Posted by: Ben | April 5, 2009

if: Realm Of Obsidian

(Videogame. PC. Kerns. Spring Thing 2009)

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:

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?


  1. Hello!

    I’m the author of the game reviewed above. (My last name is spelled Kerns, by the way.) Thank you for your review. I must admit I was laughing out loud at quite a few points.

    Like your review, Realm of Obsidian benefits from a healthy sense of humor. Having such sense in a dark or just plain weird variety will help even more.

    A few more notes, if I may…

    I haven’t been able to duplicate the game crashing on playing the tape. That is worrisome.

    Getting to the fourth-wall-breaking section is possible in more than one way. Try getting there with the ability to get back.

    Perhaps it was an error on my part to release an unfinished game to an IF comp. I felt it was worth a try, plus I wanted to help promote the new IF scripting tool known as TAB (coughcough coughcough). Another reviewer described the parser as being homebrewed, which couldn’t be farther from the truth. All the credits for TAB must go to Philip Richmond.

    Hmmm, what else? More spells to come in the finished game, much more to see besides tunnels, and oh yes, the opportunity to deliver your reply to Xodak’s message in person. We’ll just see who sucks who’s… ummm, never mind!


    – Amy Kerns

  2. Hi Amy

    Thanks for commenting, but more importantly thanks for several hours of bat’s pee-related fun.

    I couldn’t repeat the game crashing on playing the tape either, but I think it had to do with disconnecting my external soundcard while the game was running. I wouldn’t expect even a commercial game to like that very much.

    TAB certainly looks interesting, and given the solidity of Realm Of Obsidian I will certainly download it and have a mess around. I see that Philip Richmond once had a game out on Zenobi, which pleases me.

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