Myst (1993) - Can't Stop the Movies
Can't Stop the Movies
26Jun/150

Myst (1993)

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Earlier video game writing was under the banner Why Video Games, now Pixels In Praxis.  For a FAQ on Pixels In Praxis and explanation of spoiler policy, click here.

Get lost insideFor those reading along for the first time, as it is also our premier video game chat, I asked Seth to pick out what the subject of our first discussion should be.  In a fun twist, you managed to pick what I believe was the second computer game I ever bought (the first, for sake of full-disclosure, was the King's Quest 1-6 Collection).  I didn't quite get into the Myst universe outside of this first game, give or take the novels which fleshed out the back-story, and never even picked up Riven.  So Myst remains mostly a fixed point in my life with little connection to major events.  It was just me, my computer, the note pad which came with the game, and a lot of clicking in the dark.

The lack of any strong emotional association, coupled with the fact that Myst operates on a plane of intrigue instead of heavy plotting or twitch skill, made revisiting it some eighteen years later a curious thing.  I never zoned out, or attained that kind of hyper focus which causes time to shift away à la Civilization, but was in the midst of what some work gurus call flow.  Thoughts came and went, I caught myself muttering a few times and started little conversations about the puzzles and occasionally wondering how 12-year old me figured out some of the more obtuse puzzles.  But gradually everything snapped back into focus, I proceeded further, and felt the same tingles when the rare flash of music would drift in amidst the sounds.

Myst, for all the deserved hoopla it earned for being the game which single-handedly drove CD-ROM drive sales at the start of the '90s, has a unique distinction within gaming for replicating the experience of another medium.  It manages to capture that feeling of being lost in a great book, hence the little side conversations and thoughts which I had to let drift out verbally and otherwise, but does so without relying on text as heavily as some of Myst's adventure gaming forebears.  Cinematic scenes, which Myst also (for better or for ill) helped bring into the limelight worked with the live-action bits in a way which fused the idea of text and visuals being in control of the player.  The moments with Sirrus and Achenar aren't driving uncontrollable "gameplay" like Mad Dog McCree, but adding texture, like a seemingly inconsequential paragraph of description would in a novel.  We'll be getting into the technical bits and pieces, and I'm very curious about your general thoughts on the design, but for now - why'd you want to bring me back to Myst Island?‏

Aren't you trustworthyMyst Island. Before I dig in, I want to state how pleased I am that you're referring to this as a place. That feeling of a specific OTHER place with its own reality is both my motivation for requesting it as a subject and it is also a pretty good tie-in with our proposed concept of fantasy (the conceptual genesis of a game). There is a layered fantasy happening in Myst. It's noteworthy - not just because it drove hardware sales in the early 90s, but because that fantasy is rich enough that the game is still be being ported AND purchased today (via Nintendo DS, gog.com, Steam, etc). Myst has released on over a dozen platforms, more if we're including all the digital distribution platforms and devices of today. That's a pretty big arc of time and technology for any game to survive in the marketplace.

Another reason I requested this game is because I revisited it myself recently and my excitable inner-child was eager for a chance to share the journey. As for the experience itself, you touched on the book-like qualities of the game. It's evident from the beginning that this adventure came from a place of adoration for books. I would suggest that as distinct from an appreciation of text. As you point out, the developers embrace graphical presentation and offered text in supplementary ways rather than a primary method of content delivery, distinguishing it from other adventure and text games of the era. Furthermore, there are bookshelves to be found in-game, painting the characters as avid readers (and writers!). As the wispy threads of narrative come together in Myst, we come to understand that books are talismans in this world and that those who master the art of book creation open up new worlds - literally! They are objects of power. I think that's a big part of the fantasy right there. Book are objects of power.  Interestingly, while the developer had an adult audience in mind, they managed to capture a rather wide market this way, which is a pretty big feat. Make a game that glorifies books, but don't force anybody to read constantly in order to play. All that is required is observation and reasoning.‏

TopographyCSTVIcon_AndrewHathawayThat's a good call, especially since we opened our introductory discussion on what the through-lines of certain games are, it would be wise for us to return to that every so often.  One of the only through-lines you postulated were that video games could be "the imaginative approximation of some experience".  In this case it's being lost in a book, but translating that to a video game required a certain timelessness, and something which didn't have to rely on a specific language (which also speaks to why Myst was translated long before international markets were as big as they are now).  Good writing usually speaks to a specific audience but is available for everyone, so the decision to just make the in-game avatar a wanderer without sex or race was a good one.  What ties the player to the world are their "concrete" observations of it, just like how many people learn outside of video games, and the player can form what relationship they want to the environment.

Speaking back to that timelessness, unless humans were to disappear overnight or evolve far beyond our current levels of understanding, the art design keeps things chronologically loose.  Right away you're presented with seemingly conflicted images, the sunken ship behind you a sort of symbol of old world transportation lost to time, but right in front of you is a metallic gate which clangs to holographic images.  We never got the hang of holograms, but ships are as sturdy as they ever were, and there's a certain poetry to the way Myst uses the invented technology of the island to bring relics of the past back.   Considering the emergent plot involves how the brothers took advantage of their power over people who had little, it ties the general art design back to the story as well.

Which brings us to how the player navigates through the plot and, by extension, the world.  Much like a great book, everything you need is right there on the screen as opposed to the page, and the largely language-free presentation allows you to "feel" your way through the world.  This also speaks to the construction of each Age, be it through sound, machines, trees and water, and so on.  The player is invited to click through the world and figure out what these common sensations translate to in this new environment.  Some of the puzzles capture this perfectly, a scant few less so, but overall the philosophy is excellent.‏

CSTVIcon_SethGordenDefinitely. A quick note on the technology here. The developers had a rather helpful basis for all their puzzle design, which is that everything in the world is either loosely or specific mechanical in nature. Even if the Exact Science of the stuff is unknown, they give us a bunch of familiar things to warm us up and let us know that things aren't arbitrary. This was another rather significant departure from what we call Classic PC Adventures these days. We get light switches, electric generators, clocks, and other gadgets which are familiar. As with the old ship and the metallic sliding door to the hologram chamber, they begin to juxtapose the familiar and the alien to provoke us into exploration. To a certain extent, this is a through-line of game mechanics with all decent video games that educate their players. The game will present something very familiar and 1-dimensional to the player. A light switch is probably the best example. There's no problem solving there, but it lets you know that things which look operable probably are. It might seem pretty basic, but younger gamers might not have the knowledge that even during the boom of CD-ROM era, we spent a lot of time with decorative art in games that were not interactive at all. In Myst, through the layout of the island we're given a lot of information at once, even if we don't know we're being given that much. The achievement of the island's design is that it begins to make us suspicious of the function of- everything! Because if it all does something, it might be part of a puzzle, or it might educate us about the world. Bits and pieces of that suspicion were bubbling under the surface of games that lead up to Myst historically, but I think it came to a head in the design of Myst Island.

As for the supporting tech, they were working with pre-rendered pictures and short videos overlayed on it. But the fantasy they delivered was of a solid 3D world in which we got to walk around in first-person mode. Our avatar was effectively our own self, since no details are given that would alter the perception of self within the game. And in putting the world together, they did themselves a favor by creating mechanical system. Mechanical systems (as well as digital ones) in the real world all eventually boil down to ON/OFF and sometimes HOW MUCH as functions. They were able to manage the state of the game world with a very small amount of data. There was no vast inventory of items. Indeed, the player could only hold pages of book, and then only one at a time. All the rest of Myst Island and its other Ages were manipulable in-place. This choice also reinforced the simple basis of observation and reasoning. No obscure or extreme lateral thinking was required, no item combinations, or and no dead ends resulting from missing pieces. The only thing that player is missing at any time is information.‏  All the required information about the world is presented through the layout of the environment, or through written records left by those who inhabited the island, much of which is optional reading.‏

Give it a grindCSTVIcon_AndrewHathawayI think you just helped me figure out the characteristics of my least favorite puzzles in the game.  Myst hits its peak right there on the island, where every lever, button, or picture provides information or affects something.  Stoneship is my close second, combining an eerily effective environment in the broken up ship wedged right in two around the island, and with the various pump and light puzzles.  You turn press a pump, walk around and see what's changed, eventually find the water level lowered in the lighthouse, then the chest at the bottom you need to get to float to the surface to release a padlock.  That solution may be my favorite straightforward bit of the game, since it's not enough to open the valve and release the water trapped in the chest, but you've got to reclose it before pumping the water back in.

But when it doesn't work, the design doesn't seem to flow from that ON/OFF or HOW MUCH framework.  The Selenitic Age would be my close second after Myst if it weren't for the sound maze at the end.  Now, I call it a sound maze now, but that's just because I always brute-forced it by mapping out the maze on graph paper (now Microsoft Paint).  There is an intuitive solution as each "correct" way is marked by the sound which tells you where you need to go next, but since you're working with visual stimulus first with the maze presented right in the center of the screen then the sound design second it always played like a long, boring, maze.  The base idea is brilliant, but by including the visual element the puzzle shoots itself in the foot and provides a flat climax to the Selenitic Age.

Which is where I'm curious where you fall both in terms of Myst as a gamer then as a game designer in general.  There are other puzzles in Myst fail the ON / OFF or HOW MUCH dimensions, such as the elevators in the beguiling design of Channelwood, and the positive example like the pumps in Stoneship or the flat-out superb design of the Myst Island library.  In terms of the game, is there anything you feel doesn't fit that criteria and slows connection with the game, or how do you think those puzzles I dislike actually work?  Then as a game designer, how do you figure out the right amount of information?‏

CSTVIcon_SethGordenOne thing that was horribly frustrating for me both as a kid and now as an adult, was the loose control over the tree elevator that leads INTO the Channelwood Age from Myst Island. This is just a finesse thing, because the puzzle itself wasn't a hard one. The puzzle is the relationship between the boiler and the fact that the tree eventually moves in response. Once that relationship is discovered, the problem is that the HOW MUCH axis at the point of the boiler has an indirect relationship with the tree's position. And to be sure... the only thing the player cares about in this situation is a door to walk through. We are given, in essence, an accelerator pedal instead of a door handle to open that door. Even if the player accepts that, there's a fairly significant waiting period (in patience/timespace) to get through the door, even when you've set it up right and head straight to the tree. It's not the greatest of Myst's weaknesses, but it's an example of where they got fancy and risked the flow of the game to pull off their idea.‏

Now, along with that, I'm going to state that I love this kind of experimentation in design. A game doesn't have to execute its thesis perfectly, for my tastes, so long as all threads of it support the core fantasy of the thing. And I think, even where Myst errs, it does so in support of the wild fantasy of walking into a (linking) book and exploring it uninterrupted by heroes or villains. We visit the characters at our leisure. Another layer of it, for me, is a kind of archaeological fantasy. The privilege of stepping into another place/time and getting to explore without all the pesky digging. Stoneship is my favorite for that part of the experience. It has the wonderfully simple mechanics of the water of pumps, as you mentioned. It has scenes where we can see the ocean through underwater windows,  creating the creepy pressure of the dark place that is the ocean (much like certain moments in Rapture, a la Bioshock). There's some primal, energized reaction to being in places we shouldn't be (or where we wouldn't normally survive). Moreover, the bedrooms in that Age feel deeply personal and it's fascinating to step in there and examine the contents of another person's life, even they're not central to puzzle solving. Since the only analog to that experience in our world is with long dead or buried parts of civilization, it does tweak a few of the same impulses in me as the cool exploration bits of an Indiana Jones movie. And once again - no Nazis or pirates or anybody to interrupt our study of the place!

Gas-powered elevationCSTVIcon_AndrewHathawayThat's a good philosophy on experimentation, and one I wish some current developers would look at more closely.  Overall you're absolutely correct that, even if they don't work in the two frameworks you outlined, they at least make sense in the context of their connected Age.  It seems like a lot of experimentation today just involves adding more genres onto something and having multiple parts of an incomplete game instead of something which captures a specific idea really well then doesn't succeed 100% in implementation.  Recently I finished playing through Alan Wake and overall it was a fantastic experience, but it was broken up with nearly weightless driving sections where the previously ominous enemies could be bowled over with the car.  It succeeded only in making the threat less potent, and doing so in a way which just wasn't much fun.

Even the stuff with the brother's bedrooms in each Age could be reworked as a bit of experimentation.  In a lot of adventure games each screen has multiple hot spots to click on for points, items to advance, or a bit of dialogue to hint you in to the next step.  The bedrooms function both as pure atmosphere, such as Achenar's rose hologram device which turns into a skull, but also as subtle guidance about what you should do as you near the completion of the red and blue books.  Then those bits of atmosphere, like Sirrus' stash of drugs in Stoneship, are less atmosphere and more subtle hints from the designer that maybe you shouldn't trust the smooth talking guy who says he'll grant you riches.  But the leap of faith I like from the Millers (Rand and Robyn) is that they still let you make the bad choice, you can still fail to see the warning signs and become trapped in either Sirrus or Achenar's books.

Which brings me back to another interesting point I've noticed about gamers and the worlds they play in.  It's a touchy balance finding the right amount of freedom to grant them.  On the extreme ends you've got reflex puzzle games like Tetris which stay in a fixed location you can only manipulate so much, then something like Skyrim where the world is open for you to go wherever the spirit moves you.  I prefer the former to the latter, as testing limitations is more fulfilling than telling someone they can go become a god-king, but the balance in Myst is commendable.  It's why I love the little touches, like the butterflies which hang out in front of the electric pump station, or how the damaged books in the library hold information but also tiny clues to what is going on in how they appear to be burnt from the inside out.  There's direction, but also enough breathing space to be considered contemplative.‏

CSTVIcon_SethGordenOh, do let us discuss player freedom. This will come back a lot as we continue this adventure into video games. Think about what we've just discussed regarding the mechanics of Myst. We've identified that the most effective puzzles in Myst manipulate ON/OFF or in other simple ways. Through the abstraction of interface, we get some WHICH ONE? choices to work with. But the whole experience of Myst is confined. In terms of the raw data, even more so than Tetris. Every configuration of visuals is pre-determined. There is no possibility of emergent play. Wandering occurs only on planned paths. The world is finite and strictly limited. Therefore, the million dollar (rhetorical, possibly philosophical) question here is: Why do you say that you experienced freedom at all?‏

Starting to question his trustworthinessCSTVIcon_AndrewHathawayBecause of the puzzle and world design.  Since every action I can take has an immediate, if not at-the-time observable, reaction I'm constantly having an effect on the world.  Really freedom is just working within your limitations to have an effect on the immediate world around you.  In that sense, Myst is completely liberating.  There's no time limit save the natural one hovering over all of our heads, and each of your inputs has a purpose.  It's why the limited environment of Myst is much more intriguing because of what we can't see over the horizon than the almost limitless expanse of Skyrim.‏

CSTVIcon_SethGordenSo the responsiveness of the environment is an axis of freedom. In-world time to accomplish whatever goal we have in mind is an axis of freedom. I would add, the ability to discover and determine our goal is an axis of freedom. The combination of these factors is pretty fascinating. The ability to explore Ages in any order is amazing. Even in games which allow arbitrary exploration of all it zones usually have some plot-armored barriers or other natural limits such as the strength of enemies to reign us in and keep on a particular track. I was about to draw a comparison to the relative freedom of exploration in The Legend of Zelda, but even that pales under the incredible fact that Myst can be completed (mechanically speaking) right out of the box without visiting all the Ages on so on.

This is an incredibly risky way to design a game, but also shows a level of maturity of design (as I would call it) for this kind of exploration fantasy. The developers seem to trust in the layout of their world- that it will provoke exhaustive exploration regardless of what freedoms they have allowed in the programming. If I'm to draw this all into a conclusion about player freedom, it's that the important thing in a game's design is what some call the illusion of freedom (or illusion of choice), and that this experience is distinct from a game's mechanics. The feeling of freedom is not a programmable thing. It's the psychology of the player at a particular time, and how well the game's design has managed that on the balance between a sense of direction and arbitrary action on the part of the player.‏  That is something in which Myst has achieved, as you said, a commendable balance.‏I don't envy your decision, friendCSTVIcon_AndrewHathawayIt's funny you say the feeling of freedom is not a programmable thing, because every element of Myst is designed to invoke that illusion of freedom in some way.  Even the ambient sound design and sparse music are designed to keep the pace relaxed right up until the point where you know you're in an interesting environment.  This brings me to why I'm excited to keep talking about video games.  Sure, there are experimental films and novels which could technically be watched or read in any order, but those are the exception and not the rule.  The linear path forward is almost always clear.  Video games are most interesting to me when, as we talked about at the beginning, they invoke the approximation of some experience.  In Myst that's freedom, despite being trapped in a book, and I'm curious what else will be invoked as we continue on.‏

CSTVIcon_SethGordenIndeed. I think it's that curiosity that keeps us making and playing games. Conversely, one of the weirdest disappointments I have had as a player with books, movies, games, anything... is completing my journey through that work of art, no matter how well crafted, and NOT being curious about it after the journey is done. I don't have a quick example on hand, but it has happened where I've come to the end of something felt no compulsion of any kind to return to it, neither in its own medium, nor in thought or discussion. And it's why, for me, the best stuff is not programmable. Similar to the concept of inception in the movie of the same name... it's the challenge of a design that can plant an idea within a person that actually changes them in some way, moreover that a player will adopt it as a part which always belonged to them. That's what I continue to look for. When developing, that's what I aspire to create. So here's to curiosity! Can't wait for our next discussion.‏

What we're gaming this week:

CSTVIcon_AndrewHathawayAside from the obvious, the Steam Sale just ended so I'm awash in video games right now.  Thankfully, and for the first sale ever, almost everything I picked up has been solid to amazing.  Since that's a lot of games I'll focus on the big one - The Binding of Isaac: Rebirth, was one I wasn't looking forward to because I loved the clean art style mixed with depraved psychosexual images of the original and am tired of the sprite art frenzy.  I was, happily, wrong.  Binding of Isaac: Rebirth is even tighter than the original, and the new style allows for experimentation in the room design for the mazes.  Since each run typically lasts me about 30 to 40 minutes, it's still the perfect "wind down" game to pop in when I get home from work.

CSTVIcon_SethGordenThis week I completed my first play through Knights of the Old Republic 2 (on PC). Disregarding bugs, it was a solid game. Even next to the more modern Mass Effect series, one can see the roots of the space adventure clearly laid out in this game (and its predecessor). Building a team is a fascinating, sometime quite surprising experience. At least two of the characters were completely unexpected. One odd point about the plot of this game is that Kreia is ambiguous but turned out in my playthrough to barrel toward an inevitably dark ending that left a vague sense of completion and lacked any denouement in which I might have contemplated that ending in-game. Moreover, they put a couple team mates in relative peril before the end and did not go back to show whether they escaped or not. In short, I loved the ride and the challenges they place upon the Star Wars mythos, but I would have enjoyed any manner of closure.

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Posted by Andrew

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