Saturday, February 20, 2016

The Masterpiece That Is Myst

Review: Myst, Riven, Myst III: Exile, Myst IV: Revelation and Myst V: End of Ages, from Ubisoft

Almost thirty-five years ago now, Rand and Robyn Miller and the folks at Cyan Worlds began work on Myst, a ground-breaking computer game with no guns, no aliens, and no power pills. The brothers Miller were no strangers to breaking new ground; their initial effort for the fledgling company they founded was The Manhole, the “first entertainment product ever on the new medium of CD-ROM.” But with Myst, they truly broke free of the shoot-em-up actioners, war-strategy boards and computerized table-games that had been the norm before this game debuted.

The story-line is simple, but
when had a game ever had a story-line before? With this one departure from the norm, the Millers might have had a hit. But they added artist Chuck Carter and audio engineer Chris Brandkamp, and funding from Sunsoft of Japan, and set out to make a CD-ROM game create an absorbing environment, complete with brooding music, nearly-real video clips smoothly integrated into the artistic backgrounds, and a stunningly-smooth interface that let the player easily immerse into the series of nested puzzles that is the game.

In this last, Myst most closely resembles another classic computer game, Colossal Caves. The challenge in 
Caves was to map a vast, mostly-underground structure, based on clues from the text descriptions. Younger players may never have worked around the frustrations of the “maze of twisty passages, all different”—but they have probably (if worldwide sales in the region of over 12 million units are any indication) mapped the dark Selenitic subway of Myst.

Many have written before of the spell cast over them by this game. Hint- and cheat-sites are everywhere, and dozens of forums support players who still want to talk about, consult over, and dissect the play of the Myst worlds, even decades after its initial debut.

When a fried sound-card removed me from the ranks of computer-video users dozens of years ago, I wasn’t worried—I had very little reason to use the sounds of my computer, and I happily crossed that off the list of “necessities” for replacement. A brand-new PC, however, meant I needed to check the sound, so I popped my 10th-anniversary Myst DVD into the tray. “Just going to test the audio levels,” I told my patient spouse. “I’ll be in to bed in a minute!”

Four hours later, I acknowledged I was hooked all over again. Myst had reached out of my computer and seized me by the brain. Half-remembered solutions from my decades-past original play of the game teased me, remaining just out of mental reach. I had to raise the sunken ship on Myst Island, had to solve the sound puzzle of the Selenitic Age, had to find the elevator into the trees on Channelwood. The only cure was to play on.

Later games in the Myst cycle, like Riven, Myst III: Exile, Myst IV: Revelation, and Myst V: End of Ages, may have that same power to entice me anew. The bad news is, I have them all on DVD. The good news is, I know better than to install them on my computer! (At least until I have a month or so to devote to them.)

The final version of the game is titled “The End of Ages.” Perhaps the spell-binding properties of Myst have even begun to trouble the folks at Cyan?