Welcome back to Franchise Festival, where we explore and discuss noteworthy franchises from the last several decades of gaming history. Older entries can be found here.
This week we’ll be peeling back the layers of mystery that surround PC game franchise Myst.
Myst was originally a passion project of two brothers – Robyn and Rand Miller – who had been making a living creating children’s computer games since 1988. When published in 1989, their first release, Manhole, was the earliest game to be published in the CD-ROM format. By the early ’90s, the Millers had gotten their fill of developing small-scale children’s games and sought to bring a greater level of ambition to their projects. Activision, which had published earlier games by the team, rejected the concept outright. With the backing of producer Sunsoft, in 1991 the Millers formed a small studio called Cyan Inc. and set about building a complex, story-driven world in which the player would have to make challenging choices.
The first game in the Myst series was influenced by a number of surprising sources – Middle Earth and Narnia were said to be inspirations for its unique world, while Jules Verne’s Mysterious Island informed the game’s aesthetic and central mystery. The Millers had not played many video games when they began work on Myst, so it isn’t surprising that their primary influences came from outside the gaming medium.
Myst‘s budget rapidly increased and, while Sunsoft was willing to support development, they had planned for a home console release rather than a PC title; they consequently settled for distribution rights only on home consoles, believing the PC market to be a dead end. As a result, Brøderbund gained the rights to distribute the game on computers. This would prove to be a significant miscalculation on the part of Sunsoft, as Myst would revolutionize the PC gaming market.
Cyan Inc. believed puzzles to be a compelling way to pull in and engage adult audiences, but did not want them to feel transparent or artificial. They decided to fold puzzles into the fabric of the world, seeking to carry out worldbuilding by way of their game’s core mechanic. This would have the benefit of breaking down the common segregation between plot and gameplay.
At the same time, programming limits were not on their side. The brothers had originally intended to create a dense, interconnected world but were stymied in carrying out this plan. To retain their desired sense of scale without pushing the limits of players’ hardware, Cyan Inc. decided to break the game’s world down into multiple ‘ages,’ each with some unifying theme. Some themes were based around materials – the Mechanical Age – while others, like the Selenitic Age (based around music), were oriented around concepts.
The plot concerns a man sucked into a book and trying to escape while navigating an ages-old conflict between several brothers; it was not the game’s focus, as Cyan Inc. was more interested in embracing complex world-building rather than a linear narrative. Myst was set in a world that was apparently empty, but contained numerous traces of human habitation. The player character would be animated by his attempt to escape, but the player would instead be animated by his or her attempt to discover more about this mysterious world.
With regard to its moment-to-moment gameplay, critics were rightly skeptical of the game when it was published. The player could not actively move around the island, but was only able to navigate by clicking on arrows to step from one static image to the next. Puzzles were extremely complex and relied on users to connect disparate, seemingly unrelated parts of their environment, so many players ended up unable to complete the game without recourse to a strategy guide. Much of the video game marketplace in 1993 was centered on action games, so a slow-paced puzzler was unlikely to captivate audiences.
Happily, Cyan Inc. was up to the challenge. They kept system requirements reasonably low, so most Macintosh owners in 1993 could easily install and play the game; the absence of autonomous movement and animations permitted the studio to develop the game as a series of about 2500 still images with backing, ambient audio. They specifically worked on the UI to be unintrusive, avoiding alienating players who were unfamiliar with standard game language. They also kept the player from getting discouraged through the absence of fail states, inventory management or reflex-oriented gameplay.
Due to a variety of key development decisions, Myst launched to acclaim in 1993. It was narrowly preceded by The 7th Guest and followed by Doom. The early 1990s were a watershed moment in the medium more generally, but particularly in the world of PC gaming. After becoming a critical and commercial success in its initial release on Macintosh computers, Myst would go on to be published repeatedly over the following decades – its original version was ported to the Sega Saturn, Sony PlayStation, 3DO, Windows PCs, Atari Jaguar, and Phillips CD-i. In 2000, two new versions were released on PC – Myst: Masterpiece Edition was a faithful remaster of the original 1993 game with significantly enhanced visuals and audio while realMyst was an enhanced edition that permitted real-time navigation throughout the game’s environment; the latter attracted criticism from the game’s original creators (not responsible for the port), and was difficult to run on contemporary hardware. Versions were designed specifically for the PlayStation Portable platform in 2005 – released in 2006 in Europe/Japan and 2008 in the United States – and the Nintendo DS in 2007. Both featured content not playable in the game’s original 1993 release, but neither was particularly effective in translating the magic to a later age.
Following the success of Myst, a sequel was virtually inevitable. Published on 5 CDs (later a single DVD) in the Fall of 1997, Riven was an immediate hit as well. There was no way that it could duplicate the series’ debut, but it proved that Cyan Inc. had larger ambitions than could be held in a single puzzle game.
Mechanically, Riven is functionally identical to its predecessor. Players still navigate between still images, solving puzzles that are more complex than those found in Myst. Like the first game, these still images are computer-generated landscapes originally produced as grayscale topographical maps before textures – informed largely by the developers’ visit to Santa Fe – were overlaid upon them.
What had changed was the scale. Myst had been made on a budget of less than $300,000. Riven, on the other hand, was developed with a budget ten times that size. Myst‘s success had brought with it a steady stream of income and publisher Brøderbund was eager to invest in an even more ambitious follow-up. Consequently, Cyan Inc. expanded significantly and was able to produce a game world with much more complex textures and a larger environment than the Millers had imagined in 1992.
Tonally, the Riven is surprisingly distinct from Myst. In a Gameological article from 2014, John Teti offered an explanation of how Riven achieves its own strong sense of identity rather than becoming beholden to its predecessor:
Riven is almost as lonely as Myst, and its empty spaces are used to largely the same effect. Yet the sequel differs in one important respect: Riven lets you see the edges of its emptiness. Instead of the choppy, book-bound dialogues of the original, Riven features a handful of tantalizing encounters with other human beings in the flesh.
While animated encounters with living beings, hostile or friendly, do not define Riven, their limited presence hints at a greater sense of community and danger than the empty Myst could conceivably produce. This brought a more palpable eerie element to the landscape’s quiet atmosphere, and likely led to a more emotional experience rather than the colder, logical journey of the series’ first game.
With regard to plot, the game builds on mythology and narrative established not only in Myst, but also in a supplemental physical volume, The Book of Atrus (1995). The player takes on the role of the same unnamed character from Myst and plays out a fairly standard ‘damsel rescue’ narrative in which he or she works to save Catherine, the wife of the series’ protagonist Atrus, from Atrus’ sinister father. Of course, this involves navigating through the landscape of a decaying Age – unlike Myst, Riven is set entirely within a single Age rather than alternating between separate ones.
Riven marked the end of the game development partnership between brothers Robyn and Rand Miller; Rand remained at Cyan Inc. while Robyn went on to found his own studio. Brøderbund would also go on to sell publication rights for the Myst property to Mattel, which then sold the rights to Ubisoft. It seems rather surprising that this would occur after such a successful release, but much of it comes down to a combination of artistic ambition and corporate finances – the Millers feared that they would become too enmeshed in the Myst mythology, unable to work on new and exciting pieces of interactive art, while Brøderbund likely wanted to strike while the iron was hot, making a profit after dropping so much money into the franchise.
Myst III: Exile (2001)
After Robyn Miller split from Cyan Inc., development responsibilities for the next title in the franchise were shifted to Presto Studios, a small PC outfit that had received acclaim for its Journeyman Project series. Though the original team was not directly involved with its creation, Myst III would remain indebted to their design choices.
Aesthetically and mechanically, little changed about the game series. The player again navigates through a mysterious, largely empty environment solving puzzles. The environment, like Riven, is more technically impressive than what came before. The most significant change to the franchise’s formula hinges on player input – rather than clicking through entirely static screens, the player can now look around in 360 degrees at each stop in his or her adventure. Movement is still locked to specific spaces in the world – much like GoogleMaps Streetview feature works in the 2010s – but the ability to look around is a welcome addition.
The game’s music underwent an extensive evolution from Riven. In a Gamasutra article outlining his own work on the game’s soundtrack, composer Jack Wall explained the major decisions he made in reshaping the series’ aural surroundings. In particular, he broadened out his palette from a single synthesizer (which had been used by Robyn Miller in composing music for Myst and Riven) to orchestras and choirs. He also brought more melody to the game, deciding to overturn the franchise’s earlier philosophy of simply offering an atmospheric backdrop for puzzles.
Animated cutscenes are now a more significant element of the game’s toolset as well. When the player finally constructs a path to their goal in the Age of Amateria, for example, he or she is rewarded with both a musical sting and an animated cutscene depicting a first-person perspective ride on a roller-coaster through the environment he or she had formerly navigated by foot.
With regard to its plot, the mythology of the series was rapidly expanding. An entire ancient civilization, the D’ni, became the focus of the game’s narrative. The player retains the same role from previous games, Atrus and Catherine reappear, and a new world designed by Atrus as a home for the remnants of the D’ni is introduced. Progress is no longer a surprise, with the player stumbling through new environments and puzzles until the credits rolled, but is instead signposted to players along the way. Plot was no longer confined largely to the opening and conclusion, but instead doled out as the player progressed.
Unfortunately, Myst III: Exile proved to be the first mediocre entry in the series. Initial reception was positive, but over time the game has been regarded as a bit simpler and less effective than its predecessors. As much of its immediate acclaim was based upon its visual design, the veneer simply wore off as the years went by. Additionally, it did not iterate substantially on what Cyan Inc. had already established in Myst and Riven, so it proved less novel. More importantly, design philosophies were beginning to shift in the early 2000s as players and critics began to be more interested in complex cinematic narratives. Conspicuously, the game has never been re-released on new platforms.
Myst IV: Revelation (2004)
Ubisoft again took the reigns in publication of the next title in the Myst series, though it also took on a direct development role this time around; Presto Studios had been shuttered in 2002, so an internal Ubisoft group called Team Revelation developed the game. It was released simultaneously on Mac and Windows PCs, along with the Xbox home console.
The narrative takes an even more prominent role, as it returns to tie up the plot introduced in the series’ first game. The player is tasked with visiting Atrus’ two sons, each of whom had been sealed away, and discovering whether they had reformed from their previously sinister ways. Atrus’ daughter also plays a significant part in the game’s story, largely as a captive to be rescued but possibly, depending upon the player’s choices, an enemy.
Like previous entries, the player cannot move around within the game world, but the free-looking feature from Myst III returns. Realtime 3D effects have been added to the world to enhance the visual detail, offering even more immersion when overlaid upon the characteristic pre-rendered backdrops. Water ripples, flames dance, and even lens flares appear on screen. The large budget for the game was not only evident in its visuals, however – the soundtrack, too, suggests a major studio production. Jack Wall returned as the composer, basing his score on Eastern European musical influences. Surprisingly, Peter Gabriel contributed a song to the game’s soundtrack and performed the role of a narrator.
Interestingly, an earlier prototype of the game was made before being scrapped entirely and replaced with Revelation. The original version of Myst IV had been spent two years in production by a small studio called DreamForge before Ubisoft had acquired the rights. This early version featured fully explorable environments rendered in real time, a feature that would not make it into the final retail release of Myst IV: Revelation.
The game performed well, if less so than earlier entries, and the critical reception was positive. In general, it was seen as a refinement of what had come before. In many ways it constituted an enhancement, retaining the positive qualities of the franchise while integrating significantly more immersive animated visuals.
Myst V: End of Ages (2005)
Fans would have to wait no more than a year after Revelation to pick up the final installment in the Myst saga. It was developed by Cyan Inc., returning to the main series for the first time since 1997’s Riven, though still published by Ubisoft.
In keeping with contemporary trends in game design during the mid-2000s, narrative and player choice took on greater emphasis. Cyan Inc. believed that players would want to feel that they had concluded the series on their own terms, and so the fate of various characters is determined by the player’s actions throughout the game.
While it played the role of concluding the series that came before, Myst V actually pushed the visuals and mechanics forward in a few significant ways. Visually, the game entirely abandoned static pre-rendered backgrounds in favor of 3D environments rendered in realtime. This permitted full exploration along the lines of what could be experienced in other 3D first-person games from the 2000s without compromising the attention to detail that Cyan Inc. had become famous for with Myst and Riven. Characters, too, were fully rendered as 3D polygonal figures rather than pre-recorded live actors set against green screens. To maintain the intimacy of live actors, video of the voice actors’ faces were recorded as they spoke their characters’ lines and then mapped onto the polygonal faces as textures.
Mechanically, puzzles remained the primary way of interacting with the world and affecting change, but the player had access to a small toolset. Four stone tablets are collected early in the game and present reliable ways to repeatedly interact with the environment in unique ways. Players use the tablets to alter weather and control creatures, among other skills. This allows an evolution in the scope of puzzles, as they no longer rely on the player moving levers, solving riddles or the like – environmental manipulation enhances the possibilities dramatically.
Reception to the game was overwhelmingly positive, and some critics lauded it as the best entry in the series. While it appealed to new fans and people interested in innovation with its evolution of puzzle design and visuals, it also kept long-term fans invested by concluding the narrative in a satisfying fashion and even offering optional control schemes inspired by earlier entries rather than the free-movement finally integrated through the use of realtime environmental rendering. Though no entry had received less than generally positive reception, the series was lucky to end on a particularly high note.
Though one might assume that the Myst franchise is tied inextricably to puzzle gameplay, quite a few spin-offs were created that involved little to no puzzle-solving. In particular, a series of novels dramatically expanded the series’ mythology between the first three entries. The first book, The Book of Atrus, was published in 1995 and filled in the backstory of the game world along with the character of Atrus, who played a major role throughout the series. The second book, The Book of Ti’ana, was published in 1996 and functioned as a prequel to the Myst universe, detailing the decline and fall of the D’ni civilization. The third book, The Book of D’ni, was published shortly after the release of Riven in 1997 and serves as bridge between the plots of the second and third game. All books had the participation of Robyn and Rand Miller, but none were particularly well-received; it was generally thought that the writing and plot, which were well-suited to brief moments in a game context, suffered when they took center-stage.
In addition to these supplemental texts, a PC game was released between Myst III and Myst IV called Uru: Ages Beyond Myst. Since the release of Riven, Cyan Inc. had been working on a radical reinterpretation of the franchise that emphasized multiplayer elements. Publisher Ubisoft insisted upon splitting the project into single-player and multiplayer components, however, and the single-player portion was released in 2004 as Uru: Ages Beyond Myst.
It differs significantly from its the main series; while it still focuses on puzzles and the history of the D’ni culture, the player takes on the role of an avatar he or she creates and solves environmental puzzles from a third-person perspective. It is not primarily set in the fictional worlds that characterized the main series, but rather in caverns beneath New Mexico. The environment is manipulated using the Havok physics engine, with small objects being able to be shifted around through kicks or pushes from the player. Uru, in fact, marks the first time in the series that the environment is rendered realtime in 3D rather than using pre-rendered background images.
Uru: Ages Beyond Myst performed very poorly and led to a rolling series of financial difficulties for Cyan Inc. Staff would go on to be laid off and rehired with frequency, and that instability characterized the multiplayer portion of Uru as well. This MMOG component, with a working title of Uru Live, was cancelled due to the poor performance of its single-player portion and much of its content was re-purposed into expansion packs for Uru: Ages Beyond Myst and areas in Myst V: End of Ages.
Surprisingly, the GameTap online games distribution service (run by Turner Broadcasting!) released Myst Online: Uru Live in 2007. This online game maintained the original design and was supported by Cyan Inc., which added content to the persistent online world over the following year. Unfortunately, GameTap cancelled the game in 2008 due to low subscription numbers; reception had been more positive than it had been for the single-player component, but a dearth of activities and a reliance on familiarity with the franchise kept it from achieving mainstream success. In keeping with their commitment to fans over the years, the developers released a free version in 2010 and have kept up with server maintenance at no charge to players.
What has your experience of the Myst series been? Have you played any or all of the games? Are you one of the dedicated faithful still populating Cyan Inc.’s Uru Live servers? Or perhaps you were driven away by the maddening puzzle design of the original title and never returned? Whatever the case, please discuss Myst in the comment below!