Myst in Retrospect: Uru, Ages Beyond Myst

Warning: Spoilers abound. If you haven’t played Uru, I suggest you do so before proceeding. You can buy it at gog.com, and it’s actually on sale this weekend, so why not.

Hey, it's that guy!

Imagine a new social network based on poems. The site will debut with a selection of original poems, and you and your friends will be able to read them and base your interactions on them. Gradually new poems will be added to the mix and the userbase will be able to slowly understand and help to build a narrative around the poems, creating a sort of living, breathing artwork. It’s a clever idea, and a couple poems released as teasers show that the site has a lot of promise. Sadly, however, when the site finally debuts, something has gone wrong in development. Instead of the vibrant scene you were promised, there’s just one page with a handful of poems. There’s not even anywhere to post a comment. The poems are still well-written, and you enjoy reading them, but you can’t shake the feeling that you could have been a part of something much bigger. Welcome to the beautiful and depressing world of Uru.

After completing Riven, Cyan went quiet and began work on a multiplayer Myst game which was codenamed “Mudpie.” Myst having been perhaps the quintessential single-player experience, a lonely adventure with no room for cooperation, the concept was a surprising one. Fans were largely intrigued but somewhat apprehensive. Cyans’ occasional preview screenshots offered glimpses into a game that seemed perennially just out-of-reach, accompanied by promises of social gameplay, freedom of movement, real-time graphics, ongoing storylines, and (perhaps most tantalizing of all) access to the D’ni city itself. During the game’s five-year development period, Cyan’s publisher, Ubisoft, requested that a single-player version be built as well; dialup users were still a majority at the time and Ubisoft didn’t want a product that required broadband. The single-player version was released on schedule under the title Uru: Ages Beyond Myst. The mutliplayer version, Uru Live, was subject to numerous delays and was eventually canceled. Over time it resurfaced in various incarnations, but never in the form it was intended. The vast majority of players never experienced any online play at all, and know Uru only from its offline skeleton, a vast yet incomplete universe which always opens to a view of your mostly-empty bookshelf. We will be looking only at the single player version of the game, starting with Ages Beyond Myst and then continuing through the two expansion packs, To D’ni and The Path of the Shell. This, like it or not, has become the Uru canon, and we will treat it as such, but (to paraphrase Atrus) it’s important to think about what the creators hoped to achieve, compared to what the game truly is.

Uru is in many ways something of an oddity in the series overall, even without the multiplayer component. We leave behind not only Atrus and his family, but their entire time period, transitioning into the present day and a universe which includes vestiges of the real world. We get to experience the history of the D’ni civilization, but only in the role of archaeologists and historians, as D’ni is already long-dead at the start of the game. Myst‘s creators and fans had long enjoyed blurring the line between fantasy and reality, but the games themselves were unaffected by the outside world prior to Uru, which goes so far as to make a number of real people into in-game characters, such as longtime “D’ni historian” Richard Watson and Myst creators Rand and Robyn Miller. The game environment is also filled with real-world clutter: styrofoam, t-shirts, composition notebooks, and the infamous orange construction cones, reinforcing the idea that the digital environment is a recreation of events which we’re supposed to imagine are literally taking place. It’s an interesting conceit, especially in the context of the intended multiplayer experience, and one which (to my knowledge) has never been attempted anywhere else. Uru is also distanced from the other games by its realtime graphics and freedom of motion, aspects which it utilizes (to varying degrees of success) in many different puzzles. (Myst V uses realtime graphics as well but does not ever make use of the player character’s physicality.) Uru‘s most unfortunate departure from the Myst formula, however, is its absence of actual story. The preceding games were invariably about following and understanding a story from the inside out, reading diaries and pawing through ephemera to learn about the characters and their lives. Uru, while still including the usual invasions of privacy, doesn’t really have much in the way of characters or plot, so much of what we find reveals not pieces of a sweeping narrative but something more, well, realistic: the humdrum rhythms of daily life. There is a storyline of sorts (as we will see), but its characters are obscure and its actual content feels marginal and is largely disappointing. This is in part another symptom of Uru‘s “dead-on-arrival” state, as the story was supposed to be dealt out in tiny pieces and reinforced by the players, but that doesn’t make up for its absence. While it tries to be as accessible as possible, Uru nonetheless is a somewhat forbidding game, often coming across more like an austere experiment than a viable adventure experience.

Time for another screenshot.

Uru was also frequently advertised as a departure from role-playing games: a game world in which you play as yourself rather than as a character, an innovation which the creators found so appealing that it was incorporated into the game’s very title: you-are-you. This whole idea seems somewhat less novel, however, when compared to the original pre-canon-fatigue Myst, which was described in many of the same ways. “You have stumbled across a most intriguing book,” the game’s manual informs us, making no mention of “The Stranger” and giving every indication that we’re supposed to approach the game as if it was a story happening to us. While the complications of keeping a tidy canon eventually forced the Myst player character to take on an identity, it’s important to remember that “you-are-you” was not a new idea. Uru was also frequently described as an opportunity to escape from reality; its early magazine advertisements showed a typical elevator door opening to reveal the Age of Teledahn on the other side. This concept is practically taken directly from old Myst advertising. A 1999 magazine ad for Myst: Masterpiece Edition describes the gameplay experience as a way to “forget everyday worries” and “get away from it all.” (Finding this ad was a somewhat surreal experience for me. Having spent a lot of time critiquing Myst as a work of art, it seemed somewhat disingenuous to see it being sold as a cheap alternative to a cruise.) My point in all this is not to paint Uru as unoriginal but to highlight the fact that it followed many of the same paths as the original Myst, and in many ways did so more closely than Myst‘s direct sequels. The theme of “new beginnings” runs throughout the D’ni story arc, and Uru can be seen as an attempt to bring about a fresh start in the series overall. Yet it was also a callback to what had come before: smaller Ages, simpler goals, and understated action.

The first game in the Atrus-free arc opens, predictably, with a voiceover from Atrus. He is speaking to Yeesha about a dream Katran had (why isn’t Katran the one speaking?) which predicts that groups of strangers from the surface will soon be drawn to D’ni by some sort of supernatural compulsion. The dream also indicates that Yeesha, the “desert bird,” will be their guide. This introduction highlights one of the problems with Uru overall, a problem which I also called attention to in relation to Serenia: there’s too much supernatural stuff going on. We’ve come to expect just one supernatural thing in this universe, linking books, and they follow a lot of very specific rules. Uru introduces a lot more magic, ranging from excusable to downright annoying. For example, the Uru player character cannot die because she carries a special linking book which allows her to link away at the last second. The book is not left behind after the link, though, violating what had up until now been understood as an axiom. This is forgivable, though, as it’s a necessary gameplay mechanic (similar to how the Trap Books were understood to be non-canonical). The prophecies, however, seem a bit much, as do some of the more elaborate Linking-related shenanigans. We spend a lot of time in Uru linking with things other than books, and Yeesha herself has somehow learned to link at will. If Uru is supposed to represent the “real” D’ni, why is it filled with things we’d previously been told did not exist in the “real” D’ni?

The first big differences between this game and the originals are immediately apparent after the intro is over: the player sees a control-system guide (never needed in the old era’s point-and-click simplicity) and a third-person representation of himself in the environment. As a social game, the addition of avatars was critical, but in the context of a single-player game I think it ultimately hampers the gameplay experience. When I first played the game it seemed novel, but as the years have passed I find I prefer the first-person experience, which allows more freedom to look around and lacks the jarring “jump-cut” transitions the third-person frequently employs. Uru ultimately becomes a game with no real objective beyond looking at things, and the third-person view does little beyond making it harder to do so.

Can you say that again, and look me in the eyes this time?

The game begins at the Cleft, where Anna, Gehn, and Atrus all spent formative years. A hologram of the now-adult Yeesha explains the objective of the game via a long and impassioned speech about the stream in the Cleft. It all sounds vaguely poetic, but the more I hear it the less actual sense it seems to make. It’s somewhat disappointing that in trying to make Yeesha seem cryptic and mysterious, the creators succeeded only in making her meaningless. She is never really developed as a character in Uru, because whenever we hear her speak, it’s only in this nonsensical poetry that give us no insight into her actual personality. We don’t get to look at her stuff, read her diaries, or do anything that would cement her as anything other than a voice that preaches at us in a funny way. It’s less like participating in a narrative and more like doing the bidding of a weird deity, and that’s something of a shame.

The quest Yeesha tasks us with, “The Journey,” consists of visiting five different D’ni Ages and wandering through them as a sort of distanced observer. In each Age we find seven Journey Cloths, each of which must be touched by the player before the Age can be completed. Yeesha places these cloths at intervals throughout the Age, so the player is forced by necessity to explore the entire environment. Yeesha’s primary goal at all times seems to be to paint the D’ni in as bad a light as possible, demonizing and criminalizing the entire society on the grounds that it oppressed the bahro, a species of strange creatures which seem to hail from the space between Ages. As such, the Journey Cloths are placed strategically, forcing us to visit various prisons, cages, torture chambers, and elegant gardens which Yeesha presents as evidence of wrongdoing. The Journey Cloth concept itself is somewhat shallow, though, as there’s little to mask the fact that it’s nothing more than a glorified easter-egg hunt. The original Myst used the same mechanic to a degree: you visit an Age, search for a red or blue page, then search for a Myst book, all the while stumbling across more incriminating evidence. There are important differences, though: each of the pages found in Myst enable the brothers to reveal more and more of their stories, thereby drawing us deeper into the game’s narrative, but the Journey Cloths do nothing but provide an arbitrary accomplishment to increment toward completion. Additionally, the reward for finding all the Journey Cloths is not a better understanding of the story, but another annoying sermon from Yeesha. In both games we see evidence of wrongdoing while exploring the Ages, but while Yeesha simply uses it to strengthen her main thesis (D’ni = evil), the brothers of Myst spend most of their time trying to disprove the player’s notions, creating a back-and-forth not only between the brothers but between the player and the game itself. If Uru feels a little stagnant at times, that’s because it is.

This one actually doesn't appear until after Yeesha's speech, so you can't proceed without hearing her.

Luckily, the “Ages Beyond Myst” more than make up for the shortcomings of gameplay and story. The Cleft alone makes the experience worthwhile to a Myst diehard, allowing us direct access to a locale familiar from the novels, and the presentation is by and large quite believable. The descriptions from the books are brought to life, and the “you-are-you” effect is played to great effect: we’re encouraged to imagine that we’re exploring the Cleft “for real” and the execution is strong enough to let us excuse the fact that we’re actually just sitting in front of a computer.

The five Ages vary considerably in size and all follow a somewhat linear progression, but each has a unique atmosphere and its own flavor of beautifully-executed visuals. The sense of history could be stronger at times; a lot of the Ages seem downright empty, which is unfortunate considering the rich tapestry we’re ostensibly exploring. Uru is about big things, and unfortunately this means that it often skimps on small detail to a degree. While gigantic buildings are crafted with exacting care, the game has very few of the close-up shots familiar in the preceding games, and forcing a closer look usually just reveals a low-quality texture meant to be seen only from afar. Exploring on this larger scale is still enjoyable, and the game’s dominating landscapes can still be almost awe-inspiring, but more opportunities to stop and look at the little things would have been beneficial.

Is this good enough for you, you criminally picky insects?

Uru makes extensive use of the newfound freedom of movement in its puzzle designs, which in many cases diverge from those seen before. There are puzzles which require running, puzzles which involve walking specific paths, and puzzles which involve standing in specific spots, none of which would have been practical in a pre-rendered game. Some of these seem fresh and intriguing, but others never succeed in being anything but annoying. Most prevalent among the latter are the dreaded kicking puzzles, which must be solved by pushing objects around with your feet. I’ve always wondered exactly how these managed to get all the way into the finished product, because they’re frustrating as hell and put a lot of strain on the suspension of disbelief. If a game is asking me to imagine that I’m really there, I should not be forced to ask why I’m moving rocks by kicking them instead of picking them up. The puzzles tend to display something like growing pains, conveying a sense that the creators were still trying to get a handle on what to do, and what not to do, with the freedom of movement.

It's a little disappointing that there's no Age with giant blocks of tofu.

Each of the Ages in the game is meant to portray a different perspective on D’ni’s sins, so let’s take a look at each in turn, beginning with Teledahn. This Age, otherwise known as “the one with the mushrooms,” was among the most anticipated locations in the game, as it was the subject of many preview screenshots (including a few of the earliest released). It’s described as an extremely old Age, one which changed hands many times over D’ni’s history, sometimes seen as desirable and other times as worthless. Uru gives us access to only a few acres’ worth of Teledahn, but the game does do a fairly good job of implying additional area beyond what we see. What we do see in person fails to suggest much beyond the Age’s most recent history, but in all honesty one could expect no better even in real life. The art direction here is among the best in the game, suggesting a murky, slimy place permeated with stagnant smells and dust. The water teems with life, some visible, some only heard, suggesting a rich ecosystem. There’s even an optional puzzle (one which need not be completed to solve the game) in which the player coaxes a large lobsterlike creature to come out of hiding, just for the sake of looking at it. It’s a clever idea to add these kinds of hidden details to the game world, and Uru should have done a lot more along these lines. One of Yeesha’s most important pieces of anti-D’ni evidence is present here as well: the remnants of a long-abandoned slave trade that was conducted here in secret. The addition of slavery is the game’s most hamfisted attempt at that slandering the D’ni reputation, and yet it’s made clear that the slave trading was being carried out in secret, which suggests that it was still against D’ni law. One would think that something clearly defined as crime would be irrelevant to Yeesha’s thesis, but as we will discuss in more detail later, Yeesha is quick to judge the society by the sins of the individual. Moving on, Teledahn is also the only Age in which we find a diary, in this case belonging to one Douglas Sharper, an explorer affiliated (to some degree) with the D’ni Restoration Council (DRC), a group of explorers from Earth. Sharper has been put in charge of “restoring” Teledahn: exploring it, making its machinery operational, and ensuring that it’s safe to visit. His diary records his daily activities toward these ends, particularly dwelling on his frustrations with the bureaucracy of the DRC. This is the primary source of information about the DRC which we see in this game, and it paints it primarily as a stagnant and misguided organization which is blind to the “truth” about D’ni (that it was not a perfect society). As for Sharper himself, the journal establishes little about his character other than his love of football. I understand that he appeared in the flesh for the privileged few who played Uru Live, but for the rest of us Sharper is little more than a name. Teledahn, however, is a rich and memorable experience, certainly one of the game’s highlights.

Prerelease screenshots failed to convey a major spoiler for this area.

Gahreesen, an age used by D’ni’s Guild of Maintainers, is the only Age in the game where we really get a sense of the strength of D’ni itself. (The other Ages either belonged to individuals or have no buildings.) Gahreesen is dominated by huge fortresses (garrisons, as the name puns) built on rotating pedestals. While the spinning buildings seem absurdly unnecessary at first, we eventually come to understand that such designs are the only way to ensure security against a technology like The Art. (You can’t write a linking book which connects to a specific room if that room is constantly in motion, because the link position is relative to the Age rather than the architecture.) Gahreesen is filled with details like these, which enhance its credibility greatly. It’s also the only Age which requires you to visit another Age in order to complete it: a secret linking stone hidden in Teledahn is the only way to access the prison at the top of the fortress. This does a lot to disrupt the linearity we experience in the other Ages, so it’s a shame that the technique is only used once. The nature of the Age highlights the differences between Yeesha’s motivation and that of the DRC: Yeesha sees the Age as disgusting because it exemplifies the amount of work needed to protect D’ni’s ill-gotten assets, but the DRC see it as a particularly interesting example of D’ni’s engineering prowess, which they admire. To the player, Gahreesen is an enjoyable Age: the puzzles are about right, it uses the possibilities of real-time gameplay admirably, and it gives us a lot of background to look at.

Don't let the ghost leaves pass through you! They come for your soul!

Kadish Tolesa is more of a diversion, an Age which effectively based exclusively on puzzles. As the player wanders through through the Age’s massive forest (home to some of the game’s most beautiful scenes), she encounters a variety of puzzles designed to safeguard the wealth of Guildmaster Kadish, one of the richest men in D’ni at the time of the Fall. (Predictably, Yeesha’s message is that Kadish was too greedy.) To complete the Age, the player must look for clues in Kadish’s lavish antechamber and apply them to the game’s intentional puzzles. As discussed previously, intentional puzzles typically fail to be as engaging as those which exist organically, but the main credibility problem here is that Guildmaster Kadish leaves the key to his vault lying in plain sight all the time, albeit in an obtuse form. He does try to throw potential robbers off the trail, though, by the inclusion of false doorways which imply a path leading in one direction when the true path is hidden elsewhere. The game treats this as background detail, but these red herrings suggest a different direction the level itself could have taken: what if, rather than an age based on puzzles, Kadish was itself a puzzle? What if these false doorways could be opened to reveal puzzles that don’t actually lead anywhere? Or suppose instead we were faced with many puzzles at a time, and only some of them were meant to be solved. What if it were ultimately the path we travel through the age that unlocked the vault, rather than the successful completion of sequential puzzles? This would have been a far more difficult task for the level designers, it’s true, but potentially could have been much more interesting. Still, Kadish is a well-executed Age with a quiet, broody atmosphere conveyed expertly through both visuals and sound.

If only Revelation's writers had had these brains.

This brings us to the sister Ages of Eder Gira and Eder Kemo. These are “garden Ages,” the kinds of places where the D’ni would go for a picnic. Gira is an inhospitable desert, Kemo a horticultural masterwork. They’re both fun to look at and explore, but they ultimately fall somewhat flat, as they have no story engagement whatsoever. We learn nothing about the D’ni from them, we don’t encounter any new characters, and we find nothing which challenges our understanding of the world. In Kemo we find a DRC notebook containing a D’ni fable involving a garden Age which was taken from its prior inhabitants by force, and Yeesha attempts to imply that the same was true of Gira and Kemo, but we don’t see any evidence to support that. Games are a visual medium, and to make us, the players, believe these kinds of assertions, we need to see some sort of evidence. In the original Myst, we don’t come to believe that Achenar is bad just because Sirrus says he is, but rather because we see direct evidence of Achenar’s evildoings (and likewise for Sirrus, of course). We never see anything to suggest that Gira and Kemo were ever anything but the bland, small parks that they are today, so Yeesha’s sermon in this case seems to be reaching.

Once the Ages are complete, the player eventually is able to return to the Cleft and retrieve a final message from Yeesha, who warns us that there will soon be a major schism between the explorers of D’ni, that half will side with the DRC and their tedious, superficial mission and the other half will side with Yeesha and the bahro. By this point, however, neither of these groups have done much to attract the player’s allegiance. The DRC come across as tiresome bureaucrats who place protocol above the thrill of discovery. Yeesha comes across as a killjoy who seems to think that all closets must contain skeletons. The bahro themselves are nothing but an enigma, an element foreign to all previous installments which never quite manages to sit comfortably. I’m personally not inclined to side with either group here, as neither really subscribe to the Myst mentality of wandering for its own sake, which is particularly strange when you consider that Uru, with its limited story content, is perhaps the purest example of that approach. (Also, it seems somewhat odd, and self-defeating, that Cyan would actively encourage its online players to become ideologically divided in this way.) There’s something of an echo here of the original’s “two bad choices and a good choice,” but in actuality there’s no choice available at all, just an imaginary conflict which we couldn’t participate in even if we wanted to.

Yeesha’s message, in this and the two installments which follow, is that the Art corrupted D’ni society just as deeply as it did that of Terahnee, just on a subtler level. Where Yeesha’s arguments fail, however, is the fact that she holds up select examples of evildoing to imply that the society overall is corrupt. This is known as the fallacy of composition: a society can contain evildoers while not being evil itself. As aficionados of the D’ni universe, many Myst fans were somewhat disappointed by Uru‘s depiction of the D’ni as a corrupt race, and that it’s done in this way somehow makes it even worse. Were there criminals in D’ni? Yes, of course. Was it necessary for D’ni’s entire populace to die in order to atone for their sins? I would say not, but Yeesha argues unwaveringly on the point that the Fall was deserved retribution. This position is shallow, callous, and succeeds only in making Yeesha appear irrationally attached to a moral which only she can see.

Note the upper door.

Ultimately, what is Uru, and what is it good for? Unlike its predecessors, it is not a story game. While the Yeesha/DRC conflict forms a story of sorts, the primary narrative is one formed by the player herself based on her observations of the D’ni ruins. Uru is about wandering, looking at the world, and imagining what it was in its prime. And even as we consider the Ages’ fictional histories, we’re also aware of the alternative Uru, the one where the Ages were filled with fellow explorers and new content appeared on a daily basis. The success of this single-player version depends largely on your own attention and imagination. During this last playthrough, I happened to notice a small door high on the wall of the Teledahn slave office. I’d never spotted it before, and it has no relevance to the gameplay. But someone decided to put it there, both in the game’s universe and in the real world of game development. Why is it there? No one can say. But imagining the possibilities is, ultimately, what Uru came to be about.

Other thoughts

  • At times Uru‘s recurrent theme of “The Proud” being too greedy and therby ruining everything seems to hit awfully close to the story of the game’s development: Uru the online game was undermined by Ubisoft’s concerns about its profitability, and their demand for an offline version ultimately spelled the demise of the original premise. Coincidence? Well, probably, but it’s kind of interesting nonetheless.
  • Kadish, in Judaism, is a series of prayers related to mourning rituals. Among other things, it asks God to rebuild Jerusalem and offer peace, forgiveness, and salvation to its people. If this parallel was unintended, it’s certainly a striking coincidence.
  • The linking book in Kadish Tolesa’s final chamber bears the DRC’s mark of approval, which suggests that they too managed to get all the way through the Age, which seems unusually thorough and daring by their standards.
  • Despite its attempts to feel completely realistic, Uru falls short in a few places: the player avatar is on a few occasions expected to survive drops of twenty or thirty feet (landing, in general, on solid rock), and is not instantly knocked over and drowned beneath the huge waterfalls in Eder Gira.
  • There’s some pretty incredible groundskeeping taking place in some of these Ages. Eder Kemo appears to be weeded and pruned regularly, and someone must be sweeping the paths in Kadish Tolesa several times a day, judging from the fact that they’re not covered in fifty feet of fallen leaves by now.
  • This essay does not mention Relto.

For more insights, be sure to look at greatgreybeast’s review on gog.com.

Next time: Uru: To D’ni

Screenshots are property of Cyan Worlds, Inc.

Posted on December 8th, 2012. Filed under Myst in Retrospect. Tagged as: , , , , , , , , , , , , , ,

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