Realm of Obsidian Reviews

Here are a few reviews of Realm of Obsidian. I’ve taken the liberty of pasting in the original text, plus providing a link to the site/blog it came from. Read on…


I really ought to hate this game. After all, it’s an expansive old-school dungeon crawl featuring a large, mostly empty map, combat, heaps of learning by death, and the sort of campy B-movie horror atmosphere that hasn’t exactly been scarce in IF in this Age of Irony. Somehow, though, this game manages to be more than the sum of its parts. It’s not what I’d call a good game, mind you, but I can’t quite bring myself to hate it either. It just has a certain charm about it.

So, then… Realm of Obsidian is “the story of a guy named Nick” whose father has been indulging in some dreaded Satanic Rituals, and has managed to get himself carried off to the infernal realms. There’s thus nothing for it but for Nick — meaning you — to follow in dear old dad’s footsteps and kick some infernal dweller ass. Here we can begin to see what raises this game a cut above most in its genre: we may be stuck in an old school dungeon crawl, but at least we have a name and a personality. The Painful Death cassette we find on the floor of our bedroom — games like this always start in our bedroom; that’s simply sacrosanct — that features song titles such as “Spinal Munch” and “Bayonet Douche” is worthy of a chuckle. Heck, just the fact that old Nick is still listening to cassettes in 2009 I find oddly charming and hilarious.

So, eventually we make it to the eponymous Realm and start fighting monsters and mapping large swathes of empty space. I’d be lying if I said the game manages to be a consistently compelling play, but that gonzo charm carried me further than I ever would have expected it to. There’s lots of cheesily dramatic music, because music in a text adventure is cool! There’s occasional sound effects, because that’s cool too! And there’s some borderline offensive gore to go with the borderline offensive cassette I just told you about, but that’s par for this particular course, isn’t it?

Realm was written in a dreaded New IF Development System. This one is called the thinBASIC Adventure Builder, and while it falls down in some of the usual areas — supporting Windows only, having a generally garish and unprofessional appearance — it actually does demonstrate awareness of what we as players expect in 2009. There’s a working SCRIPT command and even a working VERSION command, and the parser — not that this game ever really taxes it — never gave me any problems. Even the expected abbreviations (X for EXAMINE, etc.) are in place. And hey, a garish and unprofessional appearance kind of suits this game. Overall, I’d say thinBASIC is already sits a notch or two above ADRIFT, at least from the standpoint of the player.

I don’t want to give the wrong impression here. The game certainly had worn out its welcome with me by the end, and maps consisting mostly of empty corridors are never, under any circumstances, what I would call a wise design choice. Nor can I say that I’m waiting with bated breath for the full version (this release, while being fairly sizable by modern standards, is just a preview). Still, in the end it is what it is, and certainly could have been a whole lot worse. Ms. Kerns does have a deft writing touch when she’s not describing empty rooms. I’d like to see more IF from her, but preferably without the endless corridors and the instant death.

The Gaming Philosopher

This is a review of the Spring Thing 2009 game Realm of Obsidian. So before going any further, here is some spoiler space for RSS feeds. Some spoiler space. Some spoiler space. Some spoiler space. Some spoiler space. I have been playing way too much Supreme Commander: Forged Alliance lately. Some spoiler space. Some spoiler space.

Right, here we go.

First thing we notice is that this is a Windows executable, which is not good. Luckily, it ran almost perfectly in Wine, but unluckily, there was a bug (in Wine, obviously) which turned all text black. That may seem like a minor problem, until you realise that the background colour was also black. However, with some help of the author, I managed to turn the background white and I could play the game.

Realm of Obsidian is a weird mix of the outdated and the newfangled. It is apparently made using a new IF authoring system that is not finished, but already works pretty well. (Although, for instance, “blue” was not recognised as referring to the “blue token”, which could either be a fault of the game author or of the development system.) It also comes with sound and music, which is interesting, although I quickly turned off the music because it was not to my liking. I also turned off the sound, because the game was not willing to share my sound card with other programs, and I did want the play some of my own music–but this unwillingness to share the sound card might well have been a result of me running it in Wine.

On the outdated side, however, we have:

  • Little characterisation and almost non-existent story.
  • Lots of puzzles of the “find object X and then use object X against monster Y” variety.
  • Spells which you can only cast after collecting an entire list of seemingly random items.
  • Monsters which kill you if you don’t solve the corresponding puzzle quickly enough.
  • Very sparse descriptions.
  • Unwinnable situations.
  • Lots of empty rooms (that really should have been removed from the game).

So that doesn’t sound very good, and in fact, it is true that Realm of Obsidian is not a very good game. It’s not just that puzzle-based, deadly dungeon crawls are out of fashion; it is also that if you do make a puzzle-based, deadly dungeon crawl, we now expect you to minimise what is boring (for instance, walking through lots of empty rooms), to ensure that we never get in an unwinnable situation (at least not without some warning), to write good prose, to create a believable environment, to have puzzles that are a bit more complicated and fun to solve.

Also, is releasing non-finished games a new trend?

Still, I did enjoy playing Realm of Obsidian. Despite its failings, it just bubbles with enthusiasm. I like being able to carry around a tape recorder playing really bad death metal. (It inspired me to listen to Death’s The Sound of Perseverance almost my entire play-through, though that is of course a great album.) And while I don’t like being killed ten times by the first monster I meet (and having to go through the complicated reloading process), I do appreciate that this monster is a skeleton carrying a buzz saw and riding a wheelchair.

There is a real difference between being killed by a skeleton with a rust sword and a wooden shield, and being killed by a skeleton with a buzz saw in a wheelchair. The first tells you that the author is lazy and unimaginative; the second that she was actually having fun thinking this up and writing it. That makes me have more fun as well.

All in all, a first effort with many weaknesses, but with an amount of enthusiasm and care that gives me high hopes for future games by this author.

Self as Fractal

Next up is “Realm of Obsidian” by Amy Kerns, of Amethyst Games.

Remember how I said A Flustered Duck was old-school? I lied. This is old school. It’s a separate executable file. It has a nonstandard parser – the game’s built with TAB (ThinBASIC Adventure Builder) by Philip Richmond. The text is in Fixedsys. All of these things are red flags, traditionally, in the comp (well, maybe not the Fixedsys.)

The setting’s old-school too: a lot of underground corridors, sparsely-described, and various objects to find. There’s a spellbook with ingredients to gather. It’s a horror game, so there are various monsters – locked doors, in essence – blocking paths until you find the right object/key with which to dispatch them.

Yet once again, I kind of liked this. It’s surprisingly well-implemented – not just for a nonstandard parser, but for a comp entry in general. I only found one major bug, and it’s for something you really shouldn’t be doing. Just to illustrate, one of the classic implementation tests is whether >FLUSH TOILET works. Not only does it work, but it comes complete with sound effect! Which reminds me…

The game does some cool things with multimedia – not graphics so much, but definitely color and sound. Recently, Kerns posted about the use of sound effects and music in IF, so it isn’t all that surprising in retrospect.

I hadn’t played the game when I commented, but for the most part I stand by my post. The sound effects are hit-and-miss; some are effective (the death noises in particular) but others less so (the chomping noise when Troy eats the Spam is way too cartoony, and the various dialogue noises lose their luster when you hear the exact same thing with the exact same inflection for the tenth time.) But the background music’s pretty damn good. It sets the scene perfectly and what’s more, I’d listen to it outside of the game.

Although the parser’s surprisingly robust, a lot of synonyms are missing. The tape player got me, as did the colored tokens that you can’t refer to by color. There’s an inventory limit. Between this and Flustered Duck, it’s a trend I’m not all that enthused to see return. And then there’s the slight matter that the game isn’t finished, and from the amount of loose threads left hanging at the end, there’s going to be quite a bit of game to go. (I never even used the spellbook, except for evidence.)

There were a few interface choices I wasn’t thrilled by, though. The hint system too – most of the time when I resorted to hints it was less “How do I deal with this thing that’s about to kill me?” (and in most cases, you’re pretty much dead anyway if you have to do that) than “What do I do now?” With location-specific hints, there’s not much you can do about that except wander about until you run across an unsolved puzzle.

But honestly, more than anything, I wanted those loose threads to be resolved, which has to be a good thing. I’ll be interested to see the final release.


On a side note, the game implements a command called “redescribe” (or “redesc” or “r”.) I’ve grumbled a few times before about how nobody uses “look” in its literal sense (looking around the room) and how it really should just be made a meta-command. Here is that it isn’t technically a meta-command – if something’s trying to kill you, they’ll take another turn just as if you typed in >L – but the idea is fantastic and I wouldn’t mind seeing it become an IF convention.

On another side note, there’s a changelog bundled with the game, which is pretty interesting in itself if you like poking around people’s changelogs.

Another Mr. Lizard

Members of what you or I might think of as the IF hardcore can somtimes seem to get a little snotty about them, but it’s true that you never know what you’re going to get with an IF game that comes as a Windows executable. Will the parser be almost, but not quite, fit for purpose? Will there be garish and ill-matched icons everywhere, including right over the bit of text you’re trying to read? Will you catch a virus from it? Will your computer? To play such a game is step heedlessly into the unknown, which is why Realm Of Obsidian found itself right on top of my non-randomised Spring Thing play queue. The opening warning that the game “contains scenes of horror, violence and gore” was only the icing on the tasty-looking obsidian cake. And like Steppenwolf, it’s “not for everyone”. Needless to say, neither is this review.

Public service pre-spoiler tag spoiler: “Everyone” in that opening disclaimer can be considered to include “People with photosensitive epilepsy.” The game, not the review. Although I have taken advantage of this blog’s shiny new home at WordPress by embedding a YouTube video.

This is where the spoiler tag goes.

The good news: Realm of Obsidian is not ugly, and has a decent parser which understands all the commands you’d expect it to, or at least all the commands it needs to.

Right, technical evaluation out of the way. The game.

What I heard of the soundtrack, before my wife politely requested that I turn it down, I liked. It starts off all minimalist and unsettling like Philip Glass remixing the theme from Psycho, then – woo – here comes the BPM cavalry. I note with some pleasure that the music actually loops and changes with the location rather than just playing the next track when this one’s finished. Score one multimedia point.


This looks like every other cheap plastic comb.

Don’t do yourself down. “A cheap plastic comb”, would suffice, then the game wouldn’t sound quite as much like it’s berating its author for lack of imagination.

“I’m waiting for your command(s)” is intriguing, with its implication that multiple commands will be considered. And they are. Hallelujah!

I see I’m looking for a second job. I wonder what my first job is.

The cover is a truly repulsive montage of corpses, fetuses and slabs of meat.

Thanks for that image, game. Well it’s my own fault. It did say it contained scenes of violence, horror and gore. I just wasn’t expecting them quite so soon. I hope you put as much effort into the game as you did thinking up song titles.

The game crashed when I tried to play the tape. I hope it does not repeat this behaviour or I shall be inclined to judge it harshly.

Restart. Ignore the tape player. Read the book. Stop reading the book. Leave the room.

You emerge into the hall. To your surprise, you see what looks to be a shimmering blue force field to the west! It looks like this will be an interesting day. The hallway continues to the east. Your bedroom is to the south.

Now some players, at this point, would try to trick the game. They would go somewhere else, then come back and see if they were still told they were surprised by the shimmering blue force field. I’m not going to do that. Not deliberately, anyway. This is what Joseph Campbell would describe as the Call to Adventure. The crisis of the unknown imposing itself on the main character’s everyday experience. How I, young adult male Nick, respond to this situation will determine my own personal growth. I’m going to proceed to the next stage of Campbell’s monomyth. I’m going to Refuse the Call.

Ah. There’s no way to leave the house. The force field must be blocking the stairs. Maybe if I have a shower it will go away.

Hmm, there’s no shower and the tap is dripping blood. This isn’t good. Let’s just taste it – there was an episode of Hammer House of Horror where faulty plumbing spewed blood all over a children’s party, but it turned out to be just red paint. Yup, it’s blood all right.

And this is an adventure game, so I’ll be picking up anything that’s not nailed down. The nose of a bear??? I’m having that. GET NOSE. There’s no angrier bear than a bear with no nose. How does he smell? Terrible.

By the virtuosity of Sacrogus
Whose delight it is to drink bat’s pee
With the eye of a murdered corpse
The truth I wish to see

Whenever I think of bat’s urine, my thoughts turn to this:

(embedded Monty Python video)

I call upon the God of Dread
Who eats nothing but gore

There’s a pattern developing here. Elsewhere I observe that the Decapitate spell requires a severed head. Well, they do say that violence begets violence.

The force field in the hall may be a link between worlds. You wonder if you could perhaps enter it and be brought to Auron’s realm. That seems to be the only alternative, other than just waiting for something to happen


I am delighted to report that having left the hallway and returned I am now no longer surprised to see the shimmering blue force field. However I do find myself wondering if it’s all a little too easy, and if the author wishes to drag out the game and make it longer for a future revision she could do worse than require the player to conjure his own dimensional gateway rather than just leave one lying around, provided of course that he was clearly and unambiguously motivated to do so.

Aargh! Cut down in my prime by a skeleton in a wheelchair!

Hey, a note! Wow, it’s a death threat! Maybe it’s from Auron. Nope, it’s from Xodak. I have no idea who that is, but I can see I’ve got him scared. So scared he wrote a note about how he was going to kill me, then ran away. Pussy. Hey Xodak, I don’t know what bodily fluid you like to drink, but why don’t you SUCK MY BALLS!

Sorry about that. I don’t know what came over me. I’ve been watching too much Generation Kill. Still, if the author was trying to motivate me at this point, she’s succeeded.

Not so much in the Anchorhead tradition of otherworldly Lovecraftian horror, Realm Of Obsidian is a child of the blood-and-guts zombie-flick school of horror, which is a lot further removed from the stuff that really gives people nightmares, and is therefore a lot harder to write seriously. Writers, especially less confident ones, therefore tend to adopt a semi-jocular tone without actually committing to being comedic, which, thanks to the influence of Zork and Douglas Adams among others, is pretty much the default for interactive fiction anyway, so the horror stylings become nearly irrelevant and the repeated references to blood and guts are like driving 200 miles to your Mum’s house expecting a Sunday roast and when you get there she gives you a bag of roast chicken flavour crisps. It’s amazing what you can tell from a description of a comb.

Rereading, I’ve just realised that that paragraph made it sound like Zork and Douglas Adams were a couple. Also I’ve solved the stylistic riddle of this blog, which comes as something of a relief, to be honest. Don’t get the impression that I didn’t enjoy reading some of the prose in Realm Of Obsidian, because I did, I really did. Bat’s pee, indeed.

Entering a “special preview edition” (or as the rest of the world calls it, a playable demo) in a competition is another way to elicit contemptuous stroking of beards from sections of the interactive fiction community. From the author’s point of view the potential benefits – get something out, generate a bit of interest in your game – can often be outweighed by the disadvantages inherent in releasing something for public consumption that’s not polished to its absolute best, which could actually make people less inclined to take a punt on the final version – which if it was entered in Spring Thing would likely pick up a similar number of players anyway, and which you’ve just disqualfied from entering in most popular IF competitions. It seems like releasing it in this way is a recipe for more harm than good, and that’s before you factor in that some people might be, let’s say, disinclined to view the finished game favourably as a consequence. Which might not be ideal if you’ve been working on the game, off and on (hopefully more off than on) since before 1991, which is when Amigas stopped coming bundled with AmigaBasic, as everybody knows.

Still, here’s a playable version of Realm Of Obsidian, begging to be assessed, even if it is two acts short of a tale. So let’s assess it. The opening “house of horror” section is a lot more promising than the bigger main section of the game, which is a very traditional Zork-em-up complete with caves, abandoned machinery and wandering, seemingly motiveless NPCs, some of whom will attack on sight. It seems to be possible to finish the game, or at least get to the location where the fourth wall breaks, without solving all of the puzzles or casting a single spell, which looks like a design oversight from where I’m standing. And being killed is a right hassle, what with making the screen flash bright orange while you scrabble about looking for the mouse so you can restore your saved game. At least it doesn’t play the death march.

Does anybody know if Gathered In Darkness was ever finished?

This is one of those in-from-the-cold games you get sometimes, where somebody who is totally outside the community in terms of system and style and genre shows up out of nowhere and enters a game in a comp. Like, ok, the game is written in some BASIC IF system (and if you look at the author’s notes, you can see this is like the third or fourth version of the game, as the author has ported it between different BASIC flavors). It’s a homegrown system* so no UNDO and blah blah, but generally speaking the parser isn’t too bad and you open doors automatically and stuff. Style-wise it’s a pseudo-RPG in the sense that you’re wandering around a dungeon collecting treasures and encountering monsters, but I say “pseudo-” because there’s no hit points or random combat or anything. Still, this style has rather dropped out of fashion in recent years and it feels a little archaic. And, finally, genre — it’s a horror game. And I mean Tales from the Crypt kind of horror, where there are various gory death sequences and then the game says “Torn apart by hungry wolves? That really .. bites.” Also, at the start you are attacked by a skeleton in a wheelchair holding a chainsaw.

So, uh, all in all I don’t really know how to rate this. It is amusing but it is probably not going to be to a lot of people’s tastes. (Also, I should probably note it’s not a complete game; it stops at about the one-third mark, since that is all the author has implemented.)

*Ok, technically it’s ThinBASIC Adventure Builder, which isn’t by Kerns, but it’s got the same vibe. A homegrown system grown in somebody else’s home, maybe.

Pissy Little Sausages

This is the story of a man named Nick.
A poor mountaineer came and kicked him in th- wait, no, sorry.  (Did anyone else use to watch Beverly Hillbillies all the time as a kid and now they’re not sure why?)

Okay, premise is that Nick had to move back in with his dad, who is acting strangely.  Somehow this makes him different from everybody else’s dad in the whole world.

Got a laugh from the Painful Death track listing, particularly Bendy-Straw Enema.  Call me crass, but that’s funny.

You emerge into the hall. To your surprise, you see what looks to be a shimmering blue force field to the west! It looks like this will be an interesting day.
Time to change my anticipation of what sort of game this is!  Also, this will not be of interest to anyone but me, but whatever it’s running on supports copy-paste.  I love that.

>x black object
Looking at this strange object, you realize that it’s the nose of a bear! You can look through the nostrils to the other side.
Whoa!  Weird!

Oh, sad, Riff just pointed out that I am thinking of crazy straws, not bendy ones.  I’m docking this game at least four points now.

My father’s notebook has five spells in it, each with an ingredients list, a required location, and a set of instructions for casting.  This no doubt indicates that I’ll need to find all of these ingredients and locations, and cast each of these spells at least once.  I really enjoy this kind of thing, which is fortunate, because it’s got a lot of ground to make up after the bendy-straw debacle.

Incantation: Off with your head,
As I eat lead.
Off with your head,
Now you are dead.

You’ll have to come up with your own witty commentary for this one, since I’m having some paralysis-of-choice issues.  Extra points if you work in a reference to the Algonquin Round Table.

Now you realize that your father must have constructed the pentagram to summon Auron! Only he must have met eyes with Auron and been hypnotized by him. Who knows where Auron could’ve taken him? The force field in the hall may be a link between worlds. You wonder if you could perhaps enter it and be brought to Auron’s realm?
Some games you are so much smarter than your character.  “The chamberlain is evil!” you scream at the monitor.  “Evil!  Also that’s a bomb!  Put it dow- no, not in your mouth, put it down on the… oh, for Chrissakes, let’s go find your damn leg again.”  This is shaping up to be the exact opposite of one of those games.

Implementation so far is pretty sparse.  There is not much in the way of room or object descriptions.  Thinking this is going to be more of an old-school puzzler, but there’s no reason those can’t have some ambience.

Yeah, just got my shit ripped up by a skeleton in a wheelchair.  Definitely old-school.  There should maybe be an epileptic warning on this mofo and I should maybe save my game a lot.

Points to this game for amusing randomized post-death messages.  I appreciate that if I’m going to die often.

>lasso zombie
I don’t understand the verb, “lasso”.
Some glorious day I will find a game that understands the verb “lasso,” and that game and I will skip merrily off to find some zombies.

I realize this is a text adventure and not an interactive fiction, but what do you think I want to insert the green token into?  Could it maybe be the machine with the slot labeled “Insert Token Here” that is in fact the only thing in this room one could insert a token into excepting one’s own bodily orifices?  I suppose it’s possible I meant something in my inventory.  What would be the negative consequences for assuming I meant to put the token into the token machine and not up my bum, though, if the token machine is right the fuck there?  My free will would be impinged upon?  I’d miss a valuable opportunity to screw up and lose the token forever, rendering the game unwinnable?  And do I realize the ridiculousness of typing this entire paragraph to protest having to type INTO MACHINE?

Stab the Demonic Wolf with what?
A small piece of fairy cake, and definitely not this knife.  Which, it turns out, works about as well to stab something with as a small piece of fairy cake.  Also I need to stop picking up Britishisms, ’cause now I’m hungry for fairy cake without actually knowing what it is.  S’like angel food?

I’m having fun so far.  I just thought I’d mention that.

What good would attaching the soap to the rope do (even if you could)?
Ask Urban Dictionary.  (Not safe for work.  Wait, actually, why am I thinking it’s less safe for work than this very blog?  It’s got a big ol’ FUCK right at the top of it!)

You can’t cut the soap with the knife.
Wow, they weren’t kidding about this knife not being very sharp.

I’m stuck and the hint system has nothing for me.  Realm of Obsidian, I see you on the laters, schmokey-dokey?  Schyall right.

(twelve years later)  It’s been a few days since I touched Realm of Obsidian, days that have been primarily spent MyBruting.  (There is nothing wrong with that and I do not have a problem and I can stop any time I want and and and your mother.)  Oh, and except for my lone pupil TV’s Frankenstein you all suck for not loving me enough to join my dojo.  Who got to you first?  Was it Plotkin?  I blame Plotkin.

Where were we?  Stuck in some tunnels?  Sounds about right.

Sorry, Realm of Obsidian, I’m cheating a little.  Where’s the walkthrough?  Oh, hey, there’s a manual?  This is a nice manual.  Every time you die Bill Pullman screams.  I learned that from the manual.  It all comes together.

Seriously, there’s a walkthrough, right?

There’s really no walkthrough?  Sigh.  All right, let’s see if this zombie strangles.

Nope, no such verb as “strangle.”  What do you mean I can’t hit it with the tape player?  Shit.  What else have I got?

…I didn’t try playing it death metal?  I could’ve sworn I tried playing it death metal.  Thanks, hint system, for teaching us to laugh about love again!

My very own vampire bat!  Wesley Willis would be proud.

The bladder looks familiar to you, so you remove it.
I used to date its sister.

I’m a little worried about leaving this tape running because I’m not sure whether or not the game’s keeping track of the batteries.  It would be the evil old-school thing to do, for sure.

The Worm wants to see me in court?  This can’t be good.  Noooo, my items!  My Holy Spam!

The ogre bailiff retreives your things with another wave of his truncheon. All your items are then returned to you.
Yellowed Spell Scroll: You drop that as your hands are full.
And now it’s locked inside the courtroom.  Awesome.  Good thing I’m twitch-saving.

Well, there’s the end of the preview.  I don’t really understand why people release preview games.  Is advance hype somehow necessary or desirable for IF?  Why not just, you know, wait to release it until it’s done, and I’ll get excited about it then?

Let’s see, how to feel about Realm of Obsidian?  I’ve got no beef* with old-school puzzlers, and this one had some nice personality.  The environments were so sparsely implemented, though, that minor differences between cookie-cutter bits of tunnel seemed like massive clues (oh my God, there are pebbles! This means something, I know it!) and the game had nothing really special about it, if you get me.  I will probably play it again when it comes out for good and proper, though, if I can be arsed.  Maybe it’ll have something special in it by then.

Hmm.  The last and only demo game I judged did not get a score (there was a lot less of it, granted) and I think it’s going to make my life easier if I just never score demo games and call it a policy.  And a taxi.  I don’t even know what I’m saying anymore.  I’m so wasted.**

* This is slang meaning one is fine with something, as opposed to “got no truck” which is slang meaning one is not fine with something.  Beef is the opposite of truck, which means if you ever see a beef truck, it’s undergoing a massive identity crisis and you should be nice to it.  Actually your instincts should tell you to be nice to it anyway, in hopes that it will give you beef.

** I’m not, in actuality, but that’s so very much the logical next sentence I couldn’t resist typing it.  Also, Barack Obama has a Twitter.  I keep thinking he should tweet “Dude, I don’t even know what I’m signing right now.  I am so wasted.”  He won’t, though.  It’s sad.


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