Review: Myst 3: Exile

Official web page; Presto Studios (creators); UbiSoft (publishers).

Review written by Andrew Plotkin

Writing and dialogue
Okay (bad in spots)
Good, but rather constraining
Fairly easy
Forgiveness rating
You cannot die or make a mistake, except for the endgame, in which some mistakes are immediately fatal.

I wish to object to the title.

Myst is a pretty good title. It's one word, it's recognizable in print, it's recognizable by voice. It could be confused with "Mist" if a game existed with that title, but none does. It's evocative. And the game world is both misty and mysterious.

Riven is a damn good title. It's one word. It's recognizable. It means something, but the word is a little obscure, so it's evocative. And the game world is, indeed, riven.

If I say "Myst" or "Riven", you will immediately know what I'm talking about.

But what should I call this game? If I say "Exile", you will immediately think of half-a-dozen games -- a different half-dozen every year. So I call it "Myst Three"; as does everyone I've talked to.

"Myst Three" is not evocative. Unless you want to evoke "sequel". And the game world -- well, it has the number three in it, I guess. But "Myst Three" is about the most characterless, bland identity I could wish upon a game.

Enough about the title.

As everyone knows (except that lemon on your left, who I must therefore explain history to), Cyan and the Miller brothers did not create this game, as they created Myst and Riven. (Cyan is busy developing some immense multiplayer strangeness.) Instead they contracted it out to Presto Studios, best known for the Journeyman Project series.

Presto is a fine bunch. I enjoyed the JP games. However... when different authors take over an established body of work, an established world, you can see the seams. Everyone brings their own touch. And I feel that Presto, in creating this very good game, did not quite understand what made the previous Myst games great.

(There. How's that for a mixed curse? It's also a confused curse, as Myst and Riven were quite different games, and I shouldn't imply that a single magic ingredient informed both. Except... well, let me beat around the bush for a while.)

For three days, I have been in gorgeous, spectacular places. I mean this. The visual design -- no, the structural design -- of the Ages of Myst 3 is better than anything I have seen before. Stone is weathered, irregular, haphazard. Wood is organic. Nothing is flat. Straight lines and planar surfaces are afterthoughts, human additions... okay, I phrased that badly... but none of the worlds have a regular, mathematical nature. The deficits of most other games, with their polygonal rigidity and lattice maps, is achingly apparent in comparison. Even the human buildings in these worlds are more flowing than geometric.

Each Age has its own character, of course. One is purely organic, literally biological, and has not a straight line anywhere; others are more mechanical or industrial. But the design sense never flags. Finishing one Age, I watched a transformation that left me entirely without words; my mouth was open and I could not think of a thing to say. And then at the end of the next Age, it happened again. Elements of each world came together to a revelation which had been around me the entire time, and each time I was entirely surprised. I could not prepare myself. I could not anticipate.

Oh, and the music is good too. (Note to self: buy soundtrack.)

The storyline is very simple. You are visiting Atrus and Catherine -- how you manage that, after the end of Riven, is quite unclear, but there you are. Atrus has been writing a new Age called Releeshahn, which will be a new home for the D'ni people. He's about to give you a tour of it. But crash! pow! a Bad Guy pops in, grabs the Releeshahn linking book, and pops out again.

As we well know, the great monkeywrench of the Myst mythos is that when you travel through (into?) a linking book, you leave it behind. Ipso gnusto, a book falls to the floor when the Bad Guy vanishes. It's labelled "J'nanin", and you have no time to waste, so into J'nanin you go.

J'nanin, according to the usual journals and background material, is one of Atrus's early creations -- the start of a teaching sequence that he designed for his kids. (You know, back before they grew up into evil jerks and he offed them. Ahem.) Anyway, the only reason I delve this far into the plot is that, well, this is the plot. You're in a teaching world. A puzzle world. The Bad Guy has twisted it around some, but the basic challenge here is to -- guess what -- solve the puzzles.

And this stands in stark contrast to Riven. The islands of the Riven Age were part of a civilization. People lived on one; the local tyrant lived on another; he built machines on others, to do his work. The puzzles were part of the living environment -- a boiler in a paper-making plant, a sub-way car, a ventilation shaft fan. Elevators were useful elevators, even if someone had positioned them to impede you. Yes, yes, you found doors locked with combination locks. But those were areas in which someone wanted privacy.

In Myst 3, everything you find is puzzling because Atrus was goofing around designing puzzles.

I don't mean everything is absolutely arbitrary, like a slider puzzle stuck in a nuclear reactor. The contrivances form logical sets: turbine and generator and distributor, insect and flower, pivot and balance and counterweight. Each environment is, in fact, perfectly integrated with the puzzles that reside there.

But there's no... story behind the environments. Nothing has a reason. That underpinning of purpose (civilized or evolutionary, built or grown), from which puzzles can be suspended with delicate (or sturdy) chains of plausibility -- that's what's missing in Myst 3.

Here's an exception, and I'll tell you why it's not a perfect exception. You find an elevator. Some of the machinery has been torn out, so it doesn't quite take you to the right place. The Bad Guy's diary mentions that he's been cannibalizing gears, so this makes sense. The elevator had a use, and now it's harder to use, but of course the BG left himself a way to jigger it into working.

You find clues about how to jigger it. You have to set various pieces of machinery to various positions. And here's where the plausibility, heretofore exemplary, falls over: the pieces of machinery don't actually do anything. I can see, from the visual design, how some of them ought to relate to the elevator's functioning, but this is not reflected in their behavior. If you set them all right, the elevator works; if not all of them are right, they have no effect.

So that's the best example of story-puzzle integration I can think of, and it's flawed. Oh well.

I say nothing against the puzzles themselves, mind you. They were excellently designed. It's the overall purpose of each area that I found lacking, not the function of any particular piece; the use of nearly everything I encountered was clearly and coherently and wordlessly expressed, by its behavior and context. (The elevator serves as an exception here, too, I'm afraid.) Small clues built from unexpected sources, and came together into knowledge. The ending of -- I won't say which Age, and I've already described being speechless. It wasn't just the visuals. The sense of, of, "of course that's what's going to happen." Beautiful.

Every challenge opened itself to a bit of experimentation and analytical thought. I never once felt I had to read the designers' minds; I never felt a puzzle was unfair. I got confused about things sometimes, and then realized that the mistake was all mine.

And so you bounce from puzzle-world to puzzle-world, until you get to the endgame, which is... a puzzle-world. And not the best puzzle in the game, either. Okay, so the clues fit together, but they weren't clues that crept in subtly throughout the game; they were a handful of things which stood up in stovepipe hats and tailcoats and said "Hello. We are clues. Please move along." Solving it was a nice bit of exercise, but I felt no sense of revelation (as I did in many earlier parts of the game), and that was rather a letdown.

The storyline closes itself off well enough. The Bad Guy (a creepy wacko, played by Brad Dourif, now typecast after his roles as creepy wackos on Voyager, B5, Dune, etc) has his final scenes, with a few variations to fill out some variant endings. Unfortunately, the writing, which is passable through most of the game -- okay, better than passable compared to most game dialogue -- turns laughable at the end.

(Particularly if you leave the subtitles on. We were overtaken by giggles, watching Dourif beat his head against the floor and groan "No! No! No, no, no!" as the subtitle text appeared: "'No no no no no!'" Okay, it's a mean pleasure we took, and most of the game really wasn't that bad. But it was an unfortunate final impression. I hope Dourif enjoyed it, but he did a much better job on B5.)

Way back in my Riven review, I invented the term "wedge-chocking" (which I promptly failed to ever use again) to describe the sort of plot contrivance that keeps you moving forward, not wandering back or into unsolvable states. Closing off options after they're no longer important, you see. Well, Myst 3 does a lot of this too, but it's a bit less subtle than it was in Riven. Many puzzles (though not all) lock up once you solve them. Quite often, when you gain access to a new area of an Age, you can't get back to the previous area. I can't exactly say this annoyed me, but I think it made the game feel more simplistic; it reduced my sense of exploration of a real world. Or, not my sense of exploration, but my sense of... agency. Challenges were presented to me one at a time, or three at a time, but someone was following me around to tidy up the used ones.

It comes back to the problem of making a living subcreation, a world that exists on its own terms, I guess. The Ages of Myst 3 exist for the benefit of the explorer. Yes, every computer game world exists for the benefit of the explorer, but Riven concealed it fairly well. (The original Myst, mind you, concealed it very poorly. This is one way in which Riven was an improvement.) This installment doesn't even try -- it says "Here are puzzle worlds, built to be puzzles" -- and while that certainly solves the problem, it's the easy path to take. Designers should aim higher.

Okay, I've belabored that point to death twice now. Onwards.

I was rather amused that one goal of the game is to collect pages. (Deja vu: "More white pages!") They're pieces of a diary, which is a rather more common-sensical reason for collecting pages than Myst had. On the other hand, the deja vu went both ways: as in Myst, the pages don't really tell you much of importance. You get more background on the Bad Guy, which is interesting, but does that knowledge tie into the action of the game? Not much. The storyline is more or less on hold throughout the middle chapters of the game. This is another area in which Riven improved on its predecessor, and it's sad to see Myst 3 backsliding.

The interface is an anamorphic-panning view (the Myst series catches up to 1994 technology!) with a bit of a twist. Most panning-view games use one of two control schemes. Either the cursor is fixed in the center of the screen (Amerzone), or the cursor can move freely in the center region, with the screen borders acting as drag-here-to-pan zones. (Nearly everything else.) In this game, Presto has chosen an odd hybrid: the cursor is normally fixed in the center, but you can use the right mouse button (or shift key) to freeze the panning and let the cursor roam freely. (This is the only way to get to the inventory bar, which is at the bottom of the screen.)

It's not very awkward to use, but the modality is a minor nuisance, I don't see it as a great improvement over the other two schemes either. The drawback of the Amerzone fixed-cursor system is that you need a keyboard command to pop up an inventory (since the cursor can't go down to it). The inventory is rarely used in Myst 3, so this would not be a big deal. Contrariwise, the drawback of the border-pan system is that the view jerks whenever you yank the mouse down into the inventory bar. This has never been a big deal either.

In fact I spent a lot of time jerking the screen around anyway, and it took me a couple of days to realize why. When you click a movement hotspot, the view changes very quickly, but there's a small additional delay before the game actually gives you control again. (It's loading sound, or animation, or something.) During that time, the view is frozen. And you get no feedback about when that tiny freeze ends. No cursor change, nothing. The only way to tell is to move the mouse, and see if the view pans. So that's what I do. But -- all the mouse movement during the freeze accumulates; and the accumulated movement translates to a wild spin when the freeze ends.

The whole system quietly conditioned me to whirl madly around, after every step I took! The spinning and recovery was actually less annoying than waiting an uncertain interval for that tiny freeze-up to end. Well, less annoying to me, anyway. My friend, watching me play, almost assaulted me physically.

Feedback, children, is more important than you think.

(Actually I can see another way to solve the problem: don't accumulate mouse movement while the game is withholding control from the player. Or limit the mouse movement, or reduce it to a fraction of its normal authority. Then I could move the mouse during the freeze, and I'd still get the feedback of a view-pan when the freeze ended, but it would only be a small pan, not a disorientingly fast one.)

While I'm mentioning tiny interface flaws, let me mention a large one: the game uses cursor changes to indicate pick-up hotspots, and manipulation hotspots, but it doesn't change the cursor to indicate movement hotspots. I find this decision frankly bewildering. Why should I not know where I can walk? How does it serve the game to obfuscate this?

An anamorphic pan is a fairly immersive interface, yes, but it's not perfect. You have no true depth perception or parallax; you cannot use the tiny head movements that let you judge distances in real life. You have no sense of scale. An anamorphic view, in short, can be misinterpreted by the viewer, and hotspot feedback is the best way to compensate for that. If a path looks like a vertical wall, or a tunnel looks like a decorative knothole -- and I suffered both those visual errors in this game -- then I should at least be given the hint that clicking there will do something.

I cheated exactly once in Myst 3, and it wasn't because a puzzle was too hard. It was because one environment was such a glorious organic mass of twisty vegetation that I missed seeing a side path. I missed it every one of the eight or ten times I walked past it. That whole area was so confusing that I had been clicking through it blindly, and it did not occur to me that I had missed an invisible hotspot. I was hit with a jarring loss of faith in the designers' ability to convey information; and since I was nearly finished with the game at that point, I never quite recovered it before the end.

I seem to be harping on flaws now. Okay, consider this: you can't start the game unless CD 1 is inserted. So if you're playing an Age on CDs 2, 3, or 4, and you quit for the night, you'll have to swap discs twice to begin playing again. Is that dumb or what?

That's in the PC port. The Mac port doesn't suffer this problem, but Mac owners shouldn't feel too smug. When I first installed Myst 3 on my Powerbook, I chose the desktop as the install destination. The installer promptly stuck its head up its ass and began to chase its own intestines in manic circles... More precisely, it created a desktop alias called "Myst III Exile" (did I ask for a desktop alias? Do you think I'm too stupid to create an alias myself?) and then tried to create a folder with the same name, in the same place. Naturally, it failed. After the smoke cleared, I had a complete installation of Myst 3 -- in an invisible folder in the Trash. I only discovered that by accident. If I hadn't noticed... the installer would have appeared to have failed silently, without error or warning, without any symptom aside from (1) a non-functional desktop alias and (2) two hundred megabytes of free space missing from my hard drive.

Look, I'm not trying to grind down on what is, really, a single minor bug in the Mac installer script. My point is that someone with Mac experience should have caught that. Installing a game to the desktop isn't such a weird idea in the Mac world.

(And I won't even mention the idiocy of an installer that says "If you do not have QuickTime 4.0 installed, you should install it. Do you want to? (YES) (NO)" Why, that would insult the intelligence of Mac developers everywhere, who know how to test for the presence of QT4 and skip the dialog box. Not to mention the fact that "Yes" and "No" should never be written in all-capitals on a Mac button label. I mean, everybody knows that.)

Slipshod work. I find it sad.

But that's me focussing on specific, fixable problems. I enjoyed Myst 3, you know. I don't want you to get any contrary impression. I (and a friend) spent three long evenings pounding it flat, and we did not get bored, angry, or frustrated. (Except for that navigation problem in Edanna.)

I'm comparing this review with my four-year-old review of Riven. I see that, back then, I wrote a lot more specifics about adventure game design and the challenges facing an author. Maybe I'm getting old... but I think it's because this installment doesn't push many design boundaries. The short form is: it's gorgeous, entertaining, well-designed, diverting, satisfying, and absolutely worth playing. But the title suits it, in the end: the game boils down to a third big helping of that familiar Myst.

Availability: everywhere.

System requirements: 233 MHz Pentium, Win 95/98/ME, 64 meg RAM, 200 meg disk space, 4x CD drive, 16-bit color display. For the Mac, that's 233 MHz G3, and MacOS 8.1 or higher. A faster machine, faster CD drive, and better video hardware are strongly recommended; I found my 333 MHz Powerbook rather sluggish even at lowest display quality.

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