Welcome all to the second annual end-of-year roundup of various media I consumed this year. This year I kept a list, so this is guaranteed to be comprehensive. Instead of alphabetical order, entries are listed in the order read (within each category). As in last year, recommendations are in bold. Mini-reviews provided below entries, as applicable. Starred entries I only read part of, usually books of short stories. Note: also includes movies!
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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.
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.
Warning: Spoilers abound. If you haven’t played Riven, I suggest you do so before proceeding. You can buy it at gog.com
Sequels are a notoriously difficult thing to pull off, and Riven is an example of an unequivocal success. It took Myst’s design and built upon it rather than simply aping it, creating a completely fresh take on the existing concept. Beyond the continued storyline and identical control scheme, there is practically no resemblance between the two. It isn’t so much Myst II as it is Myst 2.0– a second release which corrects the shortcomings of an earlier version. Riven is a masterpiece, an example of what can happen when creators consider their past mistakes, aim high, and ignore the risks.
Warning: Spoilers abound. If you haven’t read The Book of Atrus, I suggest you do so before proceeding. You can buy all three novels here.
Myst: The Book of Atrus was published in 1995, well into the heyday of the original Myst but still two years before the release of Riven. It appears to set two basic goals for itself: to expand the backstory of the original game and set the stage for the new one. The book is credited to Rand and Robyn Miller, Myst’s foremost creators, with coauthor credit to David Wingrove, an SF writer previously known for Chung Kuo, a sprawling epic about a future in which Imperial China rules the world. (In true diehard-fan fashion, I attempted to read the first of these volumes, with no success.) As a work of literature, the novel is probably slightly better than your average science fiction novel, at least stylistically. As a part of the Myst canon, this novel (and the other two) form a sort of backstory-bible, one which became so integral to the series that the games eventually came to depend on it.
Warning: Spoilers abound. If you haven’t played Myst, I suggest you do so before proceeding. You can buy it at gog.com
As Myst approaches its twentieth anniversary, it’s a good time to take a look back and try to understand what it all meant. Writing now, seven years after the final installment was published, much of the fan base has gone silent, Cyan Worlds (the creators) have turned to simple iPhone games, and the series itself has become little more than a tiny blip in the history of video games. Its initial meteoric arrival is well-known, selling 6 million copies and contributing to the rise of the CD-ROM drive. Its safe, no-dying approach appealed to small-time gamers and its uniqueness to the more die-hard breed. Myst was an anomaly in the video-game scene of 1993, and its influence was felt across the field. Still, many of those 6 million players never actually finished the game, and as we have observed, the series has languished into relative oblivion today. As a longtime fan, I naturally think this fate was undeserved, but as a critic I can’t help but see some of the factors which brought it about. Over the next few months we’ll be taking a trip through the series, beginning with the first game and ending with the last (with three stopovers to look at the novels). Now, if you’d care to join me, I have just stumbled across a most intriguing book…
Freewheel is one of those extremely rare webcomics that inspires comparison to prominent creators of the print world. The artwork somewhat reminded me of Kim Deitch in its meticulous and sometimes disturbing detail. The writing is reminiscent of Hans Rickheit’s surreal underworld of The Squirrel Machine. Ultimately, though, these kinds of comparisons are a waste of time, as Liz Baillie’s webcomic stands beautifully on its own.
Pacing is one of those things that no one notices unless it’s not working. It’s tricky to strike that delicate balance between too slow and too fast, and many webcomic writers never quite seem to get the knack of it. They particularly seem to fall prey to what is charmingly called “glacial” pacing, in which weeks’ worth of real time elapses while narrative time proceeds at a crawl. I am happy to say that reMIND by Jason Brubaker does not have this problem. Unfortunately, it has the opposite problem.
There is a type of story which recurs again and again. In it, someone is suddenly transported to another world, one which she had believed to be fictional. This is in some ways an offshoot of the fantasy-transposition story (that is, one in which people from the “real” world end up in a different world), but it also implies an interesting truth about writers. Writers create worlds through their work, but not even Tolkien-scale efforts can make these worlds actually exist, no matter how much their creators may want them to. I think stories like Namesake grow out of this frustration.
The concept of being an outsider is an important one in science fiction. The idea of being the only human in a group of aliens is possibly the most dramatic example of isolation imaginable. For writers of SF it presents a vast array of possibilities to explore not just the possibilities of alien cultures but also what it means to be human.
In Outsider, Jim Francis enters into this longstanding tradition with an epic of war and politics, depicted through attractive anime-style artwork. Francis obviously spends a considerable amount of time on both art and writing, and the world-building is extensive–but does the story hold up?