8:30 pm

enveloping mysts

screenshotRevelation, the new MYST game, is out, and on both Mac and PC, so no worries there. Run down to the store and give 'em your credit card. I got it along with a few other games when Nola gave me this new Mac (you have to get a couple new games with a new computer; it's bad luck otherwise, and who wants a computer with bad luck gumming up the keys? Not me.) These are very cool, beautifully produced games, and to get in the proper spirit for playing the new one, I went back and re-played the earlier three. And while the game mechanics are slightly dated, the coolness factor is still way up there.

screenshotThe MYST storyline is an ongoing saga wherein the player appears from nowhere to figure out how stuff works and and by so doing, defeat the bad guys or help the wounded and oppressed and like that. Basically, you're there to clean up after Atrus, the main character with whom you interact in the games. Atrus is skilled in the art of writing Ages, as the various worlds are known, and in writing linking books to these Ages. Some of the Ages are ones he's written, and some are pre-existing and he's written or obtained linking books to them, but no matter which, when trouble develops, he's rarely able to deal with it alone. Either he's trapped, or he's really, really busy that day.

screenshotThis may be because the source of the trouble is generally some member of his family. In fact, by the end of Riven (aka Myst2), I couldn't escape the feeling that every one of Atrus' male relatives was a raging nutter. And as I started the new one, I was beginning to have my doubts about Atrus, not to mention his wife, Catherine, who despite having been kidnapped by their sons and used as bait, now wants Atrus to maybe release them from their prison worlds. That's where you come in; Atrus wants your opinion. If you've played Exile, and he assumes you have, the game should be over then. Release Sirrus and Achenar? He's got to be kidding. And just then he blows the power to the family compound trying to work a new crystal viewing machine he's designed. (When you first arrive, you see a collection of little buildings in a canyon. I thought they'd finally settled down to live with other people, but no. As on Myst Island, Atrus's family lives in splendid isolation. There's probably a reason for that, and I'm betting genetic code has a large part in it.)

screenshotAtrus' list of chores for you at this point include repairing the power problem, doing something with an antenna, I didn't catch that part, reading his latest journal, and, when you can spare a thought for it, babysitting his and Catherine's ten-year-old daughter, Yeesha. (One can only hope that 'yeesha' in D'ni, their native language, is the name of a bird or a flower or a rich auntie, since in English, it's an expression of disgust.) While you're doing all this, Atrus is off to another Age, Rime, to fetch a spare viewer. I didn't catch where Catherine was; shopping, visiting friends, seeing a therapist about her marriage, but she isn't there. Wherever she is, will probably become important later.

screenshotAnd so it's just you, the kid, and a large empty household with most of the lights out. Personally, I was feeling that maybe this friendship was getting to be a tad one-sided, but I started going through rooms and drawers and reading private books and notes anyway, including Catherine's and Yeesha's (everyone keeps journals; they seem to expect visitors to read them, sort of like keeping a weblog), and fiddling with knobs and buttons and levers. That's what one does in MYST, after all. Rifle through other people's stuff and play with their toys. The games are fairly non-violent, no fighting or killing, no irrevocable choices, but they do reinforce some questionable social values.

That's all very well, but it doesn't do a lot for saying why I'm so keen on the MYST series. They're computer games; the player solves puzzles, sounds like Reader Rabbit, for god's sake. You go online looking for info, and repeatedly read phrases like "immersive environment" and wonder if this is some kind of elaborately packaged Californian screensaver, with a bit of gaming attached, should you feel slightly more active than a plant.

There's a marketable screensaver idea in there somewhere, for sure, but the MYST appeal lies in its being a melding of story and game, to the point where you could not begin to care about scoring points, or measuring your own performance or cognitive ability, to where what you care about is finding out what happens next, and you work the puzzles in order to do that. In other words, solving the puzzles is the computer equivalent of curling up in bed with a book you keep promising to put down, "as soon as I've got to the end of this chapter, honest." In the best adventure novels, you read them in your cozy living room (or bedroom, wherever), and you can hear the waves crash against the side of the ship, and the confused shouts of the mariners over the thunder of cannon, and the immense furnace roar of Orodruin surrounding Frodo and Gollum in their wrestling match over the Ring (I've finally seen the movie, it made a pretty good stab at that), and the little things as well — the quiet of a meadow on a hillside, or an out of the way corner of a house. A good storyteller transports listeners to a new world, just by talking. And the audience goes along, making no more effort to do so than it takes to clap their hands. The MYST games are a computer embodiment of this kind of magic: you place your hand on a linking book, and fall into a new world.

Which is why, when replaying the games, I did not feel as though I were tilling ground already sown, but that I was curling up with a cherished story. It's not that I'd finally forgotten the solutions to the puzzles, and so could play again, but that the story itself is, in its way, as compelling as that found in novels, or songs, or in television series such as Star Trek or Xena.

screenshotUbiSoft, who with Cyan Worlds produce and distribute MYST games and paraphrenalia, have re-released the first three games in one box, Myst: 10th Anniversary or something. They've been cleaned up a bit, reworked for modern systems, etc., which is nice since so much has changed in 3D modelling. Just the differences between the original Myst game and its re-release in '98 as 'realMyst', were amazing. The newer one includes weather and time effects that are just plain nice to watch for their own sake; I stood out on a finger of land in the Selenic Age and stayed there for twenty minutes or so while the sun rose and set, and the stars came out and faded again, and the waves lapped the shore. What isn't so nice is that it's not available in Canada, so I've had to arrange for Amazon to ship to my mother in Texas. I'll have to make a note to mention that to her.

So that's how I've spent the last week of the year. Being just fairly into Revelation, I won't try to review it. Instead, go read Andrew Plotkin's review. Everything he says is spot on, especially about cursor behaviour and the graphic design of the menu. My experience with in-game bugginess is mainly when I escape to the menu, select any item (save, options, etc.) go through its rigamarole, then back to the menu, at that point, the game will crash. In short, reloading the menu is problematic for OS 10.3.7. There should be a patch soon, though. Meanwhile, I can live with it, which should tell you something about just how cool this game is.

tagged: , | 2 Comments


  1. posted December 31, 2004 at 9:02 pm

    Oh wow – I only played the first one – didn’t realize there were so many…….many……..many hours of frustration ahead.

  2. posted December 31, 2004 at 9:11 pm

    The sequels are harder, but the story is deeper. It’s a trade-off. Now I’m off to once again tackle the frequency puzzle in the Spire world. It’s a poser, especially since my hearing for changes in sound modulation is not very good. But I really want to know what happens next.