Myst in Retrospect Re-Run: Uru: The Path of the Shell

On many occasions I’ve mentioned Myst _to avid video game enthusiasts and seen the same reaction: their eyes glaze over and they say that they thought it was boring. The way the _Myst series tells its stories is rather unorthodox, to the point of being inaccessible to many newcomers. In the end, though, it’s the story that makes the game work. The desire to find out what happened is what pushes players to solve the puzzles. Uru, on the other hand, has an understated narrative that makes the game feel somewhat empty even to invested players. This final installment, sadly, does nothing to correct that precedent, and unfortunately compounds it with an almost complete lack of storyline and some of the most tedious and repetitive puzzles ever devised. Uru: The Path of the Shell is not without its charms, but the inescapable fact is that it is, in all honesty, pretty boring.

Kadish's ego, depicted in 1/4000 size.

Much of the game revolves around the prophecies of a D’ni mystic known only as The Watcher. Specifically, the Watcher prophesied the coming of a messiah figure known as the Grower, who would lead the D’ni into a new era. Over the course of the game we come to learn that Guildmaster Kadish (the greedy guy who owned Kadish Tolesa), created an elaborate hoax to trick people into thinking the he was himself the Grower. Who is the real grower, you ask? Yeesha, of course! This is where things begin to go wrong.

Here’s the problem: When this series got started, it presented players with a universe in which there was exactly one form of magic: the Art. The series used that as a mechanic to travel to other worlds. These worlds, while often bizarre and surrealistic, abided by the laws of the overall universe, which means (for example) that you’ll never find an Age in which the laws of physics work differently. The characters of Myst lead lives that are very different from our own, which presents many unique storytelling opportunities. We’re attracted to the Myst storyline for two reasons: 1. We want to visit these strange and wonderful worlds, and 2. We want to learn the stories of people who live in them. These characters can do something we can’t, and we want to know what they decide to do with that ability. That’s all we need to be hooked. Adding more magical things to the universe serves only to make it less credible, especially since characters in earlier installments seemed completely unaware that their universe contained such things. (To be fair, there is a mention of an ancient prophecy in The Book of D’ni, but it never comes up again and seems to have no bearing on the rest of the series.)

We’ve accepted a few new forms of magic up to this point because they’re at least related to the magic we had before: the Journey cloths, the Relto book, and even the bahro are at least marginally connected to the Art. Prophecy is another matter entirely. To prophesy is to see the future. To see the future is to establish a universe in which pretty much anything is possible, because it becomes possible to know anything. Introducing prophecy where it did not previously exist implies that your universe no longer follows any rules at all.

This is not even to mention the actual content of the prophecy: that Yeesha is the Chosen One. The concept of a Chosen One, a character who is uniquely and often supernaturally qualified to fulfill a specific destiny, is so overused in fiction that it has probably become one of the most well-known of all tropes. As such it’s a difficult concept to use well, as we’ve seen it a million times before, and Uru does nothing original with it. We’re told that Yeesha alone can lead the D’ni to some unspecified future, and that’s about it. Her destiny, whatever it is, subverts all the conventions we’ve come to care about, and since we hardly know her as a character at all, there’s not really any reason to care about what takes place here. All of Uru‘s storytelling problems converge at this point: we don’t know the characters, we often don’t like what they’re doing, but we’re told that what they’re doing is right.

This, to me, was the moment that the series jumped the shark.

But on to the game itself. At the outset of The Path of the Shell, we have access to two new Ages: Er’Cana and Ahnonay. There’s a handy DRC exposition notebook (the last of its kind, alas) which explains that Kadish was intimately involved with both Ages. Er’Cana was an agricultural Age for which he designed a good deal of machinery, and Ahnonay was a special Age in which Kadish demonstrated his magical time-travel abilities, which are apparently one of the Grower’s many talents. (The DRC journal remains agnostic as to the validity of these claims.)

But Kadish is dead, and the DRC has moved on. Yeesha will not be joining us. We will make this journey alone, without encountering any other characters. This is by far Myst‘s loneliest chapter.

I particularly like the color contrasts here.

Moving on to the two primary Ages, let’s take a look at Er’cana. To its credit, one thing that Path of the Shell does do very well in general is its striking visuals, and Er’cana is among most dramatic environments in all of Uru. We arrive at the bottom of a narrow, sandy crevasse with smooth windswept walls, and gradually make our way out into a wider canyon which leads up to Er’cana’s industrial facility. This initial area is vast and starkly beautiful, a quiet and lonely landscape which has largely returned to the wild, and in that sense is somewhat reminiscent of Teledahn. The atmosphere is somewhat different inside the industrial complex, which is filled with a lot of noisy and very impersonal machinery. This is where Er’cana really diverges from Teledahn: both are functional landscapes, partially reclaimed by nature, but where Teledahn has a very distinct sense of history and Sharper’s personal perspective, most of Er’cana is just machinery. The puzzles here are fairly straighforward; most involve activating or deactivating various things in order to clear a path through the factory. The ultimate goal here is to manufacture a batch of large pellets which create light when submerged in water. These are needed later on to illuminate a cave containing an important clue, marking the second time in Uru in which we have to rely on awkward sources of illumination in order to see something in the dark. Of course, we’re not told why we need to make these things at first, so the only reason we know to solve the puzzles is that there’s simply nothing else to do. As in the rest of this game, there’s pretty much no story content here, which makes the explorations somewhat hollow despite the nice visuals.

That the clock can't tell a crystal from a person seems like a rather critical design flaw.

Ahnonay is something entirely different. As mentioned earlier, Kadish designed Ahnonay as a place where he could demonstrate his ability to time-travel. As we explore the Age, we see this effect come into play as well: what starts out as a tropical island suddenly becomes a stormy wasteland, and then just as suddenly seems to be floating through the void of space. We ultimately learn that the landscape we see is actually a fake, its four variants contained in separate little bubbles which can be rotated into place before link-in to give the illusion that the Age is changing. Kadish, supposedly, constructed this entire device in order to fool people into thinking he could travel through time, a process which involved walking around the perimeter of the Age, linking out, then linking back in to find it miraculously altered. As a magic trick it’s decent, but that Kadish could actually portray this as an authentic phenomenon seems somewhat hard to believe. The areas are small enough that even the most rudimentary exploration would give away the secret (for example, from many angles one can easily tell that the “horizon” is only a few hundred feet away) and the fake continuity seems highly implausible, particularly the space variant (even disregarding how the island could end up in space to begin with, why is there air and gravity?). Though both Yeesha and the DRC claim that Kadish styled himself as the Grower, I suspect that his show was tongue-in-cheek at best, and that he was more interested in showmanship and attention than the fulfillment of prophecies. As a hoax Ahnonay is difficult to take seriously, but as the most complicated and expensive magic trick in the history of the universe, it makes a perverted kind of sense.

As for Ahnonay’s puzzles, they are some of the most tedious and repetitive tasks ever brought to the video game medium. The marker hunt in To D’ni at least allows you to visit new places as you search, but Ahnonay’s puzzles tend to involve doing the same things over and over again…and that’s if you’re following a walkthrough. If you’re actually trying to solve them, it will be much, much worse. The first task we encounter in the Age is to chase all the crablike “quab” creatures off of the island, a process which is cute once or twice but quickly becomes tiresome once you realize that you’re going to have to repeat it twenty or so times. (Another problem with the quab puzzle is that the quabs are really cute and I would have preferred to let them stay on the island.) Once that’s accomplished, you must shatter lots of crystals. From there on it’s a series of manipulations involving touching Journey Cloths at the correct intervals and swimming back and forth over lengthy distances in order to pull levers in sequence. All of this must also be punctuated by frequent linking in and out of the Age, with requisite loading screens. And since none of this is spelled out explicitly, solving the Age depends entirely on trial and error. Lots of trial and error. Playing Ahnonay with a walkthrough is tedious and repetitive, but playing it without one is a trial of patience which even a seasoned Zen master would find punishing.

Stare at this image for fifteen minuts to get the full Path of the Shell experience.

A recurrent theme in Path of the Shell is that of the passage of time, a concept which is frequently integrated into the puzzles. It’s an interesting idea, and one with a lot of potential, but very difficult to do in a way that would be both enjoyable and interesting. In the case of this game, the temporal aspect of the puzzles primarily involves waiting. In total, players will spend a total of forty-five minutes of real-world time simply waiting for things to happen in the game, assuming that the puzzles were solved correctly. (In the event that you’ve made a mistake, some of these waiting periods will need to be repeated.) The aforementioned forty-five minutes are broken up into three different puzzles. One is a process which takes fifteen minutes to complete, and in the interim you are free to do whatever you like. The second requires you to wait in a cave for fifteen minutes, but you’re allowed to wander around the cave while you wait. The third and most notorious is one in which standing still for fifteen minutes is the solution. I am open to games which integrate unusual mechanics and unorthodox puzzle solutions, but there’s something truly absurd about a game in which the solution to the puzzle is to leave your computer while the puzzle solves itself. (About half of my notes for this chapter were prepared during this period.) Something to do, even something stupid and pointless, would be more interesting than standing around doing nothing.

The game’s final act is somewhat perplexing experience. After finding and walking the ultimate Path of the Shell (which in this case is a simple labyrinth drawn on the floor), we suddenly link into the familiar false fireplace in the Myst Island library. The library has been gutted and the door is securely shut, so the rest of the island is inaccessible, but the “you” character is now “really” on Myst Island, a location which the “you” character previously visited only in a video game. The weird You-Are-You Effect somehow makes this seem like a stunning development, despite the fact that we’re just seeing a scene from one game inside a different game. There’s nothing wrong with that; it is in fact quite exciting, but you feel kind of dumb if you ask yourself why you find it exciting.

It's hard for me to believe, but...most of my paintings have been destroyed.

Of course, when there’s a fireplace in a Myst game, you know you’re going to have to enter a grid code, and this is no exception. After entering a code gleaned piece-by-piece throughout the game, the fireplace spins around to grant access to the K’veer book from the first game. Upon linking to K’veer, a loud Yeesha voiceover cuts in. (And it is loud. In fact, it turns the game volume back up to maximum if you’ve changed it.) She declares herself the Grower, proclaims the Grower’s destiny as master of both time and space, and derides Kadish for claiming such powers. She also states that she’s liberated Kadish’s bones from his vault. Once her little speech is over we return to K’veer. There’s not a lot to see here, but Yeesha does leave a message for Atrus in which she tells him that thanks to her new destiny, his “burden is lifted.” This seems to represent a sort of passing of the torch from father to daughter, and is a fairly nice character moment. (Personally, though, I place more trust in Atrus’s reluctant but levelheaded stewardship than Yeesha’s inscrutable powers and questionable sanity.) Yeesha generally comes across as spiteful and dismissive of anything having to do with her father, so it’s refreshing to see that she actually does care about him.

All this brings the game to a somewhat overbearing and perplexing conclusion. We’re still not really sure what The Grower is supposed to do or what, exactly, her powers entail. And yet it does bring a degree of closure to the Uru storyline, which in the end seems to be a story about Yeesha’s struggle to transcend the worldly remains of D’ni to become a demigod. (The wisdom of including such a transformation in the story is somewhat beyond the point now.) There’s one more hidden ending, here, though: naturally we have to go see if Yeesha was telling the truth about Kadish’s bones, so it’s time to revisit Kadish Tolesa. But in the vault nothing appears to have changed. The skeleton is as we left it and the room is still piled high with bags of cash, carpets, and paintings of Teledahn. The inquisitive player, however, will eventually find a small linking book hidden in the corner. It links to an alternative version of the vault which is largely empty and which does not include Kadish’s bones. In the new vault we hear the musical theme of the Great Tree of Possibilities (D’ni’s metaphor for the infinite nature of the Art) and find various scraps which imply that Yeesha traveled back in time and rescued Kadish from his fate. It’s a strange ending, and leaves a lot of questions unanswered (exactly why did Yeesha save him when she’s always badmouthing him?), but in its own understated way it’s very nice. Uru in general spends a lot of time beating you over the head with what you’re supposed to think, so it’s refreshing, for once, to be told nothing and left to form your own conclusions.

Posted on November 20th, 2016. Filed under Myst in Retrospect. Tagged as: , , ,

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