I have many fond memories of my time with the PlayStation 2. The first song I cleared on Expert difficulty in Guitar Hero 3. Restarting the initial couple hours of Grand Theft Auto: San Andreas over and over until my parents got me a memory card. Or just spending the day stirring up trouble in Bully. But if there’s one game that has not only stuck with me, but I’ve also appreciated more as years pass, it’s Obscure.
Imagine sitting in front of the TV on a Friday evening after school, with close to no responsibilities and a free weekend ahead of you to play games. This was gaming time and from all of the worlds I found myself exploring, Obscure was not one I expected to lose myself in. I enjoyed horror-themed books, but games were different. Most of what I “played” from Silent Hill was thanks to my dad, who grabbed the controller while I was curling up in a ball on the couch at his side. But the 2004 release from developer Hydravision Entertainment felt different.
At first, the intro is nothing to be scared of. It starts with an overview look at Leafmore High, followed with an introduction to the students you’ll meet in the story. All the while, Still Waiting from Sum 41 goes off in the background. So, fairly standard for an early 2000s high school movie, an aesthetic that Obscure apes perfectly.
But it doesn’t take long for everything to go sideways. Kenny, the character you play as during the beginning sequence, finds himself staying after hours at school playing basketball. As he prepares to leave, someone steals his bag from the locker room. Faithful to horror tropes, he wanders around the school only to end up inside a rather creepy basement. Like, secret-human-experimentation-laboratory kind of creepy. Right before Kenny is about to make his way out, someone shuts the entrance, leaving him trapped in the dark.
The goal of Obscure, then, is simple enough. Kenny’s friend group notices his absence the next day and decides to roam the school searching for him. What they don’t know is that they’re about to spend a night fighting horrendous creatures, working together to solve puzzles, and doing the most to survive until sunrise. As it turns out, whatever lies in wait in those hostile classrooms is afraid of the light. But the group’s luck quickly runs out as darkness sets in, meaning you have to rely on flashlights and anything else you can find that generates light.
Enemies have a spore aura around them that you first need to “break” with a light source. Otherwise they’re impervious to harm, and they’ll slowly hurt you in contact, as well as prevent enemies from taking damage. This was an interesting twist because now not only is traversing the darkness in a horror game spooky, but the monsters are empowered by it, too. Your initial flashlight will overheat fairly quickly too, meaning it’s unreliable in encounters and tension is high. The most terrifying surprise attacks come as enemies catch you right while you were waiting for them to cool down.
Still in need of more tension? Save files follow the spirit of Resident Evil’s ink ribbons by replacing them with CDs, meaning that checkpoints were limited. You could have a handful of them at a time if you were lucky. However, a game over screen without having saved in a while didn’t mean just losing your progress since last time. If any of the characters in Obscure died, they were gone for good, unless you loaded a previous checkpoint. Considering that each of them has a unique ability, this raised the stakes exponentially. But it was their close relationships that made for those moments quite sad, and personal. Returning to a hub area only to see a missing character for the first time is something I was never able to forget.
After almost two decades, many of the aforementioned ideas have been iterated upon ad nauseam. But during that time, it was impressive to see them all come together in less refined, yet impressive ways all the same. Combine this with clever puzzles (such as finding a way to carry a sample of acid from a laboratory to the other end of a hallway to melt a lock), a surprising number of varied scenarios that interconnected with each other, and even a light crafting system, and Obscure already sounds ahead of its time. It’s easy to see the game building upon the blueprints of the early Resident Evil games, but it had plenty of its own ideas, too.
However, I am yet to talk about my favourite aspect: Obscure is one of the few horror games to date that managed to do co-op right. Sure, we have Phasmophobia now, and others like No More Room in Hell and The Blackout Club managed to set themselves out the norm of more action-focused takes on this. But back then horror was mostly experienced in singleplayer.
You can still play solo if you want to, as the AI controls the partner you have selected to tag along and you can switch between them at any time. But the experience of opening a door that led to a pitch-black corridor, saying “oh-huh” in unison with a friend as we both looked at our low ammo with worry, remains unparalleled.
Looking back, I wonder what a modern Obscure would look like. There was a sequel that came out in 2007, taking place two years later after the events of the first time. The cast of characters remained the same, but as older students now in college. It was impressive to see it running back then, making a huge technological jump that led to a more rounded experience overall. Final Exam, which was first teased as a new entry in the series, came from Mighty Rocket Studio. This group of developers, composed of veterans of the original franchise the original releases, rebranded it as a new IP as they decided to put the survival horror aspect aside in exchange for a side-scroller action game with a cartoony art style.
Perhaps nowadays the series would be revived once again as an action-focused game, or as a live as a service title with a battle pass and purchasable cosmetic items. Even though it’s been almost 20 years now, it managed to earn a place for itself with its mix of new ideas, especially for a game part of such a standardized genre. Funnily enough, I never got to the ending, as me and my friends would either get too scared or hit a wall with a puzzle, at least until the next sleepover. But I hope I can start over and see the story through at some point in the future. Perhaps this time I’ll get to survive the night and see the sunrise.