Myst in Retrospect Re-Run: Revelation

When Myst IV: Revelation is good, it’s great. It wildly exceeds one’s expectations with exceptional visuals, clever storytelling, and originality. But when it’s bad, it’s terrible. Revelation largely improves upon Exile‘s mistakes, but it fails to emulate Exile‘s successes. This makes for a frustrating game: too flawed to be great, but with too many good bits to be written off completely.

The Lakehouse

Revelation, like Exile, was contracted out to a new studio while Cyan continued work on Uru. In this case, Ubisoft hand-picked a group of creators specially for the purpose, dubbing it “Team Revelation.”

In terms of visuals and immersive effects the studio did admirably. Using the aptly-named “ALIVE” game engine, Revelation seamlessly merges prerendered images with attractive real-time effects for insects, water, and so on, which creates a convincing and dynamic world. Another extremely subtle but ingenious feature enables the player to lightly tap on things to hear what they sound like, adding a layer of interactivity to otherwise inert objects. This all works together to create an engaging and believable game environment, one which feels more lifelike than that of any other game in the series.

Sadly, this is all ripped asunder by the sheer ineptitude of the game in other areas: the dialogue is terrible, the acting is abysmal, the characters are shallow, and the plot ranges from implausible to absurd. The structure and form of this game had a lot of potential, but sadly it was squandered on incredibly weak content.

Before we move on, it’s also worth mentioning that Revelation‘s control system leaves a lot to be desired. It’s hard to get lost in a game like Riven because each shot is carefully composed to make it clear where the paths are going. Here the player is allowed to look in any direction, which means that the game’s creators can’t control what he sees, which invariably leads to disorientation. This was a problem in Exile as well (particularly in Edanna) but it’s exacerbated here as the nodes are fairly far apart: when one clicks to go forward, the next node often bears very little resemblance to the preceding one. This problem is particularly egregious in the Haven jungle, in it’s often literally impossible to distinguish between where one has been and where one is going. Other control problems are caused by the sluggish mouse movements, which make the game’s timed puzzles particularly difficult to complete. The ALIVE system allows for some beautiful graphics, and I salute it for that, but these technical limitations often fly in the face of the believability which the engine is intended to cultivate.

Atrus mopes around his study

The crux of the game is that Sirrus and Achenar did not die when Atrus burned the Trap Books. This may be surprising and even nonsensical to casual players, but within the Myst fan community, the nature of the Trap Books was well-known already. Trap Books, as they are depicted in Myst and Riven, are considered “non-canonical,” meaning that they don’t exist in the “real world” of D’ni, but were simply made up as a gameplay mechanic. Sources such as Cyan’s “D’ni historian,” Richard A. “RAWA” Watson, stated that canonically speaking, Sirrus and Achenar were imprisoned not in special Books but in inescapable Ages. Naturally this led to some demand for a game which would involve Sirrus and Achenar’s Prison Ages.

But showing the Prison Ages in a game directly contradicts the events of the first game, especially for those players who have not followed these convoluted canonicity issues. If there are no Trap Books, there can be no Red and Blue Pages, and no way that the brothers could have communicated with the player character. Revelation even bears this out: the brothers do not recognize the player character, as if the events of Myst never happened. The game does acknowledge that the player has had some sort of prior experience with the brothers, but it effectively erases from existence any of the things that the player actually did. This is a phenomenon I call “canon fatigue:” a situation in which there are so many contradictory “facts” that the continuity of the storyline begins to crumble. This is problem is hardly unique to the Myst series of course; examples can be found in most long-running serial fictions. All that being said, though, canon fatigue issues are not among this game’s foremost problems. Revelation‘s treatment of the trap books is consistent with itself, and only in the context of the rest of the series does it seem problematic. In short, this isn’t really Revelation‘s problem, but rather is symptomatic of a series that’s beginning to show its age.

Aw, you're so cute. Hard to believe the next time we meet you you'll be a raving lunatic.

The game opens with a Crazy Ride: the player is on a speedy tram with Atrus’s daughter, Yeesha. In Exile Yeesha was only a baby; here she is depicted as bring perhaps ten years old, which shows that a significant amount of time has elapsed since those events. Yeesha is depicted as a precocious child: observant, talkative, and well-aware of her parents’ foibles. She’s played by Juliette Gosselin, whose acting skills exceed those of most of the adult actors in this production. This intro is direct and effective: it introduces Yeesha, establishes a timeframe, and does so in an impressive environment.

At the end of the cutscene the player arrives at Tomanha, where Atrus explains the problem: Catherine thinks that Sirrus and Achenar should be set free. Atrus thinks otherwise and wants the player to offer an objective opinion. In other words, the setup of the entire storyline is that Atrus wants the player to settle a marital squabble for him. But before the player can work on that, he needs to help Atrus calibrate a doohickey, a puzzle so uniquely pointless that the game will actually bypass it if the player steps away from it. Whether the player solves the puzzle or not, Atrus’s equipment explodes, forcing him to run out for replacement parts. Thus the player (as always) is left to stumble through the ensuing events without any help.

Atrus himself doesn’t appear very much in this game, but it’s worth noting that Rand Miller’s reprisal of the role is impressive. Atrus greets the player character with seemingly genuine familiarity, and he discusses his sons with a convincingly somber air. He’s the Atrus whom the player has come to expect, friendly but with heavy issues on his mind, and Miller captures him perfectly. It’s easily the strongest performance in the game, which is pretty ironic considering that Miller is the only member of the cast who is not a professional actor.

Before the game really gets going, the player has a chance to explore Tomanha a bit. It’s a pleasant and engaging environment, and lulls the player into a false sense of security, a sort of “quiet before the storm.” Yeesha makes numerous appearances too, but each time the player encounters her she’s doing something different, which frankly makes her seem neurotic. This first Tomanha chapter continues until the player solves a puzzle involving a needlessly complicated fusebox (unfortunately not the only such puzzle), at which point the player is knocked out by an explosion in a sudden cutscene.

Tomanha, land of the talkative owls

When the player character comes to, it’s nighttime. He is apparently unscathed despite the severe cranial trauma, but there’s no sign of Yeesha. This being Myst, the first order of business it to explore around to try to figure out what’s going on. Most of Tomanha appears unscathed, but eventually the player discovers Yeesha’s necklace, a magical object which was introduced earlier. Yeesha herself is not in the vicinity, and touching the necklace triggers a flashback in which she’s chased by an intruder.

The necklace introduces a clever new narrative device which allows the player to look back in time and witness past events. To add a new storytelling mechanic in this way was a clever move, though unfortunately the necklace’s visions tend to be redundant. There are few puzzles which depend on it, and most of the “memories” it reveals are either irrelevant or are covered in greater depth elsewhere. While the necklace could have been an extremely versatile storytelling tool, it tends to abide by an understanding that it supplements rather than complements the other elements of the game. It is in fact so marginal that I suspect that it was conceived fairly late in the game’s design process. The necklace could have been a truly groundbreaking, so it’s disappointing that it instead ends up little more than a transmission tool for bad acting.

After a few rudimentary puzzles, the player makes his way to the linking chamber where the two Prison Books are waiting. At this juncture he is offered the choice to first explore either Haven (Achenar’s prison) or Spire (Sirrus’s prison). It doesn’t matter which Age one chooses, and in fact it’s possible to return to the linking chamber and visit the other at any time. We will look at both in turn.

This is what happens when you hire really good artists.

Haven is a lush Age with a Treasure Island aesthetic. Environment design is one of Revelation‘s great strengths, in part because it goes against the formula set in all the preceding games. All prior Ages (with a couple minor exceptions) were islands surrounded by vast seas, but none of Revelation‘s Ages follow this convention. Only Haven feels island-like, but in many shots the player can make out a huge land mass, out of reach but enticingly real. Haven’s explorable area has a number of distinct sectors: a damp and windswept beach (so beautifully realized that you can almost smell the rotting fish), a number of subtly different jungles, a swamp, and a meadow. Looking across the entire Age from the raised promontory near the beginning is a truly astonishing moment, a piece of living artwork like nothing I’ve seen in any other game.

As the player explores the Age he retraces the story of Achenar’s exile. Achenar began his stay on Haven by living in the massive shipwreck (a callback to the Stoneship Age of Myst), and his effects within the wreck speak to his motivations at the time: weapons, gruesome hunting trophies, and a journal filled with conspiratorial plots, vicious anger, and a blow-by-blow account of his conquest of the local wildlife. As Achenar moved into the jungle, though, he began to develop a more intimate understanding of the Age’s ecosystem. Of particular importance are the “mangrees,” intelligent primates with which Achenar eventually formed a close bond. In Achenar’s “lakehouse,” the player learns that his time spent observing and interacting with the mangrees has brought about a change in his character. Achenar has been remade by the Age, he has to terms with his past and taken on a calling as the mangrees’ caretaker. Various necklace memories imply that he isn’t even particularly eager to leave Haven, should doing so become an option. It has become his home, and he’s not prepared to abandon it thoughtlessly. That the player experiences Achenar’s journey chronologically is a clever touch, and makes Haven one of the most memorable Ages in the series.

It's a weird place to visit and I wouldn't want  to live there

Spire is likewise a rich and expansive Age, but Sirrus’s character is more shallow than Achenar’s, so it is unable to convey the same sort of character development. Spire is an Age like no other: the endless sea is replaced with an infinite starfield, and the eponymous spires are in fact asteroids floating through a vast cloudbank. It’s a hostile environment, one barely capable of supporting human life. Its puzzles are primarily involve power redirection and the resonant frequencies of crystals: highly abstract fare that’s considerably less engaging than Haven’s whimsical ecology. (Though to their credit, they do correspond to Spire’s overall thematic elements.) Just as he did with Achenar, the player follows Sirrus’s path through the Age, learning that the inhospitality of the Age, along with his fury at being tricked by Atrus, gradually caused Sirrus to develop a psychopathic vendetta. Sirrus spent the first years of his exile fruitlessly searching for a Linking Book in order to escape from Spire, as the player learns from his older journals. Eventually Sirrus realized that no such book existed, which only strengthened his desire for revenge. Despite the relatively simplicity of his character, Sirrus’s reaction to his reunion with Atrus is fairly nuanced, as described in his most-recent journal. In one interesting moment, he quietly suggests repentance and a wish to be allowed to return to Tomanha with past evils forgiven, but Atrus’s resistance rekindles his anger and his journals leave off with a subtle suggestion of his upcoming evil plan. While going insane would be an understandable reaction to the cruel landscape of Spire, Sirrus isn’t really written with enough sophistication for the player to get a sense of his true emotions, or even to discern whether present-day Sirrus is any different than past Sirrus. In fact, many of his schemes are such harebrained nonsense that one is tempted to think his exile has made him more stupid than nefarious. The player never really finds out what Sirrus is really thinking, and for that reason Spire somewhat pales in comparison to Haven. As an environment it’s beautifully realized, but its story is lacking.

Both the Prison Ages suffer from a strange design fluke in that neither of them have a clear goal for the player. In Myst, the objective in each Age was clear: find a Page, then find the Myst book so that you can return to the library. In Exile, the player must reach the end of each Age to find a useful symbol. In both cases, there’s a clear indication that the player has gained something and thereby “completed” the Age. Revelation‘s Prison Ages, on the other hand, indicate completion by treating the player to short and largely uninteresting Crazy Rides. At the end of each Age are clues which the player will need later on, but they’re not apparently meaningful at the moment they’re found, and the player doesn’t know from the outset that finding these clues is the “objective.” The Crazy Rides aren’t even strictly necessary; the player could walk back to the linking chamber and ultimately accomplish the same thing. The game uses the rides to imply that the Age is complete, rather than to provide any sort of contextual meaning that would confer actual closure. The rides with which Exile‘s Ages ended were directly related to all the puzzles that the player had solved, and were the only way to reach the places where Saavedro’s symbols were hidden. Here the rides are treated as if they themselves are the motivating factor in finishing an Age, as if Revelation‘s creators were imitating the format of Exile without actually understanding it.

Up until the end of the Prison Ages, Revelation is fairly strong. There’s some poor dialogue and lots of bad acting, but nothing terrible enough to ruin the experience. The Ages are rich and engaging, the music impeccable, and the air of mystery perfected beautifully. The first time I played it, I thought there was no way it could go wrong; I was already drawing comparisons to Riven in my head and was prepared to declare it one of the strongest entries in the series. Then I linked to Serenia.

Depicted: misery.

Serenia: even its name is stupid. It’s an Age where certain kinds of magic work, and conceptually there’s nothing wrong with that. The whole concept of Linking is based on magic, after all, and we’ve seen apparently magic things in Ages before, such as the levitating rocks of Spire and the immaterial insects mentioned in The Book of Atrus. The problem with Serenia is the way in which magic is approached. The Art is magic in any practical sense, but it there is an understanding that it is simply a technology like any other: something of incredible power which might someday be explained by science, but is not currently understood. Atrus, in his journal, attempts to find rational explanations for the Serenian weirdness, but where in the past his rationality was depicted as noble, here it’s cast as naive. No, the player is assured, Serenian magic is magic, and trying to explore it scientifically is futile. The player is simply not allowed to accept Atrus’s logical approach to it, and Myst has always had logical thought as a cornerstone.

Furthermore, Serenian magic is wildly inconsistent. The only Serenians we meet are some sort of religious leaders, whose duties involve taking trips into the psychedelic “Dream” world, from which they learn things which are not apparent in the material world. From Dream they learn that the player character will be visiting, approximately when he will arrive, and what he looks like. They mention Dream and its supposed usefulness at every opportunity. However, Dream is apparently highly unreliable, failing to inform the Serenians of far more pressing concerns. Of what use is a system which spends a huge amount of time presaging a single harmless newcomer but fails to provide any clues pertaining to the evils currently being perpetrated by Sirrus and Achenar? If the Serenian mysticism is unable to alert even its top priestesses to the existence of a dangerous plot going on within easy walking distance, then their entire culture is built around a system that is completely worthless. (Not to mention the fact that they must be totally blind to not physically see Sirrus and Achenar running around, since the player encounters them often.) It’s impossible to take Serenia seriously for this reason: its mystical elements are out-of-place in the series, and while we’re constantly informed that they’re wicked awesome, in practice they appear to be only marginally more useful than psychoactive drugs.

Even aside from Dream, the Serenian culture is at best ridiculous, and at worst downright insulting. Much is made of the fact that Serenia is some sort of matriarchy in which women are revered, but this apparent attempt to distract feminist critics fails on a number of levels. What the game’s creators have done here is to reverse expected gender roles, but not only does this maintain a sexist power structure, it gives rise to some unfortunate and regressive subtexts by accident. For example, the player learns that the Serenian men do “hard stuff, like fixing roofs.” The Serenian priesthood remains the sole domain of women, true, but if the best career that Serenian women can aspire to is one in which no physical prowess is required, that implies that they are still being shielded from the “hard stuff” of their world. Furthermore, what do the women who aren’t priestesses do? If men are handling all the “hard stuff,” their career choices must be fairly limited. Playing with sexism is like playing with fire: it always ends up hurting you in the end.

Gender issues aside, the Serenians also demonstrate a marked inability to protect their own interests. Achenar steals a small stone sculpture which, the player later learns, is actually some sort of magic thing that their culture is dependent upon. So, is it irreplaceable? No, they have teams out looking for a new one. Despite the fact that there are more than one of these things, no one ever thought to keep a spare on hand. And what of a Serenian police force? Sirrus and Achenar aren’t hard to find; is there no one who can confront them, slap them in chains, and take the magic thing back? For that matter, shouldn’t the magic thing have been under guard in the first place? Whenever the Serenians walk around wringing their hands and bemoaning their fates, I can’t help but think that the whole situation could have been prevented with a modicum of forethought.

All this being said, Serenia is not universally hated, and is in fact quite popular with some people. The reasons for this disconnect are particularly apparent in the sequence in which the player experiences Dream firsthand. The transition from the real world to Dream is a music video in which weird fairy-like things dance to the music of Peter Gabriel (I’m not even kidding), then the player is dumped into a puzzle in which he must brush against the souls of Serenian ancestors until they all turn the same color. Some people really enjoye this puzzle, finding it a refreshing and unusual diversion. Others find it incongruous and frustrating. Both are fairly typical reactions to Serenia in general. One’s enjoyment of the Age depends largely on one’s tolerance for New-Agey spirituality. Nothing in Serenia is an inherently bad idea, it’s just that the way the Age overall seems to have been designed to be as unlike previous Myst installments as possible, making it a polarizing experience by default. Some people will love it and some people will hate it, but if the concept hadn’t been quite so far removed from the player’s expectations, perhaps it would have been enjoyable for everyone.

Once the player makes it through all the silliness (assuming he does, which I’m sure many people have not), he’s forced to endure something even stupider, namely The Plan… Sirrus’s plan! His diabolical scheme is as follows: using Serenian technology, Sirrus will swap bodies with Yeesha, use this “disguise” to learn the Art from Atrus, then kill everyone and conquer the universe. In the previous chapter I wrote about how Saavedro’s evil plan is nonsensical, but still makes sense from a story perspective because Saavedro is irrational. Sirrus, however, is generally depicted as insane only insofar as he disregards human life, and is still very much a rational person otherwise. (This is, roughly, the definition of psychopathy.) Yet Sirrus’s plan is far more ridiculous than Saavedro’s. There are many ways he could accomplish the same ends that are both less complicated and by extension less likely to fail. Sirrus’s primary motivations are to escape Spire, get revenge against Atrus, and to learn the Art. Escaping Spire is the easy part. There are myriad ways he could get revenge against Atrus–even Saavedro knew how to do it effectively. As for learning the Art, he could either go to D’ni and teach it to himself, as Gehn did, or he could make up a new persona for himself and trick one of the D’ni survivors into tutoring him. The Yeesha plan, even disregarding the tiredness of body-snatching tropes, has very little chance of succeeding, and as such isn’t very credible as a Sirrus plan. It’s decidedly one of the low points of the entire series.

From a gameplay perspective, the final act is somewhat weak as well. Once we gain access to the room where the The Plan is being carried out, we find Yeesha tied to the memory-transference chair. She says that Achenar is going to kill everyone and that the player needs to set her free immediately. Right on cue, Achenar shows up and says that Sirrus is already possessing Yeesha’s body, and gives the player an order that contradicts Yeesha’s. Yes, that’s right: it’s time for our usual Final Big Choice: Who to trust, Achenar or Yeesha? Well, here’s what we know so far:

  1. Sirrus’s plan is to take over Yeesha’s body.
  2. Sirrus’s plan has been going fairly well so far (incredibly enough).
  3. The claim that Achenar is going to kill everyone spoken by Sirrus earlier.
  4. Achenar has up to this point been both trustworthy and helpful.
  5. The player has already seen Sirrus’s apparently-soulless body at this point.

If you decided to trust Achenar, then give yourself a pat on the back for being conscious. The game does everything short of putting up a big sign saying TRUST ACHENAR at this juncture, making the Final Big Choice so phoned-in that it ends up calling attention to itself. There’s not really much sense of accomplishment in being made to do something so transparently obvious. The worst part is that this is the last moment of the game where anything remotely Myst-like takes place. From here onward it’s just two more unbearably tedious Dream puzzles before the player finally gets to the ending cutscene.

The game ends like this: Sirrus’s soul is somehow preventing Yeesha’s memories from returning to her body, and the Memory Chamber (which powers the memory-transference chair) is dying, so there’s not a moment to lose. Achenar buys some time by exposing himself to the Memory Chamber’s lethal innards while the player solves some stupid puzzles. The stupid puzzles kill Sirrus’s soul (although his body continues to exist in a vegetative stateā€¦a fact which will never, ever be mentioned) and release Yeesha’s memories back into her body. When the player is done truckin’ in the trippy dreamworld sequence, he comes to and see Achenar die in Yeesha’s lap. It’s pretty depressing that the already-redeemed Achenar has to redeem himself again, this time by self-sacrifice, just because he got conned into working with Sirrus. This is made even worse by the fact that the brothers actually have breathing kits designed to protect against the Chamber’s poison gases, but Achenar just didn’t use one for some unstated reason. The whole scenario is reminiscent of Exile‘s good-ending/better-ending system, but alas: no matter what, Achenar dies, Sirrus survives as a vegetable, and Yeesha is traumatized for life. Is it any wonder this is the only game in the series that got a T rating?

The game closes out with yet another Atrus monologue. He thanks the player for helping him yet again–yes, he thanks him, even though he asked him to determine whether his sons should be released and instead they both ended up dead. The more one reads into Atrus’s character the less sense he makes: at this point three members of his immediate family have tried to kill him, as has one former friend. His sons have been instrumental in mass murder and are now both dead after traumatizing his only daughter. Yet despite all this, Atrus just stands around musing as if nothing is wrong. How much chaos needs to erupt in this man’s life in order to get a rise out of him? That Atrus seems to be able to take any amount of trauma and be unfazed doesn’t make him a stronger character. It makes him a robot.

Revelation is not a perfect game by any means, and it falls somewhat short of being a great game as well, mostly due to the unforgivable weaknesses of its final act. That said, its immersive atmosphere is impressive, and the shortcomings of its story and acting are largely unnoticeable. Its main problem is that it’s a small story writ large. Ultimately it’s a simple tale of four characters locked into a cycle of mutual distrust and cruelty, but it’s presented like a summer blockbuster complete with explosions, overacting, and an incredibly melodramatic resolution. Had the game tried to be more intimate and less cinematic, it could have struck gold.

Posted on October 24th, 2016. Filed under Myst in Retrospect. Tagged as: , , , ,

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