Myst — A RetRose Tinted Review
A quick note: I have made my way through the RealMyst release (a fully-rendered, free-moving version of Myst, complete with a hint system!), but have long since forgotten all the solutions to basic puzzles. No one’s perfect. I’m going back into Myst, as I remember it, as blind as I can.
Recall — “Feel free to explore at your leisure.”
Myst was always a weird one when I was growing up. It was one of the few, if not the only, game that my Mom would call her own. Its graphics, its world, its ambience and soundscape were enrapturing to me, and I would often pull it up alongside my other childhood games. Every time, the beautiful introduction movie, a story-setting voiceover I had no mind for at the time, and ultimately, the allure of the book of Myst, laying there at the end of the movie. And every time, I would open it, whisk myself away to the Island of Myst. Every time, I would blunder around the island in childlike wonder, pulling levers, finding ladders, exploring buildings, swirling paintings, discovering secret passages, and futzing around with the planetarium. And for whatever reason, that appealed to me. I couldn’t make any discernable progress, but I distinctly remember not caring one bit. The world was beautiful. The music, when it would appear, was transfixing. The mystery was there, but did not demand to be solved. I simply remember exploring this one island, and being content with that.
Of course, I’d see my mother in some completely foreign space at different times. A giant forest? Underwater? I guess I hadn’t discovered those places yet.
Stumbling through the Island of Myst felt like a small slice of the world that I could just explore. Some kids found that sense of exploration in their own backyards, their neighborhoods, wherever. But this was an alternative on those dreary or lazy days: a sense of discovery and wonder, no matter how many times I’d traversed the island. It felt liberating in its own small way. Truly, this was a surrealistic adventure that, for a time, would become my world. And no, I didn’t know what “surrealistic” was, but it sounded cool.
There was one thing that has always stood out to me, whether recalling my childhood with Myst or my more recent attempts to actually playing it: the atmosphere. There is no threat, no timer, just you, alone in this beautifully-rendered world, and its beautiful soundscape. It was peace given form. The perfect atmosphere to engross you, no matter if you intended to solve the island’s mysteries or simply explore it. And that sensation has held on to this day.
Revisit — An Ending Not Yet Written
Due to the fact that the original CD-ROM for Myst is from 1993 and I have no idea where my family’s copy ended up, I’ve used the next best thing: Myst: Masterpiece Edition. Off the bat, there was one small hiccup: not IMMEDIATELY starting the intro cutscene like it would in the old days. Now I have to tell the computer that I want to start a new game before it plays the title sequence. Unacceptable, but I persevere.
But damn, that intro cutscene still holds up. The music, the mystery, the simple imagery over the opening credits…I was still excited as ever to watch that book fall through the starry expanse, even in graphics pushing thirty-years old, even on a monitor (a 55-inch TV screen, specifically) that should never have shown that level of detail on it. But I felt myself being engrossed all over again.
Exploring the island came naturally, as it always has been. Despite, again, these graphics being the better part of thirty years old, despite the fact that the game is largely a series of still images or simple animations, the world of Myst feels alive. But this time, my old eyes finally caught sight of the note explaining my first goal. And it was one breadcrumb to the next, filling in the gaps with memories of the island: I knew I could manipulate the library, both in passage and rotation, and that rotation was helpful somehow. My old gamer brain and my young explorer brain did a Predator-style hand clasp, and I turned the tower towards landmarks, remembered that some library books were usable and readable…and promptly hit a wall.
But in that wall, I truly came to realize and appreciate Myst’s strengths, especially on the island: scope. While on the island, your goal, loosely set before you by a prerecorded message, is to find the other linking books to other Ages, or locations. The island of Myst is detailed, yes, but is still small and manageable. If you focus on one task, one puzzle, one mystery at a time, then things begin to line up. Here’s my example: I was trying to find a way to interact with the giant gear near the docks. I pointed the tower towards it, got the clue from within the tower, and thought I knew EXACTLY what to do with it. Turns out, I was wrong. 2, 2, 1 was NOT a weird translation of month, day, and year, but a far, far simpler code that I could use by plugging in the other part of the clue somewhere else on the island. The island and its myriad clues are only tied to a certain number of puzzles and places. Doing a general lap around will reveal another way to use the clues you have. It is challenging to figure out how to use the clues, but players are not overwhelmed with options.
The same holds true in the linked worlds and locations: when you arrive, there is no way back. Players essentially have to “complete” a world to find their way back to Myst Island, locking them into a new space with new puzzles to solve. All the information they need to complete a world is there; nothing is dependent on writing down and transferring information from Myst Island to a new world. Every world and its mysteries is self-contained mechanically, and only connected narratively.
Speaking on those puzzles, Myst is a surprisingly tactile experience. Whether writing down images to try and reference elsewhere on the island or Age, pulling levers for just a moment longer than thought necessary, or feeling a fool for forgetting to turn off the lights in a planetarium (guilty!), the experience finds new ways to challenge preconceived notions of how the game works.
Additionally, I never appreciated the soundscape as much as I do now, whether the simple ambience of nature around the island or foreboding musical cues as you tread important locations. Perhaps my new favorite treat was the musical cue of a certain location I’d explored beginning to play when I completed a puzzle connected to it. The cues, the locations, the dueling personalities of the brothers you strive to free, all is on full display within the soundtrack. It works wonders for the immersion, and knows just as well when to fade out and leave you with silence.
I write all of this now only partway through my first world, the Mechanical Age, but am confident in everything I’ve noted, everything I’ve experience so far, leading me to one conclusion, many decades too late: all of this is why Myst is so enduring. It is beautiful, visually and audibly. It is mysterious, beckoning you further with its trace story, but not requiring you to care one iota for it. It is challenging, demanding that you think critically about the information you’re given and how to apply it. But it is manageable, keeping its puzzles centralized to the area you find it in. This is an accessible puzzle game from a time when puzzle games were masquerading as permadeath adventure games. It is relaxing as much as it is racking. It is something that everyone, from a kid still figuring out what games are, to his adult mother looking to unwind, to anyone in-between, can find something to love within.
All to say, even after all this time Myst holds up. I’m excited to try and keep going with nothing but a pen, paper, and what few wits I have remaining to get me through.