The Ages of Myst
Love it or hate it, you cannot deny Myst's place in gaming history.
The Myst franchise started back in 1993, when a small company called Cyan released one of the first CD-Rom games. Cyan was founded by two brothers, Robyn and Rand Miller, who up until then they had only made a couple of adventure games aimed at children. The name "Myst" was derived from Jules Verne's 'Mysterious Island', which Robyn had been reading at the time. Myst took two years to develop and went on to become one of the biggest selling computer games of all time. It has since been re-released twice, has spawned two sequels, four books, a television mini-series (to be released next year) and generated over two hundred and fifty million dollars in revenue. So what made such a simple game have such enduring and remarkable success? Myst (1993) The premise of the adventure is brilliantly simple. A linking book is presented which shows a distant isolated island. By touching the book you are transported to this world, marooned and with no means of returning. You begin to explore and start to uncover the secrets of Myst. After some searching you come across a library that becomes the central location for the story. In the library are two books that house the trapped sons of Atrus, who is the creator of Myst. These sons, Achenar and Sirrius (played by Robyn and Rand Miller the developers), each tell you a different tale and try to convince you of the others misdeeds. In order to uncover the secrets of Myst you must travel to the other ages and bring back pages of these books, the pieces of the puzzle, which will unlock more of the story. Ultimately leaving you to make the final decision. What Myst did very well was create a sense of place. It was often said that it was like a vacation on your desktop because the world you wandered around seemed somehow very real. "When we did Myst we wanted it to be a very rich environment and a very detailed environment." Robyn Miller. It also had a very broad appeal thanks to elegantly simple interface and its intelligence. The premise of the game world conjures up some very classic, dare I say romantic notions no doubt appealing to the fairer sex. Around a third of the seven million copies sold were attributed to women. The creator, Atrus, has learned "the Art" whereby what he writes down from his imagination becomes reality. The Ages of Myst are thus born, only to have the power misused, but by whom? The game now looks very dated, the images, and particularly the quicktime movies, have poor resolution. The structure of the game though is very well thought out. From the central island you journey out to the ages, thus breaking the different puzzles into different locales giving you a clear idea of what must be solved. Once the puzzles are solved you link back to the library where the story is revealed. This leaves you free to solve the different sections in any order, adding to the games openness. The game caps it all off with a good ending to the story, but a poor end sequence. Gamers eager for more had to wait five years for their appetites to be satisfied. Riven (1997) The phenomenal success of Myst gave Cyan a huge amount of financial freedom for their next project. Without the demands of having to get a sequel out quickly they were able to take their time and create a worthy successor. The brothers also achieved a certain amount of fame unusual to a game developer, earning the nineties badge of cool by appearing in a "Gap" advert. The company started work on Riven at their headquarters, which also happened to be the sound designer's (Chris Brandkamp) garage. They moved temporarily into a local strip mall and began building an office in the scenic and tranquil countryside of Spokane Washington, which no doubt had a bearing on the mood of Riven. "We had brought on a number of people onto the Riven team and then nobody else could come on because we were out of space." Robyn Miller "At that point in time though we started building the office. Here we were able to build a real building the same time we're building these virtual buildings". Rand Miller. One of the new members of the team was an artist called Richard Vander Wende. Having approached the brothers at a show he showed them some design sketches that they found to be "phenomenal". They learned that he had worked with ILM and Disney and was part of the team that worked on Aladdin. He was brought on board for Riven and became a very influential voice toward the design of the world. "He ended up giving Riven something that we could have never given it", "after he came he viewed the whole project with a flavour that was a bit more edgy and strange and odd. It wouldn't have been as cool if he hadn't been around." Robyn Miller. The story of Riven follows on directly from Myst, the weak end-game sequence of the original leads almost directly into the intriguing introduction of Riven. Once more you must travel through a linking book and journey to another age. Atrus asks you to try and rescue his wife Catherine and stop a man named Gehn. Like Myst, Riven is flawed and has become unstable. Atrus has to stay at his desk to try and hold the world together with his writing while you journey out there armed with a linking book that will imprison Gehn. Once there you learn that Gehn is an oppressive dictator, prone to sacrificing his inhabitants to a revered creature of the sea called a Wherk. As you explore you must solve numerous puzzles in order to find Gehn and figure out a way of signalling Atrus to escape. You are free to journey almost anywhere in Riven right from the beginning. The different sections are all linked together through fun "Mag Levs" that are a joy to behold. The puzzles themselves are cleverly woven into the environment. In order to solve them you must come to understand the culture and technology of the D'Ni people. For example in one island you come across a small toy that helps you understand and decipher the numbering system that the D'ni use. The team also strove to make the world and its elements look weathered and lived in. A lot of work went into ageing the buildings, the objects and the scenery to get away from the kind of plastic look that many computer images convey. Taking a trip to Santa Fe they got textures from photos of walls, doors and trees which again added that extra level of realism to the images and in turn the game world. With its grand scope also came a tremendous burden on the player to keep track of it all. Riven is hard, very hard. Some of the puzzles involve elements spread throughout the games islands. Others could be very complex to figure out in their own right and required a lot of thought. While Myst moved the player to smaller isolated locales Riven gave the player much more freedom but in turn meant that you were sometimes unsure of what you were meant to be doing. Even though the puzzles were hard there was always a clear logical solution waiting to be found. Often it just required you to stop and look around for clues in the environment, or to play around with pen and paper until you figured it out. With the same simple interface taken from the original, which had no inventory system, it did avoid the pitfall of trying every object with each other though. Despite some flaws Riven is a masterpiece. Combining gorgeous pre-rendered graphics, clever game design, enriching environmental sounds with a haunting soundtrack. Even today its graphical beauty and depth is unsurpassed. It was rightly nominated in 1998 for three BAFTA interactive entertainment awards for design, moving images and sound. "The best feeling of all comes at the very end when you finally get to see, how all those things that you've designed, all the complexity that you've put into this environment and just hoped would work, it comes together and it works." Robyn Miller. realMyst (2000) The pressure to get Riven finished put a tremendous amount of strain between the two brothers at the company. Shortly after its release in March of 1998 Robyn Miller departed from the company to pursue other projects as did Richard Vander Wende. The break up was amicable according to all parties. Robyn Miller is currently working on making feature films. Rand Miller was left to run Cyan and decided not to do the obvious and create another sequel to Myst. Instead they began looking into other technologies and went about building their own 3D engine to allow players to explore the original game once more but in a real-time manner. The engine is also important in their upcoming project codenamed Mudpie. The game was released for Christmas in 2000 and achieved some success from its graphical prowess. However, despite having an extra age to explore, it offered little to anyone who had already played the original. The next chapter however, was already being made and would come from Presto studios. Myst 3: Exile (2001) A perfect place to plan revenge. "When we found out we had gotten the contract to do Myst 3 it was such an overwhelming honour. The only thing you could really equate it to is being in the film industry and having George Lucas say 'I'd like you to make the next Star Wars for me.'" Michel Kripalani - Executive Producer. Presto studios was formed around the same time of Cyan back in 1991. The company was headed up by Michel Kripalani and like many start ups was formed by a group of talented friends who had met at college. Their debut title was very similar to Myst, called The Journeyman Project, that came out for the Mac. They have released two sequels to that game and more recently created Star Trek: Hidden Evil. With their adventure gaming background they were an ideal choice to continue the Myst series. "We are going to build the best game we can possibly build, we are going to put our heart and our soul into it." Michel Kripalani. Exile takes place a few years after Riven. Rand Miller reprises his role as Atrus and is joined by Academy Award nominee Brad Douriff (One Flew over the Cuckoo's Nest) who plays the villain Saavedro. Atrus has spent the intervening years trying to rights the wrongs of the past, creating a new civilisation for the D'Ni people called Releeshahn. Upon completing Releeshahn Atrus revisits an age called J'nanin, a lesson age that he built to teach his sons. Staying but briefly there, the painful memories of the past come back to him and he returns to his home. J'nanin is not so uninhabited as he thought, Saavedro has been stranded there for twenty years and finds that Atrus has mistakenly left a linking book back to his home. Saavedro goes there only to find it empty. Seeing the Releeshahn book he begins to plot his revenge. In the stunning introduction to the game he jumps in and steals the Releeshahn book, but instead of being chased by Atrus you pursue him back to J'nanin to rescue the book. The character of Saavedro is a truly tragic soul in the game and one of the best conceived for computer games. Torn apart by the loss of his wife and child he has lived a life of isolation and torment for which he blames Atrus. As you pick up pages from his journal and examine the islands that have been his home for so long you can't help but feel empathy toward him. Great credit must go to the developers for creating such an interesting villain and casting an actor with the skill to convey the humanity and emotion needed for the role. Once you have linked to J'nanin the game design is reminiscent of Myst. From this central hub, you must unlock the linking books to the other isolated islands. The islands are lesson ages designed to teach Atrus's sons certain concepts and as such they each have a very different look and feel. One has puzzles relating to energy, like steam and electricity. An island of diverse plants represents nature and life with tree limbs and roots interweaving the paths which while beautiful makes it hard to navigate. Amateria is all about forces and features one of the high points in the game with the ultimate marble roller coaster ride. By separating these ages out it helps the player focus on the puzzles and what the main goal of each island is. The technology of Exile uses pre-rendered graphics but with some added bonuses. The images in Myst and Riven were static and were presented like a slide show with some quicktime movies interspersed. In Exile the developers give you the freedom to look 360 degrees around you at any point, much like quicktime VR but with much higher resolution. They also added some nice water effects, with ripples fading off into the horizon and gently swaying pools. These elements help breath a bit more life into the images, and gorgeous images they are too. The sound in Exile is very well done, every click and whirr of the machinery seems just right and the movement of different plants very organic. The soundtrack is very classical and was recorded with a full orchestra to give it a dynamic and sophisticated vibrancy. "Music is the unseen character in any media form, it does become something that the listener may not really be thinking about but yet affects their perception of what actually happening on screen." Jack Wall - Composer. Exile's many facets are perfectly suited to the franchise and provide interesting and challenging puzzles for the player. Once again it's easy to get immersed in these beautiful worlds and simply enjoy their splendour. The story is well thought out and fits neatly with Myst's history. It's not necessary to have played the previous titles to enjoy it but it certainly helps in understanding its conception. Its achievements have been nominated by the Academy for Interactive Arts and Sciences for: Computer Action/Adventure Game of the Year; Outstanding Achievement in Original Musical Composition and finally Outstanding Achievement in Character or Story Design. Myst Online (Mudpie 2003?) Since Riven, Cyan's main project has been shrouded in secret. It's only recently that details have begun to emerge on the project that is codenamed Mudpie. The 3D engine that was developed for realMyst is being enhanced to be used in an online setting. Originally the company stated that the game would be for broadband users only but realising that the technology hasn't spread as quickly as many analysts predicted they now say that modem users will be able to connect. Initially due out on the PC the company is also keen to bring it to the console market. The game won't be a sequel in the truest sense but it will use be based in the Myst universe. The buzz from the company is that it will be a world that seemingly never ends, so that every time you go online the world will have grown giving you more to explore on your own or with a group. Unlike most other online games being developed it seems that Cyan will be approaching the market from a different perspective. In the same way that Myst was a more mature and cerebral experience, Myst Online looks also to be more of a social interactive adventure rather than a competitive game. While this might put off the current crop of online players it could very well appeal to the more mature audience that were also drawn to Myst in such huge numbers, and who might have the money to indulge in the pastime. Coincidentally Myst was recently toppled as the highest selling game of all time. Not by a first person shooter or Warcraft 3, but by The Sims which is also planning an online version. There is an interesting message to developers in all this and that is not to dismiss the buying power of the casual gamer. For everyone out there playing Medal of Honour, there are probably ten times as many playing Minesweeper. While the online gaming market is set to explode with a number of high profile titles the Myst franchise has yet to put a foot wrong. I for one can't wait to see what lies in store in the next age. "Enter the worlds of Myst, where every door you open, every path you choose, turns another page of the mystery." The Myst trilogy has recently been released as a box set comprising of the Myst Masterpiece edition (which has some improvements in the image quality and movies), Riven and Exile.
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