“MYST” and what it’s done for you lately

Remember Me?

I’m no authority on gaming culture, but I know enough to know that to write on the history of video games without mentioning Myst (Miller 1993) is to write on the history of cinema without mentioning The Maltese Falcon (Huston 1941). It’s not a question of taste, although I love them both – it’s that both of them fundamentally changed the mentality behind both production and consumption of their respective media. And I’m no essentialist either: The Maltese Falcon was not strictly the first film noir, nor was Myst the first ‘thinking man’s game’. But they were the first to take the distinct elements of the genres they came to embody, and base themselves around those elements with ferocious conviction.

In the most direct way possible, Myst is a plot with a game almost incidentally hanging off of it. What occurs because of this could well be a crowning argument for the “game-as-art” party: the game spawned from this plot adds a dimension to the text that would otherwise not be there. Myst is, story-wise, about some very specific and decidedly literary things, and were its facts, story, setting and characters given to us in a vacuum there would be nothing more to it. It’s the existential game-play that contextualizes everything and makes the text itself about something else entirely.

Myst begins itself with a visual image of metaphorical blankness – a grey misty sky over almost indistinguishable grey water. A three-parts sad, one-part sinister music cue establishes well what the game will, in almost direct opposition to its central plot, be about: solitude. Without rhyme, reason or back story, The Stranger (as we are forever to be known) arrives in this desolate sea of stillness on an eerily silent island of mystery. We are, needless to say, alone. Exploration is the only option, and is achieved through point-and-click interface and starkly beautiful imagery. Critics have a called it glorified slide show. That’s hard to defend.

What can be defended is the focus Rand and Robyn Miller, brothers and Myst-creators, have put on the then long-neglected intellectual hunger of their audience. Myst may not have been the first game to entail a rich and engrossing mythology from which novels have been written, but it was certainly one of, if not the first, to jump to the literary before even finishing with the game play. A lot of this piece will be spent reading in-game books, found in the abandoned library on Myst island. You will learn what you need to know to solve the physical puzzles blocking your journey, but you’ll also learn a whole lot more. Why this island is here, why you’re here, who’s responsible, where they are, what they need from you, what their lives were like, what kind of people they were. Myst’s bigger and better sequel, Riven (Miller 1997)[1], takes this even further. There is a physical anomaly in the world of that game, whereby a tunnel is burrowed through the ocean and kept open as if by magic. If you read enough of the discarded journals that are lying around, you’ll find a science-fictive explanation for this. If you don’t, then you don’t. Your loss.

What I’ve been trying to say, but should perhaps reiterate once more for effect, is that the Miller brothers weren’t out to make a video game: they were out to tell a story that needed the kind of immersive interaction only video games can provide. Myst is a lonely and eerie experience, and that taints the story it tells with melancholy in a way that nothing else could. You can’t ask your readers to kindly feel sad, uncomfortable and intrigued, if they wouldn’t mind, before they settle down to your tale, as that really is the best way to receive this sort of thing. You have to put them there yourself– Rand and Ryan Miller saw a way to make that happen, they took it, and video games as an artistic entity still reverberates with their vision.


[1] Both Myst and Riven are, in fact, quite inseparable texts that form a whole. I would like to write further on this sequel but I don’t have the time for it here, and it really does deserve its own article. At any rate, any reference made by myself hereon in to “the Myst franchise” refers specifically and only to these two games: all of the following sequels and rereleases are unworthy, bastardized garbage that were never part of the original Miller vision and which the two brothers never supported.

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~ by baileysmith on August 25, 2008.

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