Myst in Retrospect Re-Run: End of Ages

“Consider it a ‘Myst’ opportunity.” – Esher

Considering what a vast and varied journey it’s been, definitively wrapping up the series is a tall order. We have loose ends from Atrus’s family turmoils, we still don’t know Yeesha that well, the question of the Restoration is still in the air, and that’s not even mentioning the bahro. A strong conclusion will need to cover those points, but should also allow us to revisit a few of our favorite old haunts and see some new places as well. Myst V: End of Ages hits some of these notes. It has a handful of nice character moments, a few spectacular Ages, and the occasional pinch of nostalgia. Unfortunately, it also has some serious flaws that greatly diminish the experience. Is it a fitting end for the series? Considering some of the high points we’ve seen, for the most part it isn’t. At best it’s a predictable end to the series, delivering most of the elements we’ve come to expect, both the good and the bad.

Double, double, toil and trouble, Esher burn and pedestal bubble

The game opens with an Atrus voiceover. (Well, why not, every other game has followed this convention and there’s no need to break a precedent, even when it doesn’t make sense anymore.) Atrus talks about how he’s lost everything and everyone he ever cared about, including (he thinks) Yeesha, and ends by saying that he will soon go on to a better place. The implication seems to be that he’s dead, which Yeesha shortly later emphasizes by saying that Atrus’s “time has passed.” It’s a somewhat grim start; it feels like finding out about the death of a friend secondhand. At the end of the game, of course, it turns out that Atrus isn’t dead at all; the whole thing was just a _metaphorical _way of saying he lives in Releeshahn now. It’s hard to guess why the game is set up this way. Nothing is really gained by this deception, unless making the player depressed right at the outset can be considered beneficial. Even when we find out Atrus is still alive, it’s not so much a relief as it is an irritation, because then we feel like we’ve been lied to. It’s a minor point, but it does affect the tone of the game, coming at the beginning as it does.

Once the intro is complete we arrive in Atrus’s old prison in K’veer, without any real understanding of why we’re there or how we got there. The place is crawling with bahro, which up until this point have been seen only once. It’s a bit disconcerting to see so many all of a sudden, but it does set the stage for the game we’re about to play, because it is all about the bahro, for better or for worse.

Also noticeable right from the outset is the new game interface, a realtime 3D world with point-and-click navigation. The game defaults to a “classic” mode in which we have the fixed viewpoints familiar from the Myst and Riven era, only with the addition of smooth transitions between points. There’s also a “classic plus” mode, which is similar to that of Exile in that it allows the player to look around smoothly by using the mouse. This seems ideal to me; it makes the world seem free and immersive without the nuisance of steering around things (although there’s an option for that as well, for anyone who prefers it). This node-based navigation is not without its quirks, though. The nodes can sometimes be far apart and at strange angles to each other, and the transition speed is noticeably faster than a walking pace, so sliding between them often feels unnatural. Still, it strikes a nice balance between the freedom of realtime environments and the simplicity of the point-and-click system, and overall I think it’s the best navigation scheme of any of the games.

Pretty, but not realistic per se

As for the realtime graphics themselves, it is a very noticeable difference, though not always in a good way. The environments, while very attractive, aren’t as realistic as those of the pre-rendered era, and the first-person perspective calls attention to this (moreso than did the third-person perspective in Uru). And while realtime environments can hypothetically lead to more dynamic surroundings, the amount of movement and wildlife onscreen fails to measure up to the standards set by Revelation. The jungles of Haven, for example, are teeming with animals, most of them not visibly looping, whereas an age like Laki’ahn has only one animal species, and all it ever does is run in a tight circle. Some effects are nice, such as the waves at the water’s edge and the swaying grass, but these Ages do in general seem more static than anything we saw in Revelation. (To be fair, Revelation set a remarkably high standard in that regard.) The Ages also seem quite small, in terms of explorable area, compared to many earlier examples. I’m not asking for a gigantic world like Riven, which is obviously beyond this game’s scope, but many of the Ages here have less variety than even relatively tiny Ages like Stoneship. Note that this is not to say that the Ages are unattractive: most of them are among the most beautiful of any of the games. Noloben in particular was well-known from early Uru screenshots, and it doesn’t disappoint. As realtime environments go, it’s hard to say anything bad about them, but in carrying over the control schemes of the pre-rendered era, their shortcomings are more apparent.

The other issue introduced by realtime graphics is the depiction of in-game characters. End of Ages represents its characters by pairing the face of an actor with a motion-captured CGI body, an effect which tends to land squarely in the Uncanny Valley. They look more realistic than the CGI characters of Uru (which is important considering how much time we spend looking at them), but certain elements of the character models (irregular specularities on the faces, drawing errors at sharp angles, and seemingly random gestures) are off-putting and distracting. It’s disappointing that Cyan decided to go this route, considering that realMyst demonstrated that it’s possible to combine realtime sets with full-body actors, but in general this method does at least work well enough.

Getting back to the game itself, the player finally gets to step outside the locked room in K’veer and head down the hallway outside. It’s worth noting that this area is a rare example of a place from the novels making an appearance in the games, and as I traverse it I can’t help but imagine Gehn dragging the young Atrus up these stairs to begin his imprisonment. At the end of the hallway the player finds a room containing a weird giant bubble surrounded by tusks. Inside the bubble is a mysterious golden thingie that makes a weird noise when touched. The walls of the bubble constantly shift to show other Ages, which makes for some nice subtle foreshadowing.

Upon stepping out of the bubble the player is accosted by Yeesha in the first of many, many speeches we will have to endure. She has aged visibly since the events of Uru and in that time has transitioned from all-powerful demigod to crazy cat lady. Her ramblings are even more incoherent than usual, and her vague description of the journey ahead doesn’t really enhance the player’s understanding of anything. “What you still don’t understand,” Yeesha says, “you have failed to hear or don’t need to know.” If only everyone had access to such a convenient disclaimer. As the game progresses the statement begins to feel more and more like an apology for the mess of plot holes and dead ends the story becomes entangled in. Luckily, though, we won’t be subjected to much Yeesha-rambling this time around. In fact, we won’t be seeing much of Yeesha at all, because most of the speechifying will be performed by the delightful personage known as Esher.

Esher emulating Leonardo da Vinci

Esher is a survivor of the Fall who has taken it upon himself to follow the player around and lecture her at every opportunity. Up until this point we’d never met an actual D’ni citizen in the games. This means that the events of the games are always viewed from an outsider’s perspective. Since the player is herself an outsider, there’s something to be said for that arrangement, but with this many installments it’s high time that we get a peek at the D’ni interpretation of events for a change. We need a D’ni character, one who can fill in our understanding of its history from the other side. Esher is not that character. At times he seems to have depth, to be as wise as his advanced age would lead us to expect, and other times he’s a vitriolic and embittered one-note villain. He’s like a senile grandpa who alternates between quiet reminiscing and paranoid ravings. Esher doesn’t provide any real insights on the D’ni mindset because he’s so dead-set on his cartoonish agenda, speaking over and over again on the same points: he hates Yeesha, he hates the bahro, and he wants to see D’ni returned to its former glory. He makes many, many speeches over the course of the game, reiterating all these points ad nauseaum, yet in all other things maintaining a careful vagueness to keep us from learning about his character, or backstory, or any of those tedious kinds of things. (And while he says he wants to help with the quest, he gives puzzle hints only about once per Age.) The deeply personal soliloquoys of Gehn and even Saavedro are not in evidence. These are lectures, plain and simple, giving us no insight into either Esher himself or to the world of the D’ni at large. To put it bluntly, Esher’s execution is awful. His speeches are so transparently worthless that the player begins to dread his frequent appearances, becoming hesitant of moving anywhere for fear that he’ll appear. The frequency of his speeches could perhaps be forgiven if he was at least saying something interesting, but in general, to hear one of his speeches is to hear all of them. Esher is just plain annoying, and the few moments when he seems like an interesting character are subverted in the endings, both of which reveal him to be a delusional psychopath. Esher, and even the entire speechifying mechanic, have good potential, and seeing them wasted this way is disappointing.

After enduring speeches from both Yeesha and Esher, the player finds herself atop the volcano near the Cleft, where the passage to D’ni begins. We’ve seen only glimpses of this in Uru, and won’t get to see a lot of it here either, but it’s still nice to be able to visit it firsthand. The area surrounding the Great Shaft becomes a sort of explorational hub, functioning much like Myst Island or J’nanin in that it contains Linking Books connecting us to the game’s various Ages. (It is unlike the aforementioned Ages insofar as the books aren’t protected by corresponding puzzles.)

Strangely enough, the books we find in the Great Shaft don’t link directly to the Ages, but to an intermediate age called Direbo, where we can link to the Ages via weird bubbles and pedestals with nary a Book involved. In fact, Books will be used only for Linking to and from Direbo; all other Linking is accomplished by bahro magic, and occurs very, very frequently. There’s so much Linking in this game, and so many ways to do it, that it begins to feel somewhat mundane. It’s a big change from the pre-Uru era, where Linking is performed rarely, and under very specific conditions, so that it feels somewhat exciting and special. End of Ages utilizes Linking as a puzzle mechanic a lot, which while not an inherently bad idea, does make Linking somewhat mundane after a while. It no longer means we’re about to transition something special, it’s just a means to an end. Even the iconic Linking sound becomes a lot less intriguing when you hear it six or seven times in the process of solving a puzzle. Linking has a mystique, if you’ll pardon the pun, one which suffers considerably when overused as it is here.

The game’s puzzles tend to fall into a handful of different categories, many of which we’re all too familiar with already. Each Age contains at least one puzzle which is dependent on the ability of the bahro to alter the laws of the universe, a skill which can be utilized by drawing specific pictograms which they interpret. Pictograms are also used to enable Linking between specific locations within an Age. These puzzles are somewhat central to the End of Ages experience, but they’re repetitive in their approach, so the novelty wears off as players begin to realize that it’s really the only original element the game will bring to the table. The other puzzles are, by and large, varieties we’ve seen before: trial and error, machines without manuals, and locks whose combinations are left lying around. While puzzles have never been my favorite element of this series, those seen here have a particular tendency to feel phoned-in. Most have no clear in-universe function (such as the weighted podium in Laki’ahn) and none of them feel remotely original. The crystal organ and mangree puzzles in Revelation were frustrating, to be sure, but they were at least trying to do something interesting (and both are tied directly to the game’s storyline). If I’m going to have to think to solve puzzles, I want to see some evidence that the creators put thought into creating them.

As I mentioned already, the Ages are small but visually impeccable, and while they often don’t offer many things to do, just looking at them and wandering through them is a worthwhile experience. The Bahro pedestals (the waypoints of the pictogram puzzles) actually complement the Ages relatively well from an explorational standpoint; in placement and function they are are similar to the Journey Cloths in Uru, but provide a more interesting mechanic to work with. While navigating from one pedestal to another can still be tedious at times, it’s not as incremental as searching for Journey Cloths over and over again. The pedestals, while not perfect, are in many ways what the Journey Cloths should have been, interactive objects which enable easier movement throughout the landscape. (Despite my gripes with the overuse of Linking, it is a convenient system, particularly in games without a Zip Mode function.) Like Uru, End of Ages is primarily about taking in the scenery, and to that end it really is designed quite well.

It burns! It freezes!

We’ll examine each of the Ages in brief, starting with Taghira (or, as I call it, “The Li’lest Age”). It’s probably the smallest and most inconsequential of any Age we’ve ever seen, and while pretty it’s the most forgettable part of this game. It’s a Prison Age, and a pretty brutal one at that: it’s nothing but a huge frozen rock surrounded by an unending ocean. (Considering that murder was supposedly so rare in D’ni, it’s hard to conceive of what crimes could merit such a cruel place of exile. Then again, this is the post-Uru Evil D’ni, so I imagine the transgression must have been something along the lines of operating a snack cart without a permit.) In any case, Taghira is a featureless wasteland, nothing but white ice and a small handful of funny-looking trees, around which the prisoners built an elaborate heating system. It’s not that Taghira is ugly or uninteresting, it just doesn’t have that much to see or do. There’s no sign of any of the former inmates, no personal effects of any kind. Aside from the weird trees, Taghira doesn’t have anything that you can’t see in the Rime Age from realMyst, and in fact Rime contains a number of elements which Taghira doesn’t. And yet Rime is just a “bonus” while Taghira is one of this game’s central locations. The concept of exploring a Prison Age is a fascinating one, particularly if we could get to know the stories of the prisoners, but Taghira, while pretty, seems to be little more than a dry run intended to demonstrate basic gameplay mechanics.

My god, it's full of stars!

Progressing down through the Great Shaft, we next come to Todelmer, an Age designed to be conducive to astronomy. I imagine that some people may have been put off by its science-fiction vibe, but for my money, Todelmer is one of the most visually spectacular Ages of the series. Todelmer’s sky is dominated by every astronomical feature imaginable, everything from garish nebulae to colossal planets, and it’s hard to look in any direction without seeing something mind-bogglingly beautiful. The explorable area is located atop improbably tall rocky spires which rise from a very intriguing-looking surface, completely inaccessible but begging to be explored. What also helps Todelmer is the plausibility of its concept: any astronomer would want to study from such a place, given the ability to travel to one, so it’s a natural step for the D’ni to Write this. Among the highly mundane Ages we encounter so often in the Uru era (Nexus: the Age of Public Transportation), Todelmer stands out as one which was written for a specific function, but takes full advantage of the all-encompassing power of the Art.

This thing is too pretty for the stupid puzzle it embodies

Next we arrive at Noloben, the Age where Esher lived following the Fall. As mentioned earlier, the aesthetic of Noloben is unique and attractive, a rich combination of surreal beachscapes, windworn rock, and lush grass. Where Todelmer is beautiful in a stark and titanic way, Noloben’s beauty is more personal. The only real problem with it is in its story content, in that there hardly is any. This is a place where Esher lived for many, many decades, and yet his “lab” has the appearance of a recently-rented apartment that he has barely started moving into. He has a cage, some grim-looking tools, and a few scraps of unrealistic notes, and it’s just not enough to create a believable workspace, let alone a living area. (I suppose it’s possible his actual living quarters were on a different island, but still we should be allowed to see them, because therein is the strength of this series.) Noloben presented some opportunities for a dramatic exploration of character, in much the same vein as Gehn’s legacy on Riven–and Esher was effectively stranded in his Age for something like three times as long. The scenery is nice, but there should have been more stuff here.

Because D'ni=Rome! Except Rome fell over the course of many decades!

The final Age resumes the theme of the Evil D’ni which was so sadly lacking from the preceding two: Laki’ahn is an Age dedicated to blood sport. Specifically, it is dedicated to watching native warriors battle ferocious marine animals in order to harvest valuable gems from within their bodies. At this point I think we’ve all become pretty jaded to the sins of the D’ni, but this particular chapter seems almost petty. So the D’ni enjoyed watching dangerous sports. So do most real-world societies. They endorsed the slaughter of animals. Most real-world societies slaughter huge numbers of animals for various reasons. They forced the locals to fight on their behalf. Well, that’s implied but there’s no direct evidence of that, and in all likelihood the natives were experienced at hunting these things already, so in that sense the D’ni were nothing more than spectators. Furthermore, the arena has less seating than most high school jogging tracks, suggesting that this wasn’t actually a very popular sport. So I’m not that impressed by this as a demonstration of collective sin. As for the aesthetics of the Age, it’s attractive but somewhat bland. It’s a tropical-resort kind of place, and while it has a handful of unique elements (the huge smooth boulders, the weird bird-things) it doesn’t have anything we haven’t seen before. It is expansive, easily dwarfing all the other Ages in the game in terms of explorable area, but (once again) there’s not much story content, and overall it tends to look fairly uniform.

Once the Ages are complete, we are linked back to K’veer and granted access to the golden Tablet, which supposedly unlocks the full power of the bahro. Yeesha insists that we shouldn’t give her the Tablet, although she does want it, and since there’s no reason to give it to her, it’s a pretty clear bad ending. Esher, ever conniving, comes up with his own plan to get his mitts on it: he plays on the player’s nostalgia by telling her to bring it to Myst Island. Naturally the player wants to go to Myst Island, especially since the descriptive panel reveals it to be destroyed by tempestuous weather. The first time I played this game I already figured that the solution was to give the Tablet to the bahro (thereby effectively giving them dominion over themselves), but I figured I’d just go ahead and link to Myst and give it to them once I had a look-round. Well, it doesn’t work that way. Going to Myst is an automatic bad ending, because even if you do drop the Tablet, the Bahro don’t show up. The only choice left is to give it to Esher and watch him make a comical fool of himself, cackling maniacally, handing out gratuitous insults, and explaining how this will help him defeat Batman. I’m tempted to apologize for this setup and say that it’s actually an ingenious way of playing against the player’s desires, offering her something she wants, but only if she’s willing to lose the game to get it. Could it be a metaphor for the tablet, which the characters want but comes at a cost of their humanity? But anything sounds good if you just analyze it to death, and I do think this is something of a problem. I knew not to give Esher the tablet, but I just wanted to see good ol’ Myst Island again. The Bahro can and do travel everywhere else, so I figured it wouldn’t be a problem. If that one little issue was corrected I wouldn’t be complaining, but it’s in there, and I’ve always been a little bit miffed by it.

They finally canceled the lawn service when it started raining all the time.

As for the good ending, the Bahro snatch the Tablet quite readily once the player drops it, and Yeesha falls to her knees and thanks her for accomplishing the “impossible” task of relinquishing the Tablet to the Bahro. The Tablet is one of these One Ring sorts of things which grant so much power that no one can relinquish them, but to the player the tablet does literally nothing (it can’t even be used to invoke the pictograms from earlier in the game), so the decision to get rid of it is something of a no-brainer. Granted, it would be difficult to give the player godlike powers in the final act, but it would be nice to get at least a little taste of the Tablet’s much-advertised powers.

Now that the bahro are their own masters, they teleport us to Releeshahn, where we get a reunion scene with Yeesha and a suddenly-not-dead Atrus. Yeesha talks in her usual vague shtick and Atrus does the thing where he thanks the player for his trouble. Atrus’s facial videos are the most disconcerting of the three characters, resembling a weird-looking ventriloquist dummy, and the camera drifts slowly backward as he approaches, as if trying to keep its distance. Yeesha is also odd in most of this scene; whenever she isn’t talking she stands off to the side with an expression like a petulant teenager. (I’m nitpicking, yes, but in the final moments of the series’s grand sendoff, I think that nitpicking is justified.) Esher gets in one last appearance as a prisoner of the Bahro, screeching about how he’s the Grower and this is all so unfair and saying pretty much anything that will succeed in painting him as a total lunatic. Esher had so much potential as a good character, and it’s sad that neither ending allows him to keep at least his dignity if not his sanity. In any case, the bahro take him away to an unspecified fate and quickly give us a lift in order to get a better look at Releeshahn. It’s a beautiful-looking place, a testament to the Art’s ability to provide an ideal place to live…kind of like Terahnee.

You've violated the Prime Directive for the last time, Picard.

There’s one other element to this ending that merits special consideration. There’s an implication, one never voiced outright but nonetheless in evidence, that the freedom of the bahro means that the Art will no longer work. (See, for example, Yeesha’s diaries, which suggest that the Art is dependent on the subjugation of the bahro, not to mention the game’s very title.) Beyond the fact that this contradicts everything we ever knew about it (the Ink comes from special beetles, remember?), it’s a pretty depressing way to end the series, since the Art was the thing that made it so exciting. (It also taints all the preceding games, as even Atrus becomes complicit in the enslavement of the bahro.) It effectively means that the happy ending is based on turning your back on the premise of the series and passing the torch to one of its most unpopular elements. I don’t hate the bahro, but I’ve certainly not been given much reason to care about them. This ending is only positive in the light of the Evil D’ni interpretation, in which the Art was nothing more than a tool of oppression. But as we’ve seen, the Art is far more than that. It’s a means of escape, a medium of art, a source of pleasure, a tool of science, a supplier of food, a freaking mass transit system. Anyone who would advocate extinguishing the Art, especially on pretenses as ill-founded as Yeesha’s, is not a hero. That person is a villain–and a very short-sighted one at that. If the Art is _dependent on the subjugation of the _bahro (and there is little evidence of that outside of this game), then that is a problem which much be addressed. But it should be addressed in a way which is amenable to everyone: strike a bargain with the bahro that enables their freedom and pays them fairly for whatever it is they contribute. Uru’_s condemnation of the D’ni was bad enough, but _End of Ages comes across as a condemnation of the Art itself, a twist which any Myst fan will find depressing.

We’ve already discussed problems with characterization and premise, but even beyond these issues the game’s story doesn’t make a whole lot of sense. The existence of the Slates and the bahro are never explained in any way. Esher implies that the Bahro placed the pedestals, but why they can’t just release the Tablet themselves is never discussed. Neither do we learn why they’re bound by the system in the first place. Yeesha leaves a series of journals lying around Saavedro-style which provide a mention of how she discovered the Tablet and the Slates in the first place, but no real detail is given. Her journals also give us brief insight into a friendship, possibly even a romance, which she struck up with a D’ni survivor named Calam. However, in characteristic Yeesha fashion, the details of this are obfuscated and glossed over, even the seemingly critical point that Calam was murdered and that Yeesha killed his murderer. That somehow seems like something we might want to know more about.

There’s an interesting distinction to be drawn between End of Ages _and the original _Myst. In Myst, we start off knowing nothing about the world or the story. Gradually we are able to put together the pieces until nearly all the story elements are revealed. There are a few things which remain vague, such as the specifics of Sirrus and Achenar’s final crime, but we get all the basics. In End of Ages, we start out with a limited understanding of the world and the story, and the game never really builds on that. The questions which are unanswered at the beginning are by and large still unanswered at the end. “Myst” was the perfect title for the first game: it’s a mystery of sorts, and takes place in a metaphorical fog which slowly evaporates to reveal the hidden truths. In End of Ages, the fog remains.

I feel bad treating this game as harshly as I have. It’s not terrible, really: it has flaws, but nothing that completely destroys the experience. Like Uru, it’s little more than a bunch of Ages to explore, and unlike Uru, it does at least try to have a story, characters, and a greater degree of interactivity. The thing that makes this game so disappointing is that it’s the end, and the end could have, and should have, been a lot better. Considered as Uru II, it’s a worthy and satisfactory installment. As the culmination of the series, it just tends to pale in comparison to earlier installments. It lacks the sharp, original storytelling and atmosphere of Myst. It’s not sweeping and realistic like Riven. _It doesn’t have a strong central character like _Exile, _or vivid, dynamic Ages like _Revelation. Even Uru _generally outperforms it in terms of the expansiveness of its environments and lack of annoying characters. The game’s greatest problem, sadly, is not an innate one but one of comparison. Like a child who can’t live up to the standard set by talented siblings, _End of Ages just tends to seem sort of neglected. Cyan Worlds collapsed at about the same time it was released, and there’s definitely a sense that creating the game was a rush against time, just trying to get something out the door before all the money was gone. As such, its cobbled-together quality is perhaps to be expected. Is End of Ages a bad game? No. It’s troubled, but not bad, when all is said and done. It’s just that in a perfect world, it would have been something much different.

Posted on November 27th, 2016. Filed under Myst in Retrospect. Tagged as: , , ,

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