[A retrospective look at Cyan's Myst (1993) and its use of symbolism and imagery as a driving force for player exploration and immersion.]
If you so much as glanced in the direction of a computer in the mid-90s, you'll have heard of Cyan's seminal graphic adventure game, which not only heralded the advent of the CD-Rom as the format that would drive the future of computer gaming but also achieved the rare feat of becoming a cultural phenomenon. In 1993, everyone was playing Myst and when they weren't playing it, they were talking about it.
Completing one of the game's notoriously complex puzzles became a marker of vanity and social worth, bringing with it the satisfaction not only of in-game progress but also being approached by awe-struck peers desperate to know how you pulled it off and listening with a quiet sneer to their tales of frustration in worlds you have passed through days before. New sights and accidental discoveries were instantly broadcast amongst friends, desperate to claim the front-runner spot in the race towards the game's conclusion.
The first who completed the game were spoken of in awe and the trepidation of not knowing whether to call them up instantly and get all the answers, or resist that epic temptation to maintain the glee of making every discovery on your own and the knowledge that your advancement was down to nothing but your own wits. But then, your friends were already talking about raising the sunken ship... would it really be so bad to ask for just one little hint...?
I was eight years old when the game's popularity exploded and even I watched in fascination as family members struggled to find the links between the clues and codes scribbled onto their computer-side notepad. School friends of the same age were having much of the same experience, even though none of us were old enough to understand what was going on or even how the game worked. We saw our elders enraptured by the worlds on-screen and did everything we could to be there with them and share in their fleeting moments of glory.
Over time, Myst's reputation has taken quite the battering amongst the gaming community, who have accused it of being everything from the beginning of the end of the point-and-click adventure, to an 'anti-game' for its slow pace and lack of death threats or puzzle-solving assistance. Publishers' eagerness to capitalise on the title's success by porting the game to every conceivable system regardless of compatibility (much lamented versions of the game have even appeared on the DS and PSP, despite the game's requirement of note-taking and long-term deduction surely antithetical to the nature of portable gaming) can't have helped, nor the diminishing quality and increasing pretensions that came with each of its four sequels.
There's no denying that with the benefit of hindsight there are plenty of issues with the game that simply wouldn't hold up today. While the logic underpinning the many puzzles is actually far more straightforward and cohesive than we might be willing to accept given difficulties experienced at the time, the vast majority of them are variations on the mundane trope of finding a code and then the right place and manner in which to input it.
The game's non-linearity is one of its greatest assets in allowing the player to discover the secrets of Myst island on their own, but it also means that clues can be collected in such a random order and accumulated in such numbers that it becomes an overwhelming task to remember which ones are linked to which place and how they can be fitted together and used - the aforementioned similarity between the puzzles and plethora of four-digit or symbol codes only exacerbates the issue.
Once you manage to organise yourself and get moving at a steady pace through the game, the quantity of backtracking weighs ever heavier as an artificial barrier to progressing as rapidly as you deserve. Having to make a return trip to each discovered world (or 'Age') because your character can only carry one of the vital book pages back to the library hub at a time feels like quite the insult after having spent so much timing decoding a path to having both within your grasp at once.
But Myst's protracted length and crowded, over-familiar puzzle structure were issues already identified by critics and players at the time, even if their impact can be felt more keenly now with the advances in design made in the fifteen-odd years since its first release. While famous for its difficulty, the puzzles were never the game's big draw.
The game's real success is the cohesion with which it blends its story, its symbols and its environments. The advancements in graphics technology have meant that most remember Myst's visuals within the damning epithet of 'impressive for their time' without affording them the necessary examination to see why their impact was the result of a far more considered and complex equation than merely pushing the technical boundaries of the time. The game's main island was not only visually impressive, but its every landmark and object designed to inspire players' curiosities and imaginations.
Just as the Legend of Zelda series was born out of the young Shigeru Miyamoto's enthusiasm for exploring the caves near his home, Myst packs its hub with the kinds of places and symbols representative all the mysteries and adventures that inspired our exploratory instincts while growing up. Who as a child didn't dream of finding treasure amongst sunken ships, unravelling the patterns of the night sky, unlocking the forgotten knowledge hiding in Ancient Grecian libraries or devising coded languages of animal symbols? Myst island is a construction made of the bricks that are foundations of our imagination. The magical books, hidden within its depths, offer portals to new corners of creation we can only travel to on the wings given by the sights and sounds folding together our dreams.
Unlike the busy island linking them together, the individual Ages feel like stages waiting for a first story to bring them to life. Their themes are at once familiar and eerie in their contradictions (the natural and the mechanical, the artful and the scientific, the sail and the rock), with each of their offered toys placed too deliberately and purposefully to be anything other than an invitation for you to bring definition to them and their homes.
The books in the game act as symbols of imaginative leaps of faith, the brilliance and bravery of our ability to create new realities from the world that has been written for us, enriching it with our individual interpretations. This theme is at the heart not only of the game's story, but the entire experience of the game. You are alone in Myst's playground, without the only help or hindrance to discovery being yourself because to involve any outside party would violate the very heart of what is to be taken away from the experience: we write the stories of our own lives, through the way we see the world, how we solve it and how we make it our own.
At the end of the game, a choice is given between accepting the testimony of the captured storytellers who have tried to make us see the world from their perspective and bring them the final page to complete their books, or put faith in choosing a new book whose details are unknown to us (which the other storytellers threaten will lead to imprisonment).
Though Robyn and Rand Miller's game is now most famous for its mind-bending puzzles, Myst's appeal goes far deeper than the nature of its play mechanics, driving players to explore its worlds by tapping into the symbols and dreams that represent the human imagination's hunger to explore and write stories to give meaning to everything it finds. The intimate link between the the game's art design and themes give it a relevance and depth that even more technologically advanced titles rarely come close to achieving. While later entries in the series betrayed this vision, resulting in declining sales and popularity, Myst deserves to be remembered for the reasons it inspired rather than frustrated us. As it's so keen to remind us, any story can be rewritten.