Ivy Allie

Myst in Retrospect

The Remaking of Myst

Masterpiece Editions, realMyst, and VR

In the decades since Myst was originally released in 1993, graphics technology has steadily increased in sophistication, and Cyan has made a cottage industry of updating the first game to meet the latest standards. Myst has been re-released no less than four times, each new version bringing its share of technological leaps while altering the content of the game as little as possible. Today, in 2023, “remakes” and “remasters” of well-liked games have become a familiar part of the video game landscape, from elaborate fan projects like the Half-Life remake Black Mesa to 2018’s Spider-Man, a “remastered” version of which was released a scant two years after the original. But Myst’s many revisions put it in an interesting position, given what a long period of time they span. Looking at them side-by-side invites not only a comparison between the various technological breakthroughs and limitations, but also consideration of the various aesthetic and gameplay changes that each version has introduced.

The first of Myst’s re-releases (not counting various ports to one platform or another) was Myst: Masterpiece Edition, released in early 2000. This is the pre-rendered version that is most easily found today, readily available from Steam or GOG.com in a format that is playable on modern hardware. There’s scant reason to seek out the 1993 original, as Masterpiece Edition is essentially the same game, rerendered in 24-bit color to make the imagery less grainy. The only noticeable change to the game itself is the addition of full-screen fly-by videos after linking to a new Age, much like those seen in Exile and Revelation. It also introduced a built-in “hint system,” but it is separate from the game’s interface and can be ignored entirely. It was Myst optimized for slightly better hardware: no more, no less.

The true game-changer (literally speaking) was realMyst (subtitle: “The Adventure Becomes Real”), which debuted the same year, in late 2000. Publisher Mattel Interactive called it “The Ultimate Director’s Cut” and “The Most Beautiful 3D Game You Can Buy.” This was not a remaster but a full-blown remake, recreating all of Myst’s graphics in real-time 3D. It also spelled the end of Myst’s compatibility with low-end hardware, requiring a fairly powerful computer to run it at a reasonable frame rate. (realMyst required a 450+ MHz processor and recommended 128MB of RAM. Compare this to the minimum system requirements of Windows XP, which came out a full year later: 233 MHz processor, and 64 MB of RAM.)

For its time, realMyst was very impressive. Much as the early Technicolor filmmakers applied color with unrestrained enthusiasm, the developers of realMyst were clearly very excited about the potential of a real-time environment. Where Myst’s worlds were usually completely still, realMyst’s are in constant motion: waves in the water, tree branches swaying in the wind, numerous animal species, and full day/night cycles for every Age.1 “Look lazily upward into the Channelwood trees,” gushes Rand Miller’s welcome message from the game’s manual, “bask in the fire-red sunset on Selenitic, spin a panoramic tour of Sirrus’s throne room, or hurry out of the thunderstorm on Stoneship.” “The Adventure Becomes Real,” indeed!

The overall effect was so engrossing that it was easy to overlook that the new game engine also brought with it some significant limitations. While the original Myst’s resolution is tiny by today’s standards, its graphics have nevertheless aged better than those of its realtime successor. The original, being pre-rendered, was able to utilize ray-tracing in its graphics, which enabled realistic shadows and reflections throughout. It would be another 20 years before such technology would appear in real-time 3D, and as a result, realMyst can look a bit flat and muddy by comparison. It’s nice to see the world in motion, but it’s hard to ignore that every surface now has a matte finish and a blocky, low-resolution texture.

Even the control scheme feels dated: by default the cursor doesn’t affect the view angle except at the margins of the screen, which feels awkward compared to the centered cursor used by most other first-person games, including Exile and Revelation. There are problems with the view itself, too. Images from the original game were composed very carefully to direct the player’s eye and avoid disorientation, but in realMyst, which has no control over the player’s viewpoint, it’s easy to get lost or confused. There are shots which can’t even be faithfully recreated in realMyst due to the restrictions of its camera, which in many cases has a much narrower field of view than before.

Beyond the graphical changes, realMyst also brought various minor additions to the game’s content, most of them to tie it in more closely with the continuity that had evolved in the intervening years. You can now find Anna’s grave on Myst Island (a nice touch for fans, but potentially confusing to newcomers), see D’ni script on the Red and Blue pages, and (as mentioned previously) hear ambient sounds in the brothers’ Prison Ages. Some changes take advantage of the realtime rendering system, such as a much larger window for the Mazerunner. Other changes seem to be completely arbitrary and inexplicable, such as differences in spoken dialogue and the altered shape of the singing crystals in Selenitic. But by and large, there are no major changes, and the Ages are roughly the same as you remember them.

realMyst’s most significant addition to the series was its “bonus Age,” an icy little island called Rime, which becomes accessible after the player has completed the rest of the game. Rime provides an opportunity for just a bit more exploration and story, and adds a few details that tie the events of Myst to the rest of the series. In particular, Rime introduces Atrus’s “crystal viewer,” a device which can be used to look at Ages without actually linking to them, and a letter from Catherine describes how it can be used to see Riven. This miniscule glimpse of the sequel ties the games together in a more concrete and engaging way than had existed before.

The Age isn’t without its own charms, either: while its explorable area is fairly limited, it has a fun toy which conjures up auroras, an exclusive Atrus journal, some catchy musical themes (composed by Tim Larkin), and a species of whale-like creatures which can be seen swimming amongst the ice floes. The concept of a “bonus Age” also improves the game’s internal structure: since it only becomes available at the end, it adds a degree of closure which wasn’t present in the original. While in most cases a godforsaken icy rock would be a poor excuse for a prize, in this context Rime is a nice gift: we get a little bit more Myst, and a bridge to Riven at the same time.

Another noteworthy aspect of realMyst is its large number of Easter Eggs. Clues about how to find the eggs were parceled out by an incognito Cyan employee who went by the moniker “Spyder.”2 This made the egg hunt a sort of collaborative community puzzle, an interesting thing to have created during the lead-up to Uru (which in its original conception was to have been largely about collaborative puzzle solving). The realMyst eggs are mostly silly (for example, a game of Pong on the planetarium viewscreen), although they also included a number of preview screenshots of Uru, showing Teledahn, the Watcher’s Sanctuary, the Great Shaft, and others.

Come 2014, it was time for realMyst to get its own “Masterpiece Edition.” This was intended to bring realMyst back up to date with a modern game engine (in this case, Unity), but it’s not an absolute improvement. The reflections and shadows have been restored (though not by ray-tracing, not yet), along with some atmospheric touches in the lighting and effects. The speed of the day/night cycle (which had been pretty rapid in the original) has been slowed to a more natural pace, but the nighttime is so dark that it becomes nearly unplayable in places (though the addition of a flashlight somewhat alleviates this problem). In some ways, however, it seems overbaked, particularly in its textures, which are oversaturated to the point of appearing gaudy, and bump-mapped in a way that makes everything look varnished. In some ways realMyst: Masterpiece Edition seems to have overcompensated for realMyst’s limitations and swung far in the opposite direction, and the result isn’t pretty. One could argue that of the two, realMyst is somehow better-looking than its supposed upgrade.

The control scheme is somewhat improved over the original realMyst, adding point-and-click navigation that pretty closely replicates the original Myst experience. Yet the control scheme of End of Ages is still superior, and it would have been nice to see that implemented instead.

The most interesting change in the game can be found in Channelwood, where some subtle but intriguing visual deviations were made. The tree branches are now hung with Spanish moss, and a variety of plants grow in the water. There’s a thin fog in the air, revealed by gauzy sunbeams. The Age feels humid, even dank, in a way that it didn’t before. This makes me wonder if perhaps the greatest flaw of realMyst is that it followed the original source material too closely. Had it fully embraced the technology and taken some liberties with the Ages, we might have had something far more interesting, a re-imagining of Myst that depicted the environments in new and exciting ways. Rather than forging a new path, it simply aped the original game, adding nothing of substantial value.

The fourth (and to date, final) Myst upgrade arrived in late 2020, this time titled simply Myst. This brought the game to Unreal Engine 4, and most notably, to virtual reality. For clarity, let’s call it Myst 2020.

Myst 2020 is, to some extent, the remake that I was imagining back in 2017 when I wrote the above remarks about realMyst Masterpiece Edition’s Channelwood. More so than any previous remake, 2020 is more invested in making things look new and fresh than it is in simply recreating what was there before. While the broad strokes of the Ages are the same as ever, the details and overall atmosphere have completely changed. Selenitic in particular has been reimagined beautifully. Everything from the atmosphere (a ghostly haze with bright meteors streaking across the sky) to the ground (rugged, volcanic stone) feature vivid new artistic directions that are unique to this game. The final Mazerunner station (where the Myst book is found) is now filled with crystals and lit from below by molten rock, which looks great and provides a nice recapitulation of sights from elsewhere in the Age. That Selenitic, one of the least interesting of the original Ages, has in this remake become the standout, exemplifies the potential of the less-faithful recreation.

Still, some of its other visual changes are less effective, especially those that appear to be concessions to the requirements of virtual reality. The floating treasure chest in Stoneship is now awkwardly bolted to the top of a buoy-like object, apparently so that the player won’t need to crouch down in order to manipulate it. All swinging doors have been replaced with sliding doors, and all chairs (even the iconic “dentist’s chair” in the planetarium) have been removed entirely.

Worse, the original live-action videos are now replaced with CGI versions that look, quite frankly, terrible. Thankfully there is an option to restore the original clips, but it doesn’t apply to the final meeting with Atrus, who unavoidably looks like a rubbery animatronic in this version. It’s understandable that there was a need to replace the old low-resolution video clips for this version, but the human models used here are not up to par with those of many contemporary titles.

But the strangest graphical shortfalls of 2020 are the ways in which it fails to live up to the example of the original realMyst. Most of the animal life that appeared in that game is now gone, as are many other small animated details, like the gentle swaying of hanging baskets in Channelwood. Rime, sadly, has been removed completely. Strangest of all, some formerly dynamic effects are now static: the Tower, the Stoneship telescope, and the Selenitic scanner now show completely still, pre-rendered views of the environment, which is pretty jarring considering that it was possible to render these in real-time twenty years earlier. There is a significant degree to which 2020 feels rushed and slapped-together in contrast to the more enthusiastic embrace of technology evident in realMyst.

Still, Myst 2020 does look considerably better than realMyst Masterpiece Edition overall. And for anyone whose hardware supports it, 2020 offers ray-tracing, bringing the real-time version of Myst back in sync with the 1993 version for the first time ever.

2020 also debuted the option to play with randomized puzzle solutions, which is a nice touch. Longtime players will still remember where to find the clues, of course, but it’s nice to have a reason to go find them instead of pulling them out of your head.

When played with mouse and keyboard, the game adheres to a pretty standard first-person control scheme, with the view angle controlled by the mouse (with the cursor centered) and movement via keystrokes. This has never been a natural way to navigate Myst, which doesn’t really require freedom of movement per se, and it’s as much of a chore here as it ever has been. A node-based system would have been preferable, but there is no option for it.

But of course, Myst 2020 isn’t meant to be played with mouse and keyboard, not really. It’s first and foremost built for virtual reality. Have we finally achieved the longtime dream of the Myst fandom, the one promised by realMyst? Has The Adventure Become Real? Well… kind of. There is a definite thrill to seeing these familiar environments wrap around you in full stereoscopic 3D; to push buttons by reaching out and pushing them with your actual finger; to lean way, way over the edge of a Channelwood bridge to confirm that yes, it really is a long way down. You can even be fooled into thinking you’re experiencing sensations that aren’t actually there: the thick humidity of Channelwood, say, or a cold wind blowing up from the depths of the Mazerunner tunnels.

Yet VR is a technology that is still in its infancy, and it shows. Doors, even sliding ones, are awkward to use. Some knobs and handles that in 1993 would have been operated with a simple click are now extremely difficult to manipulate. While VR hypothetically makes it possible for the player to pick up and examine objects in a very intuitive way, few objects in Myst 2020 are enabled for this, and the mechanic is awkwardly implemented where it does exist: pick up a mace by the handle and you may find that it instantly snaps up and aims its business end directly at your face. (Valve’s VR flagship Half-Life: Alyx provides a standout example of how this could have been done better. Movement and interaction in that game can be awkward as well, but far less so in general.)

And of course, the VR hardware itself brings some limitations to the table: even a high-end headset like the Valve Index (which is what I used) offers relatively low resolution compared to what you find on a typical computer monitor. You can expect anything in the distance to look pixelated and grainy, which is pretty noticeable in a game that invites you to admire the scenery.

There’s also a small but significant problem with bringing a game like Myst into VR: Myst is still, as it always has been, a “pen-and-paper” game. It was designed with the assumption that you would jot down notes while playing in order to solve puzzles. But try jotting down notes when your head is encased in a heavy plastic blindfold and you have controllers strapped to your hands – it can’t be done! The game provides a camera, which accomplishes a similar function, but it’s awkward to use. If you take a picture of a clue you have to go back through the game’s menus and find the image again every time you need to refer to it. Some sort of in-game sketchpad, or a camera that can be used without venturing into the menus, would have been a good addition.

Still, Myst 2020 fills a niche in the VR market that is surprisingly underserved. VR is a technology that screams out for the kind of slow-paced environmental gameplay that Myst exemplifies, yet relatively few VR titles exist in this domain. Steam’s VR selection features plenty of action and horror titles, plus abstract offerings like the popular Beat Saber, but very little that offers players an opportunity to simply exist in a novel environment. Half-Life: Alyx is an impressive piece of work, but being trapped in a dark basement with an eldritch abomination is not the kind of thing that I necessarily want as a fully-immersive experience. If nothing else, Myst 2020 shows that the potential is there, and hopefully some other game developers will see fit to pick up that mantle.

Beyond Myst 2020, Cyan itself is clearly trying to make VR exploration games a thing. They’ve added VR support to their 2016 title Obduction, taken a VR-first design philosophy for their new game Firmament, and in late 2022 announced that a Riven VR remake is in the works as well. They’ve also begun to act as a publisher for various independent VR games, which says a lot about their interest in the technology’s potential. I wouldn’t go so far as to say that the future of Myst-like VR games looks bright (because by and large I’m not aware of many of them, in any stage of production), but I’d love to be proved wrong.

And as for Myst? Whether it will be remade for a fifth time is anyone’s guess. It depends on what happens with graphics technology, and whether the material can continue to sustain audience interest even past its 30th anniversary. But even if Myst 2020 is the last of its line, the game will have left behind an interesting legacy: 30 years’ worth of technological time capsules, five benchmarks showing the same game under different constraints.


1. Except Channelwood, which was apparently too complex under the constraints of the time.

2. Spyder had previously provided clues (in the form of cryptic verses) to the Easter Eggs of Riven. Who Spyder was, if indeed they were only a single person, has never been revealed.

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