Myst: 20 years of point-and-click adventuring
The genre-defining game that made us all buy CD-ROM drives
Antique Code Show For many years it was the best-selling computer game ever – at least until The Sims turned up. It created a whole new gaming genre, and it was a major help in getting a new computer storage format established. Yes, ladies and gentlemen, we're talking about Myst.
Myst debuted on the Mac back in September 1993 after two years in development. Devised by two brothers, Robyn and Rand Miller, Myst was in essence a classic adventure game: the player explores a bizarre world by visiting a series of fixed locations, learning as he or she goes more about the place's backstory and trying to solve puzzles which unlock even more places to investigate and plot to assimilate. There might be a maze or two to walk through. Puzzles are typically solved by acquiring long lists of items: open the safe to get the matches to start the boiler to turn the generator and so on, and so on...
Myst island rendered in the most photorealistic graphics available on a mid-1990s micro
Nothing new there: it was a standard adventure formula, from the text-only games of the 1970s through to the text'n'graphics titles of the 1980s. But Myst had a number of features that made it very different from the adventure games that preceded it. First, it was entirely visual; it wasn't based on text descriptions and you didn't interact with the world you were exploring by keying in commands. And, unlike previous graphical adventures, which largely presented pictures to illustrate the descriptions, Myst was rendered in near-photorealistic imagery presenting what the player could see out of his or her character's eyes.
No crude, limited colour palette and blocky graphics here, but rather ray-traced, textured art that was about as realistic as graphics could get on a desktop computer back then. Of course, Macs and PCs lacked the horsepower to render Myst's first-person perspectives in real-time, so adventurers had to make do with static shots.
To address the lack of dynamism, the team at Cyan – the company founded by the Miller brothers in the early 1990s – used video footage encoded with Apple's then still novel QuickTime technology. Small movies were played over the picture, giving the impression of animation. Of course, since neither the 3D static imagery nor the QuickTime movies were rendered in full, 32-bit colour – or even 24 bits, as they were all 8-bit images with carefully chosen 256-colour palettes – the dithering used to emulate out-of-range hues would sometimes stop the video from blending smoothly into background. But to gamers used to much less sophisticated graphics, the effect was nonetheless remarkably immersive.
The second clue sends you to the library. Books have power in this interactive story
This was especially the case when you coupled the visual effects with the large selection of environmental sound effects and ambient incidental music included in the game. These were created, respectively, by Chris Brandkamp and a third Miller brother, Ryan. Cyan assembled just enough video and audio to engage the imagination of players without the computer slowdowns that full-screen animation would undoubtedly cause and which would have inhibited the suspension of players' disbelief.
The sensation of being there was aided by the control system Cyan employed. Instead of traditional typed commands – "Go North", "Examine Knife", "Search Room", that kind of the thing – players interacted with Myst's world directly with their mouse. Click on a door and it opens – if you have the key. Buttons, wheels, cogs, lifts, switches – they all move with a tap of the mouse buttons. Select a book and it opens – click to turn the pages.
And thus was the pure point-and-click adventure born.
The eerie Stoneship Age
It was an approach to which the mouse-centric Mac and its users were well suited. Indeed, Mac technology helped the Cyan team work more quickly: they assembled the game using Apple's HyperCard, a visual tool for building simple, interactive applications that Apple had bundled for free since the early days of the platform. HyperCard applications comprised a "stack" of pages or “cards”, with button- and event-triggered hyperlinks connecting each card to one or more others.
Using this framework, the Cyan embedded team member Chuck Carter's 3D renderings – created in StataVision 3D and manually tweaked in the first version of Photoshop – and added hotspots which, when clicked, might trigger the playback of an overlaid video, a sound effect or move the player to another card and another location.
Myst's five worlds – its four "Ages" in the jargon of the game, and Myst island itself – were each implemented as a separate HyperCard stack, all of them together encompassing some 2,500 player viewpoints. Despite very careful image compression – primarily, as mentioned, by optimising each picture's colour palette into under 256 entries – the Cyan team still ended up with a game that weighed in at more than half a gigabyte of data, well in excess of what other games required.
Always look out for clues, though there are precious few in fact
They all shipped on floppy disk, but that was out of the question for Myst: swapping floppies would have surely killed the sense of immersion stone dead. Instead Cyan and publisher Brøderbund turned to a new medium: the CD-Rom. Each disc could hold more than 650MB of data, more than enough for Myst's HyperCard stacks and QuickTime movies.
Few Macs had CD drives built-in back then, and standalone drives were not cheap, so it was something of a gamble on the publisher's part. Would gamers be willing to splash out on extra hardware just to play a game – and a fairly laid back one at that? Myst's aesthetics and ambient aural effects were quite at odds with the fire-fire-fire, action gameplay of most other titles in the early to mid-1990s. Remember, most gamers of the time were playing the likes of Wolfenstein 3D and looking forward to the imminent and arrival of the even more intense and visceral first-person experience of Doom, and might not take a shine to a slow-paced, cerebral adventure game like Myst.
You're on your own now
Worse, Myst dropped the player right into the mystery, with no scene-setting at the start to help them get a handle on what it was all about. No, you were simply dropped on the game's island hub and left to get on with it. With a little perseverance, the early clues get you into play, but uniquely there's no call to action, no request for help. Your motivation to work out what's going on and how to resolve it is entirely your own.
Rocket ship for sale, one careful owner
Maybe that's why the game proved so popular: you made yourself get involved. It's easy to talk about the immersive nature of the game's presentation, but at the core of Myst's appeal is that lack of information and the way it hooks the player in.
It helped too that Myst was reviewed far more widely than other games, its reach extending beyond the gaming and computer press into mainstream media. This was a game for non-gamers: there are no enemies, no risk of instantaneous death, no intensity.
Still, many gamers found Myst's approach too slow, and its puzzles too opaque. I'm not sure I would have persevered had I not been tasked with writing a walkthrough for a computer magazine and thus availed myself of the game's solution. Fortunately, older and more patient now than I was then, I can still try to work it all out on my own. Myst's huge popularity saw it ported to numerous platforms, most recently iOS. It's in the App Store for £2.99. So too is an iPad-centric version of realMyst, the real-time rendered version of game originally released for PCs in November 2000.
The boiler needs gas and a match to light it. The match is in the safe, natch. But where's the combination code?
By then, Myst had already been "remastered", in May 2000's Masterpiece Edition, which featured the original's graphics re-rendered in 24-bit colour. In the meantime, Cyan had come up with a sequels: 1997's Riven. It was followed in 2001 by a second installment, Exile, for which realMyst and the Masterpiece Edition had been released to pave its way. A fourth installment, Revelation, arrived in 2004, by which time the series had sold in excess of 12 million copies, half of them the original game in its various forms. End of Ages completed the series in 2005.
Playing Myst again, I'm struck by how rich the game is. And it manages to be both easy and hard at the same time. It's simple because there's not a lot too it. Each Age, for instance, essentially presents two puzzles: the first to work out how the world operates, the second, having achieved the first, gets you the code you need to access the book that will return you to Myst island. Straightforward, yes? Well no, because achieving both requires a high degree of lateral thinking or, to be honest, plenty of inspiration. Clues are opaque. A couple of times, I found myself resorting to the internet and, when learning the answer, accepting there was no way I would have thought of the solution.
Will you aid the guy trapped in the blue book, or the chap imprisoned in the red book?
A case in point: the Selenitic Age, reached by activating the rocket on Myst island. It's not hard to work out you need to turn on the various microphones dotted around the island, or that tuning the receiver into each might be useful. But having done so, it's not at all obvious that it's the order of the five sounds it plays when you push the button marked Sigma that matters. Or perhaps, successful adventure gaming of this kind requires a certain kind of brain, the way cryptic crosswords do.
Contrast that with the Channelwood Age, where the solution is entirely logical: lift mechanisms powered by the flow of water need to have water routed through the Age's network of pipes in order to work. Just don't forget to visit the windmill-powered pump and turn the valve so water flows. Here you can figure out what needs to be done be examining cause and effect; solving other Ages involves no deduction, just guesswork.
And of course the wee iPhone screen, even though it has a higher resolution than the 640 x 480 Myst originally required, still doesn't do the graphics justice. Manipulating small objects can be tricky too. That said, it was a lot of fun revisiting Myst after 20 years. It's just as atmospheric – and as frustrating – as it ever was. The graphics still look good, though of course two decades of free exploration in 3D shooters makes Myst's on-the-rails movement feel old hat. There's always realMyst if you're in the mood for rubbernecking.
But puzzle solving is timeless, and so is adventure gaming, though it has fallen out of favour somewhat in the era of high-def, high-octane consoles we're living in. It's nice to know that for all the games out there that mandate fast reactions and a lightning trigger finger, there are still some that require you to pause for thought. ®
Developer Cyan - now Cyan Worlds
Platforms Mac OS then almost all the rest