Monday, May 20, 2013

Myst Series, pt. 1

Myst -- The World Between the Pages

If I haven’t made it utterly clear by now, I’m a pretty high-minded gamer. Few of my favorite games are purely brainless; even if I’m gonna paint the walls with bad guy intestines, it has to be nuanced and interesting, like Resident Evil 4. And I gravitate more toward games that make you think rather than kill. Games with meaning. Games with artistry. So if you asked me, What type of game would you make if you had the ability, time, and resources, and you weren’t worried about mere commercial success? I wouldn’t even hesitate. I’d point at the Myst series.

This retrospective is doomed to be incomplete, I’m afraid. I’ve never played Myst V and everything about it looks awful and misguided; I may discuss why in a later review. And I never tried Uru: Ages Beyond Myst because it’s Windows only; fuck you, developers. But I’ve played and loved the first four games in the series. And I’m also going to drag in a couple more recent games that aren’t directly related to Myst but are, I feel, worthy successors. Myst had a big influence on gaming in general, and even though violence-free puzzlers remain within a niche, they’ve never died out completely. Note that Jonathan Blow’s The Witness is being trumpeted as part of the PS4’s launch lineup. The legacy lives on. So where did it begin?

It began in a manner that’s become the norm for indie games: with a handful of people sitting in someone’s home, building their idea from scratch. The company, Cyan, had been around for a little while, but Myst was its first significant effort, and the Cyan team -- headed by brothers Rand and Robyn Miller -- had to improvise like crazy. This was back in the early 1990s, I was barely out of toddlerhood, and the idea of a fully 3D world that you could actually move around in was pretty damn innovative. There already was a puzzle/adventure genre -- games where you couldn’t die, and where everything revolved around working your brainbox -- but Myst forced the concept into a very interesting evolution. Mysterious and open-ended, the game sucked people in. You weren’t playing as a particular were just you. There were no monsters and hardly any other people. It was a difficult game -- at the time, anyway -- but it tossed out the concept of “losing.” There was always a way through, something you’d overlooked or not thought of, but since the internet as we know it didn’t exist, you couldn’t cheat and look up the answers. You had to experiment, pay attention, be patient, and think think THINK. Small wonder that the gaming world flipped its shit, some calling Myst a failed experiment, but most hailing it as something new and groundbreaking that deserved way more attention.

The world is iconic: Myst Island, a place of solitude where you, the player (or “Stranger”) are dumped after picking up a weathered old book and finding a portal within its pages. Someone lived here, but they don’t seem to any more. The island is very small, but covered in what looks like the results of obsessive industry and tinkering. There’s a sunken ship, an underground generator, a hilltop observatory, a clocktower, what looks suspiciously like a rocket ship, and even a library. A library where most of the books have been destroyed. Within two of the few intact tomes, you discover living men -- prisoners, gazing out at you and pleading for release. Should you trust them? Eventually, you figure out that the island was home to a man named Atrus (played by co-creator Rand Miller) who, it seems, held the power to write a world on paper and literally step inside it. The two trapped men are his sons, arrogant Sirrus and demented Achenar. At least one of the two is guilty of terrible things. But which one? If you can crack the puzzles of Myst Island, you unlock the way to four other worlds, or Ages: Selenitic (a fire-blasted landscape where ambient sounds play a huge role), Stoneship (a sailing vessel fused to a rocky islet), Mechanical (a rotating steampunk fortress), and Channelwood (a treehouse-choked forest growing from the sea). Each Age has more puzzles and more insights into Atrus’s sons, and you find loose pages that you can shove into the books that imprison them. Enough pages, and one brother will be freed. Spoiler alert: you shouldn’t trust either brother one bit.

The mystery of the game is timeless and it’s certainly respected, but does it hold up? Well, from a purely technical standpoint, it’s obsolete by now. As its harshest critics never tired of pointing out, it was a glorified slideshow where you were locked into a single viewpoint and couldn’t move at all when a Quicktime movie occurred. (On the plus side, the characters were played by live-action dudes on greenscreen, which added a lot.) The original 3D graphics look crude today, although the game did get at least one shiny visual facelift during its string of re-releases. Make no mistake, this game is weak compared to most of its sequels; it may have been challenging at the time, but it’s pretty damn short once you take out all the hours spent not knowing what the fuck to do next. The puzzles operate under typically arbitrary logic: rotate the tower so it points at the sunken ship, then look on the metal plaque to get three dates, then enter the dates into the control panel in the planetarium to get three astrological signs, then look in the Stoneship book to figure out what the signs represent, then hit the corresponding symbols on the stone pillars to make the ship float again! These sorts of puzzles have been done in countless games since. It’s a pity: games like the Myst series appeal to a fairly small demographic, and those who like the games have become too damn good at them., Myst doesn’t really hold up, and the only reason to replay it is for nostalgia. For the zen of redoing something that takes little to no effort.

Still, the appeal of Myst cannot be denied, if only because it was never intended to be such a success. I mean, the guys who made it were just messing around, seeing what they could come up with. I remember watching a little “making of” featurette that came on the game disc; did you know that the gurgling water sound effects in some areas were created by the sound guy using a straw to blow bubbles in a toilet? It wasn’t just that Myst wasn’t quite like anything anyone had ever seen before. It wasn’t even that it proved you could make money on a peaceful, thoughtful computer game. It was that suddenly, game development wasn’t like the monolith from 2001: A Space Odyssey. It wasn’t a distant, alien process that only Japanese savants could comprehend. You could do it in your garage with some buddies, if you were willing to put in the time and effort. You could make something really cool and share it with the world. And now we have Braid, Limbo, World of Goo, and countless others. Would they exist if Myst hadn’t proven that you could think small and still make a quality game? Or that there were gameplay and storytelling possibilities that no one had thought to tap? Maybe. Even so...Myst really did open a portal to another world, in more ways than one. And its success ensured that it was just the beginning.

Myst Review Series

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