Late to the Party: Myst and Why You Can Never Go Home Again

Despite being an avid player of computer games as a child, somehow I had managed to miss Myst. I vaguely recall seeing my father play it once but had dismissed it as less entertaining than the speed of Sonic the Hedgehog or the preview of high school I got in McKenzie & Co. As an adult who studies games I have begun to regret that decision. Myst is frequently located as a sign post for a large number of sometimes contradictory moments in game history. It has been alternately located as a crucial example of: a move to high quality graphics, the interactive fiction discussed by narratologists, the layered game play and rule structures favored by ludologists, casual games, infamously difficult games, and games targeted at adults. With such an impressive, and sometimes confusing, pedigree I was eager to go back in time and try to recapture what I had missed when I chose not to play it.

What I discovered was that after the many changes in technology, when it comes to some video games you truly can never recapture them as they originally existed. It is over 16 years since Myst’s original release, and it is having a revival. In the last three years, it has been re-released on the Nintendo DS, the PSP, and, most recently, the iPhone/iPad OS. Having difficulty locating a copy for my computer, I ended up playing the iPhone OS version on my iPad. I was surprised by how easily the game had been adapted to the iPad’s input methods. Myst had always been notorious for its visual beauty, and it was deeply pleasurable to find myself traveling its luscious landscape. The system of touching where I wanted to go, what I wanted open, etc. was surprisingly seamless and intuitive; but I couldn’t shake the feeling that by giving up the mouse and keyboard, I had somehow radically changed the experience of the game.

This experience only increased when, after exploring an underground chamber, I had to run off to a meeting. The game saved at the exact point that I had finished playing, and it was all too easy to pull the game out as I was waiting for my student to arrive and quickly finish off the puzzle I had been doing. In the early 90s when the game was released, it required reasonably powerful computing power and a game play experience was bound by these technological limitations to particular spaces and, generally, dedicated play time. By choosing a version of the game that I could easily pick up and put down at a moment’s notice anywhere at all, I had changed it drastically. Now, instead of being a dedicated journey, it had become a world to explore and puzzles to do in the dull moments that are part of everyone’s life.

Perhaps the change that had most drastically altered my experience of Myst was the rapid and extensive growth of the internet. After about an hour and a half of play, I found myself stuck. This is not an unusual experience in Myst. Friends who had finished the game, and most hadn’t, had told me about creating huge bulletin boards and walls full of maps and post-it notes in order to keep track of the information necessary to finish. Most had eventually just given up. I had a choice that wasn’t available to them, a choice that as I played became increasingly difficult to resist. As the internet has grown, it has been a repository for what Pierre Lévy has called collective intelligence. Some of this collective intelligence has gathered around games. The internet is replete with detailed walk-throughs, explaining how to beat a game step by step. While many consider this cheating, something Mia Consolvo has effectively explored, others consider it a productive use of shared knowledge that makes video games accessible to more players. That was the logic that I used when I took my first peek at a Myst walk-through, quickly gathered the information that I needed to get the code for the next step of the game (all in less than five minutes), and returned to playing.

My attempt to discover Myst as it was discovered by so many others almost a decade ago was an enjoyable and exciting one. I finally understood why its graphics were considered so newsworthy and was impressed that even today the aesthetics of its world held up. While it was inescapable that I experienced this in the context of the many games that built on it and the tremendous evolution in graphics that followed it, it is notable that over fifteen years later its visuals hold up well. I was fascinated by the game’s incorporation of live action video, something that has not been taken up by other games on a large scale, and found it very effective. While in the time I had, even with cheating, I was not able to find my way off the island (which reminds me of the next important thing that I missed), I did feel that I had begun to see what had made the game so powerful at the time and appealing enough to continue into the new millennium. But even more distinctly, I realized that I, and the many others who were playing for the first time on PSPs and iPhones, had not really had the Myst experience and that, when technology had changed so drastically , I probably never would.


11 comments for “Late to the Party: Myst and Why You Can Never Go Home Again

  1. December 1, 2010 at 12:20 PM

    Terrific post, Kyra, and something I’ve actually been thinking about for a little while, too.

    I played Myst on a Windows computer in the mid-90s (probably just before Riven was released) and remember being infuriated by it, and yet unable to step away from it (save to play Super Mario World on the SNES or Star Wars: Dark Forces on the computer).

    Like the people you mentioned, I had Post-It notes and printer paper filled with ideas about what to do, keeping progress of how I (didn’t) solve things. But what actually helped solve puzzles was that my family would gather around the computer and try and do it as a group. We’d stare at the monitor, fiddle with levers and metal plates and knobs until one of us would hit on the right pattern. It was one of the few gaming experiences that drew in the whole family.

    As I’ve longed to go back to Myst, often thinking of acquiring the DS port, the nostalgic gamer in me tells himself that he wouldn’t do a walkthrough because he didn’t have one back in the mid-90s and he did eventually beat the game without one. And there’s a large part of me that wants to respect that impulse, a drive to keep Myst‘s challenges untarnished by glancing at a walkthrough.

    But then there’s the current gamer in me who can’t solve the puzzles in Professor Layton without using too many Hint Tokens, and he wonders how the hell he’d be able to solve the mysteries of Myst again (especially since that game doesn’t have Hint Tokens!) without using a walktrhough. I honestly think that this conflict within myself is what’s stopped me from picking the game up again.

    One last thing, and a throw out for discussion: Has your experience in Myst so far made you interested in its transmedia products? There’s a trilogy of novels dealing with the history of the in-game universe. I never read them when I was younger, but now I wonder how they would’ve influenced my gaming then, if at all.

    • Kyra
      December 2, 2010 at 10:39 AM

      Thanks for the comment Noel. I think in a way I was a bit more interested in the transmedia products (particularly the comic) before I played. I had always wanted to understand Myst’s storyworld and the books/comics seemed like a way to do that with what I had conceptualized as an impossibly difficult and time consuming game. Now that I have played a bit I want to reserve my discovery of the story to the game itself, as an incentive during the more frustrating portions of the game. Maybe when I have beat the game though my feelings will change.

  2. Nina Huntemann
    December 1, 2010 at 1:25 PM

    Thanks for this walk down memory lane Kyra!

    I remember loading Myst on to my 386 PC only to be stumped for days by the very first puzzle! I nearly gave up until, by coincidence, I finally got around to installing a sound card, which was not in the original configuration of my “new” machine. Myst was my first experience gaming on a Windows OS and the sound card incident was just the first of so many necessary hardware upgrades in order to play the latest titles. Like many PC owners, I have gaming to thank for my knowledge of the insides of a CPU. What strikes me about your experience playing Myst, particularly on the locked-down iPad, in contrast to my experience in the early 90s, is how little hardware knowledge is necessary to game today. I haven’t opened up a PC in nearly a decade and rarely need to tweak software settings. Granted, I have also moved away from PC gaming almost entirely to happily embrace my consoles. But now I stare at seemingly endless PS3 updates, wondering what is going on in there before I can play COD!

    To further date myself and confess my own weakness for “cheating” I will add this comment about the Internet’s collective intelligence available for games, which you suggest was not a part (or was less of a part) of earlier gaming experiences. In addition to a notebook I kept of tried and failed puzzle combinations and hand-drawn game maps, I recall scouring and contributing to the active usenet communities. People posted detailed FAQs, ASCII draw maps (labors of love and sweat!), troubleshooting guides for tech issues, text-only walk-thrus and so on. The material was there, just not as pretty, organized and searchable as sites today! For fun, check out the archives of at Google Groups.

    • Kyra
      December 2, 2010 at 10:44 AM

      Nina, thanks so much for the suggestion! The groups are fascinating, thank you so much for directing me to them, and it is true that the material was always there (I also vaguely recall hint books you could buy for games and pay for hint help phone lines too). I suppose the difference for me was back then (and honestly well into adulthood) I was simply not technologically savvy enough to know what a usenet group was, let alone find them. As a result getting to the walk-thrus required more specialized knowledge/experience at that time then today. If you can google, a skill that most posses, you can get hints in a matter of seconds whether or not you have any experience at all with gaming or technological communities. The difference might not be as massive as I portrayed it but for a relative luddite it was significant.

      • Nina Huntemann
        December 2, 2010 at 4:10 PM

        Yes, I agree. The ease of access and lack of specialized knowledge required to play games (both in terms of hardware and software) is certainly one reason why the market for games is so much more diverse today than in he 90s. My younger brother got into deep trouble with our parents for racking up a HUGE phone bill from calling hint lines. We still joke about it at family gatherings!

  3. December 1, 2010 at 3:40 PM

    “Friends who had finished the game, and most hadn’t, had told me about creating huge bulletin boards and walls full of maps and post-it notes in order to keep track of the information necessary to finish. Most had eventually just given up. I had a choice that wasn’t available to them, a choice that as I played became increasingly difficult to resist.”

    Loved this part of your post, Kyra — in my Game Studies classes, my students always seem a bit dumbfounded when I describe how normal this kind of behavior was for a previous generation of gamers. I still have a bunch of handwritten notes from Riven lying around somewhere! In grad school, one of my friends expressed shock and horror at what gaming must have been like during The Dark Ages Before the Mini-Map.

    For the text adventures I am old enough to have been weaned on (M. Scott Adams and Infocom), this wasn’t just necessary, but I think assumed — and challenged — by game designers. Nick Montfort talks a bit about the prevalence of the maze in early interactive fiction in his book Twisty Little Passages, and this carries through to Warren Robinett’s Adventure and on. Game designers weren’t just assuming that players were doing this to keep track of where they were in these games, but they were intentionally trying to make it more and more difficult. Until, perhaps, it all just collapsed on its own weight. There’s been an image floating around re: FPS maps that encapsulates (for some) how spatial complexity has been reduced in gaming in recent years:

    One idea I’ve found myself thinking about lately is whether or not these kinds of hand-drawn mapping techniques will see a resurgence with procedurally-generated games such as the excellent Minecraft. When the game landscape is confusing not because someone is trying to obfuscate but because a “dumb” computer program just generated the landscape that way, I wonder how players today make sense of where they are, where they want to go, etc. Cool area to study.

    • Kyra
      December 2, 2010 at 10:49 AM

      Thanks for the comment and those amazing map images. As someone who came late to the gaming party generally, how practices that were developed as early as in MUDs are lost or retained is so fascinating to me and I really liked your points about this. Maybe one interesting place that this map making remains is in the new video game engines designed to let people play table top games, like Dungeons and Dragons over the internet. I believe they build in a component allowing for similar kinds of mapping by the dungeon master. So maybe that might be a direction that this goes in the future, instead of users drawing maps to keep track of the space generated by game designers users may begin drawing maps to create space in the game?

  4. December 1, 2010 at 3:48 PM

    By the way, I’d totally go see this:

  5. Adrienne
    December 2, 2010 at 1:15 AM

    Thanks for this! Myst was the game that got me back into games and onto PC gaming, and, in turn, more or less into grad school (and ultimately a PhD, so I supposed I owe a debt of gratitude to Cyan). This was a great post, and I think beyond the interface and options for getting hints (or cheating, whichever way you want to put it), the very experience of the game is likely very different on mobile platforms. I got into Myst, and in fact played the whole series (minus Uru which I never finished), over the course of a year in 2004-2005. I think my experience falls somewhere in between those who played it when it was new and those who are playing it on iPhones and PSPs now. At the time, I was playing on a circa-2000 laptop, which was on its last legs. I didn’t have internet access at home, so I kept notes on pads of paper. When I got really stuck I’d wait until my day off to use to local library computer for an hour (that was the time limit), and get as many hints or answers I could after checking emails and sending off grad school applications. I’d try and figure out puzzles on my lunch break or while sitting on the bus on the way home (which is different, but perhaps the corollary to you playing as you wait for meetings to start). And then, after my partner went to bed, I’d play with headphones on late (much too late) into the night, solving puzzles and discovering new ones. Playing in a dark room with headphones on— it was how all the ad copy said the game was meant to be experienced. It was supposed to be immersive, pulling you in to that world. While I am hesitant to say it was all-immersive, the extent to which it was seems hard to capture in a mobile platform. A similar shift happened I think (and I can’t find the citation for the person who wrote about this) when Myst Online started. All of which is to say, I think you are right that both the interface and social context shift the way in which games (anything really) is experienced in interesting ways.

    • December 6, 2010 at 10:47 AM

      You might be thinking of Celia Pearce — she’s written a lot about Myst Online/Uru Live:

      I don’t know her work very well, but I did dip into Uru Live during its renewed life on Gametap, and was struck with how much more interesting the style of a game like Myst was to me than the other multiplayer, based-off-DikuMUD MMO spaces were. Especially with the success of WoW, there’s the assumption nowadays that 3D massively-multiplayer virtual worlds need to rely on game structures inherited from RPGs. I’d love to see more exploration and challenging of this assumption, but it’s clear that the Uru model didn’t have commercial success.

  6. December 2, 2010 at 11:29 AM

    You know, I am pretty sure they upgraded the graphics for the recent re-releases. There are full-3D versions available too. It’s a different game today than it was back in 1993, that much is clear. And the moment has definitely passed. I tried myst and hated it, but I was a console gamer even then… Myst was for the as-yet unnamed casual gamer market, and it provided a guilty pleasure much as more recent phenomenons like Heroes or Lost did. Something to puzzle over at the water cooler while the kids were at home playing Super Mario World.

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