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visitors since May 12, 2002
January 27, 2002
Myst: the Masterpiece Edition

Reviewing a computer game is not something I've done before, so here's a review of a computer game.

It's been six years since I first played Myst. I have clear, and largely positive, memories of it. I didn't like the ending, but the journey towards it was wonderful.

When you start the game, you enter a beautiful world. It looks and feels totally unique. Generally, you then have one of two reactions: you get frustrated at the total lack of things to shoot at and leave in disgust. Or you become enchanted with the beauty of the place, and want to stay there forever.

John Holt's definition of intelligence is not how we react when we know what to do, but how we react when we don't know what to do. So you arrive on the island, and you wander around, trying to figure out what you have to do. This is Myst's first puzzle, and in many ways it's the best one. And it's an interesting exercise in self-knowledge, too: how will you react to being in a beautiful place, but not knowing what you can do there?

The standard criticism of Myst is that it's a slide show. As far as criticisms go, this one is accurate, because Myst really is a slide show. But it's a slide show with stunning sound effects and music, and that makes an enormous difference. If you walk to an exposed place the wind gets louder, and when you're close to water you can hear it gently lapping. In 1993, when the game came out, this had never been done before, and it just seemed extraordinary. Since then there have been any number of games with incredible graphics, and poor sound effects and dreadful music.

Given the choice between that and Myst, I'll take Myst. And the reason for that is that it changes what you have to do: instead of running around in a constant state of anxiety about getting shot, your mind can relax a little, and you can explore your surroundings, and try different things out. It takes time to adjust to this approach, but once you've made the leap it's hard to imagine going back.

Second time around I got annoyed at a few of the minor details of the interface, which isn't very intuitive and which fails to provide quicker alternatives once you've discovered how something works. For example, there are many occasions when you have to use the map on the main island to rotate the tower, and then enter and climb it.

To do this involves hitting a panel, which produces a short cut scene, which you always have to sit through. This rapidly becomes annoying: the game isn't intuitive enough to be able to sense that it doesn't have to show you every last little thing: that you've understood the mechanism and wish to get to a known destination more quickly.

So it's not a great game to play again, because you start to notice the incredible atmosphere a lot less, and notice the annoying interface a lot more. A hell of a lot more.

In the course of the game you visit four different ages, each of which contain two pages of a book that have to be picked up. Incredibly, the makers of the game decided that you can only have one of these pages at any given time. This is an obvious question, but why is this so? (Somewhere along the line I became intensely irritated with this, and hatched the theory that the game's makers are very physically weak people. And because they weren't strong enough to carry around two big, heavy pieces of paper they decided that no one else should be allowed to either.)

One of the ages, Channelwood, can only be accessed through a time-delay puzzle, which is one of the trickiest in the game. In any well-designed game, once you've solved a problem, you won't be obliged to solve it again. Not so with Myst, sadly: you have to repeat things that you've already demonstrated you can do. This gets tedious, especially when the puzzle itself isn't that good. This is especially true of the Mazerunner problem, the worst in the game.

And, of course, you have to return to each age twice, to pick up the other piece of paper that the game wouldn't let you pick up the first time you saw it. This is a flagrant contradiction of the second by-law of the Hacker Attitude: no one should ever have to solve the same problem twice. Perhaps this could be modified to include a specific Myst subsection: no one should ever have to do that stupid goddamn Mazerunner problem twice.

I'm not really sure what the Masterpiece Edition adds to the game, apart from a help screen, which gives a great deal of information, including, if you need it, complete solutions to the puzzles. It's probably not a bad compromise, because in the original incarnation some people got completely stuck within a few minutes. But there have been no other updates, which seems something of a wasted opportunity. Some of the cut scenes are now showing their age badly. In some ways it's amusing to look at a video in a postage stamp-sized window, but I find that the comic value of eyestrain has diminished over the years.

What has became clearer over time is Myst's philosophy, its attitude to things. The central metaphor of Myst is the creation of worlds by the writing of books. And as far as these things go, that's a pretty cool metaphor. On these islands, paper is power: you travel between different worlds by finding and opening books, and your overriding mission in the game is to bring back pages from different worlds. There's something in that which has a deep, enduring appeal.

So: eight long years after it came out, is Myst still worth playing? Yes, and for the same reason that it's still worth watching Casablanca sixty years after it was made: they're both classics.

     Posted by Sean Hegarty at 10:05 PM in the Reviews category | Comments (0)
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