Review: Myst Online: Uru Live

Official web page; Cyan Worlds (creators); Gametap (publishers).

Review written by Andrew Plotkin

Fragmentary, as yet
Very good
Good (but somewhat buggy)
Good to excellent
Medium to difficult
Growth rate (estimated)
Changes weekly, additions monthly
Active and enthusiastic

It's tricky, reviewing a game that I've reviewed twice already -- starting in 2003.

I don't know how many of those reviews you've read. I'm going to assume you know nothing of Uru. If you read the earlier reviews, I apologize for the repetition. So: in 1993, there was this game called Myst...

No, I suppose you know that much.

Myst defined the graphical adventure genre. Yes, there were earlier ones, but Cyan laid down the new goal: total immersion. First-person view, environmental sounds, hyper-realistic (for its era) landscapes, live actors, direct manipulation of game elements, artistic and musical beauty -- all in service to a sense of place and presence. In 1997, Riven tripled all that and laid it on a consistent grounding of world-logic.

Then Cyan stopped publishing games.

Myst 3 came along in 2001, but the development was farmed out to Presto Studios. Cyan was consumed with a different idea: a multiplayer Myst, operating over the Internet. Players would meet and -- together -- explore a constantly expanding world. A constantly expanding collection of worlds, in fact.

This project went through a moderately unbelievable series of bumps. It was delayed. It was rearranged. Parts were turned into a single-player game, and then back. It was tested. It was previewed. It was cancelled. Everyone at Cyan was fired. It was uncancelled, and most everyone was hired back. I'm not making this up. None of it is really relevant now, except to explain why I've been reviewing Uru since 2003.

The important date for you, the adventuring audience, was February 15, 2007. On that day, Uru Live was really and officially and finally launched.

So what is it? Since I am presuming you know what Myst is -- or at least, its generation of adventures -- I will start with what Uru isn't.

Uru Live is not a game with a storyline. It doesn't kick you off with a goal (like Riven) or even a "how you got here" (like Myst). There is no series of plot events to be traversed; nor is there a past narrative to be discovered. (Again, Riven and Myst; although Riven really had both of those layers.)

There are stories within Uru Live. In particular, one large narrative sequence (which I will discuss more later). But that sequence is not "Uru's story", in the sense that you might expect. Not everything in Uru ties into it. You can explore other areas before that sequence, or after it, or in parallel. When you reach its big finish, you're simply at the end of one thread.

(Myst, of course, tried to carry off this "it's over, but keep exploring!" structure. That failed, because there was clearly no reason to keep exploring; you were done with the game. (Unless you were playing RealMyst, which has an epilogue.) Uru Live works much better, because you know that there is more to explore -- and if you've found it all, more will come along soon.)

Unlike Myst, Uru has a full 3D world model. This is no great innovation in action-adventure games (going back to Tomb Raider at least), but very few pure adventures have gone the full-3D route. Other than Cyan's RealMyst and Myst 5 (both based on different versions of the Uru engine), the only one I know is Sentinel.

But maybe I shouldn't make that distinction, because Uru is not quite a pure adventure. To be blunt: there is jumping. And if you miss a jump, you have to waste time climbing back up to where you were. (Or maybe you have to waste time returning to where you were exploring. Falling off a cliff or into bubbling magma doesn't kill you, but it does force you to teleport back home.)

I'm not saying this is the new Tomb Raider. (That niche is filled by, well, Tomb Raider.) You don't need pinpoint precision. But the game is not reducible to a series of decisions about which hotspot to click. You have to pay attention to where you step. You'll inch along a narrow board, leap a yard-wide gap, run for a door which is grinding shut. If you are terrible at all kinds of reflex games, this may bother you.

On the positive side, the free roving gives a sense of presence that action games have long taken for granted. Can't make out a machine from one angle? Shift a little to the left, or try to slide behind it. Simply traversing the landscape -- a perennial tedium in most adventures -- is interactive in a low-level but pervasive way; you're running instead of clicking through locations.

(I sometimes wonder if half the fun of action games isn't pretending to be a kid again: you can run and run and never get tired. Also, jump down the stairs without worrying about a sprained ankle.)

You can, incidentally, switch between first-person and third-person views as you run around. I find first-person much better for the jumping and the ledges. Try them both.

Uru also has some physics. Various objects roll, bounce, and tumble across the ground when you run into them. In a few places, it matters how hard you slam into or land on things.

I can't say this is very well integrated into the game, at the moment. It's only a few places, which means you don't really learn the physics as a game mechanic; it just trips you up when it arises. And the two scenes where you have to tumble an object to a particular spot are clumsy and frustrating. (As I described it four years ago: "like Daleks playing soccer.")

It's hard to say where this will go. Kicking objects around the landscape isn't a very satisfying basis for puzzles -- the interface (like most Myst design) has no way to pick things up or carry them. So the physics model may remain underused in future Uru development. In a typical adventure, that would be a clear call to rip it out of the game entirely, and rewrite the few scenes that use it. Cyan hasn't done this; they launched with this, so they're stuck with it. The future will tell whether that was a smart decision or not.

Uru Live is not an MMO-RPG. That is, you do not log in to club rats. Nor weave cloth, bake bricks, or move rubble. Nothing in Uru can be repeated over and over for the ultimate glory of incrementing a number. I don't mean everything is dull after the first time; some tasks are interesting more than once, and you can always look for more efficient or more sneaky routes. But there are -- at any time -- a fixed number of things to do in Uru. And if you play with dedication, you will eventually have done them all. Quite possibly in your first month. After that, you can either wait for more areas to open up; or you can start making your own fun. (I will discuss those options later, too.)

And finally: Uru Live is not bug-free. I don't know how bad the typical MMO-RPG is on launch day, or how long it typically takes to clean up the bugs. I've heard plenty of horror stories. In any case, Uru launched with a motley spectrum of problems, ranging from the goofy (tripping over a rock can bounce you fifty feet into the air) to the annoying (a brief client freeze whenever someone arrives in your area) to the serious (doors in crowded areas frequently get stuck open, ruining puzzles, or get stuck closed, blocking off rooms) to fatal (crashes).

All of the bugs are either rare, or can be worked around. (For example, you can do all your critical exploration in areas which aren't crowded.) And there is clear progress towards fixing them. Cyan has updated the client software every three or four weeks since December. (Patches are installed automatically, but you can see them download.) For obvious reasons, they chose to keep the software stable in the weeks before launch and the few days since. So we're about due.

Whether the most annoying bugs will be fixed soon is another question. All the bugs I mentioned above are long-term; they've been around through multiple updates. They're obviously bugs which have no quick fix. Maybe they're in the pipeline. Maybe they're in every programmer's nightmare, the "someday we'll redesign the system to prevent this" bin. Cyan doesn't publish a bug list or a bug-fix schedule. So I can only say that, today, the game is not unplayable. I'll keep you updated about tomorrow.

(Precisely so, as it turns out. As I was finishing this review, Cyan posted a notice that the servers will be down for an update tomorrow morning. I'll add an appendix to this in a couple of days, when I find out what it was.)

Enough contrasts. What does Uru Live have to offer?

It's a Myst game, so it's gorgeous. I don't toss that claim off lightly. Every Age has its own atmosphere and character. (The worlds you explore in the Myst series are called Ages.) Light, sound, texture; radiance, mist, shadow; insects, falling leaves, ripples in the water. Everything comes together to create an environment. I'm not going to spend a lot of time describing this, but trust me: the most immediate and familiar pleasure of Uru is entering an Age, looking around, and saying "Oh, yes. It is beautiful here. I'm so glad to be back."

You can create and dress up your avatar. It's a pretty good avatar creation system, considering that you're making normal people in street clothes. (Yes, I've played with the City of Heroes avatar creator. Uru isn't that much fun -- sorry.) The faces aren't that distinctive, you can't vary your height, and being fat is unpopular for some reason. So you see a lot of brightly-colored clothing, and sometimes hair. Me, I wear purple.

You have a home Age, named Relto. It's a tiny island in the mist; reminiscent of Myst, and deliberately so, you will find. It is your starting point and your refuge, in solitude unless you choose to admit others. You will collecting Age Books to fill your bookshelf there. You can also customize your Relto, in small ways -- although you will have to discover how.

You can meet other players. You get a workable (if somewhat clumsy) contact management system, in the form of a "KI device". Finding one of these is an early goal when you enter the game. It lets you manage a friends list, write notes, take in-game snapshots, and send both "email" and "IM" style messages to the people you meet. (The KI has other functions as well, but I don't want to spoil any surprises...)

You can wander around the City in the Cavern. Yes, I really do have to use capital letters. It's my favorite place in the game... even though it's not a puzzlefest. It's just a place to hang out and meet people. We presume that more of the City will open up, over time.

There's a system of Bevins, or neighborhoods of the City, which serve as meeting places. You can travel to any public Bevin, and some of them have specific purposes. (Such as the straightforwardly-named "Beginner's Bevin".) The neighborhoods also fill the role of "guilds" or "clans" in most MMOs; you can join someone else's Bevin, or start your own and recruit people to join it.

Various small secrets and discoveries are scattered all over the game. These are side quests, rather than primary goals. You get minor rewards for them -- new bits of clothing, or "trophy" markers in your Relto.

Puzzles, yes: lots. There are a couple of Ages designed specifically for groups of players to solve -- you can't get through them by yourself. These are the most recent additions to Uru, so they're what you'll hear experienced players talk about most. (You don't have to pay attention to the hardcore folks, mind you. I'm just giving context.)

You've got that long narrative sequence I mentioned earlier. That is designed specifically for a solo player to solve -- although some parts of it get easier if you coordinate with a friend. This "Journey" is the largest coherent part of Uru right now. (Also the oldest. Which, again, is more significant for experienced players than for you.)

The Journey does not have a plot, in the sense that Riven had. It's more of an exploration of the history behind the great City -- parts of that history, anyway. It offers glimpses of Yeesha, the daughter of Atrus, who appeared in Myst 3, 4, and 5. It has a beginning and an end, but the end is more of a philosophical stopping point than the achievement of some driving plot-goal.

Again, to be clear: these various elements -- the City, the Neighborhoods, the multiplayer Ages, the Journey -- they're not mutually exclusive. You can move back and forth between them at will. Your Relto is always available to you, and that links to (nearly) everywhere.

The down side of this parallelism is that Uru Live doesn't start you off with much momentum. You appear in Relto and, well, it's up to you. Now yes; that's exactly how Myst started. But Myst gives you a couple of urgent questions right away. (Who are Atrus and Catherine? What is this important message?) More importantly, it gives you an immediate goal: find the fore-chamber, enter a number into it. In contrast, Uru is very lax about giving you goals. You have to hitch up your belt and start wandering. You can find goals, and the clues you need to achieve them, but there is no trail of satisfaction leading you into the body of the game.

(Yes, this is why I said earlier that finding a KI device is one of your early goals. I'm trying to fill in gaps in the game design. More on this later as well...)

I've described what Uru offers today. More is supposed to be added regularly. How often?

There is no good answer yet. Most of what currently exists comes from previous versions of Uru. (The two multiplayer Ages are the exception; they appeared in mid-January and mid-February, respectively.) In an interview from last September, Rand Miller says they want to add "[a] decent sized release every month." Which is vague. But also, "...we're going to make changes every day."

That's six-months stale news, anyhow. What can I can tell you, based on twelve days of experience since launch?

Well, those two new Ages are fairly small. (But that doesn't mean they're quickly exhausted. Since they're group efforts, you can have some fun replaying them with a new group -- or helping a newcomer through them.)

In other news... one door in the City, previously locked, was found to be open on Feb 19th. But it's still barricaded, so you can only peek in. And on the 20th, it snowed in Eder Delin. Seasonal change! We all ran in to look; just as pretty as before, but differently. (I think there must be seasonal migration, too, because the birds sound different...)

So we're not seeing daily changes, after all. (Perhaps there are small changes that we're overlooking. I suspect not, though -- plenty of obsessive players are keeping an eye out.) Notable things -- things you'd want to go see -- are weekly, so far. And everyone is keenly watching to see what happens over the first month.

And, finally, there is the overall... not story, but scenario, of Uru.

See, this is not just a collection of alien worlds to explore. That Cavern that I mentioned? According to the game, it's on Earth. It's three miles beneath New Mexico. It was discovered by some Americans in 1987 -- an abandoned underground city, full of inexplicable technologies and portals to other worlds. When you play Uru, you are playing yourself: an explorer from the surface, helping to rediscover a lost civilization.

The entire strange history of the Myst series is reflected in this in-game history. You see, the original discoverers needed funding to explore, and later restore, this tremendous cavern. So they contacted a pair of game designers named Robyn and Rand Miller. Myst and Riven were fictionalized versions of stories taken from diaries found in the City... and with that revenue, the group (now calling themselves the D'ni Restoration Council, or DRC) began inviting people to the City. They re-opened sections. They ran out of money. They pulled up stakes and abandoned the Cavern. They found a new source of venture capital. They returned and began again. More people arrived to take part. The invitation reached you.

So Uru Live is not a simple adventure; it has elements of the "alternate reality game". The DRC has a live web site. Players can discuss the restoration, in-character, on the DRC forums -- which are distinct from the more general (and generally out-of-character) forums at the main Uru web site.

On a more mundane level, all this explains why large parts of the City are barricaded by very contemporary-looking orange traffic cones. The DRC are very safety-conscious, and won't open new areas for public exploration until they're sure everything is safe.

The DRC are the NPCs of this role-playing game; they're operated by Cyan personnel. They sometimes appear in the game to touch base with the players and make announcements. (Announcements also appear on the DRC web site, of course.) Mind you, while the DRC are in charge, they're not the only force in the Cavern. There are rumors of some disaffected ex-DRC folks returning. And there's Yeesha, a genuine descendant of the D'ni people -- only seen in traces and images so far, but with unknown powers...

But if this is a role-playing game -- in the old D&D sense -- then what is the role of the players?

That, right there, is the giant burning question of doom. The Uru web site is full of empowering verbiage: "For the first time, you are the storyteller. What happens next is up to you." "Uru Live continually expands and evolves based on the choices and actions you and other players take..." "What story will you tell?"

But, in the most direct sense, the game doesn't give you choices. Well, you can choose not to solve puzzles -- but that's not affecting the story. (It may be a good choice -- perhaps you're not interested in multiplayer puzzles, and therefore ignore those Ages. You can do that. But it doesn't seem to be a way to influence how Uru evolves.)

You can't move a stone that isn't preprogrammed to move. You can't select crafting, class, or skill paths, which are the decisions offered by most MMO-RPGs. You can't explore any new Age that hasn't been opened for you by either the DRC or Yeesha. It's the nightmare of role-playing games -- your seventh-grade D&D group, where the iron-fisted GM decided everything, and woe upon the player who tried to stray from the carefully-crafted plan. Right?

Right. And wrong. And maybe.

When I said this was, in part, an alternate-reality game, I didn't just mean the fancy DRC website. There is fan activity too -- a lot of fan activity. The official forums buzz, as do the DRC forums. People argue about every aspect of the game; where it's going, how players fit in. (The very topic I'm spinning right now.) Whether the DRC are a bunch of idiots; what can be done about it.

There are major fan websites, with more appearing weekly: Uru Obsession, Guild of Greeters, Guild of Cartographers, Great Tree, MystLore, D'niPedia -- those are just off the top of my head; I'm not even trying to be complete. Some of these have specific focusses. The Greeters, for example, are dedicated to meeting new players in the game and helping them get oriented. Remember earlier, when I talked about filling in gaps in the game design? There are an amazing number of web pages and FAQs for new Uru players. (I, may I modestly say, have written one myself.)

In-game, other kinds of player activity. One group has a weekly storytelling hour. Another conducts tours of the cryptic cave glyphs that appear in certain Ages. The Greeters work shifts in the newcomer neighborhoods. There are frequent dance parties, with music streamed on Internet radio. And if you think dancing in an online game is silly, I can only point out that Uru isn't the first MMO where it's happened.

And these things do affect what comes out of Cyan. The DRC has posted signs in every Bevin, directing new players to the Guild of Greeters. (The Greeters also have distinctive shirts -- a treasured privilege in a game with limited clothing options.) When the DRC forums were deleted in a website reorganization, loud protests from players -- including protests in the game, directed at DRC personnel -- induced their return.

Which is a sign in its own right. Forum activity and forum history are valued by the Uru community. They happen outside the game, and maybe they would be meaningless without the game; but they are still a vital part of what Uru is. Furthermore: by occurring outside the game, these activities bypass (ignore? transcend?) the iron-fisted game master. Players can't knock down a door in the game, but they can build whatever organizations they want in the fan community.

Players, in short, are making it up as they go along.

And frankly, so are the Cyan folks. They aren't building some vast Neverwinter-like system for online role-playing -- or even a TinyMUD-like one. (We'd have heard some hint of it by now.) They're not planning a vast Tale-in-the-Desert tree of tasks for players to crank through. (Although I'd like to see a few elements like that.) Cyan is writing new material, planning new story events -- and paying attention to the player community. Cyan isn't taking orders from the players; but they're taking cues.

Why, yes, I do have an example.

A couple of weeks ago, a player posted a notion on the forums: Let's try to summon Yeesha. We've only seen her messages. Is she still watching us? Will she ever take an active role? Let's get together in a Bevin, and... wait for her.

In a sense, this was meaningless posturing. There's no "summon Yeesha" button in the interface. The players were planning to stand in one place and do nothing. They knew perfectly well that Cyan was under no obligation to pay attention to them. It was not a demand for attention; it wasn't even a protest.

Last week, they did it anyway. They stood around. I think they chanted. (No, I wasn't there.) They tried standing in a big spiral, which is one of Yeesha's symbols. They did this for hours. And then, in their midst, an image of Yeesha appeared -- flickered -- vanished without a word.

Easy for you to guess the outcome, since I brought up the example. Easy for Cyan to do, probably. And the success spawned an immediate bunch of copycat plans, of which I'm sure most will come to nothing. But the Yeesha seance was an attempt in good faith, and it was met with a response in good faith. I'd say that gave more reassurance to the Uru community than an unlocked door and a snowstorm.

I alluded to Neverwinter Nights and MUDs, but in a sense Cyan does have plans in that direction. They want to allow players to build their own Ages. No, there's no schedule for this. The interview I linked earlier suggests six months after launch, but I don't put any stock in that. However: Cyan wants it, and players want it.

I don't have much to say about players building worlds... except that it would make everyone's concerns about player influence evaporate like dew in the morning. Or maybe, like dry ice on Venus. Everybody would be writing an Age. (I certainly would be.) Yes, ninety percent would never get finished, and ninety percent of the rest would suck. That's the way it always works. That's how you get stuff that kicks ass.

I've said this before: I think player-built Ages will turn out to be the big draw of Uru Live, the thing that makes it take off over the horizon. It's what Second Life is trying to do, except Second Life has a creator-hostile monetary system and bad land management. (Plus genitalia storms.) I don't want to build stuff in Second Life. I am psyched to build stuff in Uru.

"So should I play this thing?"

Sure you should! But don't believe me. I'm as caught up in Uru as anybody. In this review, I've tried to give specific details about what's good and bad in Uru Live. But much of the value of the game is in the indeterminate future. Will the bugs get fixed soon? Will good stuff be added regularly? I'm predicting it will, but I don't get to read Cyan's bug list or their work schedule. So my predictions are based on hope.

Let me talk about how you pay for it.

Uru Live is being published as part of the Gametap subscription service. So it's ten dollars (US) per month -- except that's not the whole deal.

First of all, you can do a free preview. This is the "visitor" program. It lets you create a trial avatar for a week. You're limited to a few areas, and (worse) you can't mess with your clothing or hairstyle. But you can see Relto, visit the Bevins, and solve the first set of Journey puzzles.

If you decide to buy in: Gametap is only available in the US and Canada. Cyan wants Uru Live to be available worldwide. They haven't managed worldwide yet, but they have set up a separate payment system for fourteen other countries. (See "New Player Info" on the web site for the list.) The international price is slightly higher: US$13 per month.

Gametap is Windows-only. The Myst series has always been available for both Windows and Mac -- it started on the Mac, after all. A Mac version of Uru Live is currently being tested, and the web site says it will be available in "early March". (However, it will require an Intel Mac. Yes, there's some WINE-based emulation layer involved, if you know what that means.) I suspect the Mac price will also be $13/month.

If you do live in the US or Canada, and you are a Windows gamer, your $10/month gets you Uru and every other game in the Gametap lineup. I'm not here to push Gametap -- but they have a fine selection of adventure games besides Uru. They've got Myst, Riven, RealMyst, and Myst 3. They've got Dark Fall, one of the best indie horror games of the past few years. They've got The Last Express, the tremendously original and unjustly neglected brainchild of Jordan Mechner. They've got action-adventure titles like Prince of Persia (the Jordan Mechner games you've heard of), and Silent Hill -- two series that the serious adventure student should not neglect. They've got a lot of old adventures (the original Infocom text games), and some new adventures (the ongoing Sam and Max episodic series).

To be clear, here, Gametap is a subscription service. In fewer letters, that spells "rental". As long as you're paying your ten bucks per month, you can play as many games as you can fit on your hard drive, for as long as you want. If you cancel, they all go away. That's probably obvious when you're talking about an online game like Uru, but it's worth noting when it comes to all those other games. (Of course, rental is reasonable for adventures anyway. You solve it, you're done, you never play it again. If you're a collector, get thee to Ebay.)

"No, seriously, is this thing worth the monthly fee? Even after I've solved everything?"

Different people are playing Uru Live for different reasons. Take advantage of the free preview, and see what works for you.

If your goal is to see new Ages, and new things in Ages, you probably will not play every day. Once or twice a week seems like a good rate -- at the current rate of change. If you don't feel any urgent need to see each change as it happens, you could play every other week and still keep up. Probably no less than once a month. Cyan is strongly motivated to put in interesting new things every month; you're paying by the month, after all.

You have the option of looking for new stuff on your own, or watching for announcements on the forums and event web sites. Choose your spoiler comfort level. (Another self-plug: I maintain a list of change announcements, at three different spoiler levels.)

If you want to see new Ages, but also to hear about them in-game, you can of course do that. Log in every couple of days. Hop into a popular neighborhood -- you'll get to know them. Ask the regulars what's new. They'll be happy to tell you.

If you are interested in what other players are saying, you will certainly want to watch the web forums.

If you want to take part in Cavern activities, watch the forums and see what looks good. Same goes for out-of-game activities. (There's currently a small contest on to design some stained glass for the Bevins.)

If you decide you like the Uru community as a social group -- entirely aside from new releases -- you will probably play often. Chat systems are most rewarding when you hang out every day. And Uru is a very pretty chat environment.

If your goal is to influence the way Uru develops... then I have no guidelines. Be clever. Be creative. Write, paint, program. Hang out in the game, or out of the game. Organize. Persuade. Think of a new angle. Be involved. We're all improvising here.

Yes, it's worth the money. Are you nuts? It's going to be great.

Update, March 4:

I promised to follow up after the Feb 28th Uru update...

We do indeed have a new Age. (And the Gametap people are being good about promoting Uru: the ad in the Gametap interface now says "Try the all-new Age, Negilahn.")

Negilahn does not present itself as a puzzle Age. It's more like a wildlife observation blind. You are restricted to a spherical metal pod, with windows looking out over a vast jungle. A few players have seen animals, but the conditions under which they appear are still unclear. (And the subject of furious debate in the player community.)

This sort of observation pod Age is an interesting development, which I will discuss in more depth elsewhere. (See my Negilahn comments.)

Aside from Negilahn, a small handful of small discoveries have also turned up in the past three days. Also, the Museum is unlocked, which means that the Ae'gura City area is now open as far as it's ever been, in any previous version of Uru. (This is exciting for old players, because it means that brand-new City stuff is that much closer. On the other hand, it might also be farther off, because we've reached territory that Cyan has to create, not just unlock.)

The bugs, unfortunately, remain. This update didn't come with any list of bug fixes (which I intend to complain about, believe me). But I've spotted people stuck on books, the brief arrival freezes still occur, doors still get stuck, and I've experienced one client crash. (Quite possibly the crashes are less frequent, but I have no reason to think that at present.) There does seem to be improvement on the "being flung fifty feet into the air" front, which is nice, but hardly the worst part of the Uru play experience right now.

And finally, I must correct myself. In my review, I said that the only full-3D adventure game I knew of (outside the Myst series) was Sentinel. Gamers immediately started to remind me of Escape from Monkey Island, Gabriel Knight 3, Under a Killing Moon, and others. I admit I wasn't thinking of the Lucas/Sierra tradition of adventures, which I've played less (but have played some of). Whoops.

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