by L.B. Jeffries

10 July 2008

Myst, after all these years, still has something to say to us.

Myst has always been a unique experience in the growing canon of video games. Despite the claims by some critics that Myst was nothing more than an elaborate tech demo for CD-ROMs in the ‘90s, the game has been around long enough to demonstrate some impressive staying power. It spawned an online game and four sequels that tell the epic story of one family’s rise and fall from an awesome power. So now we have the original Myst on the Nintendo DS, a port of the classic game that is neither as pretty to look at nor as intuitive to play. Does a classic game deserve the same praise if it gets a fuzzy translation? 

Part of the reason Myst generates such rancor from some critics is that it’s a Second-Person narrative. There is no identity for you to assume—you play yourself in the game. You don’t ever interact or change the story but the story is also an entirely passive aspect of the experience. You can walk around the various worlds solving puzzles and collecting pages without giving much thought to any of it. At the same time, if you read the books in the library and study the tiny details in the game, then a rich and nuanced story emerges. Like many of the puzzles in the game, your powers of observation and conjecture are what makes the world come alive. It’s an interesting experience and one that other games have experimented with in their own way since. The Half-Life series borrows heavily from the concept of Second-Person Narratives, as do a few other FPS and RPG titles. Myst‘s unique take on interactive fiction was considered by some to be the death of the genre when it came out, but looking back now, we know that the genre was going out of style anyways.

cover art


US: 13 May 2008

Still, the assertion that the game’s popularity was due to the graphics isn’t entirely unfounded either. Myst was shipped with many PCs as part of a bonus for buying computers with CD-ROM capability. In the absence of an assertive story, Myst also relied on gorgeous seascapes and islands that were inspired by Jules Verne’s The Mysterious Island to create mood and identity. Due to both small screen size and the limited abilities of the DS, this aspect of Myst is almost completely absent. The visuals are not nearly as awe-inspring as they were back in the ‘90s here, so one of the original chief selling points of the game no longer exists. The lack of a mouse is also problematic in the port, since you have no way of knowing which way you can walk or what you can interact with except through incessant tapping. This problem is even more confounded by the fact that the DS screen makes some of the once-gorgeous scenery so pixelated that you can miss important clues or switches. Simply put, the PC version is the better experience overall.

Still, having replayed the game all the way through on the DS, I found myself discovering a new take on the game. Whereas before I found Myst to be an obtuse series of puzzles with nice scenery, playing it again made me focus a lot more on the plot. Maybe it’s because I already knew how to beat the game and wasn’t too inhibited by the puzzles, but I found myself really enjoying the game’s narrative elements. Myst is a rich and metaphorical story with profound comments about our relationship with video games and human nature. The following contains spoilers, but I’m presuming the average gamer has played or heard of the plot anyways. As Penny Arcade noted, there’s a statute of limitations on this kind of thing.

Atrus and his sons have the ability to create and enter fictional worlds where they can change or do anything. Each of the three’s reaction to this ‘virtual world’ goes into a certain aspect of human nature. The problem for the two brothers, and even subsequent characters in the Myst saga, is that they don’t really believe or care about the worlds they exist in. Achenar sees the opportunity to be as violent and experimental as he pleases in these created realities, with sadistic torture and enslaved cultures being his only concern. In a letter in the Steel Age he even goes so far as to refer to the people as his subjects. The other brother, Sirrus, uses these artificial worlds to increase his own feelings of superiority with wealth and lavish items. Neither brother has any inhibition or concern for the people in these worlds because of the growing disconnect their powers give them. If they want something to appear in a book, they write it in. They can leave a world whenever they want and supplant themselves in other locations.

The view is still rather lovely.

The view is still rather lovely.

This power is an apt metaphor for gamers themselves. How do we as rational human beings react to the ability to interact in an artificial environment that we can change or leave whenever we want? To an interesting extent, the extreme vices of Achenar and Sirrus mirror humanity’s today. In an FPS we wage constant war and experiment with violence intermittently. How is that any different from Achenar’s torture devices and war trophies? In The Sims or an RPG, we amass great wealth and prosperity. We buy the nicest items, wear the best armor, and constantly surround ourselves with signs of digital success. How is that any different from Sirrus? The betrayal and fratricide the two brothers eventually commit as this uninhibited freedom corrupts them serves as Myst‘s stern warning about video games. If you constantly indulge these vices in a fake world, they will eventually spill over into the ‘real’ world. Perhaps the greatest tragedy of the two brothers is that they are so deluded by the power and inability to think of anything outside the concept of virtual worlds that they cannot even comprehend their own guilt. Just as they do not think they are doing anything wrong in the fake world, they can no longer distinguish right or wrong in the real one.

Does this then justify the game being on the DS? Perhaps it does. Perhaps porting a game, particularly an old yet profound one, is something like translating a book into another language. Is The Divine Comedy better in Italian? Most certainly. Is it important that everyone who can’t read Italian still be given a chance to experience Dante’s profound journey? Again, yes. Yet I’ve never liked the Sayers translation of Dante’s journey, and far prefer Sinclair’s version. So perhaps there is merit in applying such logic to games as well. Myst on the DS works, allowing me to enjoy the story, and it could give some unsuspecting gamer a few moments with one of video games’ best. But it’s not as good here as it is on the PC or one of the other console ports.

At the game’s canon ending, you decide to help Atrus instead of the two brothers, as he is the only person who seems sane despite the awesome power in his hands. Atrus’s journals show that he maintains the belief that he is not creating a world, but rather opening a door to it. He treats the people as real and takes the time to learn about their stories and even helps solve their problems. The game’s opening shows Atrus throwing himself and a book to Myst into a starry fissure and pondering where the linking book may end up as it falls. He does so because he believes that even in fake worlds, our actions have consequences. Myst, after all these years, still has something to say to us.



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