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The Backseat Game Designer: The Rest of the Myst Review

This is the addendum to my Myst Review in which I put all my opinions that contain spoilers. If you haven't finished playing Myst yet, you don't want to read this page. Please go back to the regular review site, where I promise to tell you everything you need to decide whether or not to play this game without giving away any of its plot.

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The Backseat Game Designer: Myst

These Backseat Game Designers pages are primarily a place for me to put all my game commentary that was too revealing for the regular reviews, as well as a place to tell everyone exactly how *I* would have done the game so much better. Not that the Myst team exactly needs the help, because they came out with Exile before I ever wrote this page, after all. But I can always sit back and pretend they read it before they started work on Revelation. Ah, a girl can dream, right? Anyway, here's all the news about Myst that's fit to print, just not on the no-spoiler review site.

Personal Reactions

Frankly, I was disappointed in Myst when I first played it back in the early 90's. A friend gave it to me swearing it would change my life, and the game box claimed it was so realistic it would "become my world." I guess all the hype kind of backfired on me; Myst was a good game, but it left me profoundly glad I live in a world that is not presented in slideshow format and is inhabited by people other than myself. Anyone who would rather live in the Myst world than the real world is one pathetic individual, and I'm not sure I ever looked at that particular friend in quite the same way again.

That's hardly a fair standard to judge a game by, though. Okay, it didn't change my life, the graphics were totally overrated, the movement interface sucked and the non-interactiveness stuck out like a sore thumb. Still, there were some awesome puzzles in here, the mood was haunting and otherworldly, the set design was incredible, and the fact of the matter is, I enjoyed playing it. In the end that's the only criterion that really matters. And would you really want to play a computer game that succeeded in "becoming your world" anyway?

Plot Holes

One benefit of not having much of a plot is that you can't have too many holes in it, and that's the case with Myst. There is one glaring one, though: why on earth is Atrus, who WRITES these books, trapped on D'ni? Why can't he just write another Myst link? Why can't he write a link to a different age and go there? Why can't he write a link to Earth for the player to use? What is this guy's problem? The sequel, Riven, only serves to aggravate this discrepancy, as Atrus creates a link to Riven for you to go through. He had his writing materials with him right there in D'ni and he should never have been trapped in the first place.

Two other open questions I was left with:

1) What was with the telescope in Sirrus' room in the Mechanical Age? You can look through it, but no matter what you do, there does not seem to be anything you can see. Was this just a red herring?

2) It's well-known Internet lore by now that one of Achenar's holographic chants in Channelwood is actually a recording of the words "Rush Limbaugh understands" run backwards. So what do the other two say when you run them backwards? Anybody know?

Myst Game Advances

Things I wish more contemporary games would learn from their elders:

1) Myst's immersive gameworld was not, as its many spinoffs seemed to assume, a function of its graphics (which were okay but not really that special) or its first person interface (a clunky slideshow presentation). The true beauty of the Myst Ages (and to a lesser extent, those of the other games in this series) lies in the attention the game designers paid to detail. The treehouses, wooden elevators, and woven baskets of Channelwood, for example, look like part of a single, consistent culture. Atrus favors a recognizable architectural style. You can tell Achenar and Sirrus' bedrooms apart in an Age you've never been in before simply by noticing the design motifs favored by each. You can even see the signs of Achenar becoming visibly more unhinged from Age to Age. The subtlety in Myst's visual design is a real breath of fresh air, and if the game ever seriously threatened to become anyone's world, it was due to the substantial design talents of the Miller brothers, who deserve to have been having their doors beaten down by science-fiction movie and TV show directors for the past decade (though Hollywood being what it is, that probably hasn't happened).

2) Myst was not the first game to feature multiple endings based on different player choices (Crusaders of the Dark Savant, which came out the year before, had eight distinct endings). However, Myst was one of the earliest adaptors of this innovation--and indeed, the Myst games were among the few puzzle or graphic adventure games to even attempt giving a player different endings to choose from. Even if none of them were very satisfying, Myst still deserves its props for that. More games in the benighted graphic adventure genre should spend the effort on this.

3) I loved how the game started in media res and you were left with no explanation of what you were supposed to do or how you were supposed to do it. It made figuring that out a much more compelling task. So many games detail absolutely everything in their game manuals, but there's a sense of wonder involved in the unknown that Myst successfully evokes simply by leaving you to piece together the mystery on your own.

4) Myst's puzzles were flawed in many ways, but what they aimed for (and frequently achieved) was clarity, something you don't see enough of in computer games. None of these puzzles came with instruction manuals; few even came with clues. Because the solutions to the puzzles were based on physics and logic (at best) or learning the various effects of diddling dials and pushing buttons (at worst,) clues weren't needed. You could figure almost all of these puzzles out by trying them and literally seeing what happened. This was a refreshing change from the inscrutable, illogical black-box puzzles of the late '80's, and it set the stage for truly brilliant puzzles like the ones in the game's sequel, Riven.

5) I was glad you didn't die every five minutes in this game. I don't mind a game in which your character can die (in fact, this is true in every CRPG I've ever played), but it's very annoying when your character dies for stupid reasons (like accidentally stepping out of an elevator while it's halfway up a tree). In real life, no one tries to push a button and instead winds up stepping out of an open elevator door to their deaths; or if they do, who wants to role-play it? By saving game losses for special occasions (the three 'bad' endings, each reachable only by a specific in-character decision made by the player), Myst magnifies their impact.

Advice from the Backseat Game Designer

In my game review, I gave Myst a 7 out of 10 (rating: good). So, what would have taken this game to the next level? Well, this is an older games, so asking for graphical interfaces that didn't even exist until after its release would be pretty asinine; I'm going to stick to suggestions that were either entirely possible at the time, or those that could be easily implemented in retrospect. Chief among them is the ending--or, more accurately, the lack thereof. Not only is there no congratulatory finale, but you never even get back home. For your troubles solving the game, all that you get is in reward is Atrus' permission to wander around in the four remaining Myst books... the four empty, unpopulated books in which you've already solved all the puzzles so there isn't even anything to do there. Yes, you get to spend the rest of your life riding that rollercoaster around in the bowels of the Selenitic Age. Not much better than being trapped in the red book by Sirrus, is it? I mean, obviously there's a sequel so that doesn't happen, but a lamer ending to a first installment I've never seen.

There were some problems with the puzzles, too. Way too many of them require you having to walk circuitously from point A to point B, pull a lever, walk back to point A, and repeat several times. There is nothing fun about this. Furthermore, many of these puzzles are so irrelevant to the world surrounding them that it's impossible to suspend your disbelief. Some contraptions were well-integrated and had a great otherworldly feel, but most of them were basically just rounding a corner in the woods to find a puzzle jutting up out of the ground at an odd angle and thinking "Oh, look, another hoop the game designers put up for me to jump through." It's one thing to encounter an alien water-pump system which must be painstakingly manipulated; it's believable that an unknown race might have had such a system, and figuring it out, while time-consuming, gave me the feeling of mastering some kind of alien technology. But there's no reason that anyone would build a convoluted maze with an auditory clue telling you which direction to go in next, or create a vault that opens only with a password and then erect monoliths with half of the password carved on them on opposite ends of the island. Um, was that supposed to be a security system? Why do villains in so many games apparently only want to deter intruders who DON'T know how to solve a slider or a simple maze? Why can't they ever remember their own passwords without engraving them on something prominent for the first adventurer passing through to find?

There are a couple other minor problems: the movement system is headache-inducing, with a sideways click turning you either 90 or 180 degrees quite randomly. There's no way to feel like part of a world when you can't even control which direction you face. The inability to examine objects more closely is really distancing, too, particularly when you encounter a really interesting object you'd probably like to know more about (like the chomping table in Channelwood: was there dried blood inside it, or did it lead down into a vault where gold and jewels glittered, or what?) But by far the most serious flaw in Myst is the lack of any meaningful character interaction. Few puzzle/adventure games are particularly interactive, but Myst seems to be almost deliberately non-interactive. Why do the books depict these Ages full of life, societies, and interesting characters, but everything is empty, silent, and boring throughout the course of the game? (There's an obvious answer, of course: animating NPC's was simply too difficult, particularly in any interactive sense. That's no excuse, though; I would have preferred this game with less realistic animations and more realistic interactions.) On the few occasions when you do get to "talk" to one of the brothers or to Atrus, all that means is you get to listen silently to their long-winded monologues. The effect is very flattening--encountering Atrus in person is no different an experience than listening to the holographic message he left in the imaging room some undetermined number of years ago. I found it impossible to care about him, and the 'good' ending-- in which I was trapped on Myst while Atrus worked--didn't strike me as any better than the ending in which Atrus and I were both trapped on D'ni, or the non-ending in which I never let any of the three out and just wandered around Myst for all eternity. Why should I care whether Atrus finds his wife or not? He obviously doesn't care if I ever get home or not. Not to mention that he's the idiot who didn't notice one of his sons was batshit crazy--I mean, Sirrus' surreptitious villainy was one thing, but Achenar was a deranged lunatic who kept deathshead and skeleton decorations in all his public rooms and dismembered corpses in packing trunks in his private rooms. How uninvolved a parent do you have to be to not notice this, really? The God-as-absentee-father trope could have been an interesting one if there was any opportunity to explore it, but unfortunately, there is not; all three are two-dimensional characters, and you're not permitted to question or challenge them on anything, even when you have them trapped in books and at your apparent mercy. It's particularly annoying that no matter what you learn about the brothers, it's impossible to confront them with it, or have any sort of meaningful conversation with them at all. Don't you think your conversation with Sirrus might go JUST a little bit differently if you found the incriminating note on Achenar's holosuite, or the ripped page in his bedroom suggesting he and Achenar had conspired against their father? If there was one thing that kept Myst from being truly an immersive experience, it was this painfully unrealistic approach towards characterization and dialogue. The visuals were a slideshow, unalterable by the viewer; and so, for all intents and purposes, were the conversations.

Some of these issues were slightly improved in Myst's first two sequels, Riven and Exile (in particular, the puzzles in Riven were quite well-integrated and sensible, and both sequels had slightly more flexibility in the way NPCs address you, although it's all still done in boring monologue format.) Myst IV: Revelation is due out soon, and despite the many flaws of this series, I'm looking forward to seeing where they take it next. :-D

Best Quest: The unstated one to learn about the brothers' personalities so as to decide whether or not to let them out. There were lots of nice touches here; loved Achenar and Sirrus' holograms in Channelwood.
Lamest Quest: Rotating the rotating house over and over again to collect the pieces of a code. There's no puzzling here; it's just lots of boring counting, manipulating, and walking back and forth and back and forth and back and forth.
Best Puzzle: There were several very good ones, but I think my favorite was the one with the sunken chest. Realizing I had to drain it and then close the spigot again to get it to float was one of those "D'oh!" moments that games rarely succeed at inflicting on me--and all very physically logical, too.
Lamest Puzzle: The stupid rollercoaster in the spaceship age. Even once you figure out the auditory clues that tell you the right way to go (which are silly anyway--was Atrus trying to guard this book from deaf people?), it STILL takes fifteen minutes of boring navigation to get there. AND YOU HAVE TO DO THIS TWICE!
Best Plot Twist: This game had no plot twists. (Unless you count the 'bad' endings.)
Lamest Plot Twist: This game had no plot twists.
High Point: The creepy final decision about whether or not to touch the green book. Man, did I dither over that.
Low Point: Finally meeting Atrus face-to-face, only to find... nothing at all. After you free him, he turns back to writing in his book and completely ignores you. There is no ending. Eventually you have to just manually exit the game. Feh!

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