Myst in Retrospect
Uru: Ages Beyond Myst
Imagine reading a press release that describes a website filled with interactive poems. The site will debut with just a few poems, gradually adding more in response to user involvement, making the site’s visitors part of a living, breathing artwork. It’s a clever idea, and a couple poems released as teasers show that the site has a lot of promise. Sadly, however, when the site finally debuts, something has gone wrong in development. Instead of the vibrant scene you were promised, there’s just a static page with a handful of poems. There’s not even anywhere to post a comment. The poems are still well-written, and you enjoy reading them, but you can’t shake the feeling that you could have been a part of something much bigger. Welcome to the beautiful and depressing world of Uru.
After completing Riven, Cyan went quiet and began work on a multiplayer Myst game which was codenamed “Mudpie.” The concept was a surprising one, Myst being perhaps the quintessential single-player experience. Fans were largely intrigued but somewhat apprehensive. The development process was long and Cyan’s occasional preview screenshots offered glimpses into a game that seemed perennially just out-of-reach. Even more tantalizing were the promises of real-time graphics, ongoing storylines, and (perhaps most intriguing of all) access to D’ni itself. We waited patiently, forgiving Cyan’s radio silence on the grounds that Mudpie was going to be awesome.
Yet even early on there were signs of trouble. Cyan’s publisher, Ubisoft, requested that a single-player version be built as well; dialup users were still a majority at the time and Ubisoft didn’t want a product that required broadband. Cyan obliged, and the first public release of the game was the single-player adaptation Uru: Ages Beyond Myst in 2003. The multiplayer version, Uru Live, was not ready. The game shipped with promises of online play, but implementation was delayed. Eventually, the pretense was dropped, and in February of 2004 Uru Live was officially canceled.
Online play did eventually materialize in a handful of incarnations, but never in the form originally intended. The vast majority of players have never experienced any online play at all, and know Uru only from its offline skeleton, a vast yet incomplete universe which always opens to a view of the player’s mostly-empty bookshelf.
Uru: Ages Beyond Myst and its expansion packs To D’ni and The Path of the Shell have become the Uru canon, and none of them is a “complete” game per se. To paraphrase Atrus: it’s important to consider what the creators hoped to achieve, compared to what the game truly is.
Uru is in many ways something of an oddity in the series overall, even without the multiplayer component. We leave behind not only Atrus and his family, but their entire time period: it is now the present day, the player character is “you,” and the setting is present-day New Mexico. Myst’s creators and fans had long enjoyed blurring the line between fantasy and reality, but the games themselves didn’t partake in this prior to Uru, which presents itself as “real” with gleeful enthusiasm. The game environment is filled with real-world clutter imported by the explorers from Earth: styrofoam, t-shirts, composition notebooks, and the infamous orange construction cones. It even goes so far as to include a number of real people as in-game characters, such as longtime D’ni canon-keeper Richard “RAWA” Watson and Myst creators Rand and Robyn Miller. The conceit is that the digital environment is a recreation of something which is literally real. It’s an interesting concept, especially in the context of the intended multiplayer experience, and one which (to my knowledge) has never been attempted anywhere else.
Uru is also distanced from the other games by its realtime graphics and freedom of movement, aspects which it utilizes in many different puzzles, to varying degrees of success. Movement as a puzzle mechanic is of course common in video games, but it was new for Myst. The player character’s physicality often becomes a critical part of a puzzle, though the concept of lowering a bridge by kicking it is one that proved unintuitive to longtime Myst players. Unfortunately, player physicality also gave rise to the dreaded “kicking puzzles.” These involve shoving objects around by bumping into them, a frustrating process which greatly hampers suspension of disbelief. Overall, Uru’s puzzles tend to convey a sense that the creators were still trying to get a handle on what to do, and what not to do, with the freedom of movement.
Uru’s most regrettable departure from the Myst formula, however, is its neglect of story. Uru, while still including the usual invasions of privacy (diaries, hidden drawers, etc.), doesn’t really have much in the way of characters or plot. This is in part another symptom of Uru’s stillborn debut, as the story was supposed to evolve online in real time, but regardless of the reason, the absence of narrative is pronounced. While it tries to be as accessible as possible, Uru remains a somewhat forbidding game, often coming across more like an austere experiment than an enjoyable adventure.
Uru was frequently advertised as a game in which “you play as yourself,” an innovation which the creators found so appealing that it was incorporated into the game’s very title: you-are-you. This concept, though treated as novel, was in fact central to the original Myst as well. “You have stumbled across a most intriguing book,” the game’s manual says, conveying with a single pronoun that the player and player character are one and the same.
Another similarity between Uru and Myst was its promotion as an escape from reality. Magazine advertisements for Uru showed a man in a real-world elevator, the doors opening to reveal the Age of Teledahn. It’s a concept a concept strikingly similar to a 1999 advertisement for Myst: Masterpiece Edition, which describes the game as a way to “forget everyday worries” and “get away from it all.” The implication in both cases seems to be that these aren’t video games so much as they are computer-generated vacations.
My point in all this is not to paint Uru as unoriginal but to highlight the fact that it is in many senses a spiritual successor to the intentions of Myst, even moreso than Myst’s direct sequels. While Uru can be seen as an attempt to “reboot” the series, it was also a callback to what had come before: smaller Ages, simpler goals, and understated narrative.
This first game in the Atrus-free arc opens, predictably, with a voiceover by Atrus. He is telling Yeesha about a dream Catherine had which predicts that groups of humans will soon be drawn to D’ni by some sort of supernatural compulsion. The dream also indicates that Yeesha will be their guide. These people, naturally, are those who make up Uru’s target audience, and once the intro ends, the game presents the player with a sweeping view of her avatar standing in front of the volcano from The Book of Atrus. (Like many aspects of Uru, a familiarity with Myst’s backstory is assumed. The diehard fans are served, but more casual players tend to be left in the dark.)
Inside the Cleft, a hologram of Yeesha explains the game’s objective by way of a long and impassioned speech about a stream. This is consistent with Yeesha’s depiction throughout the D’ni arc overall, which invariably involves florid, barely-coherent speeches. She never gets the usual Myst-style “getting to know you” routine (in which the player would read her diary, snoop in her desk, etc), so as a character she unfortunately becomes completely unreadable. She’s not a person, just a preachy voice, and as a result her “quest” feels less like a personal adventure and more like the bidding of an inscrutable deity.
Yeesha’s quest, “The Journey,” requires players to visit five D’ni Ages and explore them as a neutral observer. In each Age there are seven Journey Cloths, which the player must find in order to “complete” the Age. These are generally placed strategically, forcing the player to visit areas which serve Yeesha’s ultimate purpose: to teach the player that the D’ni were evil. (More on that later.) The Journey Cloth mechanic is a glorified easter-egg hunt, a fact which the game makes no attempt to disguise. The original Myst used more or less the same mechanic: the player visits an Age and searches for the red and blue pages, stumbling across incriminating evidence on the way. However, Myst took its egg hunt a step further by putting a prize inside each egg: each of the red and blue pages unlocks a bit more of the brothers’ stories, drawing the player deeper into the narrative. The Journey Cloths, by contrast, are simply arbitrary devices which eventually unlock a state of completion. Likewise, “completing” an Age in Uru doesn’t reveal additional story content, but another annoying sermon from Yeesha. In both games the player finds evidence of wrongdoing while exploring the Ages, but while Yeesha simply uses it to strengthen her main thesis (D’ni = evil), the brothers of Myst spend most of their time trying to disprove the player’s notions, creating a complicated narrative tug-of-war not only between the brothers but between the player and the game itself. Uru’s story, so far as it has one at all, is far less sophisticated.
Luckily, the “Ages Beyond Myst” more than make up for the shortcomings of gameplay and story. The five Ages vary considerably in size and all follow a somewhat linear progression, but each has a unique atmosphere and its own flavor of beautifully-executed visuals. Uru is about big things, and it adeptly handles the grandiosity and intrigue of its landscapes. Its handling of small details, unfortunately, is less impressive. The game has very few of the close-up shots common in the preceding games, and most on-screen objects are low-detailed and only meant to be seen from afar. Whether this altered scope is a detriment or a benefit is subject to debate. While I would have preferred a game world that straddles both the epic and the intimate (such as Riven), the grandiosity of its Ages still makes them worth a visit.
Each of the Ages in the game is meant to portray a different perspective on D’ni’s sins, so let’s take a look at each in turn, beginning with Teledahn. This Age, otherwise known as “the one with the mushrooms,” was among the most anticipated locations in the game, as it was the subject of many pre-release screenshots. It’s described as an extremely old Age, one which changed hands many times over D’ni’s history. Players can access to only a few acres’ worth of Teledahn, but the game does a decent job of implying additional areas beyond what can be seen. The art direction here is phenomenal, suggesting a murky, slimy place permeated with stagnant smells and dust. The water teems with life, some visible, some only heard, suggesting a rich ecosystem. There’s even an optional puzzle in which the player coaxes a large lobsterlike creature to come out of hiding just for the sake of looking at it. It’s a clever idea to add these kinds of hidden details to the game world, and Uru should have done a lot more along these lines.
Teledahn also introduces one of Yeesha’s most important pieces of anti-D’ni evidence: the remnants of a secret slave trade. The addition of slavery is the game’s most hamfisted attempt at sullying the D’ni reputation, and yet it’s made clear that the slave trading was being carried out in secret, which suggests that it was still against D’ni law. One would think that something clearly defined as crime would be irrelevant to Yeesha’s thesis, but no: Yeesha is more than willing to judge an entire society on the sins of individuals.
Teledahn is also the only Age with an associated diary, the journal of Douglas Sharper, an explorer affiliated with the D’ni Restoration Council (DRC), a group of human explorers. Sharper’s job is the “restoration” of Teledahn: exploring it, fixing its machinery, and ensuring that it’s safe to visit. His diary records his daily activities toward these ends, particularly dwelling on his frustrations with the bureaucracy of the DRC. This is the primary source of information about the DRC which we see in this game, and depicts it as a stagnant and misguided organization which is blind to the “truth” about D’ni (e.g., that it was not a perfect society). As for Sharper himself, the journal establishes little about his character other than his love of American football. He appeared in the flesh for the privileged few who played Uru Live, but for the rest of us Sharper is little more than a name, because this journal is the most we’ll ever learn about him.
Gahreesen, an Age used by D’ni’s police force, is the only Age in the game where we really get a sense of the strength of D’ni itself. Gahreesen is dominated by huge fortresses (garrisons, as the name puns) built on rotating pedestals. While the spinning buildings seem absurdly unnecessary at first, we eventually come to understand that such designs are the only way to ensure security against a technology like The Art. (You can’t write a linking book which connects to a specific room if that room is constantly in motion.) Gahreesen is filled with details like these, which enhance its credibility greatly. It’s also the only Age which requires you to visit another Age in order to complete it: a secret link hidden in Teledahn is the only way to access the prison at the top of the fortress. This does a lot to disrupt the linearity we experience in the other Ages, so it’s a shame that the technique is only used once. The nature of the Age highlights the differences between Yeesha’s motivation and that of the DRC: Yeesha sees Gahreesen as disgusting because it exemplifies the amount of work needed to protect D’ni’s ill-gotten assets, but the DRC see it as a particularly interesting example of D’ni’s engineering prowess. To the player, Gahreesen is an enjoyable Age: the puzzles are about right, it uses the possibilities of real-time gameplay admirably, and it gives us a lot of nice scenery to look at.
Kadish Tolesa is more of a diversion; it’s similar to Amateria in that it’s basically a collection of intentional puzzles. As the player wanders through through the Age’s massive forest (home to some of the game’s most beautiful scenes), she encounters a variety of puzzles designed to safeguard the wealth of Guildmaster Kadish, one of the richest men in D’ni at the time of the Fall. To complete the Age, the player must look for clues in Kadish’s lavish antechamber and apply them to the Age’s puzzles. As discussed previously, intentional puzzles typically fail to be as engaging as those which exist for a genuine reason, but the main credibility problem here is that Guildmaster Kadish leaves the key to his vault lying in plain sight all the time, albeit in an obtuse form. He does try to throw potential robbers off the trail, though, by the inclusion of false doorways which imply a path leading in one direction when the true path is hidden elsewhere. The game treats this as background detail, but these red herrings suggest a different direction the Age itself could have taken: what if Kadish was itself a puzzle? What if these false doorways could be opened to reveal puzzles that don’t actually lead anywhere? Or suppose instead we were faced with many puzzles at a time, and only some of them were meant to be solved. What if it were ultimately the path we travel through the age that unlocked the vault, rather than the successful completion of sequential puzzles? This would have been a far more difficult task for the level designers, it’s true, but potentially could have been much more interesting. Still, Kadish is a well-executed Age with a quiet, broody atmosphere conveyed expertly through both visuals and sound, which forgives its crimes in the puzzle department.
This brings us to the sister Ages of Eder Gira and Eder Kemo. These are “garden Ages,” the kinds of places where the D’ni would go for a picnic. Gira is an inhospitable desert, Kemo a horticultural masterwork. They’re both fun to look at and explore, but they ultimately fall somewhat flat, as they have no story engagement whatsoever. We learn nothing about the D’ni from them, we don’t encounter any new characters, and we find nothing which challenges our understanding of the world. In Kemo we find a DRC notebook containing a D’ni fable involving a garden Age which was taken from its prior inhabitants by force, and Yeesha attempts to imply that the same was true of Gira and Kemo, but we don’t see any evidence to support that. Games are a visual medium, and to make us, the players, believe these kinds of assertions, we need to see some sort of evidence. In the original Myst, we don’t come to believe that Achenar is bad just because Sirrus says he is, but rather because we see direct evidence of Achenar’s evildoings (and likewise for Sirrus, of course). We never see anything to suggest that Gira and Kemo were ever anything but the bland, small parks that they are today, so Yeesha’s sermon in this case seems to be reaching.
Once the Ages are complete, the player eventually is able to return to the Cleft and retrieve a final message from Yeesha, who warns us that there will soon be a major schism between the explorers of D’ni: half will side with the DRC and their tedious, superficial mission and the other half will side with Yeesha. By this point, however, neither of these groups have done much to attract the player’s allegiance. The DRC come across as tiresome bureaucrats who prefer protocol to the thrill of discovery. Yeesha comes across as a killjoy who seems to think that all closets must contain skeletons. Her own obsession is with the bahro, mysterious creatures that she insists were oppressed by the D’ni. The topic of the bahro is not sufficiently explored in this chapter, leaving them as little more than an enigma, an element foreign to all previous installments which never quite manages to sit comfortably.
I’m personally not inclined to side with Yeesha or the DRC. Neither really subscribe to the Myst mentality of wandering for its own sake, which is particularly strange when you consider that Uru, with its limited story content, is perhaps the purest example of that approach. (Also, it seems somewhat odd, and self-defeating, that Cyan would actively encourage its online players to become ideologically divided in this way.) There’s something of an echo here of the original’s “two bad choices and a good choice,” but in actuality there’s no choice available at all, just an imaginary conflict which we couldn’t participate in even if we wanted to.
Yeesha’s message, in this and the two installments which follow, is that the Art corrupted D’ni society just as deeply as it did that of Terahnee, just on a subtler level. Where Yeesha’s arguments fail, however, is the fact that she holds up examples of individual wrongdoing to imply that the society overall is corrupt. This is known as the fallacy of composition: a society can contain evildoers while not being evil itself. As aficionados of the D’ni universe, many Myst fans were somewhat disappointed by Uru’s depiction of the D’ni as a corrupt race, and that it’s done in this way makes it even worse. Were there criminals in D’ni? Yes, of course. Was it necessary for D’ni’s entire populace to die in order to atone for their sins? I would say not, but Yeesha argues unwaveringly on the point that the Fall was deserved retribution. This position is shallow, callous, and succeeds only in making Yeesha appear irrationally attached to a moral which only she can see.
Ultimately, what is Uru? Unlike its predecessors, it is not a story game. While the Yeesha/DRC conflict forms a story of sorts, the primary narrative is one formed by the player herself based on her observations of the D’ni ruins. Uru is about wandering, looking at the world, and imagining what it was in its prime. And even as we consider the Ages’ fictional histories, we’re also aware of the alternative Uru, the one where the Ages were filled with fellow explorers and new content appeared on a daily basis. The success of this single-player version depends largely on your own attention and imagination.
During this last playthrough, I happened to notice a small door high on the wall of the Teledahn slave office. I’d never spotted it before, and it has no relevance to the gameplay. But someone decided to put it there, both in the game’s universe and in the real world of game development. Why is it there? No one can say. But imagining the possibilities is, ultimately, what Uru came to be about.