Myst was arguably the first example of “GRR! Casuals are invading our precious hobby!” gamer rage. I remember lots of arguments over whether it could really be considered a game at all, from people who derided its lack of interaction. Myst was the “walking simulator” of our day. Meanwhile, hardcore adventure fans worried – rightfully – that this style was going to replace the Sierra/LucasArts classics. No more witty dialogue and zany situations, just pretty art and weak puzzles, easy enough for the masses. All style, no more substance.
In my opinion, Myst gave life to a genre that was on its way out. The PC user base was growing exponentially, mainstream meant more action titles that sold far better than adventure games ever had, and adventure ideas were starting to run thin. Realistically, how many Space Quests could you make? However, the original Myst was limited by technology. Slow CD-ROMs forced very compressed images, limited resources and time meant only a few “camera angles” could be rendered, and technology had grown leaps and bounds since the original 1993 release.
By the year 2000, personal computers were now able to render Myst’s 3D worlds in real time. It’s not a direct comparison to the original’s stills – those received a level of post-production Photoshop polish these frames don’t – but it’s close enough. You’ll see it most in the jagged trees that don’t get a blur effect added, or in the more simplistic lighting used. Some textures, such as the brothers’ rooms in the Stoneship Age, may have even gotten blurrier and less detailed. But the core goal of realMyst – allowing you to walk these islands in true 3D – gets pulled off as advertised.
As a dopey fan of the original, I have to admit I do get a new sense of wonder out of being able to explore these spaces in 3D. Most of the benefits to doing so are very limited – you’re not really going to find new details in the world, with the exception of a gravestone off the beaten path that ties into the Myst novels. But there’s something about being able to explore all the angles of a scene that feels freeing to someone who remembers the original’s slideshow limitations. If nothing else, having full control over your view and movement helps make some of the more confusing areas (like the treetop village paths) infinitely easier to navigate.
It also highlights how small these worlds actually are, in a way that I don’t remember feeling in 1993. The original release used Apple’s HyperCard program (an early presentation program that popularized hyperlinks before the Web) as the gameplay engine, and there was a limit on how many cards could be in a stack. This means you can knock out worlds in minutes, not hours, with little you can actually interact with. The game gets padded out by only letting you carry one page at a time (the other disappears when you pick its opposite up), forcing you to repeat each world if you want to hear both brothers’ side of the story. Puzzles you’ve solved remain solved, so the return trip is shorter, but it still feels artificially forced.
I’d forgotten, but the original Myst release was limited to 256 colors and a windowed screen view. Native support up to 1024×768 32-bit color makes RealMyst a boost before we’ve even gotten to the 3D part. Direct3D or Glide can be used. Contemporary reviews mention it didn’t run well, but modern cards kick everything out without breaking a sweat. The box also promises remastered music and sound, but I wonder if this is simply reused from 1999’s Myst: Masterpiece Edition (which updates the original’s slides while keeping its click-based movement).
Loading the game up, I definitely had a big grin as I explored the familiar paths of the island. Texture work generally held up to detail up close and looking around with the mouse wasn’t an issue. It felt a bit like going home, with the same hits of nostalgia mixed with the distance of time. I wandered for about 15 minutes, revisiting locations and taking screenshots, and was overall impressed with the return trip to Myst Island after 27 or so years. Interacting with the fantastical, quasi-steampunk machines was also more enjoyable now that they would function and move in a 3D space.
Aside from the new 3D engine, a major selling point was the addition of a day-to-night cycle using dynamic lighting. This part comes off as a novelty more than anything. It only affects Myst Island, and the days are shortened to minutes so that the transition becomes obvious. The island isn’t relit for night – there’s no new lanterns or path lighting or anything similar, so night on the island is just plain dark. But it’s probably wise they didn’t spend much time on this feature. They know you’re going to be moving to the next clue or focused on the next puzzle. Any hope that someone’s going to kick back on the digital dock and vibe to the sunrise is wishful thinking.
Instead of the day/night cycle, weather effects have been added to the various Ages. Rain pours down throughout the Stoneship Age, as lighting flashes and choppy waves beat against the rocks. A light fog effect accompanies the towering trees of Channelwood, while a heavy blue mist covers the Selentic Age. Only the rotating fortress of the Mechanical Age gets no particular environmental touchups, aside from improved water effects. There doesn’t even appear to be a sun in the sky, and clouds spin by in what looks like a basic skybox.
Movement is handled exclusively with the mouse. You can control the hand cursor within a small section of the center screen, any further and you’re moving your entire view. You can never activate a “cursor mode” to move the hand independently, so much of your game will be spent looking directly at the things you want to interact with. Left mouse moves you forward and right mouse moves you back. It’s enough to get through the game with, but you have the option to turn on “Advanced Controls” in the settings application. This is a simple checkbox and can’t be customized, but adds WASD to the above movement.
realMyst changes nothing about the puzzles, diligently recreating them – knobs, switches and all – in the 3D space. Nothing’s going to help you with the rocketship’s music puzzle if you have a tin ear, and the need for outside information still pops up. Being able to read a compass doesn’t seem like a big ask, but if you didn’t know how, there’s no info within the game. The clock puzzle is still unsolvable without the knowledge that you can hold down the levers. It’s this kind of stuff that I think gave the game its reputation as obtuse and confusing, and none of that will have changed here.
One bonus age gets added after you complete the game – the snowy world of Rime. You’ll find a journal describing it, and a short new puzzle on Myst to unlock the Linking Book. The world itself is a frozen island based on the holographic topography map in the original. There’s a journal and a new puzzle here, plus a contraption to play around with, but none of this is crucial. It mostly solidifies Atrus’ obsession with Riven that was referenced in that game, but never in the original. It’s not worth getting realMyst for exclusively, but it’s a neat bonus (along with some hidden easter eggs) for vets returning anyway.
On a final, modern note, realMyst used to be available through Steam and GOG, but has now been supplanted by 2014’s realMyst: Masterpiece Edition. This version runs on Unreal with modern bells and whistles, and is probably the way to go if you’re coming to the series new. Original realMyst doesn’t play well with modern Windows (specifically modern DirectX) and will only work using a Glide wrapper. Still, there’s a lot of versions of Myst – maybe too many at this point – and I look forward to the holodeck edition in 2245.
Robyn Miller apparently called realMyst “overt merchandising of the original Myst,” and it has the reputation of a pointless cash grab. Having played it, I’d disagree. It runs well and it looks lovely, while the freedom of movement is objectively preferred. Some of the original’s artistry may have been lost, but I don’t feel it’s fair to call it soulless copying – there’s still different artistry here through the impressive texture work and the skill at using limited resources to recreate these worlds in real-time. It should never replace the original, but if you told me this was your first encounter with Myst, I wouldn’t be too upset about it.
Mostly achieves the promises of Myst’s 1994 renders come to life. Weather effects are nice additions. Worlds and puzzles are faithfully recreated.
No updates to puzzles, if you were hoping for any. Bonus world doesn’t offer too much. These worlds aren’t redesigned for 3D movement, so while you can explore freely, you won’t really find anything new.