Myst in Retrospect Re-Run: The Great Tree of Possibilities

“Take from the past only that which is good.” – Atrus

Popular culture has a remarkably short attention span, especially so in the world of video games. Talk to many video game enthusiasts and you’ll get the impression that a game released five years ago is ancient history, archaic as the Model T, something their grandparents played. Many people react to these antique games with something akin to disdain, as if they were discoveries from the back of the refrigerator. This is no doubt due in part to how closely games are tied to the forward march of computer technology; it is inevitable that a game from five years ago is going to appear graphically inferior to one produced today. That said, while games are dependent upon imperfect technologies, it is important to remember that the best games strive to transcend these limitations and excel despite them. This is the context in which we’ve been examining the Myst series: it’s twenty years old, placing it somewhere between Gilgamesh and Beowulf in video game years, but like any work from antiquity, it still has power and meaning worth examining. As we wrap up this journey, I want to take a final look back to consider what the Myst series accomplished, why it’s important, and what its significance will be in the future.

Erase this post after you read it, just to be safe.

Here’s the formula: You play as a character with no name or personality beyond what you project onto it: essentially, you play as yourself. You are plunged into an unfamiliar environment, with no real understanding at first of the world or its characters. By exploring, you learn about the characters and their stories. Eventually you will encounter some of them, and in the end you will be asked to make a decision which will impact their lives. Along the way you will encounter obstacles which can be overcome by utilizing logic and clues found during your explorations. You are an active participant in a story. You are not the protagonist.

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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.

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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.

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Myst in Retrospect Re-Run: Uru: To D’ni

“[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

Onward, past the DRC's omnipresent roadblocks

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.

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Myst in Retrospect Re-Run: Uru: Ages Beyond Myst

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.

Hey, it's that guy!

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.

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Myst in Retrospect Re-Run: The Book of Ti’ana

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.

Harbor in D'ni

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.

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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.

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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.
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Myst in Retrospect Re-Run: The Book of D’ni

Atrus and company in the ruins of D'ni

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.

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Myst in Retrospect Re-Run: Riven

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.

Gehn's effigy

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.

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