Myst in Retrospect
Myst is unique, a bizarre amalgamation of concepts that is unmatched even by its own sequels. It is by turns grim or whimsical. It requires logical thought but is set in a nonsensical universe. Its narrative is sophisticated on some levels and underdeveloped in others. Some seemingly ordinary things have great narrative significance, some especially strange things do not. It is, above all, a strange and unique experience.
Described in the simplest possible terms, Myst is a game about exploration. You have arrived in a strange place. What do you do? Naturally, you begin to look around. The game is your camera, your window. The cursor is your hand. The music is your intuition. The game involves no role-playing: rather, it turns your computer into a gateway through which you can enter another universe.
In its eagerness to blaze a new trail, Myst can at times feel as if it’s reluctant to identify itself as a video game at all. The game opens with a cinematic intro, complete with opening credits. Likewise, additional credits roll whenever the player quits. The game’s imagery is nestled between black bars like a letterboxed film. There’s nothing wrong with this approach necessarily, but it does to some extent highlight that video games, especially slow games like Myst, were in a state of relative infancy in 1993. The strengths of the medium had yet to be fully uncovered, and creators had to look to other media for guidance.
But if Myst is a movie, it’s also a novel. The bulk of the game’s backstory is relayed through a series of journals which can be found in the central library. These introduce the player to both the characters and the settings which she will encounter over the course of the game by means of a literal written narrative. These journals correspond to the game’s different worlds, called “Ages,” and as they contain necessary clues, the player cannot proceed without reading them carefully. This ensures that she will not escape into the game’s furthest reaches without understanding its backstory, which shows a good deal of foresight on the part of the game’s creators. Likewise, they provide us with insight into the character of Atrus, which will be crucially important later on.
The journals also add a crucial amount of depth to the experience by creating a mental image of a livelier past, one which will stand in stark contrast to the lifeless environments the player will eventually discover.
Finally, the journals prime the player’s expectations before she actually has an opportunity to visit an Age, and thus give rise to a somewhat unique phenomenon I call the Tourist Effect. This refers to the sensation of seeing a place in “real life” which one has previously only read about; there is a spark of recognition but things are not quite as one expected. By describing the Ages in text prior to allowing the player to visit them, two separate “layers” of fictional representation are created, and thus the eventual reveal of the Age itself somehow feels more “real” than it might have otherwise. By utilizing the written word, Cyan took advantage of the player’s imagination, and in doing so followed in the example of Myst’s text-based ancestors.
The game opens, as I’ve mentioned already, with a short cutscene: Atrus falls into “the Fissure” and loses his Myst book, which, he narrates, may end up in the hands of a complete stranger. The game turns over control to the player shortly later, with a view of the Myst book lying on the ground, inviting the player to pick it up. This is a clever opening. It gets off to a good start with an amiguous backstory, touches on the question of who might find the book, then reaches out to the player and indicates: You. You’re the one who finds it. There’s hardly been a more powerful invitation to enter into a virtual reality.
Before we move on, let’s take a moment to review the backstory. In short, it revolves around a now-extinct race of people called the D’ni, who had the ability to create “Linking Books” which can physically transport people to other worlds. They called this technology the Art, and the worlds to which they linked were called Ages. Myst doesn’t deal with the D’ni directly, though, but rather focuses on Atrus, one of their few surviving descendants and practitioners of the Art.
It’s worth noting that the concept of the Art is not dissimilar to what Cyan itself had done both in Myst and in the childrens’ games that preceded it: they had leveraged a technology in order to “transport” people into strange and imaginative worlds of their own creation. Intentional or not, it’s a nice little parallel, one which somehow turns the series into a metaphor for itself.
The game’s first environment is the eponymous Myst Island, which serves as a sort of hub for the player’s explorations. It is not itself a destination in the same sense the Ages are. Rather it is more of a junction that holds the rest of the game together, providing backstory through the journals, puzzles which must be solved to gain access to the Ages, and the avenues through which the player can interact directly with the game’s characters. Sadly, the island seems more dated than anything else in this first installment. It isn’t a believable world as the other Ages are, but rather a gameplay necessity that seems barely coherent at best. Its jumble of unrelated objects and complete lack of standard living facilities make it feel more like a mini-golf course than a functional environment. Creating believable environments is always a tall order, and one which this series generally succeeds at fairly well, but it is somewhat disappointing that its most familiar location falls somewhat short of the goal.
The Library on Myst Island is, appropriately, the game’s primary repository of story content. Much of this is contained in the journals, as discussed earlier, but the Library is also the one place where the player has opportunity to interact directly with the game’s characters. Sirrus and Achenar, Atrus’s sons, appear to the player from inside their Linking Book prisons. The brothers mark the first appearance of live humans in the game (excluding the intro) and unusually for a video game, they are portrayed by live actors (portrayed, in fact, by Myst creators Rand and Robyn Miller). This lends the game a degree of credence it couldn’t have achieved otherwise.
The brothers’ dialogues are an important part of the game’s narrative structure. The brothers plead with the player to retrieve red and blue pages, which, they assure her, are the keys to their release from unjust imprisonment. At first the player has no choice but to trust them implicitly, as there’s no reason to doubt them and no one to contradict them. As the game goes on, however, she will begin to uncover signs that the brothers aren’t telling the whole truth, and the fact that they frequently contradict each other doesn’t do them any favors. The game’s central question is whether Sirrus or Achenar can (or should) be trusted, and the player’s ability to hear from them directly contributes to player engagement in a way which would not have been possible otherwise.
The red and blue pages themselves are basically a gameplay mechanic which provides the player with a specific and uncomplicated short-term goal. The game makes the pages’ function clear at the outset by providing the first page right in the Library, so the player understands that adding pages to the books improves the “signal strength.” While the player likely needs no coaxing to explore the Ages, the pages’ existence creates a sense of structure that informs how the player approaches the experience. Thus, to learn the brothers’ stories, the player knows she must find as many pages as possible, which she can only do by visiting the Ages.
All the Ages have roughly the same structure: the player must solve a series of puzzles in order to find the pages, then the player must solve a second series of puzzles in order to return to Myst. While searching the Ages, the player also discovers clues that reveal the events of the past. The lively places described in Atrus’s journals have become cold and lifeless, and littered with evidence of the brothers’ wrongdoings. It is through this ephemera that the player learns the truth about Sirrus and Achenar: that both have committed heinous crimes and neither deserve to be released. From the journals the player learns the backstory of each Age; from her explorations she learns what happened between then and “now.”
The brilliance of the way this story is conveyed is that none of the pertinent details are revealed through exposition. The story of the brothers’ conquests is told entirely by their castoff possessions. Achenar’s spaces are filled with macabre trophies, instruments of torture, and weapons. Sirrus’s are filled with gold, jewels, finery, and drugs. While these signs are hardly subtle, the way in which they convey the truth about the brothers is quite groundbreaking. The player explores these spaces in silence, the game’s creators trusting her to put the pieces together without hand-holding. Twenty years after Myst, Gone Home would be hailed by critics for its use of environment as a storytelling device, but it still utilized extensive narration, not trusting the visuals to convey their story without help. Myst proves that this can be done, and sets an example that game creators would be wise to follow.
Each of the game’s four Ages has a unique visual and auditory atmosphere that unifies disparate parts within the Age while making it distinct from the others. Compared to what we’d see in later games, Myst’s Ages are relatively small (a fact no doubt due to the familiar bugaboo of technical constraints), but each one is varied enough to give the sensation that there’s something interesting around every bend. Much of this is conveyed through the visuals, which while not as impressive as they must have been in 1993, still hold up fairly well. The images are richly detailed and believable; the textures especially have a veracity to them which was absent from most of Myst’s contemporaries and imitators. A great deal of care was taken in the rendering of most foreground objects, so the environments feel very rich despite a relative lack of detail in the terrain.
The strong atmosphere of the visuals is further complemented the sound design: dripping water echoes through a dark tunnel, birdsong and creaking timber drift through the walls of an abandoned treehouse. These auditory cues greatly influence the mood of the places where we find them, in addition to enhancing the realism of the scene.
Music is an important component as well. Sirrus and Achenar each have specific musical themes which reflect their dark personalities. These themes are heard in the brothers’ personal spaces within each Age, thus creating an association in the player’s mind before she even begins to explore the area. Each Age has its own musical motifs as well, in much the same way that each Age has a distinct visual appearance.
Myst’s creators did a remarkable job creating atmospheric environments for this game, and the fact that they did so under the considerable technical limitations of the early nineties makes their accomplishments that much more impressive.
Each of the Ages is significant, so we’ll look at each in turn, beginning with the smallest, Mechanical. The Mechanical Age consists only of a small fortress and two tiny islands. Diminutive as it is, it clearly demonstrates the principles by which Myst conveys its story. From Atrus’s journals we learn that the inhabitants of the Mechanical Age were besieged by pirates, and that Atrus helped them fight back by constructing a special stronghold. When the player arrives, though, the fortress is abandoned, and littered with clues that suggest Sirrus and Achenar reversed its function and used it to attack the inhabitants. As discussed earlier, the brothers’ true personalities can be gleaned from their possessions: Sirrus’s chamber is filled with art and valuables, Achenar’s with cruel weapons and poisons. Since this Age has relatively few features other than the brothers’ rooms, they become front and center to the exploration of Mechanical. There are few signs of the Age’s original inhabitants, and nothing much to look at elsewhere in the fortress. This isn’t to say that the Age is disappointing or uninteresting, just that it tends to feel limited compared to the others.
The expansive Channelwood Age represents the opposite end of the spectrum, and highlights a theme that would recur frequently throughout the series: the relationship between exploration and conquest. In general the series paints exploration in a relatively positive light, but the issue of the outsider and the “primitive native” inevitably recur. In his Channelwood journal, Atrus describes the natives as “monkey-like people” and states that they seem to worship him as some sort of deity. He’s pretty uncomfortable with this, being a conscience-driven and secular person, and warns the young Sirrus and Achenar not to take advantage of the natives’ respect. Naturally, the brothers eventually go against their father’s injunctions: in the game’s present day, the natives’ treehouses stand vacant, and a sacrificial temple with an altar to Achenar has been constructed in the treetops. The naive acceptance demonstrated by the Channelwood natives proved too enticing for the budding psychopathy of the brothers; even Atrus’s journal implies that the brothers had a somewhat unsettling fascination with the Age when he brought them there as children. The tension between explorers and primitive natives will be discussed further in later installments, but the events of Channelwood set a clear precedent for this particular theme.
The Age itself is a pleasant one. The maze of treehouses can be confusing, but the overall look is very appealing, and the sheer size of the age makes its exploration very rewarding. The quietness of the Age is actually utilized to great effect, making the eventual discovery of the brothers’ macabre chambers stand out in stark contrast to the rest of the Age. Channelwood, as the first sizable Age in the series, set a strong example for later games to follow.
Stoneship is another small age, only marginally larger than Mechanical, but it has a number of visually distinct areas which make it seem bigger than it actually is. Sirrus and Achenar both have elaborate “bedrooms” which don’t have much in common with the rest of the Age in terms of overall aesthetics, but well reflect their personalities: Sirrus’s is decked out in palatial opulence and Achenar’s looks like the chamber of an evil wizard. Other areas include a ship (sunken but perfectly preserved), a lighthouse, a mountaintop overlook, and an underwater tunnel. Where in most of the other Ages the various sub-areas stay fairly close to the overall “look,” those in Stoneship tend to stray away from the rocky, windworn look we see elsewhere in the Age. This makes the Age somewhat inconsistent, especially where the brothers’ bedrooms are concerned, but each of the areas has such a strong and distinct atmosphere that it doesn’t really matter. The underwater tunnel, for example, seems surprisingly high-tech in the context of the rest of the age, but its deep, slighly menacing mood is intriguing enought that it doesn’t matter. There’s something to be said for overall consistency, but Stoneship demonstrates that there’s nothing wrong with a digression, as long as it’s a good one.
Perhaps the strangest Age is Selenitic: it consists of a relatively large island, mostly featureless but with a few different areas and buildings scattered across it more or less randomly. There’s a clock tower, a geothermal power station, a “forest” of harmonious crystals, and so on, but their existence and placement seem practically random. Furthermore, the Age was never inhabited and has no valuable plunder, and thus of no interest to Sirrus and Achenar, so (not surprisingly) we learn nothing about them here. For that reason the Age has practically no story content. There’s nothing to do here but to find the pages and solve the notoriously frustrating Mazerunner puzzle in order to return to Myst. But while it lacks story, Selenitic does one-up the other Ages by having a distinct central theme: sound. Nearly all of the Age’s puzzles involve sound of some sort: gaining access to the Mazerunner requires a sequence of sounds collected from around the island, and the Selenitic book itself has a musical lock (which unintentionally protects it from tone-deaf travelers). It’s a clever idea, and one that has far more potential than was even realized, but the Age’s complete lack of content outside its theme makes the whole thing fall a little flat.
If Myst’s primary strengths are its atmosphere and story, its primary weakness is its gameplay, especially its puzzles. The puzzles have always been an area of contention among players; some people really like them and others find them to be little more than a necessary evil. But are puzzles truly necessary? Most of Myst’s puzzles are poorly integrated in terms of plausibility; in-universe they are generally explained as complicated locks meant to protect Linking Books from strangers, but of what use is a lock if can be opened easily by anyone with lateral thinking skills? As a result the puzzles begin to feel contrived, clearly meant to slow down and/or gratify the player rather than to provide any plausible function. This is why the game has become widely remembered as “that game with the annoying puzzles.” The puzzles are annoying, they are obtuse and obviously irrelevant to the environment they exist in. More recent games have changed the way gameplay obstacles are approached: Puzzles in Botanicula tend to be more like quirky, self-contained mini-games. Gone Home, flawed though it is, eschews puzzles entirely and provides as obstacles a few locked doors with hidden keys. These techniques significantly enhance the gameplay simply by not interfering with it. Even for those of us, myself included, who have enjoyed solving the puzzles, sometimes one just wants to get on with the story, without having to learn the exact location of a lighthouse to do so.
The eventual realization that both brothers are guilty leads into a trope which I will call the Final Big Choice. Once the brothers have received all but one of the pages, they explain how to find the final page, the one which will set them free. By this point it should be pretty clear that releasing them is a bad idea, but there’s one final catch: alongside the final pages there’s another book. Both of the brothers insist the book must be left alone, claiming it’s just another trap. This is the Final Big Choice: the player can either release one of the brothers, or assume that they’re lying again and investigate the book. After all the brothers’ lies I doubt many people believed them at this point, but still the player must independently decide that the third option (regardless of what it is) is probably preferable to freeing either of the brothers. That the creators didn’t feel the need to explictly highlight the third option demonstrates that they place a good deal of trust in the player’s intelligence, something I’d like to see game developers attempt more often. The Final Big Choice became a defining moment for the series, one which would be emulated by Exile, Revelation, *and *End of Ages.
The game’s conclusion, sadly, is not entirely satisfying. The player chooses the third option and meet Atrus, who reveals the true backstory: the brothers trapped their parents on separate Ages in order to gain control of Atrus’s library, before ultimately becoming entrapped in the prison books. With the player’s help, Atrus links back to Myst and destroys the prison books with the brothers still inside them, then gives the player permission to explore his Ages as a reward. Thus, the game’s thrilling conclusion is that the player gets permission to explore the places she’s explored already. It’s an anticlimax of the worst kind, a “good” ending with less closure than the bad endings. (This was corrected somewhat in the remake, realMyst, which added a small bonus Age made accessible only after the conclusion.) That said, I think this lack of an ending is actually intentional, and is meant to be taken as an invitation to continue revisiting the Ages despite the narrative being complete. It’s another way in which the game is distancing itself from its peers of the time: yes, the story is finished, but we’re not taking the world away from you. You may continue to explore at your leisure. Most people expect closure, so as a storytelling tactic this does seem awkward at best, but still there’s something rather charming about it. It’s another grand experiment in a game made up of grand experiments.
So, in the end, is Myst a success or a failure? Like many things, it has elements of both. It has a strong story, atmosphere, and attractive visuals. On the other hand, it has some nonsensical design elements, restrictive technical constraints, and a handful of appallingly terrible puzzles. Still, looking beyond its issues, Myst is a necessary, and largely successful, first step. The format had not yet been perfected, but the creators managed to build an enjoyable experience anyway, one which would set a standard for the successes and failures of later installments.