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.
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.
“[L]ooking back at the others about the table, he smiled and raised his goblet. ‘To D’ni!’ he exclaimed. A dozen voices answered him robustly. ”To D’ni!‘” – Myst: The Book of Ti’ana, pg. 142
“There’s a couple things that the fans will like. I think the first is the fact that they get to go to D’ni. And anybody who knows our stuff on a little bit deeper level knows that D’ni is someplace you want to go.” – Rand Miller, interview from Myst 10th Anniversary DVD Edition
Access to D’ni was undoubtedly one of Uru‘s strongest selling points among fans, yet Ages Beyond Myst offered only cursory glimpses of the Cavern: a couple small balconies, a rooftop, and a tiny office. Sure, you could catch a glimpse of Kerath’s Arch (a well-known D’ni landmark), but unless you were one of the lucky few who had access to Uru Live, D’ni seemed to be nearly as far away as ever. It wasn’t until the collapse of the multiplayer edition that the Cavern was opened to all in the form of this first expansion pack, To D’ni. It was made available free of charge, implying that Cyan wanted to extend access to D’ni to as many people as possible. To D’ni may not be the most impressive game in the series, but it finally gave us the trip to D’ni we’d always dreamed of, and for that at least it must be considered a success.
As I illustrated in the two opening quotes, the phrase “to D’ni” has an interesting kind of duality to it: it can be seen either as a dedication or a destination. As a game, To D’ni is about going to D’ni; as a work of art it can be seen as something made in honor of D’ni. Moreso than any other part of the series, this installment is about D’ni itself, and it lives up to its name perfectly.
Imagine reading a press release that describes a website filled with interactive poems. The site will debut with just a few poems, gradually adding more in response to user involvement, making the site’s visitors part of a living, breathing artwork. It’s a clever idea, and a couple poems released as teasers show that the site has a lot of promise. Sadly, however, when the site finally debuts, something has gone wrong in development. Instead of the vibrant scene you were promised, there’s just a static page with a handful of poems. There’s not even anywhere to post a comment. The poems are still well-written, and you enjoy reading them, but you can’t shake the feeling that you could have been a part of something much bigger. Welcome to the beautiful and depressing world of Uru.
After completing Riven, Cyan went quiet and began work on a multiplayer Myst game which was codenamed “Mudpie.” The concept was a surprising one, Myst being perhaps the quintessential single-player experience. Fans were largely intrigued but somewhat apprehensive. The development process was long and Cyan’s occasional preview screenshots offered glimpses into a game that seemed perennially just out-of-reach. Even more tantalizing were the promises of real-time graphics, ongoing storylines, and (perhaps most intriguing of all) access to D’ni itself. We waited patiently, forgiving Cyan’s radio silence on the grounds that Mudpie was going to be awesome.
Yet even early on there were signs of trouble. Cyan’s publisher, Ubisoft, requested that a single-player version be built as well; dialup users were still a majority at the time and Ubisoft didn’t want a product that required broadband. Cyan obliged, and the first public release of the game was the single-player adaptation Uru: Ages Beyond Myst in 2003. The multiplayer version, Uru Live, was not ready. The game shipped with promises of online play, but implementation was delayed. Eventually, the pretense was dropped, and in February of 2004 Uru Live was officially canceled.
It shouldn’t surprise you to learn that I read a lot as a kid. I went through dozens of books and pillaged the library on a weekly basis. There were, however, a few books that attracted my attention more than others, books I read over and over again. This is series is about re-reading those books as an adult. Are they good? Are they bad? Are they weird? Let’s find out!
If you’d asked me who my favorite author was at the age of eight or nine, I’d have replied without hesitation: “Bruce Coville!” Mr. Coville’s specialty was works of science fiction and fantasy, usually with a dash of humor. He wrote numerous different series (some of which we may cover in the future) but my favorite by far was the “Alien Adventures,” beginning with Aliens Ate My Homework.
The Aliens series follows a small cast of alien characters perennially in pursuit of the evil intergalactic criminal BKR. Along for the ride is our hapless protagonist, Rod Allbright, a middle-school-aged kid who narrates the adventures in first-person.
The Myst series can be divided into two distinct parts. The installments we’ve examined so far make up what I call the “Atrus Arc,” and follow the story of Atrus and his family. The second category, the “D’ni Arc,” is focused instead on the D’ni civilization. The Book of Ti’ana is the ideal entry point for the latter, as it is the only entry in the series which takes place in D’ni during its heyday. This is the backstory bible to rule them all, and sets the stage for the D’ni-focused games that Cyan created after the completion of Riven.
The problem with the D’ni Arc in general is that it tends to focus more on world-building than on character or plot, and as a result these installments tend to be less successful than those of the Atrus Arc. This is not to say that they are without merit, however: any longtime fan will find a lot to enjoy in both The Book of Ti’ana and the games which build upon it. The Atrus Arc’s stories took place within within a specific universe, and the D’ni Arc, if nothing else, strengthens that universe.
The book opens to a scene of D’ni stonecutters hard at work on a tunnel to the surface. This is a mission motivated by pure curiosity: the D’ni arrived in the Cavern via the Art, so what lies beyond it is a complete unknown. Most of the storyline at this point revolves around the fact that the completion of the tunnel is dependent on the whims of D’ni politics (the project is controversial and many politicians want to end it). This is largely a false sort of tension, as the reader already knows from The Book of Atrus that the tunnel was eventually completed, and as such the sixty-plus pages the book devotes to the subject are often quite tedious.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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Myst: The Book of D’ni is not a very good book. It doesn’t have any substantial characters, its plot is disjointed, and its events have little to no bearing on the rest of the series. I’ve slotted it into the fourth chapter here because it takes place between Riven and Exile, but the book’s events are so marginal that it could be skipped entirely without consequence. It has numerous plotlines, most of the irrelevant to the series overall, and much of the action revolves around peoples who have never appeared before or since. Like Riven, The Book of D’ni is highly ambitious, but unlike Riven, it falls very short of its goals.
Sequels are a notoriously difficult thing to pull off, but Riven is an example of an unequivocal success. It took Myst‘s concept and built upon it rather than simply aping it, and in doing so created a completely fresh take on the existing formula. Beyond its control scheme and its universe, Riven bears practically no resemblance to its predecessor, but this actually works to its advantage. It isn’t Myst II but Myst 2.0, a second release which addresses the shortcomings of an earlier version. Riven is a masterpiece, an example of what can happen when creators learn from past mistakes, aim high, and ignore the risks.
Riven‘s intro picks up where Myst‘s anticlimax left off. Following a delightfully artistic new Cyan logo, we again see Atrus sitting at his desk. Rand Miller’s acting here hits a degree of subtlety that I don’t think he ever quite reached again: Atrus’s relief at seeing the player is palpable, but there’s also a strong undercurrent of worry in his voice. It’s an impeccable portrayal of a desperate man whose only hope rests in the hands of a stranger. Atrus doesn’t spell out his plan, but rather provides a journal containing “most of what you’ll need to know,” along with a trap book to be used on Gehn. Finally he turns the Riven book around to reveal its staticky linking panel, the first sign that there’s something seriously wrong with this Age.
While Myst: The Book of Atrus may not stand as a classic of speculative fiction, in the context of the series it performs exceptionally well. As the title suggests, the book is the story of Atrus, building upon from what little we learned of him in Myst while simultaneously setting the stage for the next game, Riven. Video games aren’t the ideal medium for detailed storytelling, so novelizations like this one were critical to the expansion of the game’s universe.
The Book of Atrus opens with characters we’ve never seen before, Gehn and Anna. Gehn’s wife (here unnamed) has just died in childbirth and he’s distraught. He spurns his newborn son, storms in the direction of a volcano, and disappears. It’s a good opening: cryptic, yet still intriguing enough to get the reader’s attention. It efficiently introduces Gehn and his callous, dispassionate manner, traits which will be critically important later.
Following the prologue, the narrative skips forward a few years. Atrus, the newborn from before, is now a young boy. He’s depicted as a precocious and intelligent child, spending his time conducting scientific experiments and exploring the desert surrounding his home. Anna, the reader learns, is his grandmother, who has seen to his care since the departure of his father. Anna is one of the most richly-developed characters of the series, but one who doesn’t appear in any of the games, so the novels are the single greatest source of information about her. Much of Atrus’s personality was inherited from her, particularly his sense of ethics and thirst for knowledge. The first few chapters are primarily concerned with the lives of Atrus and Anna, an idyllic chapter in Atrus’s life. These first few chapters tend to drag (they are, after all, practically devoid of plot), but they’re necessary to establish the life that Atrus will spend the rest of the book pining for.
Atrus and Anna’s home is the Cleft, a large crevasse at the foot of a volcano. In the novels, it’s located somewhere in the Middle East, though when it appeared in the games it was relocated to New Mexico. The Cleft carries a lot of metaphorical significance, and typically means different things to different characters. To Atrus it represents a happy life which he’s been forced against his will to abandon. To Gehn, the Cleft represents a dead end, a meaningless life which he’s worked hard to escape. In the context of the Myst epic overall, yhe Cleft subtly echoes the form and function of the Fissure (previously seen in the Myst opening), particularly in a scene early in the book in which the flooded Cleft reflects the starry sky. In many cases the Cleft also represents humility, a theme which will recur throughout the series.