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Myst in Retrospect Re-Run: The Book of Atrus

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.

The Cleft (as seen in Uru)

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.

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Myst in Retrospect Re-Run: Myst

Hello everyone! I’ve finally started re-editing these reviews and will be posting the revised editions here, hopefully at a rate of one per week. Once the full run has been re-posted, the print edition will be available shortly later. Enjoy!

The Fortress, Mechanical Age

Myst is unique, a bizarre amalgamation of concepts that is unmatched even by its own sequels. It is by turns grim or whimsical. It requires logical thought but is set in a nonsensical universe. Its narrative is sophisticated on some levels and underdeveloped in others. Some seemingly ordinary things have great narrative significance, some especially strange things do not. It is, above all, a strange and unique experience.

Described in the simplest possible terms, Myst is a game about exploration. You have arrived in a strange place. What do you do? Naturally, you begin to look around. The game is your camera, your window. The cursor is your hand. The music is your intuition. The game involves no role-playing: rather, it turns your computer into a gateway through which you can enter another universe.
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Myst in Retrospect: The Great Tree of Possibilities

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

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

Popular culture has a remarkably short attention span, especially so in the world of video games. A new game is one that’s been around no more than a month or two; an old game is one that was released over a year ago. Talk to many video game enthusiasts and you’ll get the impression that games released, say, five years ago, are 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 resembled 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 will 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.

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Myst in Retrospect: End of Ages

Warning: Spoilers abound. If you haven’t played Myst V, I suggest you do so before proceeding. You can buy it at gog.com.

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

“What you still don’t understand, you have failed to hear or don’t need to know.” – Yeesha

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

At long last, here we are. From the heights of the Fifth Age to the lows of Serenia, through Stoneship and Ahnonay, from the Cavern to Terahnee, we now gather for one last journey, one last quest. I begin to understand why Yeesha talks like that; it’s much easier to write than meaningful sentences, yet it still manages to sound profound.

All silliness aside, Myst V is the end, “the final chapter,” as the box proclaims. Considering how vast and varied a journey it’s been, wrapping it all up 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 (of course) the Bahro. Naturally we also want to check out a few of our favorite old haunts, and see some new places as well. Myst V: End of Ages manages to hit a few of these notes. It has some nice character moments, some spectacular Ages, and the occasional pinch of nostalgia. Unfortunately, it also has some fairly serious flaws that drag down the experience considerably. 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. Let’s begin.

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Myst In Retrospect: Uru, The Path of the Shell

Warning: Spoilers abound. If you haven’t played Uru, I suggest you do so before proceeding. You can buy it at gog.com.

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

On many occasions I’ve mentioned Myst to an avid video game enthusiast and seen the same reaction: their eyes glaze over and they say that they thought it was boring. As I’ve established throughout these reviews, one’s enjoyment of these games is due in large part to one’s willingness to meet the game’s story at the level it’s being presented. Uru, as we have seen, tends to be even more difficult to appreciate, since its story is obscure at best, and feels 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.

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Myst In Retrospect: Uru, To D’ni

Warning: Spoilers abound. If you haven’t played Uru, I suggest you do so before proceeding. You can buy it at gog.com.
“[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

Long before Uru was released, it was well-understood among the fan community that the game would finally allow players access to D’ni itself. This was, undoubtedly, the game’s strongest selling point among the fans. It was something of a disappointment, therefore, to find that 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, which makes it clear that its intent is to grant D’ni access to as many people as possible following the demise of the online community. It’s not much of a game, per se, but it’s not really trying to be: we, the fans, wanted access to D’ni, and they gave it to us. In addition to that we also got some closure to the Uru Live storyline, a objective (albeit a somewhat dull one), and some foreshadowing of the expansion yet to come. Overall it’s somewhat impressive that Cyan Worlds managed to release something of this scope even while reeling from the destruction of its longtime labor of love, but the inescapable fact is that To D’ni‘s meager content is somewhat beaten down by its tedious and repetitive gameplay mechanics. To D’ni wanted to be more than a couple additional environments, but in actuality that would have been enough.

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Myst in Retrospect: Uru, Ages Beyond Myst

Warning: Spoilers abound. If you haven’t played Uru, I suggest you do so before proceeding. You can buy it at gog.com, and it’s actually on sale this weekend, so why not.

Hey, it's that guy!

Imagine a new social network based on poems. The site will debut with a selection of original poems, and you and your friends will be able to read them and base your interactions on them. Gradually new poems will be added to the mix and the userbase will be able to slowly understand and help to build a narrative around the poems, creating a sort of 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 one 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.

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Myst in Retrospect: The Book of Ti’ana

Warning: Spoilers abound. If you haven’t read The Book of Ti’ana, I suggest you do so before proceeding. You can buy all three novels here.

Harbor in D'ni

We’ve reached the end of the Atrus-centric installments, which leaves only one direction to go: the backstory. Backstory is an important part of any fictional universe, as the additional details we learn from it add to the believability of the world overall. The Myst series, having created this vast edifice of D’ni to support Atrus’s story, has an almost infinite amount of space for additional backstory. We want to know more about D’ni, its inhabitants, and its history. Myst: The Book of Ti’ana, and our final two games, Uru and Myst V, give us a glimpse of the days before Atrus and the span of the D’ni society of old. As we move through the D’ni-centric arc, we’ll consider the following questions: can backstory itself be a story? If not, what does it take to make a backstory into a frontstory? Let’s begin.

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Myst in Retrospect: Revelation

Warning: Spoilers abound. If you’ve not played Myst IV: Revelation, I  recommend playing (most of) it before proceeding. You can buy it from Amazon.com or eBay.

The Lakehouse

Myst IV: Revelation is an impressive accomplishment: surely no other work of art in human history has managed to be so immersive and realistic while simultaneously preventing any degree of credibility. Where it’s good it rises to great heights…which unfortunately gives it that much more distance to fall. Exile set a fairly low standard, and while Revelation largely improves upon Exile‘s mistakes, 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.

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Myst in Retrospect: Exile

Warning: Spoilers abound. If you haven’t played Myst III: Exile, you might want to consider doing so before proceeding. As far as I know there is no downloadable version of it available online, your best bet is to search Amazon. I’d recommend the 10th Anniversary DVD Edition, which is stable, can run on Linux, and requires no disc-changing.

“I started off seeing it from a kind of ‘artist’s perspective;’ I would look for the most interesting scene that I could come up with. But the problem I ran into was that every time I made it look interesting, it didn’t work for the interface because it was unrealistic. You don’t look at everything as a composition. When you’re walking through a room, you’re just walking through a room, you’re not stopping and staring at everything.” – Chuck Carter, Digital Artist, Myst (from “The Making of Myst”)

“The really early decision that we made was to try to create a story context that would really offer us the opportunity to create a lot of deliberate puzzles.” – Michael Kripalani, Executive Producer, Myst III: Exile (From “The Making of Myst III: Exile”)

Exiled in the land of lamp plants

After Riven was released, Cyan elected to go quiet for a while in order to research and produce a massive new project, a multiplayer adventure game code-named “Mudpie.” Mattel Interactive, which around this time acquired the publishing rights for the franchise, was impatient. Riven had just become the fastest-selling game so far, and naturally they wanted to reproduce that effect. Presto Studios, makers of the popular Journeyman adventure games, were called upon to pick up the slack. The game they created was Myst III: Exile. The Presto team did a good job, and in most respects the game is fairly solid, but throughout it has the slightly-off flavor of a work produced not by inspiration but as something to be sold.

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