The Size and Wisdom of 'Myst'

by Eric Swain

12 June 2014

Myst is a much smaller world than it was 21 years ago.

Myst is a lot smaller than I remember. Recently I went back and played the Cyan Worlds classic from 1993 and couldn’t help but notice that simple fact. I originally played it in 1993. My dad had just gotten a new CD-ROM drive for his self-built PC and Myst apparently came with all PC CD-ROM drives back then. For all intents and purposes, it was the first video game that we played together, and it took us months to get through.

I played it to completion the other day in an afternoon. Maybe it’s that I’m older or more experienced with adventure games. Maybe it had something to do with how I remembered how the world of Myst worked. In any case, the essential fact remains that Myst was a much smaller world than it was 21 years ago.
For those who don’t know, Myst was essentially a large stack of HyperCards with images of the in game world, connected in such a way to preserve the illusion of an interconnected space. Clicking on different parts of the screen would move you around the island, either moving towards something in front of you or turning to either side. The island of Myst itself is a strange place that looks like a Salvador Dali painting. A sunken ship is at the docks, two unconnected massive gears lay in one corner, and a mini planetarium with a dentist chair in the middle sits next to a half burnt library that contains magical paintings that open and close doors. A moving tree controlled by steam power, a music controlled rocket ship, and other such oddities litter the isle of Myst.

But most important are the books. Yes, the are books of the sort that you might find anywhere in our world on the shelves in the library. Most have been burnt, but there are a handful of diaries that contain some of the backstory to this now abandoned place. But there are two other books in the library—a red book and a blue book. Opening them, one finds a small window to another place. Someone is trying to speak to you from the other side, but there is more static than there is a clear picture. You mange to make out that there are pages missing and that is the cause of the lack of coherence. The two brothers that are the authors of these “texts” tell you to find the missing pages, and at that point, you begin to understand your quest.

Solving the puzzles around the island will eventually reveal other linking books. Unlike the prison of the red and blue books, these are doorways to other islands called Ages. In these ages are the missing pages but also the story of the two brothers. There are scraps of letters and the occasional video recording, but mostly the story is told through the artifacts left in each brothers’ rooms that reveal their character. All of the ages are abandoned too. They weren’t before as the diaries in the library tell us. Solve the puzzles of each Age, and you will find the book that will return you to Myst. Hopefully with the pages in tow.

While my memory of Myst largely matches up to the geography that actually exists in game, I was very surprised by the reality of the four Ages. My dad and I had to draw elaborate maps to keep track of where everything was. The Channelwood Age consists almost entirely of paths made of wooden plants set on pontoons and water powered elevators that lead to a network of tree houses. My dad and I had to draw a map so we wouldn’t get turned around. All that wandering made it feel like the treetop village was an expansive complex network. On replaying the game, I discovered the reality was much different. The world was not endless, nor was it so complex. I didn’t need any map to navigate. I did not get lost, nor lose track of the valve switches that were a part of that Channelwood’s puzzle.

The Stoneship Age was a single rocky outcropping with a light house and sunken ship attached to it. While there are two long underground corridors, they are straight lines. The Mechanical Age has a rotating center isle that can move its platform to several surrounding isles, but they are tiny and contain only a single clue to return to Myst. And while Selenitic is jagged and requires a lot of turning about, it too is essentially a single straight line around the lip of a large crater. The physical parameters of the world don’t match up with the expansiveness that the world impressed upon me in my youth.

Nothing is explained in Myst. There is a piece of paper laying on the ground that gives you your first hint of what to do, which then leads you to a hidden chamber with a voice message from the master of the isle. It establishes the premise of the quest and the brothers spur you on (their deviousness rather obvious), but no part of the world is explicitly explained. There is no character talking to themselves, giving subtle hints as to the next course of action. There are no items to pick up other than the pages. Everything is based on the physicality of the world. There are clues as to what needs to be done, but they are clues based on drawing inferences.

You see the image of several random items and animals on plaques. Clicking on the lights illuminates the plaques. It isn’t until you find the star chart that you realize that these images correspond to constellations. But which constellations do you need to choose? There is a planetarium right next to the library. Maybe those dates and times that you found hidden in the search tower has something to do with it?

We knew none of this in our first playthrough of the game over two decades ago. We worked through it bit by agonizing bit. We wandered back and forth all over the islands trying to connect the subtle hints and note repetitions. We became very familiar with the lands and yet at the same time all our wanderings were imbued with a sense of mystery and the sense that there was always something that we were missing. Some part of the world that was inaccessible.

Coming back to Myst, I know the logic and through line of the puzzles. I may not remember the specifics, but I know that A connects with B that will lead to C. There is no mystery on that end. All I’m doing is plugging in the data and going through the motions to open the gateways to the various Ages.

What was also surprising to me was how small scale of the story of Myst actually was. It’s the story of two greedy, power hungry sons wanting what is not theirs and abusing the powers of the linking books to rule over the various Ages. Their father does not notice their behavior as he is too busy with his work. In the end, the brothers are imprisoned by their greed. The father locked away on an island with a return book missing a single page. Myst, it turns out, is a sanctuary land. Created by Atrus separate himself from the troubles of the larger world. It is essentially the family’s home. His children wanted the special something that was in their father’s safe not knowing what it was. Atrus mentions at the end that there is a greater conflict that he has been preparing for and that this was major set back for his work. But that is a story for other games. Myst is all about fixing a book so wrongs can be righted.

If books are our culture’s representation of knowledge, then they are the tools used to enact the power that knowledge brings in Myst. Bring the pages to unwise men, as the brothers are that imprisoned in either the red or blue books, and you will become trapped, a victim of their treachery and an unwise person yourself. Give the right page to the father, and the world will right itself. The right knowledge in the hands of the right person can fix a problem. Myst is a game of proving oneself in this regard, of having all the logic and wisdom to both recognize clues and apply them across the Ages to prepare you for the understanding that the correct path is the third one.

Everything had been given to the brothers, and all it did was make them want more. Atrus had to work at the Art to create the books and respects power much more than they do. You are some random person that fell through a crack in the Earth to find a book at the bottom leading to a strange looking island. Had you been given all the pages up front, you could not help but make an unwise choice. Wisdom and knowledge have to be earned in Myst.

Gaining something from the world makes it seem that much bigger. Learning something opens a person’s eyes to the possibilities and reality of a larger world. It affects the memory of the place where the thing was learned. The memory changes to match the size of the revelations brought about by the earning of wisdom. In the 20 plus years since I had last played Myst, my mind is a more developed and grander place than it was. Myst itself had nothing new to show me. I was merely retreading old ground even if the specifics escaped me. I didn’t need to remember what the dates and times were for the planetarium, merely that I needed them so I could find the constellations to choose the plaques to raise the ship. When you understand everything about a fully scripted world, it can only seem so much smaller in looking back on it.

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