I realized today that in the course of my PC reviews, I reference Myst nine times out of ten. This comes as an acknowledgment that Myst was, for a long time, the best-selling computer game of all time. It also changed the look of adventure gaming, and as its style was copied endlessly after its release, it makes for good comparison. It’s much like how a Doom-clone can’t be talked about without referencing the game that inspired it. So, since I mention the game so damn much, I decided I might as well review it so I’d have something to link to.
Once we got up to about seven floppy disks to install a single game, people started getting a little understandably frustrated. Enter the CD, with seemingly more storage space than the National Archives. Meanwhile, computer graphics for the home were trending toward increased colors and higher resolution – usually led by Apple’s products. Windows 3.1 was coming about. And CG rendering and ray-tracing, spurred on by high-profile success in Hollywood since Tron, was now getting to the point were decent modeling and texturing could be done on a desktop Mac Quadra.
These elements came together to lay the groundwork for what would be Myst – a disc brimming with gorgeous computer-rendered worlds for our exploration. Tech-heads and artsy types loved it because it represented the next generation of computer graphics, and looked phenomenal. People who generally didn’t like computer games liked it, because it was completely free of violence, and offered a passive chance to explore a stunning world at your own pace. Adventure gamers liked it, because it hearkened back to Zork, but with pretty pictures instead of cold text. The hard-core elite gamers declared it was boring and stupid, and went back to the much harder-core Doom.
This was one of the first times computer games were legitimately considered as art, and sold both a handy amount of CD-ROM drives, and the interest in virtual worlds. There was, however, a compromise. Home computing power wasn’t nearly enough for the average box to generate these worlds in real-time, so the entire game is made up of still images taken from points off the world inside the developer’s render system. Myst is a slideshow where you simply click to move to the next frame, and 3D spaces are broken into four basic views for north, south, east, and west of that point.
Big deal, right? Text-based adventures broke the infinite options of motion into four cardinal directions, and had been doing it for a decade. Nobody complained about that. However, Myst had the nasty habit of picking the cinematic angle over the logical one, meaning your expected 90° turn may actually be any number in between. The fixed images further prevented you from examining the world in detail – there was no “look” command as in text adventures. If you wanted to take a look around the beautiful dock, watch the waves roll in, look up at the sky, or track the birds flying across the horizon, well, too bad. If there was an object on the edge of the screen you want to turn toward to get a better look at, forget it.
In fact, Myst’s first person perspective and extremely minimalist interface (really, just a hand cursor) introduced a new set of gaming “language” challenges. Myst was, ironically, a text adventure in reverse – it was all pictures and no guiding text. Whereas text players had to imagine what an object looked like from reading its description, Myst players had to imagine an object’s description from what it looked like. It forced a shift for players used to getting clues on how to proceed from reading about how “the rock feels like it has something inside.” Now, you had to look at an object, run your mouse over it to see if there was anything you could click, then scratch your head and put it back until you maybe found a use for it later.
That’s probably the source of most complaints regarding how “obtuse” the puzzles are. They really aren’t, and make a fair amount of logical sense, but you have to shift your mind into a very visual way of thinking. Well, auditory too – heaven help you if you’re tone deaf, as Myst has an entire world devoted to audio puzzles (plus that damn minecar, navigated with obscure beeps and “donk”s). The speed at which slides would crossfade into others was also somewhat slow (your computer ultimately determined this), making backtracking onerous. In serious cases, you might have to backtrack all the way back to the Myst library to consult its books on a puzzle. That’s, potentially, a lot of clicking.
Still, there’s something here. The concept of casually exploring extremely varied worlds really is carried off as well the technology would allow. The art design is fantastic, and the next sight to see is unquestionably what will drive you forward. Clever use of environmental audio and a spartan soundtrack further help the worlds feel both fantastic and alive. It’s a relaxed journey, and so radically different than the console platformers, 3D racers, or burgeoning FPS titles that surrounded it.
The story’s not bad either. You play as someone who has stumbled into a world where gifted authors write detailed books describing fantastic worlds. At the end of the book, a portal allows you to teleport to the world described. These are vastly different in style, and are all small islands carved from the endless “canvas” of the ocean. The island of Myst, and its library, act as a hub. It’s seemingly abandoned, with a few scant messages from Atrus, its apparent author.
Further, there are red and blue books that each contain a person trapped within. They’re two brothers – Sirrus and Achenar – and the only people you’ll see in the game. Each begs you to find more pages for their respective book, which seems to “restore” it and allow them to speak to you more clearly. Finding these (sometimes) hidden pages forms your main quest here, and the reason to go diving into these worlds.
Interestingly enough, the story really isn’t told to you directly. Most of the above comes from observation, and drawing your own conclusions about where you are, what these worlds (called “Ages”) actually represent, and what exactly happened to Atrus and his family. There are clues to find, of course, and each Age has a dormitory for the two brothers with trinkets and decorations that reflect their personalities – but you’re never outright told either one’s mental state. Instead, you’ll increasingly feel like you have to choose between the lesser of two evils.
Some non-magical books in the library are Atrus’ journals, each describing his adventures in the four worlds you can travel to, and these make up the only traditional backstory. In fact, these worlds seem to be more like summer homes for Atrus and family, but again, you never collect enough information about them to make that kind of judgment.
Naturally, exploration is the name of the game, with frequent puzzles to be solved along the way. If you’re enamored with the worlds, and curious to learn more about the conflict between the brothers, you’re on the path to enjoying this game. However, roaming around worlds and collecting pages for the brothers’ books is all that ever happens. Once you enter a new age, you’ll have to solve a series of puzzles to unlock the link back to Myst. With this done, you can optionally return for the other brother’s page (you can only carry one at a time), but there’s nothing more to do than move on to the next world.
This is where the main criticism of Myst usually gets leveled – that it’s a pretty game where nothing happens. To a point, this is true. Myst’s greatest assets are on its surface. It is fun to explore strictly for the sake of exploring, perhaps let your mind wander and try to interject your own ideas of what may have transpired before your arrival, and it makes for a nice, laid-back little game. But if you’re looking for something beyond strolling through tall trees and gazing at constellations to solve a door puzzle, you’re going to be bored out of your mind here. Also, forget about replay. Once the puzzles are solved, there’s no reason to return, unless you really want to study the art of these virtual locations.
Myst is a classic, defining adventure game, but more for its high-art visuals and new gameplay style. When a game is called “Myst-like,” that’s because it uses the same technique of exploring by clicking through still images, not because it recreates the experience of walking through the woods with nothing to do. That’s not to say it’s a bad game, and it’s so completely inoffensive and casual that I can see why so many people bought it. However, some of the puzzles are complicated, and since this game came out before the proliferation of FAQs and walkthroughs on the Internet, I suspect not many people ever finished it. Lovely game if you’re prepared for it, but admittedly, not something every gamer will enjoy.
Great visuals, friendly new style of point & click exploration, distinct worlds to visit.
High on art and design, but low on plot and adventure.