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Obsidian Entertainment: Lord of Bugs, King of Ambition

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Is it worth looking past the swarm of bugs that often plague Obsidian Entertainment’s games? Nick D. thinks so, and he takes a look at the shining ambition behind the bugs.

South Park: The Stick of Truth has been released, showing once again that not all licensed games are bad. However, it holds not only the distinction of being the best South Park game ever made, but also the highest reviewed game from developer Obsidian Studio according to Metacritic.

alpha_protocolObsidian Entertainment is a company that more gamers should start noticing. The studio isn’t a household name the way that companies such as BioWare or Bethesda, are, but, in many ways, Obsidian is a studio more worthy of recognition. Since its founding, Obsidian has built games that have faltered due to the immense weight of bugs and lack of polish pushing down upon them. At the same time, the ideas and execution of these games have been unique and exciting. This has left a large number of their games as cult classics, and a whole slew of gamers chomping on the bit for more Obsidian.

Founded in 2003, Obsidian hasn’t been responsible for many games, only six with two expansion packs. More interestingly, of those games, only Alpha Protocol and South Park: The Stick of Truth are new IPs. This track record has given Obsidian the reputation as a series continuer after the original developers have moved on to different projects. BioWare’s Star Wars: Knights of the Old Republic and Bethesda’s Fallout are key examples of high profile franchises that were given to the smaller studio.

As one can imagine, picking up a massively popular series is a dangerous prospect in terms of expectations from the gaming community. And, Obsidian has garnered a lot of abuse over the years from fans. One particular sore spot among gamers was the rushed and unfinished ending of Star Wars: Knights of the Old Republic II. Much of the game’s ending and many plot points were cut in order to meet the game’s tight deadline. Fans saw this as a betrayal, especially considering the general quality of the storytelling prior to the end sequence. Various parts of the cut content have been made available online, but the abrupt ending, especially in the light of the series abandonment for years, led to widespread dissatisfaction.

south_park_stick_of_truth_professor_chaosBut what has hurt Obsidian’s credibility in the eyes of gamers isn’t its treatment of existing franchises, nor the quality of their games – it’s the bugs. Plaguing nearly all of its releases, Obsidian’s reputation as a buggy developer has held strong in the eyes of gamers. South Park: The Stick of Truth is likely their least buggy game, and even then, some reviewers have felt the need to specifically highlight troubling performance issues like Jason Schreier’s review for Kotaku. Other Obsidian games, such as Fallout: New Vegas have been slammed by reviewers and gamers alike for a preponderance of game-breaking bugs at release.

Obsidian Entertainment’s games are buggy. There is little arguing over that fact. However, they are also innovative, smart, and often inspired. Obsidian has a tendency to be very ambitious in its projects, attempting ideas and feats that other developers would shy away from. This ambition is potentially a cause for some of the bugs in their games, but it is also the biggest reason to pay attention to this studio.

Ambitious games are usually flawed games due to the fact that an overabundance of ambition often leads to ideas not being fully fleshed out. However, flawed games helmed by ambitious ideas can be the most interesting. A fully polished and by-the-books game such as Uncharted 3: Drake’s Deception are great, but can bore some gamers who have seen the same presentation of the same ideas many times in the past. Flawed games may have problems, but they are often exciting in their execution.

Alpha Protocol is a perfect example of a game that set its sight on the stars. Obsidian’s spy epic had amazing ideas that it couldn’t quite realize fully. Together with bugs, this caused the game to stumble out of the gate. Since release, however, it has gained traction as a cult favourite not because of patching (though that helps), but because the ideas behind the game were fresh and they caught the imagination of many gamers.

fallout_new_vegas_bugsFallout: New Vegas is my personal third best game of last generation because of its ambitious ideas. New Vegas showed me how criminally underdeveloped modern Bethesda games have been. I loved Fallout 3 upon release, finding it a massive breath of fresh air. But, since the release of New Vegas, I cannot play Fallout 3 anymore. I miss iron sights, ammo types, perks that were useful, hardcore mode, actual humor, and, most importantly, interesting characters. The massive amount of ideas that Obsidian brought to the mix has made the original bland and boring in my eyes. It is for this reason, I lament the fact that Obsidian was only a single point on Metacritic away from earning royalties on the game. 

As mentioned earlier, bugs have been an ongoing issue with Obsidian games, but not quality. Fans may lament Knights of the Old Republic II’s ending and lack of polish, but the gameplay had depth, and the story and characters are somehow more intriguing than Bioware’s legendary original. Playing more with shades of grey and philosophy, Obsidian managed to create one of the most ambiguous Star Wars games out there, which is a feat considering the entire franchise loves to harp on pure good and pure evil.

For me, a game released by Obsidian is a game worth watching. Bugs are to be expected, but the scope and ambition of their games is often above what you’d find from larger studios, who often play it too safe. With this understanding, it is no surprise that South Park: Stick of Truth is a great game. Nor is it a surprise that fans of Obsidian were willing to shell out almost four million dollars to fund Obsidian’s Kickstarter projectPillars of Eternity. As I said at the beginning of this article, Obsidian Entertainment isn’t a household name like Bethesda or BioWare, but, somehow, they are more worthy of your attention, bugs and all.

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Author Bio

Nick Doyle

Nick D. is an avid gamer, who began his polygonal journey back upon the release of the original Super Mario Bros. Now he plays just about everything, though RPGs, primarily JRPGs, occupy much of his time.

  • Georgia Sampson

    Nice article, Nick. Obsidian have been one of my favourite studios for a while, and I freakin’ love Alpha Protocol.

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  • Anne Rogers

    By that logic I presume you would accept a DVD of your favorite film that randomly skipped, froze, or crashed back to the main menu (assuming it even started playing at all)? Obsidian’s ideas are meaningless if the game is riddled with bugs, some of which literally prevent the game from being played.

  • Anne Rogers

    That’s like saying it’s acceptable to release Citizen Kane on a scratched disc that randomly freezes, skips, and drops you to the main menu. If Obsidian can’t make games with fewer bugs then perhaps they would be better off making interactive novels without all the buggy gameplay.