Review: RealMyst

RealMyst (official web site); Cyan (creators); Ubi (publishers)

Review written by Andrew Plotkin

Very good
Good opening and closing, bland in between
Excellent, except for the painful trailing-off after the ending
Writing and dialogue
Pretty good
Very good
Not too hard
The box says REAL MYST on the spine, REAL MYST on the cover, and realMYST in the manual. The CD volume name is "realMYST". I'm just going to write RealMyst. If you don't like it, pay me to change it.
Forgiveness rating
You cannot die or make a fatal mistake, except in the very end of the game (and there it's immediately obvious if you've lost.)

I never wrote a review of Myst. I played it, of course. I was a little late to the party -- Google reminds me that I put off installing the game until I had System's Twilight out the door -- May 1994. But I played it. I was impressed. I never got around to writing anything about it.

How sad a state of affairs, for a game reviewer. Myst was -- is -- the graphical adventure game. It was a hit, it sold forty-seven gazillion copies, it immediately became the symbol and archetype of its clan. (Even though it wasn't the first. Big deal. Doom wasn't the first 3D action game, either -- but all the ones that followed, followed Doom. Not Wolfenstein 3D or whatever, but Doom. You get the point, and I'm getting off-topic.)

So then I played Riven, which was stunning, and eventually Myst 3, which was disappointing. In between, I played dozens of other adventures. I wrote a lot of reviews. A third of those reviews mentioned Myst at one point or another. (Really, a third. I just counted.) And I never actually wrote about Myst, because hey -- it had been years since I played it. Besides, what was there to say?

Then I heard about RealMyst -- same game, new engine. Surely worth replaying the game, after eight years. Maybe I'd forgotten a couple of things. Even if not, I'm the sort of person who re-reads books -- I don't mind remembering the outcome, as long as I remember that I enjoyed it the first time. Besides, it was a perfect opportunity. I could finally write that review!

This is that review -- both of Myst, the original design, and the updated interface that is RealMyst. It is, once again, late; Mac RealMyst didn't appear until April 2002, damn their eyes. And then I had to put off installing it until a bunch of other work got out the door. (Plus ca change, the more they talk in French.) But I played it. I was, once again, impressed. And I'm writing, okay?

Of course, after eight years, my perspective is a little different. I want to compare Myst to all the games that followed it (as I could not have done in 1994). I'm interested in the questions any game designer might ask: What did Myst do to sell forty-seven gazillion copies? Why is it worth two sequels, two updated re-releases, three tie-in novels, and a forthcoming massively multiplayer on-line game? Why do so many gamers despise it, and does it matter? How can I get my game to sell like that?

...Sorry. Reflex. Review, review. Right.

Myst has possibly the lightest-touched, most open-ended beginning (open-begun beginning?) in the history of adventure gaming. A human figure seems to fall into an abyss, vanishing, leaving a book to tumble through space. A narrator speaks, in most medias res, of the "Myst book" and whose hands it might fall into. The volume lands amid darkness, and... it's your turn.

Note how very carefully this (bewildering) scenario draws the player in. You know nothing at this point -- but both the interface and the situation leave you with no question as to how to begin. You see a closed book; you open it. You have a mouse and cursor; you click on the only object on the screen. The world gets even stranger then, but you are already part of it. You have taken the step in. You are complicit in the story.

Later graphical adventures got all jiggety with the introductions, the frame stories, the voice-overs, the diaries, the fat manuals of background material. And those can work too. I certainly don't want every adventure game to begin with a faceless, history-free anyman thrown into another world. But the first conclusion I'm going to draw about the success of Myst is this: it doesn't lecture you, it doesn't condescend, and it doesn't throw a single unnecessary stumblestone between you and the game world. One unashamed impossible riddle, and you are there. Neck-deep.

I think I'll go watch that intro again, in fact. Pardon me a moment.

Indeed. So now you are in Myst, in the meat of the game. Myst has the classic star-shaped plot-line: a central area where introduction and finale are played out, "surrounded" (not in a physical sense) by several side-worlds which may be played in any order. It's a common design. (The Dark Eye, Morpheus, Myst 3, hell, you make the list.)

But Myst is, I think, a little unusual in how wide that initial central zone is. Wide in a gameplay sense, I mean. The new player is immediately presented with quite a variety of switches, levers, and buttons to play with -- in a variety of different buildings, superficially unrelated. There is none of the carefully-scripted, puzzle-with-bundled-clues feeling that some later games (unwisely) strove for. You have to mess around; you have to try things, and then keep exploring to discover the results elsewhere. It is not obvious what the machines do; it is not clear how to open the many locked doors.

But, on the other hand, a little bit of experimentation carries you well. The environment is not "stiff" -- you do not have to solve a difficult puzzle to get your first interesting reaction. I won't say you can stumble into one of the side-worlds by lucky exploration -- you do need a certain amount of persistence in correlating clues -- but you don't have to be an experienced adventure gamer either. And almost anybody can find something cool, and feel good about finding it. Myst's balance of difficulty is well-done, I would say.

Now I should find some down-sides, I suppose. (Reviewers. Sigh.)

I have complained in other reviews about the plot. It starts so well, and then... piff. For most of the game, there's nothing. You hear more from one character and another, but you have no reaction to any of it. You just keep plugging away at the exploration. And it's mostly repetitive stuff you hear. "Me! Not him! More!" There is just the hint of a background story, or stories, but nothing you can get a grip on. And nothing that goes anywhere. Just traces of common elements.

I can see, vaguely, what the designers intended. You're not supposed to put off reacting to the characters, or to ignore what you discover about them. Instead, you're supposed to believe one of them, and do what he says, and ignore the other. Get half the story; accept it in its best light, and look for the worst of the other half.

That would make for a very interesting game! You would be invested in the background material; you would have that sense of complicity with the story, even though it was a story discovered in retrospect... you would leap on the ambiguities that supported your side, and become uneasy about the growing cracks beneath you.

But, in fact, the game does not draw you into that position. It didn't me, anyway. I stood back and plugged away. And, seeing both sides of the story, I found the symmetry blatantly obvious. No reason to trust either side, you see. I wonder how different Myst would have felt if it had forced me to choose sides, early in the game... but it didn't. So, to me at least, the bulk of the game had no real storyline at all.

The plot comes back with a "whoomph" at the end -- fortunately -- but this is my biggest complaint about Myst: the storyline has no middle.

And the gameplay -- which is not the same thing! -- has no ending. The story ends, but the game does not. Clearly the designers want to allow you to re-explore, or finish exploring, any parts of the game that you skipped. Which is laudable. (You can actually skip huge sections of Myst and still reach the end of the story, although I doubt anyone will do so without using a cheat file.) But there has to be some signal, some sense of closure which is not purely intellectual and in-retrospect-that-was-it. It could be rolling credits, or a spectacular event you witness, or a major change in the environment.

In Myst, there is none of that. The guy says "Thank you. I may need your help again someday." And then he goes back to writing. You can wander around more, but there's nothing new to do, and eventually you get bored and quit.

No game design document should ever end with the line "And then the player gets bored and quits." I mean, surely this is obvious.

The RealMyst edition actually does a little better -- although I'm sure it was a marketing gimmick, rather than an intended change to the flow of the game. In RealMyst, when you've completed the story, you do get a small change to your environment; a clue appears which leads you to a last bonus world. This reveals a bit of interesting background, and has a couple of nice toys, and ties Myst more closely to Riven and the rest of the overall scenario. But, on the other hand, it's still not satisfying. Once you've played with the toys, you're not done; you're just back to being bored.

What else, what else... yes. Yes, I hear you in back. I'll -- what? Yes, I hear you. Sit down. I'll talk about the -- please, if you'll --

Shut up, sir, you're imaginary.

About those puzzles, then. Considered as puzzles, there's not too much to say about them. Classic set of adventure game puzzles: figuring out inexplicable machines, scouting for clues, putting clues together with other clues and coming up clueful. Solid work; nothing blindingly brilliant. Nothing blindingly awful.

Actually, I should mention that the puzzle interfaces are more clever than one might think. Myst claims to have the most intuitive interface possible: you click on it, you do it. But in fact it's a bit more interesting, and more subtle, than that. Some objects can touched; others can be dragged or held. A few things can be picked up and used nearby. Some objects react immediately; others take a few moments, and capture the interface (forcing you to watch) while they move; still others begin moving, but leave you free to move or look around. (These distinctions, as far as I can recall, are preserved identically from Myst to RealMyst.)

All of these effects are used appropriately; the game's behavior is almost never jarring. But they also provide a subtle expansion of the range of action -- a bit more dimension than the basic "click to use". And, at the same time, they fluidly guide you towards those alternatives. There is no hotspot for "hold this down," as opposed to "press this once"; but if you desire that action, it is immediately obvious how to accomplish it.

On the opposite hand, I should note an unfortunate tendency towards sound puzzles. Puzzles with an audio component, I mean. A clever idea, yes; but surely a nasty shock to the hearing-impaired, the tone-deaf, and the people who just play late at night and need to keep their computers muted. Same goes for all the spoken dialogue. Myst introduced an era of gaming in which you had to have the sound on to play; it was dutifully copied by quite a lot of the games that followed. (A few caught a clue, however. Even the Myst franchise eventually figured this out, and added subtitles in Myst 3 -- not just to the dialogue, but to the audio puzzles.)

And also (while I'm nitpicking puzzles) there's that maze. Mazes in adventure games were pretty much universally reviled by 1985. How dared Myst to introduce yet another one? By being clever, of course: it's a gimmick maze. If you pay attention to certain clues, you can head straight through to the exit.

Observe that this didn't make anybody happy.

This is a subtle error, and one I have talked about before. Players are lazy. I am a player, and I am lazy (though not a Cretan or a liar); therefore all players are lazy. Also, thinking is harder than working. You can map Myst's maze by brute force -- trying every fork and turn. It's boring, it takes about 45 minutes, and it works.

Conclusion: nobody will ever find those clever clues. I mean, many people will; but a lot won't. I didn't, the first time I played Myst. People will brute-force their way through, and then they will write to the designer and say "You idiot, why did you put a big stupid maze in your game? That was boring."

(I didn't write to the designer, actually, because I find a certain perverse pleasure in drawing painstakingly accurate maps. Once in a while, anyway. Oh, I wish I still had that square-by-square precise map of Ultima 3... all in colored pencil on quarter-inch grid paper... mind you, I'm not that perverse any more.)

What I'm saying is, not only did I map the whole maze back when I played Myst, I mapped it again last week when I played RealMyst. Just for the fun of it. But that doesn't excuse the design error, and the error is this: adding alternate solutions can ruin a puzzle. Truly. If your players think for a while and discover the clever solution, they will like you; if they work mechanically for a while and discover the boring solution, they will dislike you; and either way, their judgement is not rendered upon the solution they missed. It's no good saying "Look at this clue you didn't find!"

(So if I'm so smart, how would I fix the maze? Actually, that's a hard question. In a text adventure, you can withhold a lot more information. You can tell the player that he's lost, and not give him enough detail to make a map -- that makes it quite clear that making a map is useless. In such a situation, the player will obligingly consider clever alternatives to brute force. (Players are lazy, but willing to oblige.) But in a graphical game -- whether pre-rendered, panoramic, or 3D -- there is no equivalent convention. You have to show some exits. The player can try those exits. Having tried, he can map. How do you obfuscate? I don't have a good answer. I think you'd have to redesign the puzzle somewhat -- perhaps as a huge, featureless plain or dark space. Hmm. Worth thinking about.)

(This has been your interjection of Zarf's Game Design Corner. Back to the game review.)

Really, I don't want to talk about the puzzles. (Then why did you spent a page and a half -- sir, please.) No, I want to talk about how the puzzles are integrated into the game world.

Myst takes a lot of heat for poor integration, and it's only partially deserved. The problem is that a lot of the worst bits are near the beginning. You certainly spend a lot of time, early in the game, running down clues in pretty contrived places.

("So this mad bibliomage walks into a bar, and the bartender says, what can I get you? And the mage says, oh, just get me six bottles of whiskey whose vintage years add up to the cube of a prime number, so that the mirror behind the bar will reflect the combination to the door of my Porsche. And the bartender stares at him for a second, and then says, um, on the rocks, or straight up? And the mage stares back and shouts, how should I know!? I haven't found the purple scroll yet!")

No, I can't attribute much sense of mimesis to the central area of the game. Even as a magical construct, it doesn't make much sense.

But the other sub-worlds... you know, they really work better. Between the journals you find, and the abandoned artifacts, and the buildings and mechanisms... those worlds begin to have their own senses of history. And the puzzles you find are part of those worlds and those histories. Not perfectly, not always... but you can see how the mechanisms came to be. And how they broke down. Even if they all broke down conveniently, in as puzzling a way as they could... the suspension of disbelief still works.

The Age of Myst called Channelwood (I decided once and still maintain) is one of the great examples of perfect integration between game and game world. Let it be a lesson to you.

Let me not now neglect RealMyst -- the edition I'm reviewing (theoretically!) rather than the design of Myst overall. How does RealMyst feel, in its new 3D guise?

Pretty good. I like it. The graphics are not absolutely first-rate, not compared to the best of the fully-rendered panoramic games. I can see places where textures are used too often, where more detail and more variety would have served.

But that's if I look hard, and compare it with Myst 3. Considered on its own, RealMyst is lovely. There is plenty of detail. The richly-appointed rooms are richly-appointed; the landscapes are stark or sere or lush. The atmospheric effects -- skies, sun, rain and lightning, mist and fog -- are brilliant work by any standard. Much attention has been paid to water (as it should, considering that most of the game takes place on islands), and we have ripples, breakers, foam, and shimmering reflections to melt the driest heart.

The sound environments are as good as ever (and now with full 3D positioning, which is both more immersive and more helpful in spots). Waves or mechanical hums, eerie crystals or crickets and frogs... Background soundscapes fade seamlessly into musical themes. Myst is one of the few games whose musical soundtrack sticks with me -- evocative, memorable, but gentle enough not to drive one nuts on the N'th repetition. RealMyst brings it all back.

The 3D navigation system -- you'd think I would have mentioned earlier, but in fact it works so smoothly that I barely noticed the difference. Except that it's less confusing. The original Myst did a good job of showing the important parts of the world, but -- like all first-person adventures before panoramic panning came in -- it sometimes got hard to tell what was where. If you turned around, you couldn't always tell how far you were turning; if you took a step, you couldn't always tell how far you were moving. (Some games had transitional animations for walking, but Myst did not.) All of these problems, of course, are now gone.

RealMyst sometimes gave me trouble trying to walk through a narrow doorway. And I occasionally got stuck trying to walk around a tree or pillar, as if the round bole were flat and square against me. Otherwise, the motion was smooth and clean. A few motions are scripted -- walking into an elevator and turning around, for example, or climbing a ladder, or moving into a close-up view of a control panel. These sometimes felt a little too slow -- I wanted out of the action before the game wanted to release me -- but it wasn't a big deal, and once I did have control, getting away was intuitive. (No "back up" hotspot; you just... move away. As you normally would. It's smooth enough that I can't even articulate how it works, which should be all the recommendation you need.)

Well. I seem to have digressed and discursed even more than usual. I'm feeling expansive this week, and abundant of words. So be it.

My conclusion: Myst is not the greatest graphical adventure of all time, but it was the first great one. Even granting its flaws, it does many things right, and touches a few notes that were too brilliant or too subtle for many of its (many) imitators. RealMyst, for its part, is a fine new version, which captures everything that was Myst and then improves on a few rough corners.

And, you know, when Cyan gets Myst Online out the door, I'm going to be standing in line for my copy. Because there's some genuinely fine worldmaking, here in Myst and Riven, and some genuinely creative people who worked on them. I want to see what they do next.

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