I talk about video games a lot on this blog. That much is a given. But I can’t help myself. Games are a big part of my life, and one of the most effective ways for me to relax and blow off steam. I firmly believe that they are capable of offering so many unique and interesting experiences that cannot be offered by any other medium. Games are still very young in comparison to movies and books, but they’ve come a long way in such a short time.
But there’s one game I want to talk about in particular today, a game that I’ve mentioned many times before. It turned twenty years old just last year, and is widely considered to be one of the most influential video games ever. It helped propel the CD-ROM format to new heights, showcasing its potential for all to see. A game that still pops up from time to time, whether in the form of a re-release or just a nostalgic forum post. A game that changed the adventure genre forever. I’m talking, of course, about Myst.
But this isn’t just the story of Myst. This is my story as well.
In the late ’80s and early ’90s, the adventure game reigned supreme. There were plenty of adventure games to choose from, including the well-known King’s Quest series. To put it simply, there was no shortage of adventure games on the market. The problem? Many of these games were constrained by the format they came on. At this point in history, games and software came on floppy disks that only held up to around one megabyte of data.
But then, a revelation of technology came to the forefront. It might seem so silly to us now, but back in the day the invention of the CD-ROM was a huge leap forward. Instead of being confined to a floppy disk with only one megabyte of storage capacity, the CD-ROM brought that number up to six hundred and fifty. So you can see, it was a game-changer (pardon the pun).
This drastic step up lead to people going a little technology crazy for a while, with plenty of random and frivolous things making it onto the CD-ROM format. A similar thing happens every time technology takes a leap forward. It takes a while for it to settle in, and for people to use it intelligently. So the question for video games was which one would become the one to define the CD-ROM era? The answer was probably not what most people expected.
An Island of Mystery
Myst was a passion product of two brothers, Rand and Robyn Miller. It was a surreal adventure game that focused more on exploration than straight telling you a story. In fact, the beginning of the game tells you almost nothing at all. There’s a brief, half-minute introduction by an unknown narrator who talks about throwing a book into something called “the fissure”. The book lands, and you pick it up. Opening the book whisks you away to the island of Myst, planting you squarely on the dock. Immediately at the start, you’re left to your own devices. There’s no hints telling you where to go, or a compass pointing you in the right direction. It’s all up to you to find and reveal the story.
This is one of the reasons why I adore this game so much, that sense of mystery. When you start the game for the first time, you have no idea what’s going on or what this world is all about. It’s the thrill of discovery, pure and simple. Myst operates by its own set of rules, rules that you need to learn to be able to progress. That’s probably why it was the game everyone played, but few beat.
Myst’s primary gameplay consists of solving puzzles. These puzzles quickly garnered a reputation for being incredibly difficult and occasionally convoluted. Here’s an example. One puzzle in the game has you entering dates into a machine to get an image of stars. You then have to associate those star images with pictures of constellations in one of the library’s books. You then have to associate those constellations with the correct square pedestals sitting outside in the courtyard. Once you put that together, and activate the correct ones (and ONLY the correct ones), a ship in the harbor will rise out of the water. And all that does is allow you access to another level in the game.
However, the difficulty of the puzzles was also a strong point. They kept players coming back for more, waiting for that eventual “eureka” moment. It kept the game planted firmly in your mind as you went throughout your day, always leaving you thinking about that one puzzle you hadn’t solved yet. Few games since have managed to foster such a sense of discovery and timeless wonder. And that feeling of satisfaction you get when you finally put the pieces together and solve a puzzle? Pure ecstasy.
Perhaps the strongest part of Myst was its atmosphere. It seems to me that so many people who played it were simply content to wander around its world and lose themselves in it. The atmosphere still stands today, despite the fact that the original game was in 640 x 480 resolution (for contrast, my monitor runs at 1920 x 1080). Of course, now there’s the realMyst Masterpiece Edition, which rebuilds the game in the Unity engine replete with new graphical features (such as a day night cycle) for the nostalgic fan to once again wander the worlds of Myst.
Despite its age, there’s something to be said for standing on the shores of Myst island, listening to the gentle lapping of the water as it hits land, or the gentle breeze that blows across the island. Or walking among the treetops in Channelwood, listening to the wooden bridges creak as you cross them. Or sitting in the little lighthouse in the Stoneship age, gazing out at the scenery and soaking it all in.
Whether it was through sound design, music, or just aesthetics, Myst created a lasting impression. It might look really old now, but it’s hard to deny that Myst has a charm to it, a lasting quality that’ll make every repeat trip a trip down memory lane. Some critics decry that the game is pretentious and boring, but others call it visionary and timeless. One thing is for certain, Myst was the result of two people building something they wanted to build. It was the culmination of creativity and motivation, a creation bound not by trends and corporate oversight, but by imagination.
A Game That Forever Stays
It’s hard to really explain why I love Myst so much to people. I remember once a long time ago I was installing it onto my family’s first laptop, and my brother asked me why of all the games I could choose did I choose that one. And I remember I didn’t have a definitive answer, except that I wanted to play it.
I don’t remember for sure when I first played the game, but I remember that I kept coming back to it in some way. I’ve even had dreams that involved Myst island. It was one of the first video games I ever laid my eyes on, and I didn’t even beat it until much later in life.
But I remember the abandoned tree huts in Channelwood. I remember the mysterious golden spaceship on Myst island.. I remember the compass rose puzzle in the Stoneship Age, and solving it by pure luck. The serene music started playing, and I was on top of the world.
Playing Myst for me is a zen-like experience. It washes over me, and I lose myself in its world, even though I know most of its puzzle solutions by heart. And now, with the twentieth anniversary edition, I can experience it with full three-dimensional movement, seeing the game from any viewpoint I wish.
Part of Myst’s charm for me is that there are no enemies or time constraints. I can meander around the game at my own pace without having to be worried that a big, nasty alien is around the next corner waiting to sink its claws into me if I don’t pull the trigger on my gun fast enough.
Myst might not have been the first game I ever played, but it was the first game that was a true experience for me. Myst is one of those games that can make a compelling argument for video games being art. It stirs people’s emotions in a very complicated way, despite the bare-bones story and lack of any real player character to identify with. It’s an experience that would lose something if it were made as a book or a movie rather than a game.
But the thing that always stands out for me is when I walk around the island of Myst, listening to the water and the wind, I feel warm inside. So when I fire up realMyst Masterpiece Edition, it’s like a homecoming. That familiar ethereal woosh when you first click on the book that transports you to another age. That eerie, mysterious music in the tower on Myst island. The gigantic Channelwood forest surrounded by water as far as the eye can see. It’s all old, yet new. I can literally just enter a room, close my eyes, and just sit there listening to the ambient noise. It’s like meditation, a calming of the soul. It’s a feeling that stays.
Myst spawned a number of sequels as time went on. It was inevitable, considering Myst was the top-selling computer game for nearly ten years when The Sims finally took the crown from it in the early 2000’s. But despite the fact that the sequels may not have sold nearly as well or have been remembered as fondly, Myst still left its impact. Point and click adventure games didn’t simply die out. They went underground.
I’ve spoken before about the Dark Fall games, which deal heavily with ghosts and the supernatural. These games wouldn’t exist without Myst. It laid the groundwork for games like these to come along, games focused more on an atmosphere and a story than anything else. These are the games that I love the most. Atmosphere to me is a crucial part of a game’s memorability. I won’t remember Bioshock for the gameplay (because it was honestly only decent), but I will remember it for its atmosphere. Every time I looked out a window and saw the shimmering water lit up by the city lights, I felt happy inside.
And now more than ever, experiential games are making a bit of a comeback. Gone Home is a game I mentioned once or twice, an exploratory game that focuses on the player character coming home after a year away and finding the house deserted. The entire game is just you walking around and finding important objects which trigger a diary entry from the character’s sister. To some, it sounds dreadfully boring (as you can see from the Steam user reviews, who almost universally panned the game). But it was one of those games that wasn’t so focused on being a challenge or making you feel powerful, but rather on telling a grounded story about a girl with realistic issues. And it can trace its lineage back to the days of Myst.
Plenty of adventure games out there are still defined in terms of Myst. Steam describes the original Dark Fall as being a “Myst-style adventure”, so you can see the lasting impact the game had. The mechanics may not have aged well, and the puzzles may be overwhelming and convoluted at times, but there’s something to be said it. As I stand on the shores of Myst island, gazing out at the endless blue horizon, I realize what it is. And I can finally put my infatuation with the game into words.
Playing Myst feels like time travel in a way. It feels like becoming a child again, when my worries weren’t more than just getting homework done for the next day and what I was going to eat for supper. It feels like a part of my very being, an essential piece of who I am. Myst helped define me. It is the game I will remember for the rest of my life.
And that’s a wrap on this week’s post. I would like to thank all those reading for indulging me on this one. I just wanted to get it all out so to speak. Myst has been in my brain for a long time, waiting to get out. This post was…therapeutic in a way.
So tune in next Wednesday at noon for a new post, and as always, have a wonderful week everybody.