plan though, we end up alone in a world that's completely destroyed and has nothing to offer.

Farley sensed this. She knew something was not right about those plans, and she questioned Cecil's motivation: He was holding on to the past, and by the looks of it, it seemed to Farley like there's nothing he could do to undo what had happened to him. She tries to warn the others, but she fails to convince them and thus has to deal with the fact that they might even incur negative consequences for her own life: If Cecil "succeeds" and fucks this up, she will be just as fucked as him. And you can tell by her diary, she has a really hard time coming to terms with that, but it is all brushed out eventually by the Mofang threatening to flat-out kill them all. I guess the question of how you're going to live becomes irrelevant once you can no longer take for granted that you're actually going to live.

So what is Cecil's motivation? Is he just a jerk and that's it? He does come across as not much of a likeable person, calling the player an idiot or a fool multiple times. But the game makes clear it's not that simple: He lost his wife and daughter, and as much as he even sees the necessity for getting over that loss, he just can't. And since he's unable to let go of the past, and more clearly, let go of home -- he goes out of his way to bring it back. Bring back something that's long gone, even at the cost of sacrificing the future for it. C.W. is in a way willfully blind, and for all we know at that point, his plan might even work out and everything could be fine after all. Later, we know it won't work, but also we have the option of loading the last save point and seeing what happens. He doesn't have that option, and sure enough Farley doesn't have it, just as we wouldn't have it in real life.

It's interesting though what happens to Farley's state of mind once it becomes clear that the Mofang are going to destroy them all. There's this strange dichotomy to human nature of being both a prey animal and a predator. Farley never thought of herself as a predator, but she damn well chooses to be a predator rather than prey if that's the choice she has to make. It really seems to do something to her self-image though, because she probably thought of herself as an innocent person that feels nothing but love for her surroundings. And that's true, as long as nobody forces you into an "us or them" kind of situation. But that's exactly the situation the Mofang put her in now. She consciously chooses to allow the predatory element of her to take control rather than just laying down and dying. But at the same time, she pleads for God to have mercy on her soul. To me, this is absolutely brilliant.

She knows that doing the wrong thing, even if to fend off someone else doing wrong unto you, doesn't make it right. But she also admits to the fact that this is too much for her to bear, so she gives in to the evil part of herself that apparently even started the whole "well, let's make them blow themselves up if they so choose" plan. Her diary reads like it was her damn idea. And she accepts the fact that this might be reason enough for God to not regard her gracefully anymore. I'm not sure if you believe in the whole God thing, but you can also think about it as a wish to not be destroyed by a feeling of guilt once this is all over.

But well, each war has its two sides, and none of them think of themselves as particularly evil. So what about the Mofang? Did they just come up with that decision to destroy everyone else out of the blue? Farley sure makes it seem so, but she also has plenty of motivation for thinking that way. There may be more to it though: The Mofang probably watched mankind destroy their planet and unleash all kinds of crazy-ass weapons on one another, so they decided mankind had to go.

I'm not sure I buy that theory. Farley's diary does indicate the Mofang thought of themselves as the better species. Their choice speaks a different language though: So let's suppose they did watch mankind eradicate one another with huge-ass bombs, and they did decide they're the better species. But building huge-ass bombs and wiping everyone out is probably not the best way to prove you're above a species that builds huge-ass bombs and wipes everyone out. So it could be they're just hippocrites whose actions speak a different language than their words. In that case, they got what they deserved, in a way.

Also it's interesting that they were brought to their demise by their own technology. The bombs that killed them were their own, even though the others would have had plenty of opportunity to build bombs of their own. The Earth bubble includes a mining company, and they do use explosives to bring down a tower they built. Earth does have the technology, but the bombs that destroy Soria were made on Soria by the inhabitants of Soria. If anything, they proved they can do it too.

What really gets to me though is that the Mofang plan itself does require a fair bit of evil in the person that acts it out, human or no. They could, for instance, instead have gone with a plan to destroy all things that could be used as weapons inside the bubbles. It sure didn't look like reinforcements were under way, so that would have been a pretty decent method to achieve the same goal of not being blown up, if you can't bring yourself to just trust the other party. Also, what reason did they have to destroy Kaptar, of all places? There's nothing there but a couple of bees, for crying out loud! So if they watched Humans be evil, why attack the Arai? Those aren't even able to retaliate an attack on the humans, which would look like a kind-of-reason for killing the Villein as well as the humans. Nah, the fact that the Mofang also wanted to wipe out the Arai, in fact they even attacked Kaptar first -- that really blows this theory to pieces for me.

I guess the Mofang are what represents the element of malevolence in this story. C.W. is an adversary through blindness, but the Mofang are a whole different story. They represent pure evil, and watching humanity destroy their planet is a nicely tempting excuse. "Look at what they're capable of, we're not so bad!" Yes, you are. Two wrongs don't make a right.

So, who wins?

That's actually hard to tell. At the end of the day, Farley is the one who lost the least, because when she was abducted she was three. She basically doesn't know any life outside of the bubbles, and she even got to take her father with her. So it's easy for her to be all like "oh hey look, a new world!".

C.W. would have won, if he had refrained from his plans with the battery and turned it off voluntarily. He didn't though, he was sabotaged by the player and not too happy about that, to say the least. He'll probably be just as resentful as he was, but at least he gets to see Farley again, who he was probably in love with. So that's a start.

From a species point of view, there are even a few Mofang left, namely the ones who warned the others and made the whole swap-the-bombs-back plan possible to begin with. So ultimately, I guess this boils down to a "cooperate and you survive; go all Ikarus on us and you'll suffer the consequences" theme. The others appear to be pretty much neutral.

This story does have all the elements that a good story needs though. C.W. as the archetypal Father who builds our world (or at least, most of the contraptions we're able to use); Farley as the archetypal Mother who inculcates us to have faith in nature. The culture of the fathers has gone to sleep, everyone's in their little frozen stasis chambers. Even C.W. himself is locked away in that little chamber of his and is in dire need of rescue, at least as far as his state of mind is concerned. Going back home isn't an option anymore. The player, who is the archetypal Hero, by paying attention and making the right choices, causes everyone to be reborn and takes them into a new world, which is soon going to be their new home. That's precisely the story we want to be told, and this game does it beautifully. That's why it stuck with me. It's what makes a story work.

It's interesting writing about this stuff, because there's so much information in it that we know, but we don't really know we know, so to speak.