Mudd is telling me to bring him the soul of the Bhubwello. “You will find the Bhubwello,” he rasps, “dwelling deep within the caves.”
Like I don’t know where to find the Bhubwello. I’m already plotting out the path in my mind: I’m going to head up, bypass a couple of enemies, check to see if there’s an artifact above the waterfall, then grab the power-up beneath the weird forgotten temple covered in carnivorous plants. Then I’ll head past the forest giant, through the snowy mountain, into the cave to find the impact spear, and then onwards to slay the Bhubwello, to destroy the life-giving mushrooms that adorn his weird, angular body.
Yesterday I knew none of this. Oblitus drops you into its world with the barest of tutorials. Pretty soon, I’m in control of a tiny avatar, standing on top of a wooden gate, beneath a giant stone face with a single eye, hearing a disembodied voice telling me to come find it. Beneath the trees. In the hanging furnace above. Within the caves.
These are the locations that I tirelessly move through. I roll past the vicious, teething plants that whomp at me with pulsing uvulas. I timidly climb ladders as great birds swoop down upon me beak first, countless mysterious stone obelisks floating in the distant background. On wooden rafters hanging from chains, spiders jumped out at me, challenging my footing in a place where a wrong jump or bad roll leads to a deadly plummet.
“YOU HAVE DIED.”
I’m standing on a wooden gate, beneath a giant stone face with a single eye, hearing a disembodied voice telling me to come find it.
Oblitus is about cycles. Here, there are many: the way in which I thrust my spear into the faces and bodies of enemies. How I hold up my shield to block incoming attacks and wait for their shields to move before I strike. How I move to the same, familiar spaces in the world so that I might find power-ups: charged spears, higher jumps, longer rolls.
More importantly, the game itself is a cycle: each time I die there is a haunting feeling that perhaps this isn’t a true reset. In other words, I’m not a new Mario starting out in World 1-1 after turning the system back on after a while; I think that maybe I’m the same one, brought back to life as a result of a terrible system of fates. Even though my powers are gone, and the spaces around me reset, there’s something that lingers, somewhere.
This suspicion is one underlined by an astonishing amount of vague history present in the world. Everywhere there are felled giants. I fall deeply into a pool to find the bleached-white bones of a massive rib cage pointing up around me. I clash with spiders in front of a massive mask that maybe once concealed a face too gigantic to process, my own mask concealing a face as large as one of its eyes. I have been called harbinger, I think. But harbinger of what? The question falls away as I realize that the health power-ups I’ve been grabbing aren’t in the shapes of dead heroes that have fallen before I came here. They’re probably the shapes of dead me.
The forge giant had just finished pushing me into the lava around his workspace. I’m standing on a wooden gate.
Oblitus is about cycles, but it’s also about memory, distant afflictions of déjà vu that live in some sort of periphery. They’re there when I climb the same ladder after death after death after death, the only thing getting me closer to the end each time. While Parvus (our heroine’s name) awakens at the beginning, Oblitus slowly and gently encourages the player to grow. Though the world shifts ever so slightly—sometimes the plant that gives you a fire spear is up on a ledge, sometimes it is nestled in a pit; sometimes the first health pickup is guarded by one plant, or several plants, or two plants, a lizardman, and a barrier—what remains constant is the internal encyclopedia I’ve slowly compiled. The first time I played Oblitus, I died within two minutes. Now, I’m cursing myself when I fail to kill the final boss for the fourth time. On my way there again, I’m predicting the variations. Consuming them.
It’s an old trick: as players, we grow experienced enough to master a toy to completion; this is the basis for videogames, and the basis for the nostalgia of early-era Nintendo. Incremental successes build slowly into one ultimate success. But Oblitus’ ultimate success isn’t the culmination of one playthrough; it’s the culmination of several. Rarely does a game acknowledge the cycle of play, die, repeat, and finally, succeed. Oblitus instead not only acknowledges it but embraces it; draws a parallel between its protagonist and its player, their movements synchronized, following the same unknown task. Unearth the task; finish it. Parvus is set free. So is the player.