Return to Myst

This Thanksgiving weekend, during the Steam Sale, I decided to scratch an itch. It was time to refresh my mind and clear off one of the many years-old entries on my wishlist. I carry old and new games alike on that list, waiting for my enthusiasm for them, and my available time, to exceed the price.

Exceed it did when I recognized I’d waited long enough to revisit Myst. The realMyst: Masterpiece Edition, to be specific, which is the second remake of the classic 1993 computer game Myst.(1)Note that all screenshots are from the newer version.

Original Myst

The significance of the original Myst is hard to overstate both generally and personally. It was a totally new kind of game at the time, pioneering CD technology, rendering 3D graphics, boldly letting players roam without direct instruction, and becoming the best-selling game for many years.

Before I was ten I was wandering around the island, finding and playing with anything I could find. Every response from the game was magical, every door opened a miracle. Lacking basic knowledge of music, electricity, astronomy, pressure, and pumps at the time made success or failure seem close to random, but at least repeatable. I could barely understand the hand-written journals and notes, and I had little ability to piece together the bits of story purposefully placed to guide the player.

What I understood back then, though, was that once you entered an age (a level of the game), it was very hard to get back. You have to solve a few puzzles before that was possible, and sometimes I simply couldn’t do that. The idea of being trapped on these small islands for eternity affected me. What would they do? How lonely would that be? I wondered what people did for food!

Sure, you could restart the game and lose very little. I did this so often that I memorized certain puzzle solutions to speedily reach certain dead ends I didn’t know how to escape. It was the idea, though, the nascent notion of infinity in any one of these small, finite worlds that deeply influenced me. It must have been one of my very first vivid experiences of an imaginative world.

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realMyst: Masterpiece Edition

When I returned to the game so many years later, a different appreciation, and some frustration, emerged. I knew most of the puzzles by heart, missing only the combination, number, or pattern needed to continue. I wouldn’t get back the sense of discovery of the moving parts of each level, that slow realization of the larger puzzle and theme for the world. But I didn’t expect that to appear again.

I read all the books available in the library that describe the history of each age, now fully able to appreciate the detail therein. I learned some of the world’s rules behind creating ages and moving between them.(2)Though I have played Uru, so I knew some of this from that later Myst spinoff. This added immense richness to each level, explaining why Stoneship is flooded and how Mechanical is designed. It raised disturbing questions about what happened to the people in those ages as described in the writing, since Myst is such a solitary experience.

Myst05It was fun to go back and test my memory and mastery of the puzzles. The experience of playing through Steam also helped, allowing me to take screenshots of important passages, sketches, and images. I still had to jot down some notes of my own, which was a welcome part of the experience.

The touted graphical update with this second re-release is significant, but it still feels far from the current standard seen in games released in recent years. It’s beautiful at times, to be sure, but perhaps there are limitations to how much this admittedly small game can be painted over. The game suffered severe framerate loss in the extra age for the re-releases, as well.

Other design choices and limitations from the 90s stick out twenty years later. All the original sound effects and full-motion video are present in this game. The video, while only seen in a few select places, is of low quality, and it sticks out.(3)Even the “bad communication” effect is basically television static or a damaged video cassette. Very 90s. The background music smoothly transitions and sits well today. The various sound effects for doors and buttons, however, sound not only dated but at annoying volume levels. I have new appreciation for advances in 3D environment sound design in other games now.

I think it’s fair to presume this game was updated on the cheap, especially given that achievements for the game have yet to be implemented, even though they exist. I find that unfortunate, since I would happily welcome a complete remake of the game. This would require new actors (for the limited parts they play), as well as remastered sound. Technical glitches and controls would need to be addressed, as well. This treatment is what Myst deserves, if it were possible to do so faithfully. I’d believe the argument that what makes Myst great is inseparable from these design quirks and limitations.

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Modern Games

After reliving as much of the experience as is possible for a game I remember so well, I began wondering what has or will take its place going forward. Who is pioneering the puzzle/adventure game genre into new places? I’m especially interested in games that create a similar feeling to Myst where so little is known of what is happening and discovery is primarily self-directed. I’ve come up with a few examples that hit on different aspects of Myst’s magic.

The Stanley Parable

This game expands and grows well beyond what it initially appears to be, and even further beyond what its original free Half-Life 2 mod did. It has within it many moments of awe, trickery, and great surprise. Its “puzzles” are much less of the capital-P variety and more about testing the limits of the game to see where the developers expected you. Perhaps it can be considered the Myst of the experienced gamer.

Gone Home

This game evokes Myst in its complete lack of direction and emphasis on piecing together the story through investigation, reading, and examination. The characters have a depth beyond what an average playthrough might obviously show, as well. No other motivation for playing the game exists except for unraveling what happened to the people in the story and inhabiting a small portion of the world they reside in. I wrote about this game last year.

Kentucky Route Zero

While more linear than Myst, this game takes a similarly subdued storytelling approach, slowly doling out morsels of information about the world or characters. It’s creepy or mysterious at times, but the player is never fearing for their life, again like in Myst. The game is full of mystery and metaphor, leading to a sense of unknown. Its visuals and interactivity are simple, but yet seemingly timeless.

FEZ

Portraying itself as a platformer with a simple gimmick of rotating the world around the player, the similarity this game has to Myst is in its hidden depth and puzzle design. I did not immerse myself too deeply into the many puzzles this game offers,(4)But yet that are almost completely miss-able to the average player but the lack of direction and necessity of intuiting minimal and disparate information into a solution strongly evokes Myst design.
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Future of the Genre

When I think of these recent and very enjoyable games, I worry and long less for the lightning-in -a-bottle moment of the release of Myst in 1993. I believe in developers today who are taking video gaming into even further uncharted territory. I see the themes and lessons of Myst living on stronger than ever. No one game may have everything this title captured in us at the time, but as the medium matures, we will experience even greater surprises and triumphs than Cyan Worlds even imagined.

…Or maybe they’re imagining right now. The company behind Myst and its sequels are developing a game after a successful Kickstarter that was presented as mimicking the same feeling of mystery and curiosity as when the player first lands on the dock in Myst. It’s called Obduction, and it looks very exciting, as well.

It makes me happy to see this genre and its themes thriving in its parent company as well as throughout the medium of video games. I know there are more that capture the essence of what makes Myst so great. Please share if you have a favorite I missed!

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Notes   [ + ]

One thought on “Return to Myst

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