“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.
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.
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.
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
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.
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.
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.
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…
Lots of updates to the site.
First and foremost is Flashlight, the photo series formerly known as Glimpse. The entire series is online now, so do check it out. (I hope to make a “behind-the-scenes” post at a later time.)
Also note the new header, in which I experiment with the logo I designed recently (never before seen online).
Oh, and there’s a new page of Sunrise too. Read it >