A few years ago, I was talking to a friend of mine who lives out in California. She had just had a date with her now-fiancé at a virtual reality park out her way. We got to talking about how Virtual Reality games are now actually becoming a thing and what video game worlds we would love to see in VR. One that we both immediately agreed that we would love to see: we would love to actually have the experience of traveling to the Island of Myst.
Fast forward to the present. I got home from work a few days ago to find a message waiting from me. It was from that friend. It was just a link. I clicked it, and low and behold, Cyan has announced a VR remake of the original Myst. My friend, her fiancé, and I then proceeded to discuss whose organs we would need to sell on the black market in order to be able to afford a good VR set up in order to experience this.
It may seem odd that a point and click adventure game from almost thirty years ago would engender such passion. Looking at it now, Myst doesn’t seem all that impressive. And yet, Myst still has an excited and devoted fanbase. There is still a regular Myst convention in Spokane, Washington, and while a new game within the series hasn’t come out since 2010, the rereleases are still regularly purchased, and the fandom goes wild for spiritual successors like Obduction, released in 2017. While not as large or as vocal as some other fandoms, Myst fans are no less passionate. What is it about these games that still continue to energize their fanbase? I feel that in order to answer that question, we have to go back in time.
Myst: Early Beginnings
I first experienced Myst back around 1994, back around when I was in the second grade. The purchase of this game was unusual for numerous reasons. Most of the games we got at the time were either educational things my mom found for us, gifts from a family friend or games that my parents let my siblings and I pick out of bargain bins. Very rarely did we get a top of the line game right off the bat.
The other incredibly unusual thing about us getting Myst is that my mom picked it up to play it herself. Neither of my parents have ever been gamers. Back in the ’80s and ’90s, they were too busy with work and attempting to raise three kids to really get into video games. The most mom usually got into computer games was playing endless rounds of Solitaire while waiting for our dial-up internet connection to load. So the fact that she saw this game and immediately proceeded to buy it, is something that had never happened before.
When we got the game working, there were two things that jumped out at me. The first was that this was a really good-looking game (at the time). I am not one of those people who are obsessed with graphics in video games. While graphics can make a video game experience better, graphics, in and of themselves, do not improve how well a game feels. But, back in the ’90s, when all of my friends were playing their Sega Genesis and their Super Nintendos, it was amazing for me to have something that looked far better than anything any of those consoles could put out. And for a game that focuses as much on the atmosphere as Myst does, that certainly helps.
When I initially booted up the game, I had no idea what was going on. The game opens with a cutscene, of a man falling through a rip in the sky. He touches a book and disappears. The book falls through space, backed by some narration. The book lands in front of the player. We pick it up. There’s a pretty moving picture of some island. We boop the picture and suddenly we are on the island. There is no point in the manual that gives you a backstory. The game doesn’t really give you a direction. You are here, and it is now up to you to figure out a direction.
I loved it. This was the game that really introduced me to the idea of storytelling in video games and the different ways it can be accomplished. While, yes, there were plenty of story driven games with rich backstory before this, but I had not really played any of them at that point. Look at most of the Mario games at that point: Bowser is a jerk who kidnaps a Princess. You chase him down, beat him up, and save the day. It’s spelled out pretty black and white in the manual.
In Myst, you have no idea what is going on. You are not told who the guy falling in the beginning is, you are not told who you are, you are not told how the books work, you are not told where this island is, nor are you immediately given an end goal. You wander, investigating your surroundings until you find something. Perhaps it is the Forechamber located on the dock, with its mysterious bubbling cauldron (or is it a cauldron?). Maybe it’s the letter outside the Planetarium, addressed to someone named Catherine. Or perhaps the first thing you stumble upon is one of the intact journals in the library full of burned books. In any case, each of these little things winds up being a piece of the greater mystery of the game.
While there ends up being a core set of goals in Myst (finding Blue and Red pages for their respective books), it isn’t the only thing going on. Throughout the game, you travel to other worlds through books, which is perhaps the greatest literal depiction of a metaphor ever. But much like the main Myst Island, these other worlds are abandoned. There is evidence that there used to be inhabitants, but no one is around anymore. To borrow a phrase that author Douglas Adams used to describe the games, you are greeted with a “beautiful void.”
There’s an old adage in storytelling: show, don’t tell. Myst goes about this in such a unique way. There is almost no dialogue. Most of the lore that you get in-game is in the form of old journals you find in one location. These journals describe the various Ages that you do get to travel to, in the form of a text dump. But with one or two notable exceptions, these journals are not required to solve any of the puzzles in the game. They are almost entirely optional. You can get through pretty much the whole game without ever reading them. The journals tell you what the alternate worlds used to be like. When you get there and see how desolate they have become, it is up to you, the player, to draw conclusions based on what you observe.
The Importance of Myst
I am not exaggerating when I say that Myst was one of the most important gaming experiences in my life. It showed me that storytelling in video games can be done in such a way that the player isn’t spoon-fed the plot. It can be something that the player has to look for, to dig for, to seek, something that the player wants to find.
Myst played a huge role in shaping what I like in video games. The main reason I got Metroid Prime is not that I’m good at first-person shooters. I’m not. I’m terrible at them. But I watched some of a playthrough of that game and thought there were snippets of Myst DNA in this game. Between the puzzle-solving and the various pieces of data you can find, it felt more like a sci-fi take on Myst which just happened to have elements where you can shoot things.
There are piles of other games where I feel like I would have never enjoyed them without Myst‘ influence. And I know I’m not the only one who Myst left a huge impact on.
Myst left a big impact on a lot of gamers, storytellers, and content creators out there. We all continue to love it to this day. But you don’t have to take my word for it. While we have no release date on the remake yet, realMyst is currently available on Steam. While some of the puzzles haven’t aged particularly well, it is still a cool and haunting experience. The sequels, likewise, are available on Steam, as is Obduction, another fine game by Cyan Worlds. I thoroughly recommend them. Maybe you, too, will be inspired.
And remember, the ending has not yet been written.