Myst in Retrospect Re-Run: Exile

After Riven was released, Cyan went quiet for a while in order to research and produce what would eventually become Uru. Mattel Interactive, which at around this time had acquired the publishing rights to the series, wanted a new Myst title as quickly as possible, though, and Presto Studios was enlisted to take up the mantle. Presto was familiar to Myst fans as the creators of the Journeyman time-travel series. If Cyan was not to make the next game, Presto’s team was probably the most qualified to do so in their stead.

Exiled in the land of lamp plants

The game they created was Myst III: Exile. It’s a good game, if not a great game. It waffles between the profound and the silly, the realistic and the absurd. It can be outstanding one moment and laughably stupid the next. Despite its weaknesses, however, it does ultimately come out as a worthwhile addition to the canon.

The game opens with a cutscene in which Atrus conveys a bit of backstory: he has decided that D’ni should not be rebuilt, and has instead written a new Age for the survivors of the Fall. His sons are gone, but he has a new daughter, Yeesha. He then explicitly states that he’s reached a turning point at which he can put his past behind him.

The player is then dumped unceremoniously (and with no explanation whatsoever) into Tomanha, Atrus and Catherine’s new home. Catherine gets a brief cameo with baby Yeesha, and Atrus manages to get in a few lines before being interrupted by the dramatic entrance of Saavedro, the game’s antagonist. Saavedro hesitates for only a second before setting fire to Atrus’s study and stealing the linking book to Releeshahn, the Age which Atrus has created as a new home for the D’ni. Saavedro then links away again and the player is compelled to follow him quickly, the music and encroaching flames creating an illusion of urgency. It’s a well-paced introduction: a short video to establish character and backstory (particularly important for those who didn’t first read The Book of D’ni), followed by a small interactive section (which prevents the game from stagnating into a movie), culminating in a brief but effective cutscene which segues into the game’s primary storyline. I want to stress the brevity of these clips: this is not a game which forces you to sit still and watch a long drama play out before being allowed to act. Video is used sparingly and efficiently, never lingering long enough to make the player impatient.

Saavedro's sidelong glance is superbly creepy

Once Saavedro is introduced, he dominates the spotlight for the rest of the game, and with good reason. Unlike other villains to appear in this series, Saavedro is written as a highly sympathetic character, one who performs evil acts not because he is a bad person but because he has been broken by tragedies. Saavedro was born on Narayan, a precarious Age whose inhabitants had to practice ritualistic environmental conservation in order to survive. When Atrus first visited the Age, Saavedro befriended him, teaching him the Narayani ways and presumably accompanying him on various adventures. Saavedro trusted Atrus, and thus was open to allowing Sirrus and Achenar free access to Narayan. Sirrus and Achenar, being antagonists of a more traditional mold, bred discontent among the Narayani by implying that Atrus could improve Narayan’s stability by using the Art, but that he chose not to. In the conflict that followed, the Narayani traditions were neglected and Narayan began to physically collapse, driving Saavedro to confront the brothers personally. Naturally they laughed off his complaints and stranded him on J’nanin to serve out his titular exile. Twenty years passed before Atrus unknowingly provided Saavedro with a means of escape when he revisited J’nanin, leaving behind a Tomanha linking book. Saavedro followed him, and from Atrus’s journals learned of the “resurrection” of D’ni. At this point, Saavedro’s sanity, long teetering on the edge, was finally toppled. Atrus, he believes, allowed Narayan to die. Atrus, he believes, has the ability to bring Narayan back to life. Atrus, he decides, must pay.

Insanity in fiction can be a tricky proposition; all too often it’s used as an excuse for shoddy character motivations rather than as a believable character trait. Saavedro’s insanity, though, is entirely consistent with his experiences: he behaves the way he does because he is a ruined man, no longer capable of rational thought. His “evil plan” is a convoluted mess of nonsense, a bizarre maze of puzzles and messages meant to make Atrus feel guilty and convince him to resurrect Narayan with his supposed godlike powers. Saavedro’s plan is absurd, yes, but it makes sense to him, and that’s all that matters from a believability standpoint. Regardless of anything else in the game, Saavedro works. Veteran character actor Brad Dourif portrays him with an appropriate blend of menace and humanity, and as a result his frequent appearances are engaging and realistic. From his conception to his depiction, Saavedro is a pitch-perfect character, perhaps the strongest in the entire series.

A just question, my liege.

Saavedro’s fixation on Atrus is a complex one, but of particular note is how Atrus’s own character flaws play into it. As we have seen time and again, Atrus has a tendency to visit Ages and engage their inhabitants with little regard for any negative consequences that may arise. Despite this, Atrus is usually depicted in a good light, and any detrimental effects of his explorations are glossed over. Saavedro, however, has had his life ruined by such an event, and he’s deeply aware of it. While only Sirrus and Achenar are directly culpable in what happened to Narayan, Saavedro’s revenge targets Atrus, the man whom he had once called a friend. What bothers Saavedro more than anything is the fact that Atrus, after his initial visits, left Narayan and never returned. While his sons were trashing the place, he was somewhere far away, completely oblivious. Saavedro targets Atrus because Atrus betrayed his trust. Saavedro never really knew Sirrus and Achenar, but Atrus was someone he had trusted. In Saavedro’s mind, the brothers’ crimes are of less importance than Atrus’s negligence, broken promises, and betrayal. Saavedro’s vendetta forces us to look at Atrus from a less-forgiving point of view. His actions have serious repercussions, and in some ways he is responsible for destruction of Narayan. Saavedro may be the antagonist, but he calls attention to a crucial weakness in Atrus’s character, one which other parts of the series generally try to sweep under the carpet.

If the game’s story is its greatest strength, its greatest weakness may be the absurdity of its visuals. Chuck Carter, an artist on the original Myst, said this of his design sense:

“I started off [looking] for the most interesting scene that I could come up with. But the problem I ran into was that … [y]ou don’t look at everything as a composition. When you’re walking through a room, you’re just walking through a room; you’re not stopping and staring at everything.”

In other words, not everything in the scene must be, or should be, visually interesting. Riven would go on to use this principle as well, and in fact took it even farther by making the distribution of opulence have symbolic meaning. Gehn’s personal spaces are decorated in a manner consistent with his personal style that combines luxury with functionalism. His temples, which are meant to impress his subjects, are fantastical and visually impressive. His industrial machinery, on the other hand, is completely utilitarian. The log-cart dock on Boiler Island, for example, is made of simple unadorned iron: the activation lever doesn’t even have a handle. Gehn doesn’t use the log-cart personally, so what does he care what it looks like? This technique demonstrates that even superficial visual detail can be used to enhance the realism of a game’s environment.

Exile, unfortunately, doesn’t learn this lesson, and instead just makes everything as pretty as possible. What is the player meant to infer from seeing gold-plated cogs in an elevator’s drive mechanism? Why would a bridge be made out of intricate sculpted brass yet lack handrails? Why are tunnels lit by little paper boats? The answer: someone thought it would look cool. These sorts of details, no matter how eye-catching they may look, have no narrative significance whatsoever. Priority to eye candy over contextual logic doesn’t do the game any favors, but rather adds a layer of unrealism that’s often hard to ignore.

J'nanin: meetingplace of decadence and danger

The problem of excessive artsiness is not unique to the ornamentation of objects, however. Pretty much every shot in Exile is a visual wonderland, no doubt due to lead designer Phil Saunders’ injuction that every scene be a potential “back-of-the-box picture.” The problem with this is that it leaves no room to breathe, no contrast between the visually stunning and the mundane. One doesn’t find contrast here: no decadent bedrooms at the end of dark, musty tunnels; no vibrant forests beside clear-cut wastelands. Instead, everything is vivid sunsets and colorful jungles. A bird can’t just be a bird, it has to be a goofy Dr. Seuss bird with glowing eyes. Doors can’t just be doors, they need to be gigantic powered monstrosities capable of severing limbs. Look at me, the game demands, see how beautiful I am! In theory, a start-to-finish visual extravaganza is a good idea. In practice, when everything looks cool, everything starts to look the same after a while, and things that might have been interesting on their own begin to seem downright silly.

The game’s puzzles are another source of credibility problems. Exile takes place in a series of “lesson Ages” which Atrus created for use in his sons’ educations. This is a clever idea, but unfortunately Presto uses it to excuse what they refer to as “deliberate puzzles.” While Myst and Riven both at least made an effort to depict puzzles as things with some in-universe function, Exile‘s puzzles exist for no other reason than to be solved. Creating believable puzzles is difficult, admittedly, but the decision to make all the game’s puzzles be “deliberate” effectively trades one design problem for another, because deliberate puzzles are by definition separate from the game’s universe. Compare, for example, the electromagnet puzzle in Exile to the fire-marble dome puzzle in Riven. The process of activating the fire-marble domes requires the player to travel extensively, gather diverse information, and reach an understanding of how Gehn thinks. To activate the electromagnet requires the player to align a series of bars, because that’s really all there is to it. Even within the Lesson Age conceit this doesn’t really make sense: what “lesson” were Sirrus and Achenar meant to learn from this device? Deliberate puzzles don’t do the game any favors, and its goofy environments need all the help they can get. In a series which has often been criticized for obstructing gameplay with arbitrary lateral-thinking roadblocks, Exile stands as perhaps the most egregious example.

Exile's boring and meaningless electromagnet puzzle

The “lessons” of the Lesson Ages are a series of simple maxims which Atrus learned from his grandmother, Ti’ana. The player first encounters these in Atrus’s journal, in which he describes how the phrases influenced his work on Releeshahn. The conceit of the Lesson Ages was that Sirrus and Achenar would learn these crucial concepts as they explored them: From Voltaic, “energy powers future motion.” From Edanna, “nature encourages mutual dependence.” From Amateria, “dynamic forces spur change.” Finally, from Narayan, “Balanced systems stimulate civilizations.” In execution, however, the Ages do a terrible job of conveying these ideas. The phrases, as written, never appear anywhere besides Atrus’s journals, and in many cases the Ages flat-out contradict them. Edanna, for example, is hardly an ecosystem of mutual dependence; in fact, the Age’s entire ecosystem is based on a giant tree which is apparently parasitized by other organisms. The fact that Saavedro never managed to learn the phrases over the course of his 20-year exile demonstrates how ineffective the Ages are at their stated goal.

As for the phrases themselves, do they even mean anything? “Energy powers future motion” is true, but not any more insightful than “harnessed motion transmits energy” or any number of other things. “Nature encourages mutual dependence” on a worldwide scale perhaps, although on a more individual level most organisms are extremely self-serving, so this one is hardly a universal truth. “Dynamic forces spur change” is so vague that it means almost nothing (and how Amateria is representative of this idea is a mystery to me). And if “balanced systems stimulate civilizations,” what does that mean for Narayan, an Age that was conceived to be as unbalanced as possible? These “truths” are vague at best, and misleading at worst. One would think that Atrus, as a man of science, could have come up with something better than these by now.

(The Lesson Age concept would have been much more believable if it had been built around real-world concepts: Amateria demonstrating, say, Newton’s Laws of Motion, Voltaic demonstrating principles of electricity, Edanna demonstrating how life and ecosystems actually function.)

Exile has six Ages in all. The first of them is Tomanha, a lush greenhouse in the middle of a vast red desert. It’s a typical “paradisical first level” which gives the player a chance to get situated before she is plunged into the story proper. (For the sake of accuracy, it’s worth noting that Tomanha is actually on Earth, not far from the Cleft.) Tomanha will be explored in greater depth in Revelation; here its expansiveness is only hinted at. Small as it is, there’s not a whole lot to be said about it, although it does have a handful of nice details, such as the inert, staticky Riven book. It’s not a bad place to begin, and as I stated earlier it’s certainly preferable to a lengthy non-interactive cutscene.

J’nanin is the central hub of the players explorations, and was Saavedro’s home of the last twenty years. Despite the fact that the young Sirrus and Achenar were meant to explore this place without supervision, it’s possibly the most dangerous Age in the entire series. This is a world of hundred-foot drops criscrossed by narrow rocky paths, slippery metal bridges, and steep staircases, handrails not necessarily included.The effect is unsettling to say the least, and there’s not any good reason for it to be this way. Beyond its acrophobic elements, J’nanin is a fairly unremarkable place, and its resemblance to Riven makes it seem downright derivative. Given that Saavedro lived in J’nanin for two decades, one might expect to see more of his influence here, but beyond a small personal area in the basement of one of the buildings, he seems to have left the place untouched, which is disappointing from a story perspective. Ultimately J’nanin is without any real substance of its own: it’s larger than Myst Island, but that’s about all it has going for it.

Voltaic is the game’s energy-themed Age, its puzzles based around various principles of electricity and heat. Voltaic utilizes both geothermal and hydroelectric processes, both of which are legitimate real-world technologies, but the ways in which they’re depicted here are incredibly nonsensical. The hydroelectric turbine is turned by the ocean itself, which for some reason feels compelled to flow upstream if not blocked by a floodgate. Heat energy is produced by a room full of lava. (Lava, I should not need to state, is molten rock, and exists at temperatures measured in thousands of degrees. Presto was apparently not aware of this fact, however, given that the room’s walls and equipment do not melt, and that the player character isn’t reduced to a pile of ash within seconds.) For an Age meant to teach about energy, Voltaic displays a pretty staggering lack of understanding about how energy actually works. But to give the Age some credit, its visual realization is very nice. The rock formations are more detailed than the technology was able to support in the past, and it does a lot of things with its strictly limited palette of red stone and rusty metal. It’s somewhat smaller than its counterparts, but it has a sort of visceral earthiness that we don’t encounter anywhere else.

The most whimsical of the Ages is Edanna, the only place in the universe in which the plants and animals have conspired to form a giant puzzle. While the gameplay of Edanna feels fairly natural, it’s hard not to be distracted by many of the obvious contrivances on display. If the player can interact with a plant, it’s part of a puzzle, which only serves to call attention to the fact that much of the “jungle” is in fact a carefully-aranged logic problem, not an organic growth. Another problem is that the actual reason to solve a given puzzle is often unclear. The player can infer that she needs to rescue the bird from the pitcher plant, but she doesn’t know why it’s important. She can infer that she’s supposed to get the bugs to pollinate a specific flower, but she doesn’t know why it’s important. These types of puzzles don’t make sense until after they’re solved, which calls attention to how arbitrary they are. All that being said, Edanna is probably the most memorable Age in the game. Its overall aesthetic is very unique, and even its sillier lifeforms have a whimsical charm to them. Much as it can be hard to take Edanna seriously, it is fun to explore, abd that is (after all) what these games are about.

All of the Ages in Exile are effectively giant puzzles, but Amateria takes this to an extreme. Its landscape is covered by an elaborate series of tracks which are made passable by solving puzzles. Once all the puzzles are completed, the player is rewarded with a Crazy Ride that travels the entire line. The unfortunate thing about Amateria is that its obstacles are by far the most obvious “deliberate puzzles” in the game. The player finds a puzzle, experiments with it until it’s solved, repeats. It’s hard to take the Age seriously because there seems to be so little point to it; it has no story of its own, its pseudo-Japanese look feels incongruous, and it’s impossible to see how it conveys its supposed theme of “dynamic forces spur change.” In truth, Voltaic is just as contrived (as none of its machinery serves any function other than its own existence), but Amateria doesn’t even try to disguise its puzzles, which makes it seem highly artificial. (And, one has to wonder, how did Atrus build all this stuff?) The Crazy Ride is exciting at least, and popular with many people, but I think everyone would have appreciated a more engaging environment for it.

This shot would be so much better if that clothesline wasn't there

The final Age we reach is Saavedro’s homeland, Narayan. Given how much the player knows about this place before visiting it, it turns out to be quite a letdown. Its depiction looks somehow rubbery, and the depiction of the vaunted Narayani weaving is uninspired at best. There’s very little to see; the player only has access to two small chambers and an empty rooftop. Just about the only visually intriguing element of it is the distant matte painting, which isn’t even visible most of the time. Tay, the “rebel Age” of Riven, feels much more well-realized than Narayan, despite the fact that it’s actually smaller. The puzzles are lackluster as well: the player must transcribe Atrus’s “lessons” into Narayani script, a process involving little more than tedious clicking. Finally, the Age also demonstrates a lack of consistency to the rest of the storyline, particularly in its strange Linking Book mix-up: Saavedro claims that the only way out of Narayan is through the Releeshahn book; as he abandoned the J’nanin book in Atrus’s study. However, this implies that he linked to Tomanha from Narayan, and but his Tomanha book is nowhere to be found. The player does find a Tomanha book in Narayan’s lower level, but Saavedro has never been down there, and Atrus wasn’t living in Tomanha the last time he visited the place, so its presence there is inexplicable. Overall, Narayan is a pretty big disappointment. The visuals are amateurish, the gameplay dull, and the layout demonstrates that the creators couldn’t be bothered to keep their own scenario consistent.

Aside from the shortcomings of its setting, the game’s conclusion is decent. Shortly after arriving in Narayan the player meets Saavedro face-to-face, and shortly later succeeds in lowering the opaque force field that surrounds the building. Saavedro then realizes for the first time that Narayan isn’t dead, and initiates the Final Big Choice: he says he’ll return the Releeshahn book if the player will help him return to his people. As in the original Myst, the player is asked whether to trust a distinctly untrustworthy character, and choosing to trust him will result in an instant bad ending. In this case, however, the alternative option isn’t spelled out. Sirrus and Achenar explicitly insist that the player not touch the green book, which makes it pretty obvious as an alternative option. Saavedro, by contrast, doesn’t mention any alternatives to helping him, so it’s up to the player to infer that there’s a second option and carry it out. While the concept of the Final Big Choice is already beginning to wear thin at this point, Exile does play it well, and less explicitly than its predecessors had.

Exile‘s Final Big Choice is followed by a smaller, quieter choice. Saavedro, effectively caged by the illustrious player, returns Releeshahn and begs to be set free. The player can at this juncture do two things: link back to Tomanha and leave Saavedro to his fate, or set him free first. Technically either of these are “winning” endings, but choosing the former would make the player a contemptible sadist. Saavedro being as sympathetic as he is, the player instinctually wants him to get back to Narayan, so this second choice, essentially between forgiveness and punishment, is a clever touch.

The game ends with a short cutscene, another Atrus monologue. He’s been thinking over the fact that his negligence indirectly caused an old friend of his to go insane and plot to kill his loved ones, and has come to the conclusion that you can’t turn your back on the past, but you should take from it only what is good. This does mirror his comment at the beginning about wanting to put his past behind him, but that Atrus stays so calm and collected despite this new horror story is kind of absurd, and his takeaway seems a complete non-sequitur. It’s a nice enough speech on its own, but if it doesn’t make sense in context, is it really appropriate?

Exile is effectively the sequel to Riven, which by any reckoning would be a tough act to follow. Michael Kripalani, its executive producer, compared it to “being in the film industry and having George Lucas say ‘I want you to make the next Star Wars for me.'” In the context of the then-recent Star Wars Episode I: The Phantom Menace, this metaphor takes on a peculiar kind of irony. Like Exile, The Phantom Menace was a sequel produced by (mostly) different people, using different methods, was hyped to absurdity, and ultimately fell short of the expectations of its audience. It’s not easy to make a follow-up to something as successful as Riven or the original Star Wars trilogy. Yet Exile came remarkably close to succeeding. Its flaws, while serious, do not ruin the gameplay experience, and its story is excellent. Its biggest problem is its failure to break out of its own mold: the gameplay is formulaic, the puzzles arbitrary, the structure nonsensical. The critical issue here is this: When Kripalani describes the original Myst as “a remarkable product,” he overlooks the critical fact that Myst was not conceived this way. Its creators had no inkling that they were making a mega-hit; they just wanted to make something good. With Exile, success seemed assured, and quality suffered as a result.

Posted on October 16th, 2016. Filed under Myst in Retrospect. Tagged as: , ,

©John W. Allie 2017. | Contact?