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.