Explore fantastical worlds in search of an enigmatic scholar.
PC Release: September 24, 1993
By Ian Coppock and Branson Roskelley
February was a bleak month in terms of recommendable video games. We lurched back and forth between half-baked platformers and woeful attempts at storytelling. In the interest of avoiding both of those things, I’ve co-opted my best friend and together we’re reviewing one of the most prestigious video game sagas of all time: Myst.
Myst was the breakout video game by brothers Rand and Robyn Miller. It received critical acclaim upon release and remained PC gamedom’s top-selling title until The Sims in 2002. Few video games hold such a record for so long, and the Myst series retains a large, loyal following even 23 years after its debut. In an era where female gamers were virtually unheard of, 33% of its initial audience comprised women.
In the Myst universe, players assume the role of “the Stranger” and travel to a diverse palette of worlds. These worlds, reached by the mystical technology of Linking Books, represent the creativity of their Writers. Myst Island, the game’s primary setting, is one such world, and where the Stranger beings their journey.
The Stranger has arrived to Myst in search of its primary occupant, a Linking Book Writer named Atrus, but he’s nowhere to be found. Not long after arriving, you also find the island’s library in disarray, with two damaged Linking Books in the main chamber. Something seems amiss, and not just because of the symbols scrawled on the books or the conspicuous absence of Myst’s inhabitants.
Myst is a first-person adventure game presented in a point-and-click format. The meat of the game is a series of puzzles that are challenging… to the point of being brutal. These puzzles stand between you and figuring out what’s going on around here. Clicking around the island and sorting out each conundrum is the only way to proceed.
Before long, the Stranger figures out that the two damaged books in the library contain messages from whatever worlds they contain, and only finding the books’ missing pages will make their communications clear. The pages have been scattered all over the island for you to find, but it’s not clear if either of the books’ inhabitants are Atrus.
Finding the pages will also require linking to worlds beyond Myst. Players will find books linking to four additional worlds, or Ages, each with their own environments and challenges. Most worlds only contain a single, massive puzzle with many moving parts, whereas the puzzles in the island hub are mostly unconnected.
As is implied with the title card we used for this review, we didn’t play the original version of Myst. There are several remastered versions of the game available on Steam, but realMyst: Remastered Edition released in 2014 is by far the best. The realMyst version also allows players to move about on their own without being constricted to a point-and-click format, which suited me just fine.
realMyst also contains some upgrades to the game’s visuals, mostly in the form of brighter colors. Everything else in the game has remained true to form, from the original sound effects to the gorgeous soundtrack composed by Robyn Miller. Purists need not worry about missing out any original content. The remastered version also apparently adds a bonus Age, which I missed in my playthrough.
Though Myst‘s gameplay has received some nice upgrades, the puzzles are exceptionally difficult. Were it not for the game’s unique premise and its beautiful visuals, we’re not sure it would’ve caught on as much as it did with puzzles this hard. And we’re not talking about something akin to a difficult Test Chamber; I’m talking about puzzles that run on something next to nonsense. These are the old-school type of adventure puzzles that demand remembering lots of sequences and writing reams of stuff down. A good puzzle runs on simple rules but can still be a challenge. A mediocre or bad puzzle is challenging because of the complexity of its rules.
From writing down book symbols that apply to an obscure machine on the other side of the island, to timing puzzles that the game did not tell us require timing, anyone who beats Myst without a walkthrough deserves the highest accolades. Myst forces its players to endure a lot of unnecessary frustration, and the game also pads out its playtime because of the sheer amount of pointing and clicking back and forth around the island. The thrill of solving a puzzle is unfortunately outweighed by the built-up frustration that goes into figuring out its obscure rules.
Myst’s puzzles are much more difficult to discern than its narrative, one of the game’s biggest saving graces. Myst prefers to present its story in a show-not-tell format, and most of it is found in journal entries scattered around the island. We explore the life and times of Atrus, and the island’s other inhabitants, through written down memories rather than actual conversations. A few characters make in-game appearances toward the end of the game.
The stories contained in these journal entries smack of high fantasy despite the game going for a steampunk-esque aesthetic. They’re surprisingly immersive to read, much more so than an Elder Scrolls book, or Dead Space‘s holo-logs. Gone are the days when video games used a plethora of journal entries to reinforce the narrative. Imagine if mainline studios today had the audacity to ask their audience to read something. I personally wouldn’t mind putting James Joyce into this year’s Call of Duty, but Activision’s marketing department might disagree. Their loss.
Myst didn’t get everything right. It missed the mark on the puzzle gameplay that would go on to inform the entire series. But everything else about it has aged surprisingly gracefully. The big, beautiful worlds it contains would go on to inspire scores of other games, and its blend of steampunk and high fantasy remains novel even to this day.
Though the narrative is restricted mostly to journal entries, that doesn’t stop the game from touching on some deep themes. It becomes evident that Atrus feels remorse for a major disaster long in the past, and came to this island to embark upon some sort of reconciliation. That doesn’t stop him from having some fun; his journal entries alternate between somber recollections of times past and joyous thrill rides in other Ages. It demonstrates some character-building techniques that were, again, a rarity in the game’s day.
Because Myst was built as a point-and-click games, the imagery the game contains was cutting-edge in its day and remains impressive now. The remake added a few colors and atmospheric effects. What few character appearances there are in the game were live-action shots transposed onto the game’s backgrounds. The voice acting could use a little work, but legend has it that Rand Miller found no one else to play his title character and decided to do it himself.
As we’ve said throughout this review, Myst’s puzzles are not for the faint-of-heart and we doubt you’ll be able to solve them without a walkthrough. We say that only because everyone we’ve talked to who played this game invariably lost their patience with it after the upteenth hour spent pointing and clicking in search of obscure solutions. But we still recommend the game on the merits of its artwork and heartfelt exposition. The worlds you travel to are fun to explore as well, even if their puzzles require you to have a walkthrough open in another window.
Still, give them a shot without a walkthrough if you’re feeling adventurous and have time to kill. Just don’t feel bad if you need one to tell you that the lighthouse switches have an invisible timer and you need to have the runes on the other side of the island in a hitherto unknown order first.
Seriously, don’t feel bad.
You can buy realMyst: Masterpiece Edition here.
Thank you for reading! My next review will be posted in a few days. You can follow Art as Games on Twitter @IanLayneCoppock, or friend me at username Art as Games on Steam. You can also find Branson on Twitter @MrRoskelley, and at his website, bransonroskelley.com.
Feel free to leave a comment or email me at firstname.lastname@example.org with a game that you’d like to see reviewed, though bear in mind that I only review PC games.