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The Mind of a World-Maker
Interview With Rand Miller

Rand Miller was working as a programmer in a bank in Texas when he pitched the idea of world-making to his artist brother Robyn. Soon the duo was busy making worlds in a basement in Spokane—first a simple kids’ game called Manhole, but then the game that blew them out of the basement into the big leagues, Myst: a CD-ROM adventure that revolutionized the gaming industry. Myst has sold more than six million copies, more than any other computer game in history, along with a huge share of spin-off products. Not only did Myst outsell the shooter competition like Doom, it changed expectations for what computer games could be. Myst is but the foreground of an intricate and Tolkienesque background, with its own cultures, languages, histories, and landscapes—”the Shakespeare of computer games,” says WIRED. The Miller brothers are loathe to use the word “game,” preferring “immersive environments.” Indeed, both Myst and its sequel, Riven, pull the user into a dreamlike state of being. With gorgeous imagery and spooky music, the experience is not only immersive, but addicting.

The part of the experience that is undeniably gamelike involves solving puzzles to open doors and discover new worlds. What enabled the Millers’ productions to transcend the usual gaming experience was the mythlike component: the sense of visiting a moral universe, in which free will, personal responsibility, and the consequences of choices are part of puzzle-solving.

Observers have also tried to unlock the secret of the Miller brothers, looking for correspondences between their myth and their lives. Such notions are encouraged, no doubt, by the fact that Rand and Robyn have made cameo appearances as characters in their game worlds—characters who themselves are involved in world-making and whose actions span both mythic heroics and interfamily conflict. Another place people have sought for connections is between the Millers’ myth and their evangelical faith, and while one does not find overt Christian allegory in the myths, journalists from such places as WIRED have found these creative pastor’s sons unapologetic, if also unpushy, about their own faith in a Creator. WIRED also tried to smoke out some sibling rivalry. Unexpected success and sky-high expectations created an atmosphere of tension around the development and release of the sequel to Myst, the brothers admit. The fact they went their separate ways after Riven makes a more personal reading of that name credible indeed. The split, say the brothers, while amicable, did have something to do with genuine creative differences. Robyn became frustrated with the difficulties of weaving narrative into interactive, nonlinear gaming environments. In 1998, he started his own company, Land of Point, to continue his mythic world-making in the linear medium of film.

Rand stayed behind as CEO of their company, Cyan, where he oversees development of a supersecret project code-named “Mudpie,” about which rumors have been flying on the web for over a year. Such rumors suggest Mudpie (not due for at least a year) will involve real-time multiplayer participation online using high-speed Internet connections. Another source of frustration for the Brothers Miller was the lack of support from fellow believers who did not understand how world-making fit into the Christian experience. Since addressing that lack of understanding is a key concern of the annual Imaginarium at Cornerstone Festival, we invited Rand Miller to join us at the 2000 fest as our Imaginarium Special Guest.

The warm welcome for Rand by our crowd (“Oh, come on. It’s just a game . . . !”) suggested that not all Christians are as unappreciative of what another world-maker and fellow believer, J. R. R. Tolkien, called “subcreation” as some might think. In person, Rand Miller looked very like his world-making character Atrus from Myst and Riven (sans robe), and we were pleased to find his personality was as laid-back as a country farmer and as open about both his faith and his creativity as world-makers Tolkien and C. S. Lewis, whose tradition he carries on. The following is an edited interview with Rand at the fest by Imaginarium Illuminatus, Kathie Lundquist.

KL: Let’s start off with you telling us a bit about yourself and how came to be doing what you do.

RM: Our whole family enjoyed stories about other worlds—C. S. Lewis, the standard fantasy fare for pastors’ kids. I was the computer geek, and Robyn was the art and music guy. I liked that stuff, too, but Robyn was always frustrated with computers until the technology got to the point where he could use it to do the things he loved. In the beginning, we were just interested in making children’s software—something nobody was putting much effort into at the time. It was the early to mid-1980s, and I’d just had a child. So I said to Robyn, “We should make something like a children’s book, but one so intriguing adults would like it, too.” He started working on a page of this book, which we called The Manhole. In my mind, the idea was you would turn the page and do all these interactive and interesting things.

He drew the first page by hand, in black and white: a picture of a manhole and a fire hydrant. The technology then available made it possible for him to add another picture of the manhole, opened, and a vine coming out. At that point there were three things you could do: go down the manhole, up the vine, or over to the fire hydrant. But there was no way to turn the page. So we gave up on the idea of creating a computer book and decided to create a world. The rest of what we’ve done has simply evolved out of that.

Ironic that in the worlds you’ve created since then the book has played a central role as a gateway between the worlds.

The connection between books and other worlds is a natural one: books take us places, stories take us places. The book we base our beliefs on is one way God reveals Himself. It’s there in story form so that there are all these levels we can go to, we can understand. Read it once and get just a simple story. Read it again, and there’s a deeper meaning. Read it again and you see a slightly different shade of meaning. We live and breathe in this story.

Your experience here at Cornerstone Festival, if you have an interesting one, is going to become a story that you tell. If it’s a boring one, people really won’t want to hear it. But the mud, the late-night discussions, the music—it’s all part of the story you’re going to leave here and go tell. Because that’s how we talk: you get together with your friends. “Oh, I’ve got to tell you what happened. . . .” That’s the thing we remember. And, as I said before, the good storytellers who have mastered their craft can tell a story and reveal truth in it as well. Like Jesus, the ultimate storyteller. He told parables that, on the simplest level, people could appreciate. Some of his listeners might have turned aside and said, “He’s a good storyteller.” But those who went to a deeper level with the same stories would think, “Whoa. That hits me down deep.” Jesus changed peoples’ lives because He told stories that contained the truth.

What has been your experience as a Christian in a gaming world that’s filled with violence and gore and imagery like that?

It’s actually funny because we get to be the innovators and we don’t even have to try very hard. For many companies, the effort to produce better games has led to the thinking, “Our next game will allow the player to blow off even more limbs!” And that’s what a lot of people are looking for. It can be addicting, no doubt. But it’s awful easy to think out of that box: we don’t live in that world. Where we do live is in Spokane, so our contact with the industry is minimal. Our contact with anybody outside Spokane is minimal; we don’t get out much! But I have had some incredible opportunities to share my faith—if not in the games themselves, then in the interviews that have come about as a result of the success of Myst. And that alone has been really cool because it’s not like you have to force-feed anyone. They come and ask you what you believe and where all this stuff comes from. And the people who ask are longing for an answer.

How do you go about creating the incredible back story for your worlds? What kinds of sources did you draw upon?

The story part is as difficult as the world-building, and until you’ve done both, you can’t realize how much alike they are. Once you’ve got your seed planted, though, it begins to grow and it starts getting easier to imagine what might be going on in the background. Myst began as more of a surfacey game because there were real technological constraints. We designed the game to deal with those constraints, but as we did, we developed the story at the same time. We’d add a character, then we’d need to come up with a background or history for that character—a background that would never be seen in the game, one that existed to bring us into this world and understand why things happened the way they did. By the time Myst was complete, we had a story as well as a game. Now, rather than imply we did a perfect job, let me just add that there were a lot of things in Myst that did not necessarily flow as nicely as we would have liked. I think in Riven we had a chance to really plan the story ahead of time—the back story and the main story were both laid out in a much more defined way.

About this notion of creating a world: Did you really feel like you were creating Myst out of nothing? Or did you feel like you were somehow discovering it?

Boy, does that get philosophical! (Laughter.)

That’s kind of what we do around here.

I don’t feel like we created a world. I don’t even like to call it “creating” because that minimizes just what real Creation is to some extent.

It’s easy to take things we know in our world and throw in related and unrelated things that intrigue and interest us, things close enough to home that we can relate to them and different enough that they get our attention.

That seems to be the process of human creation, because it comes out of something which already existed. When we go through our creative process, we don’t go into a white room with a white sheet of paper and close the windows. That’s ridiculous. What we do is fill our minds with what other people have done. We put pictures on the walls. We look at magazines. We look at pictures of incredible places. We get inspired—and “inspired” seems to mean bringing something out of something else, not out of nothing.

That’s why Tolkien called the human creative process “subcreation.”

The whole idea of art and the creative process is something Robyn and I have struggled with. I’ve come up with my own definition of what art is, and frankly, I’m not sure everything I’ve done belongs in that category. We can become skilled at many things—writing, storytelling, photography, painting, making movies, cabinet-making—but that might be simply craftsmanship, which isn’t necessarily the same thing as art. Craft has to do with technique and talent and practice, but crossing over from craft to art involves mastering your craft to the point you can imbue it with truth.

The line between the two is not always clear. But as you get better at what you do, you’re able to communicate truth, and I don’t presume to think I’ve come very far down that road. I think with Myst and Riven, Robyn and I learned our craft very well, and in the books even attempted to weave in more truth, but it was a bit like shoehorning it in. C. S. Lewis was a master. His stories are awesome at so many levels, and they reveal truth to children and adults. Robyn and I struggled so much with technique, and that can take away from your ability to weave in the truth. But that’s what I strive for. That’s what a musician strives for: to master their instrument to the point where the notes on the page go away and they’re able to express something through the instrument without technique getting in the way. That’s when you go from craft to art.

Well, you must have been doing something right, judging from the success of those two games. Why do you think Myst and Riven have been so successful? Did you catch the wave or did you touch something deeper?

It’s a combination of things. I’d be silly to underestimate the power of the wave; we were at the right place at the right time. And Robyn and I aren’t gamers, not really. We just wanted to make up a game that older guys like us would like. One of the first questions we asked was, “Why do you have to die in a computer game? I get tired of starting over.” Of course, once you break that rule in the gaming world, nothing else is sacred. Another factor we began with was that we wanted to make a place that seemed like you were there. We wanted to take out the distractions: no on-screen menu, no clutter. Just you and the mouse. Very unintimidating. We also wanted to raise the bar as far as craft was concerned. Robyn’s an incredible artist and musician, and neither of us wanted to settle for a few great graphics and sound effects. We insisted every aspect of the game be done well. And we wanted a story to come through. It’s hard to tell a story when the player can do whatever they want, but that’s the whole point of building the world—to let people explore the way they wanted. It’s very difficult to build a story into a world like that and allow the people playing the game to understand the story as they freely explore.

To me that’s like life. As a Christian, I believe I can look at the entire world and it points to Christ. I’m always on the lookout for things that might be meaningful in terms of the larger story. But it’s up to me to do so, to notice the clues and follow them.

That’s an interesting example. We just had somebody call us last week and say, “Okay. So what do I do? I just got this game. I’m on the dock. And there are no instructions.” And it’s hard to explain to people what exactly you do. It is like life. It’s like Christianity. Because God says, “Just take a step.” And He’s waiting for you to take that step. So you take some steps and you start noticing Him. He rewards our steps in faith with things that strengthen our faith. That’s how you make a game like real life.

There’s clues all around you, and the Creator isn’t going to paint instructions in the sky. He says, “Take the first step and I’ll reward you; I’ll show you a little bit more of myself.” Creating an experience like this is difficult. Robyn and I had an ongoing debate about whether it was even possible to truly tell a story in an interactive environment. That’s one of the reasons Robyn went off to try his hand in a linear medium: he wants to make a movie because he has a story to tell. And there’s no better way to tell a story than in a nice linear medium like film. But if what we want to do is build worlds, I’m still convinced that interactive media have their own possibilities for experiencing a story. It’s one thing to have somebody tell you a story; it’s another when you experience a story for yourself.

Published online in Imaginarium, posted 1-26-01.
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