By Garamoth - 7/13/10

Myst is an adventure game series created by Cyan. But you already know about Myst don't you? Everybody has played Myst. You played it, your friend played it, your mom played it and your cat probably gave the mouse a few clicks while your back was turned. While Myst is one of the better known names in the video game industry, it is mostly because of the first game, as not too many people are familiar with the later entries.

There are actually six games in the Myst series, but only three of those are especially relevant, as they are all masterpieces in their own right and ended up defining Cyan as a company. Two Myst games were developed under license by other companies: Myst III was developed by Presto Studios (makers of The Journeyman Project) while Myst IV was developed by Ubisoft Montr?al. For that reason, they feel a little bit... off. Myst V, while developed by Cyan, was a kind of "farewell gift" to longtime fans, made up of unused concepts meant for Uru.

This leaves us with three very important titles: the original Myst, its sequel Riven, and the tragically visionary MMO Uru. The original Myst is the game that started it all. Not only is the first Myst a perfect example of a small team creating a masterpiece and a runaway hit, but it also gave birth to an entire subgenre of adventure games. Riven was to be more of the same, but bigger and better in a multi-million dollar adventure game spanning five CDs. Uru, on the other hand, was born out of the hubristic proposition that you could create a Massively Multiplayer Online Adventure Game. This, as recent history has shown, was not the winning idea that Cyan thought it would be. Uru is the focal point of the Myst franchise, not necessarily because it is the best game, but because it was a gigantic project, one that represented everything the people at Cyan always wanted to do. Not only that, but Uru, in all its doomed grandeur, almost singlehandedly bankrupted the company...which has never quite been the same since.

At its core, the Myst franchise is about fulfilling a loneliness fantasy: you're all alone in surreal imaginary worlds without anybody to kill you or bother you and plenty of puzzles to keep your mind occupied. As you start each game, the story's most important events have already occurred and it's up to you to piece together what happened from journals, drawings and various objects in the rooms. Everything has an "after the fact" feel. The series is also a noble representative of the "figure-out-what-the-hell-you're-supposed-to-do-if-you-can" school of game design. I guess you could call those puzzles "non-directive tasks", but that sounds a bit like psychology babble. In other words, you are thrown in a mysterious world without knowing what you're supposed to do, where you're supposed do to it, how you're supposed to do it or why. I'll be the first to admit that a game that relies on this type of task isn't exactly attractive or easy to get into, but when you make the extra effort, the payoff is really incredible. In other words, it's truly hardcore.

The games' manuals are a perfect example of this design ideology: outside of an introductory letter from some character and basic technical information, you are provided no character bios, no historical background, no gameplay help and no tips. Figuring any of this out is going to be your job. So even saying what a puzzle is about in a Myst game is already giving away half of the solution. Even providing vague hints about the story or the overarching goal is already shedding some light on what should be total darkness. That makes writing about this genre of adventure game a complicated proposition. I'll obviously be going into some of those basic details in this article, so consider yourself warned. I'll try to reveal as little information about the puzzles as is necessary, though.

In presentation as well as interface, Myst is known for its minimalism. That hand floating on the screen, that's you. You click on stuff. That's it. It's the best tutorial you'll ever get. There are no dialogue trees and no endless item lists. Myst is also notorious for having weird machines and crazy locks standing right in front of every single worthwhile destination. The claim that Myst is full of intuitively placed puzzles that reward everyday logic is frankly indefensible. You either have to accept this or cut your losses and start running right now. On the other hand, most people only remember the first game, so they don't know about the effort that was put in later games to better integrate the puzzles in the environment. Riven is particularly successful in that regard.

Still, there are recurring themes in Myst puzzles. Here are the three golden rules:

- Machines won't work if you don't restore power. Do that first. Water, wind, sunlight, breakers, electric current... that weird machine won't do a thing without juice.

- If a symbol looks important, it is. Write it down. Yes, with a paper and a pencil. The pointy thing and the rectangular thing. Yes, I know you bought a computer to get away from those, I don't care. You should also note the initial position of complex machines because a) it might already be set in a favourable position and b) you might click yourself into a corner by messing around without knowing what you did.

- The more inaccessible the back of an object is, the more likely it is that there's going to be something important there (the path of most resistance is always the right one, obviously). So look behind doors and under elevators. If an area can reached in two different ways (sometimes by linking), you can be sure something happens when one entrance is closed and you go through the other.

Although this wasn't fully thought out as of the first game, Myst is about a race called the D'ni. They are long-lived humans who built a city deep under the surface of our planet Earth and thus have a natural aversion to bright light. What is truly interesting about them is the Art, the ability to write worlds called ages and "link" to them using special books. You put your palm on a book created for this purpose and presto, you're in a new world! This is an obvious but fitting metaphor about the power of books, computer programming and the written word in general. The interesting tidbit is that this age isn't created by the writer: it is merely "linked to" from an ocean of infinite possibilities. Every age is unique: you could write exactly the same words twice and not reach the same place again, only a very similar one. I'll let you handle the philosophical implications.

Rand Miller is the father of the franchise as well as a guru to the fans of the universe he's created, making him a bit of a diminutive George Lucas. It also helps that he plays Atrus, the Myst series' central character. Richard "RAWA" Watson is Cyan's official D'ni "historian" and has also been a major influence in creating the D'ni mythology. As an amateur linguist, he created an entire language for the D'ni (both spoken and written) by drawing from his knowledge of Hebrew, German, Spanish and of course English. The sign of a real Trekkie is that he speaks Klingon fluently. Accordingly, the sign of a hardcore Myst fan is that he can read and speak D'ni... and correct mistakes in the game's script. The D'ni also have their own numeric system and are obviously quite obsessed by numbers and gizmos (Why? Cuz' they're a puzzle race, fool!).

The creators also strived to give the D'ni their own architectural style. To make it seem more authentic, the in-house rule was to make everything as original as possible by not resorting to any sci-fi or fantasy clich?. The result is a mix of art nouveau, tribal design and monolithic stone structures that's hard to compare with anything else. Over time, the franchise's style became increasingly unique, but kept touches of steampunk, because the usefulness of elevators and wacky door mechanisms is undeniable no matter the historical setting, as any video game with ruins will attest.

The Myst games were made with a level of attention to detail that is almost unparalleled in videogamedom. Very few companies have an obsessive-compulsive attention to detail, especially when it comes to handling visual elements and ambient sound effects. Maybe there's something about living in the primeval wilderness of the west coast that inspires game makers to create more interesting landscapes and appreciate the sound of the wind blowing through the leaves? Every Myst also has well-hidden Easter eggs, their existence often leaked by an "anonymous source" that gives the fans some extremely obtuse hints on how to find them. So even when you think it's over, there's still something else to look for.

I can already hear the critics: "Loneliness, puzzles and visuals are nice, but where's the narrative?" Granted, Myst may be low of story, but it is really high in history. How many games strive to create their own architectural style and bother to invent a language, both written and spoken that fans can actually speak? Everything in Myst happens after the fact, but you can always find signs of past events and tie together what happened. I really think you have to see it as archaeology.

There is a practice called letting the player "close the circle" when it comes to telling a story, meaning that the player has to put some of the pieces together to fully understand what is going on. This can be done by hiding storyline details or withholding them completely, instead of spoon-feeding your plot. The end result of this narrative practice is that the player builds a deeper relationship with the events, because they did some of the intellectual legwork. Remember how cool it was piecing the chronology of Pulp Fiction together? The other advantage is that if you don't give a damn about stupid stories, you can just focus on the task at hand, ignore all extraneous details and enjoy the ride. If you don't want Myst to have a story, it doesn't have one. Surely, those looking to be force-fed storyline must have had their fill by now? Wasn't Metal Gear Solid 4 enough? No endless text, no incessant cutscenes, but an endless amount of little details to discover that add up to the hidden story of a civilization's downfall. Everybody's happy. That's the way all video game storylines should be handled, really.

Anyway, I don't know why people say video games are a good storytelling medium, as they usually are a terrible storytelling medium: the plot always has to make concessions to the gameplay in order to find new ways for you to kill stuff, preferably in a contrived way that will still put you in the role of the good guy. So I'm not sure why Myst is especially accused of being contrived, in the sense that it's all just puzzles lying there. I mean, I've never heard anyone badmouth Warhammer 40,000 by saying that the story is just an excuse to get you to fight more bloody battles. It's always nice when a game is incorporated in a coherent environment, but when you play a genre based on puzzles you have to expect some doors locked away by improbable mechanisms.

Video games may not be good at storytelling, but on the other hand they are excellent at worldbuilding. This is where the ages come in, obviously. Myst games aren't about people, but places. The worlds, or ages, are the true characters of Myst. Since HG101 is infamous for its small character bios, why not give Myst's ages the same treatment?

You must know that Myst is part of a little controversy. Ever since adventure games mostly went the way of the dinosaurs, there's this game called "Who killed the adventure game?" among fans of the genre. Myst is often accused of being the culprit. That's because there are two schools of adventure games. On one hand you have the LucasArts/Sierra-type games, usually third-person and centered around dialogue and item management. On the other, you have the Myst-type games, usually first-person and centered around atmosphere and manipulating machinery. This family includes what are not-so affectionately called the Myst clones (by the way, what is a Myst-clone or a Doom-clone except a member of a new subgenre that hasn't found a name yet?). So there's a bit of a war going on between the fans of the two styles, one that can only end with the complete obliteration of the Earth. Presumably.

In fact, some people do not even consider Myst an adventure game, because it has little to no character interaction and puts heavy emphasis on visual and aural design. Maybe it's an artistic 3D virtual environment simulation with imbedded logic problems, who knows? Personally, I always thought the puzzle aspect was the important bit. You could also say that the puzzles in the other type of adventure games are nothing more than glorified pixel hunts followed by using everything on everything else to find the one wacky item combination that works. Besides, a lot of LucasArts/Sierra-type games seem to consider that the constant exchange of witty banter is something that trumps all other considerations. Case in point: The Longest Journey. Jesus, that game just won't shut up. Ever.

Anyway, this isn't an article about war, it's an article about love. For the most part. As for Myst being the culprit for "killing" the adventure genre, that's a pretty big claim considering you can find a much more likely candidate in the advent of better 3D better technology. Better 3D meant less static games and the possibility for more intense action, so gamers flocked to the new stuff, just as decent computer graphics relegated the text adventure genre to obscurity. No single culprit, just a gradual change in tastes and technology. I'll leave it up to you to decide if this was an evolution for the better or not.

While many runaway hits in the video game world have now turned into colossal billion-dollar franchises, Myst somehow fell off the radar entirely. I think it's because Cyan missed a crucial step in their development as a company, one you hear often about in management circles: going from a successful small business to a very successful large business. Obviously, you don't always get the chance to take that step, as success can be fickle. Conversely, some companies choose not to grow larger, because the decision is not easy as it sounds: while you'll be swimming in cash, you'll lose creative control over your baby and see it turn into a soulless monster that hungers for more money. It's actually a tough choice, one that Cyan didn't or couldn't make. Myst was their baby after all, one they weren't going to turn into a complacent cash cow. I'd applaud them for "keeping it real", but considering they've met major financial difficulties, I wonder if they'll actually become a successful small company again soon.

The Sims has now become the best-selling game of all time, supplanting Myst. It seems the glory days of the Myst series and the adventure genre have gone away like the nineties. Nowadays, mainstream video game reviewers give almost every low-budget adventure game that comes along 6 out of 10 or so. More of the same, they say. What about FPSes where you always have to shoot people, first with a pistol, then with a shotgun and finally with a machine gun? Isn't that lame? I do get their point, though: originality is key in adventure games, since your brain will quickly get bored from applying the same solution over and over, but using your reflexes never gets old. It's just too bad few companies are willing to give the genre a stab... or maybe there just aren't that many new puzzle ideas to come up with. I think the real reason is simply that the gamers' dollars are just going elsewhere these days, leaving the adventure genre with a noble past, but very little future.

Myst

Myst

Riven

Riven

Riven

Myst III: Exile

Myst III: Exile

Myst IV: Revelation

Myst IV: Revelation

Myst V: End of Ages

Myst V: End of Ages

Uru: Complete

Uru: Complete

Uru: Complete

Myst - IBM PC / Macintosh / Playstation / Saturn / PSP / DS / iPhone / Pocket PC / Jaguar CD/ CD-i/ 3DO (1994)

Cover

Myst

Myst

There once was a time when Myst was the biggest, baddest thing in gaming. It was one of the first things you would put in your brand new computer equipped with the latest hi-tech gadget: the CD-ROM drive. The game was made by a small team of seven including Rand and Robyn Miller, the two visionaries behind the series who also happen to play the roles of the characters in the game.

Myst is about Atrus, a man who has the power to create worlds by writing books and his two sons of very ambiguous moral character, Sirrus and Achenar. Of course, you know nothing of this at first, as your character (a nameless, faceless protagonist) gets literally dropped onto Myst Island by looking at a linking book, without a clue as to what's going on. You do find the two brothers early on in the main building, but they are trapped in red and blue books and it is impossible to understand what they are saying. You will then have to look for more linking books cleverly hidden on Myst Island where you will find red and blue pages. Bringing those back to the colored books will clear up the static and help you understand what the brothers are saying. Their speech will eventually be clear enough for them to give you a final clue that will allow you to finish the game. You will then have to make a decision as to whom you will help escape. Each one accuses the other of foul play, but which one is telling the truth? The annoying bit about the colored pages is that you can only carry a single one at a time. That means that you have to go through every age twice to hear what both brothers have to say.

Myst

Myst

The Ages

Stoneship
A ship stuck inside of a gigantic rock, hence the name. This age requires you to restore power and lighting, tasks that will become synonymous with the Myst series. You also have to deal with flooded areas of the ship. Like most other ages of Myst, Sirrus and Achenar each have a room in here, the ones in Stoneship being the biggest. Their rooms offer a glimpse into their character, Sirrus apparently being a hypocritical violent snob and Achenar just being violent. Maybe the "no-inventory" rule wasn't as clear-cut in the first game, since you can pick up a key in Stoneship and use it in the same room (gasp!). As if being able to hold a single page wasn't already too much to deal with... what's next, combining items?

Selenetic
A deserted island ravaged by meteor showers. Sirrus and Achenar don't have rooms here since the place is completely barren, with nothing to plunder and nobody to exploit. Selenetic is a sound puzzle age. Some people hate those. First, getting there involves a pretty difficult piano puzzle, especially if you have a terrible ear for music. Once there, you have to match symbols with ambient noises heard around the island. This is one of the first ages that show the creators' obsession with intricate sound design. That clock you can hear here is actually the modified ringing of a monkey wrench. The bubble sounds have been made by blowing into a toilet. The age ends with a classic, yet still utterly tedious first-person labyrinth. The fact that you're stuck in a submarine thingy with only a tiny porthole to look out through and that you have to navigate by using the sub's slow and clumsy controls doesn't help either. And you're going to have to go through it twice to get both colored pages.

Mechanical
A large rotating fortress in the middle of the sea built to fend off pirates. The age's single puzzle involves rotating the fortress in order to find a way out of the place. Not that great, really. The only thing interesting about Mechanical is that the exit is literally right next to the link-in point, but you'll have to rotate the fortress all over the place to find the combination to the exit, only to go right back where you started.

Channelwood
Now this is more like it! You start out on boardwalks in a marsh filled with the sound of frogs singing. After tinkering with a nearby windmill, you can gain access to an awesome treetop village, Ewok-style. You can find a machine that plays images of Achenar saying some really threatening-sounding stuff meant for the natives of Channelwood, but the speech is actually just gibberish; Richard Watson didn't start inventing languages for the Myst universe until Riven.
Rime
A new age exclusive to realMyst and all the later ports of the original Myst (in which Rime is made up of 2D stills taken straight from the 3D realMyst version). In the original game, your "reward" for finishing the game is being able to go back to the ages you've previously visited. In realMyst and the later ports, you are given a hint as to how to find Rime. Rime is a tiny hut on a bleak iceberg. Yet the age is not entirely lifeless, as you can see whale-like beasts in the water. This age is a bit of a tie-in with other games of the series, as putting color crystals of specific shapes in a machine (a puzzle you can also find in Myst IV) will let you catch a glimpse of Riven.

Myst was created by rendering the environments in 3D and then turning it into about 2500 two-dimensional interactive slides with HyperCard. In other words, it's a bit like cooking an entire loaf of bread just to keep a single piece of toast. True 3D was much too hard on the average computer in those days. The game's claim to fame is that it contained a whopping 2500 images, 40 minutes of music and 66 minutes of Quicktime video. Computers sure have changed a lot since then. Some of the team's technical issues, like paring down images from an impossible to process 500k to a manageable 80k, are also pretty quaint by today's standards. One sign of this effort to save space is that most of these 66 minutes of video are watched in tiny windows, whether it is the actual window of an elevator or a linking book's small frame. It's not too bad, but it is noticeable and does little to break the illusion that the game is in fact very static.

At that point, the Miller brothers hadn't fully thought up of the D'ni civilization, as the visuals of the game still have a lot in common with their first inspiration: Jules Verne's The Mysterious Island (yes, that's where the name comes from). The sound effects were obviously not as top-notch as those of the later entries, but they already show the kind of creativity and hands-on approach that makes these games great. Here are a few more examples: flames are actually the sound of a car running over gravel, as real fire noises didn't feel "fire-y" enough. The sound effect for the square buttons in the fireplace is actually an air-compressor tank attached to an industrial staple gun. This is also where the "whooshing" linking sound was born, one of the most famous sound effects in videogamedom, right next to Mario "growing up" after eating a mushroom and Solid Snake receiving a Codec transmission. None of the puzzles in Myst are terribly complicated, but they involve the three classic rules of the franchise: restore power, look behind objects and write down any symbol that even looks at you funny. All things considered, the original game is pretty easy, especially since the other games in the franchise usually start from the same template and then add a few layers of complexity to the puzzles. Even then, the original package included three increasingly obvious hints on how to solve the game's first hurdle: how to actually reach any of the other ages. This is the only game in the franchise to be generous enough to offer any direct hints in the box.

The game has four endings, but only one of those is the real one. The others are pretty much "Game Over". In fact, like all other Myst games to follow, you can only die or get stuck at the very end of the game, and only by making a bad call. No grues here. Just create a different save file near the end of the game before making any important decision. Even the good ending is a cliff-hanger, as you are told that you will be called on later to undertake another important task, which will only happen if you buy the sequel...

The most interesting thing about the game is that it can be completed from start to finish in less than two minutes, but that supposes you already know what has to be done and how to do it. Of course, actually gathering this information requires you to go through all the ages and finish the game normally. It's only after learning everything you have to learn about Myst Island that you can really realize just how close you were to victory right from the starting line (it's a bit like that movie Cube, when you think about it). Now if this is not a great tribute to the power of knowledge, I don't know what is.

Cyan remade the game in 2000 with Myst: Masterpiece Edition. It's basically the same game, except using the original 24-bit colors renders instead of the pared down, 8-bit stills. The step in quality is hard to notice, which just goes to show how efficiently Cyan compressed and dithered the original renders. It also featured in-game hints, presumably for people who consider navigating the web an even greater riddle. On the other hand, realMyst, also released in 2000, is the real deal: a full 3D version of Myst including weather effects like rain, thunderstorms, sunsets and a day/night cycle. It also features the Rime age described earlier. Another small change is that Ti'ana's grave was added on Myst Island, Ti'ana being Atrus' grandmother and the main character of one of the Myst novels. realMyst was partly created as a tech demo for the then upcoming Uru: Ages Beyond Myst. It was Cyan's way of warming up to the idea of giving a third dimension to the player.

Myst is a contender for the "highest number of ports for a videogame" award. If you don't count Myst: Masterpiece Edition and realMyst for both PC and Mac, there are Myst ports for Playstation, Saturn, PSP, DS, iPhone, PocketPC, Jaguar CD, AmigaOS, CD-i and 3DO. All of them can be described with varying degrees of "meh", mostly because pointing at stuff without a mouse feels a lot less natural. The visuals also lose some fidelity in moving from a SVGA computer monitor to television or a portable screen. The DS version lets you use little gizmos like a notebook, a camera and a magnifying glass to help you in your exploration. Apparently, none of this helps you figure out the tiny, muddy graphics, least of all point on them with the stylus in a way the game acknowledges. All in all, these ports seem pretty pointless since there's not much excitement in replaying the game if you already know all the solutions and new players should probably try one of the computer editions instead of some subpar port (at least every other port/remake of Final Fantasy added a little something to the mix). One might be inclined to say that Cyan is behaving like an evil corporation for allowing so many shoddy versions of their product to see the light of day, but the company is apparently often tight on cash and projects like these help them stay afloat. Anyhow, realMyst on PC or Mac is the definitive version of Myst, as it includes Rime, is the best-looking version of the game and the only one in 3D, despite the fact that many ports were created after realMyst's release... which makes those ports even more futile.

Myst is an excellent game, albeit one that was partly overshadowed by its many sequels and the leaps in computer technology. What used to be amazing graphics now looks merely tolerable. Plus, the game doesn't have the same attention to detail that some of the later titles have. There hasn't been much of an effort to integrate the puzzles in a coherent universe either. Mostly, what holds me back in giving praise to Myst is that a few years later Riven blew it out of the water in every way possible. And yet Myst is the one game everybody remembers and remains the top seller. On the other hand, Myst is the beginning of an idea: this is where the concept of linking books was born, but before the D'ni civilization was invented. It's still a great place to explore and the original "surreal adventure", full of, well, myst-ery. There, I've said it. Myst remains one of the classics, so anybody interested in adventure games should obviously give it a spin. Compared to later games, Myst is shorter and has relatively simpler puzzles, so it's an excellent entry point for new players.

Myst

Myst

Myst

Myst

Myst

realMyst

Comparison Screenshots

Myst

realMyst

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