THROUGH THE MYST - ANOTHER WORLD
A Review of Enter the Myst
by Gloria Stern
Admittedly, I was enchanted by the game of Myst, spending long hours in the glades, groves and tunnels of the island. Rand Miller and his brother Robyn created the megahit CD disc together under the corporate name of Cyan, the independent software company that they founded to develop CDs under the aegis of Broderbund Software of Novato, California. Despite their remarkable achievement, they consider themselves to be quite ordinary. More than 1,500,000 discs are now in private collections, which is no ordinary achievement.
The disc has a singular ambiance that is, perhaps, its most distinguishing characteristic. Evocative would have to be the descriptive word. Opening with an age worn book tumbling onto the screen, the images are accompanied by ethereal, other worldly music and chimerical landscapes. The album soon becomes the central icon of the work. From this simple beginning the user is called into strange yet familiar scenes; the lapping water of a deserted dock, an abandoned building containing meters and gauges and unexpected vistas seen through uncommonly placed windows; a bird, half-seen, flits past a brick walled tower and all the time we hear this windlike melody; a well which harbors a sunken shipmodel stands in the middle of the pathway; a rocket ship is anchored on a strange circular platform; deep below in an underground cave sits a rocket power station. These sights and sounds identify archetypal images which conjure up a land you may have known.
It is that dreamlike quality of lush scenery laden with ornate details set in a vague and almost impressionistic location that is characteristic of the disc. Everywhere there are unexpected levers to pull and rooms to explore, but there is no one in sight to explain the enigma of this island.
It is this unique atmosphere that comes through. The CD has a quality about it. It's mood and archetypal images contribute to its ability to lure the unwary player. In a non-insistent, non-coercive fashion, Myst works its magic. We find ourselves in alien yet familiar landscapes trying our hand at intriguing and challenging puzzles.
The island, with its assortment of levers, clocks, gauges and clickables, has a distinct character, one that is so original and off beat that anyone who has spent time on the island of Myst will recognize the touch of Rand and his brother, Robyn in the earlier forms that they created, as well as the book derived from the disc.
Thoroughly entranced with Myst, the best-selling, interactive compact disc from Cyan/Broderbund, I was delighted to have the opportunity to talk to Rand Miller, its creator, about the process of developing such a project.
I asked Rand about how he and his brother, Robyn, approached the idea of interactive storytelling for Myst, which was begun when interactives were mostly games, he responded in terms of his earlier work.
GS: What was the "jumping off" place that allowed you to produce such an original concept?" His responses offered some insight into the making of Myst.
Rand: Robyn and I started doing "worlds" long before Myst. These were worlds for children that were kind of whimsical and wacky, but they required very little planning and forethought. We just designed as we went along.
GS: I explored The Manhole, billed by Cyan as a Whimsical World for Children of All Ages. I admit, I was enthralled with the entire adventure. The prospect of descending a manhole to find underground vistas seemed a bit off-putting until I actually tried it. I was able to navigate colonnaded subterranean rivers and mysterious towers peopled by friendly guides who welcomed me to the "worlds" they guarded. I could see the origins of the best selling CDi in the early work but that didn't explain the complexity of Myst. Myst was a much more designed and purposeful undertaking.
Rand: We started our design work and realized that we would need to have even more story and history than would be revealed in the game itself. It seemed having that depth was just as important as what the explorer would actually see.
GS: Was there a paradigm? Did you have a vision before you began designing? What were the parameters you started with? The limitations?
Rand: The vision and feeling was all based on our previous work. Myst evolved out of those works. Those early worlds set our basis on which we would build more complexity and depth.
The limitations we faced were for the most part technical. The slow speed of CD-ROM, interface issues. But we knew those limitations when we started and strived to design the game around those issues.
Other than those restrictions, it really was a feeling of doing what we wanted - of putting together something that felt like a real world.
GS: So, you created Atrus and gave him a history, special talents and an intriguing task to people your fantasy world?
Rand: Our interactive story design went along two paths - the linear and the non-linear. The linear was the back story and the history, all those elements that followed a very strict time-line. The non-linear was the design of the worlds and was more like architectural work. Like building a world without the time element at all - a snapshot of an age. Now the struggle was to try to merge the two by revealing some parts of the linear story during the exploration of the non-linear world, while maintaining the explorers feeling that he/she can go anywhere and do anything they please.
GS: Did you see it (the structure) in layers? In branch and root form?
Rand: The non-linear structure was rather complex. It had to have a beginning and from that point branch out (tree) almost infinitely - allowing for any possible direction the explorer might care to go (layers). But the end had to pull things back together for one of the several different ending scenarios.
It's interesting to note that our game design work was never storyboard based - because the bulk of the time spent in the game would be controlled by the explorer. We couldn't outline their movements, we only could gently nudge them, using clues and other information, toward the end. So we worked on a large part of the design using maps and top-down diagrams, with notation indicating what things were and where they came from and how they fit into the story.
GS: The first of the projects was named The Manhole which was followed closely by Cosmic Osmo. Both are still available from Cyan. Did these "worlds" have the same configuration (an intricate vista with no character introduced)? Did the children's programs feature intriguing locations? Attractive settings? (Like Myst) Were they puzzles rather than confrontations?
Rand: These original worlds didn't have any puzzles. They were simply whimsical environments to wander around in.
(Your reporter has since encountered Manhole and found it a delightful pastime.)
GS. So that Myst was quite a departure, actually, in that the linear story was the spine and the non-linear became "nodes" that were interactive? I found Myst to be quite intuitive (meaning: It took a lot of attempts for me to make any progress through the worlds and ages of Myst.)
Rand: The linear would be more like the trunk of the tree - no branching from the ground up until the first branches. Those first branches are the non-linear part - where the user can start defining where the story goes. So the history in the recently released novel is the trunk, and the game Myst is where the branching is.
GS: In the program, the sequence into the various worlds (for the player) is specific and thus linear, so in that respect there is not much leeway. Each clue must be picked up in sequence, is that right?
Rand: We tried to make the puzzles non-linear for the player. In fact, most of the clues can be picked up in any order, and the puzzles solved in any order. Those early worlds set our basis on which we would build more complexity and depth.
GS: How was that done?
GS: Did you use any system of notation? Is there a hard copy of Myst? Not the book, I mean a hard copy of the manuscript used for constructing the program? Or did you build it as you went along?
Rand: We have maps. That's basically it. Pages of maps.
GS: Sounds like you had a large desk top!!!
GS: How did you get the idea to create a prequel for Myst in hard copy?
Rand: The story was all there. All of the details came to light as we designed the original CD.
The disc of Myst is the story of Atrus, the principal character in the book, as well. Having experienced the mystery depicted in the fabulous graphics and having played the game, the vistas of "Atrus, the Book", seemed appropriate and familiar to me.
Atrus, as a young boy, on the brink of manhood, is visited by his father, Gehn, who has come to take him back to the ruins of D'ni. His purpose is to teach Atrus his heritage and the magic of creating "worlds" in the same manner as Atrus creates ages in the Myst.
Caves and subterranean rivers are the setting for what remains of the civilization of D'ni having been destroyed in a conflict with a power hungry rebel. Though Atrus is not aware of it at first, Ghen tutors the boy in the techniques needed to create various worlds. The boy soon surpasses his father's ability and in an altruistic attempt at saving a civilization, Atrus defies his father and assumes the stewardship of the mystical knowledge. It is then that he escapes the the destruction of the world taking with him the fabled Catherine.
Immersed in the book, I felt the same ethereal quality of being on the edge of a mystery not quite understood. Placing myself in the psyche of Atrus as he became the hero of the saga was a pleasant task, familiar, and yet, unrecognizable. As Rand and Robyn Miller with the help of David Wingrove have produced an entity that replicates all the attributes that have made the CD one of the most popular on the market? Its broad acceptance has made a real contribution to the expanding world of the CD by means of an intelligent and beautifully executed story.
As the technology of the personal computer becomes more accessible, we are beginning to see the spilling over of one form to that of another. Simon and Schuster, the publishing giant, has allocated $10,000,000 to formulate a CD division for the publication of their books. While the industry is rushing to put anything and everything on CD, this superbly innovative team at Cyan is putting their CD world people, places and things into a book reversing the industry direction.
When I opened Myst - the book of Atrus , I found the same archetypal images and half remembered vistas characteristic of the Miller brothers' work. Atrus was taken, as a child, from the bleak, sterile desert where he lived under the protection of his beloved grandmother, Anna, until his father, Gehn, comes to take him back to the land of D'ni. It is there that he is tutored in mysterious tasks in which he gains no understanding. Throughout, he is aware of no purpose or continuity in the lessons his father provides. The library of the ancients holds the magic books, from which his assignments are drawn and as he is instructed to carefully pen the contents, he ponders the meaning of his practice.
These fascinating islands of psuedo reality experience cataclysms and catastophies as the patriarch seeks to replicate the glorious civilizations of former days. Are these worlds just waiting to be discovered? Or are they truly an act of creation? It is at this point, that Atrus supermands his father in a daring attempt to save a dying world with the rites of his scholarship.
With all of the elements of a classic story, the Miller brothers have done it again. The first game novel transformed to hard cover is theirs. They have provided a challenge for those who would emulate their success.
Gamer's Zone Scorecard
Windows 3.1 - MS/PC-DOS 5.0
Entertainment Value 5
Educational Value 2
Sound and Graphics 5