Into the Myst

Twenty years later, what secrets remain hidden in Cyan’s groundbreaking CD-ROM adventure?

myst island

First released in 1993, Cyan’s Myst was an early CD-ROM puzzle game that marooned players on an enigmatic island full of books, machines, and puzzles. Remarkable for its gorgeously detailed environments, its lack of in-game hazards or conflict, and the difficulty of its puzzles, Myst has been included in both the Smithsonian American Art Museum’s Art of Video Games exhibition and the Museum of Modern Art’s permanent collection. It’s a classic, a benchmark in the history of video games, and a game that two otherwise respectable game critics, Sara Clemens and Gavin Craig, had never played. Knowing that it’s dangerous to go alone, the pair agreed to exchange notes as they worked to unravel Myst’s now twenty-year-old set of mysteries.


Dear Sara,

Well, I’ve made a start. I’ve worked my way around the island of Myst, and with a bit of help from a walkthrough, I found the clues to unlock the four “ages” that serve as the game’s levels, and I even made it to the Mechanical Age and back. (I should probably be totally upfront that I’m going to be using a walkthrough. I’ll try to use it as little as possible, but I’m also not going to feel guilty about consulting it when I feel I need to.)

More than anything else, my impression so far is that Myst as a game is not terribly concerned with teaching you its own particular vocabulary, or maybe even developing what I would call a “vocabulary” — a consistent set of tools that players learn and put to use to move forward in the game.

Instead, like how platformers on 8-bit systems used difficulty to engage players and extend the playable time of the game, Myst seems to offer something like systemic indifference as a mechanic. There’s a lot of trial-and-error. At the very beginning there are buttons and levers, but nothing works until, eventually, something does. I get the sense that if you know exactly what to do, you can tear through the game in a hurry, but when you’re just starting out it can feel like you’re spending a great deal of time doing nothing at all.

Sick of hand-holding tutorials? Man, Myst is the game for you.

Also, I’m taking lots and lots of pen-and-paper notes. I’d be interested to hear whether you find yourself doing the same.

Gavin


Dear Gavin,

You’re spot-on with the “sick of hand-holding tutorials” line. I, too, was surprised by Myst’s difficulty, and the reliance on trial and error. You don’t see that with very many modern games.

I was shocked by what a sense of deja-vu the game provided me, and I did that thing the food critic does in Ratatouille where he flies back in time to his childhood. It reminds me of all the old Infocom games I used to play. The wandering around a foreign place with no clue as to my own identity, the repeated experimentation when it comes to puzzles and interacting with the environment, the emphasis on reading the in-game books for backstory — it really feels like a text game with graphics.


I’m just about to enter the Mechanical Age. I spent way too much time on the gear puzzle inside the clock tower, because I (perhaps unwisely) made the resolution not to consult a walkthrough under any circumstances. We’ll see how long that holds up.



I also find myself wondering who I am in-world. A wandering stranger? Am I somehow connected to this family? Am I Catherine, its matriarch? I also wonder if I’ll find out the answer to this question, since Myst does seem rather indifferent to me as a player.



Playing on my commute doesn’t allow me to take notes, really, though I always keep a small notebook with me, so I’ve copied some of the symbols and drawings from the library books into that. It’s actually sort of nice to stay in the moment while playing and worry about analysis later.

Regards,
Sara

myst 2

Sara,

After completing the Stoneship Age I might — MIGHT — need to reconsider whether the game is giving me tools or teaching me a process. I didn’t feel like I was fighting as much with the puzzles as in the Mechanical Age. It might, however, just be that this age’s puzzles are simpler, or better designed. I also now understand that while you’re looking for the red and blue pages in each age, they don’t actually do anything until you find your way out of the age and back to the library on Myst.

In fact, while returning those pages to the red and blue books is arguably the reason why you travel to each age, I’m not certain that you actually have to collect the pages at all to advance through the game. Two brothers are trapped in mystical books, pleading to be freed, each insisting that the other is a liar and a murderer. Each page lets them tell you a little bit more, but they don’t have anything to do with the puzzles that let you travel from age to age.

It may be that the big difference between Myst and a lot of modern games is that you have to be able to stitch together disjunctions in the feedback loops. In the Stoneship Age, the flooding/draining buttons made sense to me pretty quickly, because at this point I’m not just pressing buttons, I’m walking through the world after doing so to see what’s changed. Cyan shows a great deal of confidence in trusting the player to look around and connect outcomes to inputs and it makes me wonder if, like platformers, modern puzzle games are just too easy.

Still, even if I have to look around in the Stoneship Age for the outcomes, they’re there. This isn’t quite like starting out on Myst Island where you push lots and lots of buttons and almost all of the time exactly nothing happens.

I’ve also found one place where the Nintendo 3DS version of Myst seems to be genuinely broken. In the Stoneship Age, you find half of a torn page on which some sort of instructions are written. On my machine, at least, the writing was not just incomplete — which is intentional — but absolutely illegible. It’s not exactly pleasant to use the magnifying glass tool to read the notebooks in the library on Myst, and even magnified, the notebooks are fuzzy, pixelated, and difficult to read. But if I can’t read the torn note at all, then there’s a part of the game I won’t be able to complete.

So how are things on your end? Since you’ve had a chance to play a bit of the game on both your phone and a 3DS I’d love to hear your thoughts on how Myst works on a touchscreen.

G.


Gavin,

Boy, am I glad you asked that question. I really feel it’s my duty to make a public service announcement to anyone who has yet to experience Myst to avoid the 3DS version at all costs. Really? We have to move the pointer for a point-and-click game with the analog stick? The 3DS version developers know the DS’s whole thing is touch controls, right? And the pixelation is unconscionable even when discussing the game’s general scenery. I had the same experience with the torn note as you, and not since I first encountered a trampoline in Super Mario Bros. have I had such an extreme urge to throw gaming equipment across the room.
To make a long rant shorter, I’ve switched back to playing on my iPhone.

I also found the Stoneship Age to be easier than the Mechanical Age, but I actually attributed it to modern puzzlers being MORE difficult rather than easier. This seems like Myst‘s “water level,” and I think anyone who has played through Ocarina of Time’s Water Temple would laugh heartily in Stoneship’s face.
I really liked going through the brothers’ drawers and playing with all the toys in their rooms. Achenar is obviously sick, but I’m actually more wary of Sirrus’ blatant opulence. You have to watch out for the ones who hide their evil with a veneer of prettiness.

This was also the first time I was really struck by a piece of Myst’s background music. The flute piece that plays while you look through the telescope is beautiful, and made me stay up there longer than I needed.

Speaking of telescopes, did you look through the telescope in Sirrus’ room every time you rotated the island in the Mechanical Age? Mostly there’s nothing there, but one position has a delightfully grim surprise: a bleached skeleton hanging from a gallows. That feeds into what you were saying about trusting the player to interact with something, then retread old ground to see what’s changed, even if it’s only to discover these little easter eggs.

Do you think the brothers are played by the same actor? I realize this is a mystery that could easily be solved with Google, but I really want to keep adding pages to their books and continue to compare. Acting-wise, they’re both kind of bad in the same way. It really makes you appreciate modern game studios being big enough to get people like Ellen McLain and Jennifer Hale involved. If they are two guys, then they’re brothers in real life, I’d put money on it.

~Sara

myst 3

Sara,

I made it through Channelwood, but it was a close thing. I’d been running a single save file, and I saved the game and exited after figuring out how to use the elevator to get to the treetop huts in Channelwood. When I restarted, I was back on the ground and the elevator was still up on the second level. There I was, well and truly stuck.

So I sprung for the iOS version, which at $5, with the extra animations and better quality resolution, makes me all the more upset over having paid $20 for the 3DS version, WHICH ISN’T EVEN IN 3D.

Fortunately, Myst is indeed the sort of game that you can move through quickly once you know exactly what to do, and having rushed through more than half the game a second time, it’s given me a slightly different perspective on using the walkthrough. I may be cheating myself of just a bit of the thrill of making every single connection in every single puzzle, but there’s more to learning the game than just the elements of the puzzles. In Channelwood, for example, you still have to walk around to figure out exactly where everything is, and walking around can be nearly as difficult as any of the puzzles.

After all, as much as the game starts to point toward the future of detailed, fully-rendered 3D worlds, it still, as you noted, has more in common with text-based games than even 2D RPGs, much less the pre-rendered pseudo 3D worlds of games like Final Fantasy VII. (Which, when Myst was released, was still four years into the future.) Your navigation choices are a variation on “north, south, east, or west,” even if you have to click to find out which directions are available rather than being told in text.

I’m also really happy to have the walkthroughs to help with the sound-based puzzles. I had a couple of things totally switched somehow on the levers to get to the Selenitic Age. Basing so many puzzles on sound cues feels like a distinctive design choice, even if it’s one that I’m happy not many other games have imitated.

G.


G.,

Oh Gavin, running a single save file is the gamer equivalent of Deer Hunter‘s Russian roulette! You’re Christopher Walken, I’m Bobby DeNiro — I got out and tried to make it back in time to save you, but was too late. Game Over. Thankfully “Game Over” in video games is a temporary thing.

After all my bragging about how easy it was to make it through Stoneship, Channelwood delivered some insta-karma. I am humbled. I wandered around forever in those treetop huts trying to figure out how to open that effing door at the top of the spiral staircase. FOREVER. This is Myst‘s maze of twisty passages, all alike.

I’m a huge fan of the sound-based puzzles, myself. That’s probably because I spent a good deal of money and part of my professional life learning how to be a theatrical sound designer, and my experiences taught me that sound people get no glory, man. We’ve got to stick together. And remember, when Myst first came on the scene it was played on a desktop in a computer room (I feel like most early adopters of PCs had computer rooms, or at least designated the spare room as their permanent homes, right?), so sound and music would have been paramount to the experience. 

After my last sideline regarding the actors playing Sirrus and Achenar, I decided to answer my own questions and do a little internet research. They are indeed two separate people, so strike a point from me for my original theory, but they are real-life brothers, and the brother who plays Achenar also plays their father Atrus.

What’s really lovely is that they’re Robyn and Rand Miller, the developers of the game. Robyn was also Myst‘s musical composer. That explains their less-than-professional performances and also endears me to them greatly. How amazing that the two people the player interacts with are the creators of this world!

~Sara

myst 4

Sara,

Well, I finished the game, and I have two admissions to make. First, I relied more heavily on the walkthrough for the Selenitic Age than any of the others. Part of it was a desire to finally get to the long-promised end, but part of it was that the puzzles were just kind of crazy. I’m not sure how I ever would have made it through the rotating track at the end, much less two or three times to retrieve the red and blue pages. There are thirteen turns. THIRTEEN. You can play the ages in any order, but I really feel for anyone who ended up in the Selenitic Age before any of the others. It’s almost cruel.

The second admission is that I don’t have any desire to go back to the 3DS version to play the bonus level. None. I even made a good faith effort to restart my playthrough with the intention of zipping through, but I’m done with the shoddy, oddly pixelated graphics and trying to use the slider to direct the cursor over tiny buttons on a tiny screen. It’s really just a terrible, unforgivably bad port. I don’t sell many of my games, but I can’t wait to get rid of this one.

Which is a shame, because, as the iOS port demonstrates, Myst is still a game with certain charms. It’s also an illuminating contrast to many modern games. As we’ve observed, the game never really tries to explain itself. There’s no tutorial, no opening cutscene to throw the player into the story. The closest we get to an introduction is Atrus’s message to Catherine in the fore-chamber beside the dock, but the player has to thoroughly explore the island before viewing the message, and the “story” Atrus hints at is, ultimately, as hermetic as the rest of the game’s puzzles. At the very end, the player is given an alternative to the red and blue books, a third, “correct” choice, but even this offers a conclusion rather than a resolution.

All of which makes sense if we take the world seriously as a series of locks put into place to keep everyone but the family out. The game gives us just enough information to keep us chasing after the promise of just a little bit more, but we remain visitors, useful interlopers at best, and never part of the family. But the story isn’t really the point. Myst contains the trappings of narrative, but at its center it is a puzzle box, an object of care and craft where the opening — the knowing-how-to-open — is the real project and reward.

G.


G.,

At the time of my last letter, I had just made it to the beginning of the Selenitic Age and was very gung-ho about the sound-based puzzles, as you probably remember. I loved the puzzle that led to the linking book, pretty much dug the puzzle that led to the copper ship, and was absolutely done with the whole sound thing once I sat down at the ship’s controls. 

I did notice those sounds were both identical to those encountered on the island in the Mechanical Age and correlated with the same cardinal directions, which is the only time I can remember two Ages using the same key to a puzzle. But once I got six or seven turns in just to hear two sounds played at once, I finally caved and consulted a walkthrough. Ain’t nobody got time for that, Myst

I disagree a bit with regards to the narrative. If you focus on the player’s place in the world, then the narrative is a bit thin, but it’s the family’s buried history and private relationships that give the game its energy. It reminded me a bit of Braid, where the story is more hinted at than told outright. There is an introductory cutscene before the start menu, with a figure falling through space (the player, presumably) and Atrus waxing poetic about his books. Of course those books are filled with notes on the family and their time with each age, and I read them cover-to-cover.

As you say, experiencing all of that is entirely voluntary. Still, I felt rewarded for seeking out every piece of lore, like finding the skeleton through Sirrus’s telescope in the Mechanical Age while the island was set at a “wasted” position or snooping through the brothers’ belongings in the various ages and piecing together a sense of their personalities. The puzzles are hurdles to clear before the next small reveal. There is a story there, whether or not we get all the details. The real fun is skirting around its edges and filling in the gaps.

~Sara

Gavin Craig is a freelance writer and critic whose writing has appeared in Kill Screen, Bit Creature, Idlermag.com, and Snarkmarket. He tweets about video games, comic books, and Downton Abbey at @craiggav. Sara Clemens daylights as an ad copywriter, so every single day she pretends she’s in an episode of Mad Men. Follow her on twitter and find all the things she’s ever written for the internet at saraclemens.com.