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Kings of Durrr

Lost to the Ages

Myst was supposed to change the face of gaming. What is its legacy 20 years later?

Few are chosen. Fewer succeed. Journey now to an island world surrealistically tinged with mystery … where every vibrant rock, scrap of paper, and sound may hold vital clues to your unraveling a chilling tale of intrigue and injustice that defies all boundaries of time and space. Only your wits and imagination will serve to stay the course and unlock the ancient betrayal of ages past.

You are standing on a dock beside the jutting masts and crow’s nest of a sunken ship, water lapping calmly under your feet. A hill rises in front of you, with what appear to be two giant gears perched atop it, and a short concrete staircase curves up the side. To the left, you see a Greek-looking dome structure made of marble, and, as you turn 360 degrees to see your surroundings, there’s not a soul in sight. You take a step forward. And another step. Everything is disarmingly still, save for a pair of seagulls flying overhead in the hazy marine layer. You make your way up to a walkway running parallel to the water and see a path constructed of what looks to be railroad ties leading up past the dome and toward another classical edifice. Lying to the side of the path is a weathered piece of paper. You pick it up.

Catherine,

I’ve left you a message of utmost importance in the forechamber beside the dock. Enter the number of Marker Switches on this island into the imager to retrieve the message.

Yours, Atrus

For the 6 million–odd people who have played Myst since its release 20 years ago, these images are as embedded in their memories as those seven immortal opening notes of Super Mario Bros. It’s more than a beginning, it’s a Pavlovian bell that tells your brain it’s time for an adventure. But in 1993, it was even more than that: Myst, it was said, was wiping the slate clear for a completely new direction in gaming.

The premise was deceptively simple: You are The Stranger, a person of inconsequential gender, race, or origin, minding your own business when a book falls into the black starlit void you call home. When you open it, you are transported to a mysterious island, and as you explore it you begin to uncover its history; the story of its caretaker, Atrus; his art of creating worlds, called “ages,” including Myst Island itself; and his two sons, Sirrus and Achenar, who beg you to release them from the confines of their prison ages, where they have been entrapped for some unknown crime. This sets you off on a journey to four more ages, unraveling innumerable (some might say infuriating) puzzles and gradually piecing together, almost entirely from environmental clues, what happened to this family, and whom among them you can trust. You do this entirely by yourself. You encounter nobody else and you are neither helped nor harmed — though that doesn’t keep a creeping sense of dread from permeating these otherwise benign worlds. You have no weapons or tools at your disposal aside from the physical journal that came packaged with the CD-ROM. When you “win,” there are no fireworks or rewards. You are merely told the island is yours to wander for as long as you like. For nearly a decade, this was the best-selling computer game of all time.1

Twenty years ago, people talked about Myst the same way they talked about The Sopranos during its first season: as one of those rare works that irrevocably changed its medium. It certainly felt like nothing in gaming would or could be the same after it. If you remember the game, you remember that feeling of landing on Myst Island for the first time, staggeringly bereft of information in a way that felt like some kind of reverse epiphany, left with no option but to start exploring. This was a revolutionary feeling to have while staring at your PC screen. And the word-of-mouth carried — people who had never gamed before in their lives bought new computers so they could play Myst. “It is the first artifact of CD-ROM technology that suggests that a new art form might very well be plausible, a kind of puzzle box inside a novel inside a painting, only with music,” came the impassioned, if grasping prophecy from Wired’s Jon Carroll. “Or something.”

Maybe that sense of halting was more prophetic than anything else. Yes, Myst went on to sell more than 6 million copies and was declared a game-changer (so to speak), widely credited with launching the era of CD-ROM gaming. It launched an equally critically adored and commercially successful sequel, and eventually four more installments. Fans and critics alike held their breath in anticipation of the tidal wave of exploratory, open-ended gaming that was supposed to follow, waiting to be drowned in a sea of new worlds.

And then, nothing.

“It just kind of puttered out,” said Myst cocreator and Cyan founder Rand Miller when I spoke to him over the phone. “It was kind of weird: We got accolades for increasing the exposure of what was called the ‘adventure game,’ and then we got blamed on the other hand for the death of the adventure game, because it was too big and too hard to top it.” The adventure genre at the time was largely dominated by PC titles like the King’s Quest and Gabriel Knight series published by genre king Sierra Entertainment, games that Myst in no way resembled, aesthetically or mechanically. But at no point did Miller think that would be a conversation-ender. “That seemed crazy to us,” he said. “We just thought, This was an experiment. There’s going to be some big publishers out there who will want to do this [too]. There’s big money here for them. And I don’t think they went after it.”

Myst crash-landed on an industry without context. So, even as critics praised it, figuring out how it fit into the narrative of Where Games Are Going, not to mention how to market something to repeat its success, was a different matter. Developers in 1993 were busy trying to perfect the illusion of three dimensions in 16-bit driving games, not figure out how to subvert gaming itself. “Myst seems to reflect the condition of the video game itself, poised at the brink of something new even before it has finished mastering something old,” Edward Rothstein wrote in the New York Times in late 1994. It was as if Miller and his brother and cocreator Robyn had brought a truckload of freshly baked bread to a society that hadn’t even figured out how to harvest wheat yet.

But it wasn’t just an issue of being ahead of its time — if so, we’d be seeing a lot more games like Myst in 2013. That’s the strange thing — how could something so undeniably impactful have so few contemporary successors? Much of the game’s popularity was thanks to casual players who found themselves drawn to its evocative, violence-free world; many hard-core gamers found it obtuse and frustrating, its point-and-click interface slideshow-esque and stifling. Maybe Myst wasn’t for hard-core gamers. Maybe it wasn’t even really a game.

I was about 11 when I landed on the island for the first time — a couple years late; CD-ROM technology took a few years to come to our house. NES and Sega were more or less verboten throughout my childhood. That didn’t stop me from playing hours of Zelda at my friends’ houses, but because I didn’t have nearly as much time to practice getting “good” at console games, I remember having a bit of anxiety about navigating a virtual world, feeling painfully inept in comparison with my friends, for whom a controller felt as natural in their hands as a no. 2 pencil. But now, here I was in a world where video game aptitude was irrelevant: rather than a mastery of timing and hand-eye coordination (ah, remember that old argument to get your parents to buy you a Nintendo? “It’ll improve my hand-eye coordination, Mom!”), Myst required little more than your eyes, your ears, and a healthy sense of curiosity.

And that’s the most important mark it made. Myst arrived before most home PCs had Internet connections; it was one of the first faraway worlds in which you could get lost from the comfort of your swivel chair. Without Myst there’s no Grand Theft Auto V or Assassin’s Creed — but I’d also argue that there’s no late-night bottomless Wikipedia rabbit hole. Maybe Myst didn’t change how we approached computer games, but rather how we approached computer lives.

Robyn Miller had been a student at the University of Washington, taking a year off and trying to establish state residency while “probably writing some really awful novels” when his older brother Rand called him from Texas and asked if he’d like to work together on a children’s computer game. The proposal was out of left field — Rand was a programmer, but the kind that works in a small-town bank, not a studio — and neither had any experience in game development; Robyn had barely played a video game in his life.2 The first three programs they created together under the company name Cyan — The Manhole, Cosmic Osmo, and Spelunx — were specifically aimed at children but difficult to describe as “games.” (Osmo won a 1990 Mac User award for “Best Recreational Program.”) That early output shared a kind of nonlinear open-endedness, forcing players to shape their own experience of the virtual environment with their own decisions and observations in a way that would later characterize Myst, but they were more sophisticated sandboxes than goal-oriented narratives. “In the projects we did for children, we didn’t really tell stories,” Robyn said. “They were just these worlds that you would explore.”

But that’s because if you asked them, the Millers would have said they were in the world-building business first, the game and storytelling business second. So much so that by 1991, when they began planning Myst, it felt like a rookie effort. The story — which would eventually become so complex it would fill three companion novels — was almost an afterthought. “We’re not game designers; we were place designers, so we just started drawing maps, and the maps kind of fueled the story,” said Rand.

Unlike many games, in which the backstory is established separately from the gameplay, the Millers developed the elements of the Myst backstory — Sirrus and Achenar’s betrayal of Atrus, the notion of a linking book and how it’s made — in tandem with the story’s physical world.3

Myst

“It was this leapfrog kind of experience, where we would draw a building and say, ‘What’s in that building, and why is that in the building?’ And it just so happened that it was much more satisfying as we built this space to start to build a story behind it. It wasn’t necessary, but for some reason in our minds, if there wasn’t a story, [the game] lost some kind of credibility.”4 It seems ironic in 2013, as games are gaining critical legitimacy arguably because of their increasingly sophisticated narratives, to find out that the developers who had supposedly changed everything in 1993 had to force themselves to justify the addition of a narrative. But that was just one of several counterintuitive quirks of the Millers’ approach to game development.

Part of this was because, at least initially, they weren’t entirely sure of who they were making Myst for, other than themselves. And as test subjects, they were about as far from contemporary gamers as you could be. “I think it was just that we intuitively didn’t like the artifice of game stuff, and we didn’t see a reason for it,” said Robyn. “We just felt like there was no reason for buttons, and if you’re playing a game, you should be in that world as much as possible. It’s a story and a world, and when you go to the movies, you don’t have to deal with that kind of thing.” They decided early on that, like their previous titles, Myst would have no inventory or enemies; you would not be able to die or start over. Both Rand and Robyn were resistant to the idea of in-game music, until their publisher, Brøderbund, suggested they try it out — the result was Robyn’s simple, yet perfectly atmospheric original soundtrack. “We weren’t even going to have the ability to save the game, just because we really strongly felt that anything that felt like a game was going to pull you out of that universe,” Robyn added. (Thankfully, they later realized that they were going to have to make a couple of conceptual concessions for a game that took many players months to work their way through.)

But what sounds in hindsight like a lot of high-minded theoretical rigor ended up being exactly what gave Myst its universal appeal. “The publisher kept asking us, ‘Well, what’s the demographic?’ And we were like, ‘Demographics? We don’t even know,'” Rand said. They assumed the game would be popular with twenty- and thirtysomethings, people their age; at the same time, said Robyn, “We didn’t want there to be an interface that stood in the way of anyone playing that game. We wanted it to be a game that someone’s grandmother could play.” Still, they were shocked when those hypothetical grandmothers actually ended up accounting for a not-insignificant portion of their audience — along with the thirtysomethings. And twentysomethings. And teens. And children. “It’s weird, because we were really just making something we wanted,” Rand said. “At the time, we of course didn’t know it was going to be a big deal and didn’t know we were going to sell millions of copies. But even the people we showed it to who didn’t play games kind of liked it, and we were excited about that.”

The story of the making of Myst is one of those romantic, long-nights-in-the-garage myths that modern indie developers dream about. Much of it was documented in a short making-of video that came on the Myst CD-ROM, and was probably one of the first QuickTime files a generation of computer users ever double-clicked.5

In Myst, the technomagicology that allows the characters to bounce from world to world is something called the Art, a technique used to write “linking books” that allow people to travel to the worlds, or ages, that they describe. Atrus, the protagonist of the Myst series, is one such practitioner of this art; he learned it from his father, Gehn, and passed it on to his two sons. Not just anyone can learn the Art; it takes a certain kind of talent, and like any great power, it inevitably comes with great responsibilities. Faulty writing will result in an unstable age; one can also just be a bad steward of an age by stripping its resources or forcing its inhabitants to worship you as a god.

It’s an alluring idea — the ability to write words with such power and focus that they could physically transport someone to a place of the author’s choosing — not to mention a tempting metaphor for the Millers’ love of world-building. We want to ascribe such mystical, lightning-in-a-bottle powers to the creator of any work that has an impact on us — including that small band of programmers and 3-D modelers toiling away in glasses and flannels for two years to create what was essentially an extremely immersive HyperCard stack. But there’s a sneaky philosophical catch embedded in Myst‘s mythology that the casual player could easily miss: The Art doesn’t allow the writer to actually create a world — only to create a link to it. The world being linked to — its terrain, its people, its architecture, its biosphere — all existed before that first link was created; the writer is merely presenting opportunities to see these worlds.

While the linking-book conceit ends up not being as much of a creative fantasy as it appears to be on first glance, the questions it raises are far more challenging. Under these rules, any writer who fancies himself a god is fooling himself (that doesn’t stop many of the characters in the Myst series; terminal megalomania runs in Atrus’s family). And there’s of course the somewhat disappointing subtext that no matter how wild the writer lets his imagination run, he will never be able to think of something that doesn’t already exist. Is it some kind of multiverse determinism? A loophole to ward off evangelical Christian protesters?

I asked Rand about that seemingly small, but not at all insignificant, specification — thinking surely this was born out of some genius unified field theory of art. He told me that he and Robyn arrived at it after countless hours of philosophical conversations about religion and parallel universes … before finally admitting that he didn’t know. “I’m not sure that we made any point,” he said, choosing his words more carefully than he had in our entire conversation. “We may have made people think about things.” May have! As one such person who may have been made to think about things, I couldn’t help but press further — I had read multiple times that the Millers’ father was a pastor. The religious themes of Myst can’t have been an accident, right?

“I’ll put it this way,” Rand said. “People ask me all the time if Myst was art. And I don’t even know what art is, so I’ve made up my own definition. I think Art with a capital A, for me, has this intent to communicate truth. Somehow you try to make something — you’ve gotten so good at what you do, you’ve become a master craftsman at what you do, that you can now try to communicate some kind of truth. And truth is a simple thing; it’s just, you know, something about the world around you, something about yourself.

“I don’t think Robyn and I were trying to make some kind of statement. We certainly didn’t have an agenda, but we were trying to say, ‘Well, man, it’s just frivolous if there’s not a little something here.'” The theme of power and power corrupting did come in part from growing up with a community leader for a father, Rand said, but mostly because of the good example he set in that position. “We loved the idea of being subcreators” — the phrase J.R.R. Tolkien coined to describe an act of creation by a being that is itself a creation — “and the idea that we are subcreators, and that it’s a really powerful thing,” Rand said. “And it’s good to stay a little bit humble with a powerful thing.”

By the end of 1994, Myst was selling at an exponential rate and had just passed the half-million mark. The sequel was already in the works, and at this point there was no more hiding behind the term “world-building” — Myst was a story and a game and a quickly growing cultural obsession. The Book of Atrus, the first of the three Myst novels, was released in 1995, primarily as a way to build a connection between the first two games and dispense with the volumes of backstory the brothers had constructed. Despite mixed reviews, it still landed on USA Today‘s best seller list.6 A parody game called Pyst, starring John Goodman as “King Mattrus,” was released.7 The Millers were celebrities, however unlikely.

Rand and Robyn Miller

For the sequel, Riven, the Millers expanded their staff and brought on Richard Vander Wende, a visual designer from ILM who had previously worked on Disney’s Aladdin, to bring a new atmosphere to the decidedly different world. There was also the addition of professional actors — Rand and Robyn had played the three roles in Myst themselves, filming QuickTime videos in front of a homemade blue screen.8 The game ran on five CD-ROMs and improved on Myst‘s claim to photorealism by leaps and bounds, all in the service of what was to be the most sophisticated story the brothers had told yet.

This should have been good news for Robyn, who had been waiting to attempt a serious game narrative ever since the inception of Cyan. “Myst was the first chance we had to really try to tell a story, but it was a very, very simple narrative,” he said. “I was really, really believing that, yes, [Riven] is going to be the time where we are going to embed story into this thing, and it’s going to be provoking and meaningful and compelling, and about midway through, I just realized: ‘No, that’s not going to happen, no matter how hard we try. It’s going to be fun; Riven‘s going to be fun, and people are going to like it, but we are not going to accomplish that.'”

Robyn was coming up against a problem that video games are still dealing with today: Can the medium support stories and characters in the same way that a film or a novel does? And is that even what the medium should do in its advanced iteration? “I wanted people to really empathize with these characters that we were creating, and I wanted that to push the story forward. And I realized, no, that’s not what’s going to compel them forward in this. It’s just going to be the environment, you know?” The Millers had set out to make a world where the environment, in all its meticulously rendered detail, was the main character, but this left Robyn unsatisfied. “I still don’t think that’s quite as powerful as what you feel with another [character]. The environment is like the other main character in this, and that’s good, that’s great … ” he trailed off for a moment. “But the characters that we were creating were kind of just like every other video game.”

As sophisticated as Myst and Riven were, Robyn is not wrong. How much do we really know about Atrus and Catherine and Gehn, besides the broadest archetypes? How moved are we by their relationships and desires and fears? On the other hand, how much does a negative answer to those questions affect how memorable and emotional Myst was as a gaming experience? Myst didn’t stage a drama for those of us who played, it gave us a stage in which to go through our own little interior dramas, whether that was being inexplicably terrified to go down an unfamiliar corridor or inexplicably satisfied to discover a new vantage point of your surroundings that you hadn’t known existed. You bring your own brain and baggage to all art, but that accounted for virtually all of the pleasures of Myst, and the extent of its laissez-faire attitude toward how you went about playing the game effectively turned you into the most advanced, complex, well-developed video game character ever.

After the release of Riven in 1997, Robyn left the gaming industry to pursue a writing and filmmaking career (his debut feature film, The Immortal Augustus Gladstone, is currently making the festival rounds), leaving Rand to steer the ship solo. While the now-defunct Presto Studios and Ubisoft took over the development of the third and fourth installments of the series, Rand renamed Cyan to CyanWorlds and busied himself with the development of Myst Online: Uru Live, a massive multi-player online game that was in some ways a return to his open-ended interactivity roots. But the game was canceled prior to release in 2004, and a single-player version, released later that year, was a commercial failure.9 The Uru project lost so much money for Cyan that the company was forced to temporarily cease operations. Meanwhile, multi-player shooters like Halo and Half-Life became king; the gaming industry couldn’t be further from the quiet, achingly lonely puzzler it had embraced two decades ago.

“It wasn’t that it didn’t take over [that surprised us],” said Rand. “It was that it didn’t create its own kind of big fork in interactive entertainment.” There would have been good games and bad games in this hypothetical genre, Rand thought, and ideally some games better than Myst. “It just seemed like gaming just settled back down to what it was, which is fun, but it’s more achievement-based rather than story-based.” Meanwhile, he said, the technology was filled with more possibilities than ever. “There’s incredible graphics cards and real-time experiences, but they’re all used to shoot aliens or zombies, for the most part.”

Improbably, but miraculously, CyanWorlds is still afloat, operating with a staff of 1510 in its original home of eastern Washington, developing iOS games, including the iPad versions of Myst and Riven,11 and figuring out their next move. “I think we’re happy, at this point, to be alive, because there are other options for us now,” Rand said. “The options up to this point have been [getting] a huge publisher to do something new and unique in this world, and publishers have been reticent to fund exploration games. But now, self-funding through Kickstarter and other money-raising sites is a really cool alternative that we’ve been looking at.”

My skeptic alarm tends to go off the moment anyone utters the K word, especially for a project that is so driven by nostalgia. But then I think of the overwhelming success of Grand Theft Auto V, and how “open world” has become synonymous with quality gaming, albeit juiced up with machine guns and sex workers. Open-world gaming somehow feels more truthful these days, maybe because the illusion of freedom and lawlessness so closely mirrors the biggest, most popular computer game of all: the Internet. Gamers and non-gamers alike are well versed in the experience of exploring unknown places and synthesizing information with little to no direction; we do it every day, accidentally stumbling across a corner of the web we hadn’t known existed until that moment. Suddenly the Cyan philosophy doesn’t seem like such an anomaly after all.

“We’re hearing lots of comments here on the 20th anniversary — people are going, ‘Man, I would love to see that same kind of experience [as Myst] again,'” Rand said. One of the first things that made him think there could still be a place for non-violent, open-world gaming came straight from the pages of that cultural barometer/hive mind Reddit. “On the front page, there was a [post] where somebody said, ‘Hey, I just put my grandparents in front of Assassin’s Creed in the gondola and let them sail around Venice for a couple hours.’ And then there’s a huge discussion after that — as there always is on good Reddit articles — where people are saying, ‘Yeah, why don’t people make these games? Why can’t we just explore? Why do we always have to shoot things?’ So, maybe the time is right again to try that. That’s exciting. I still think there’s plenty of room for something really cool in this genre out there. And I don’t think we’ve done it yet.”

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Emily Yoshida is an editor at Grantland.

Archive @ emilyyoshida

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