After Pressing Start: Myst
In the beginning of Myst you don’t know what’s going on. The intro cinematic explains nothing, and you won’t understand what the cinematic’s about until you’ve played the sequel, Riven. All you know at the start of Myst is that there’s a book, inside the book there’s a moving image of an island, and when you click on the image you transport to that island. So, the book is magic? Who knows, let’s not dwell on it. The book’s gone. You’re on an island now. Maybe the island knows what’s going on? It doesn’t. It’s an island; all it knows is the touch of the sea and the gaze of the sun. Hahaha, seriously though, what the hell is going on?
Myst was released in 1993. It was a different era back then, before phrases like “thinking man’s game” and “art game” sprang into existence. It was an era when men were men, women were sexy, dogs were hamsters, and vegetarians were looked upon with confusion. And, back in those days video games were just games. Take a look at the other game releases of 1993: Doom, Syndicate, Mortal Kombat II, 7th Guest, Star Fox, Day of the Tentacle. Back then, if a game didn’t have goals, levels, lives, ways to win, and ways to die, it was called a simulation or a screensaver. Myst didn’t want to be a typical game though. It wanted to be an actress in Hollywood, but those dreams didn’t pan out and it settled for being a game after all. It just made sure you knew that’s not what it wanted to be, right from the start.
So, you’re not told “what the hell is going on” at the start of Myst. You’re supposed to figure it out on your own. Maybe the game had instructions at one point, but clearly the developers locked the instructions in a basement somewhere and told them to keep their mouths shut “or else”. Along with having no clear instructions, objectives, or goals, the game also has no items, HUD, inventory, protagonists, dudes to kill, time limits, or dead ends, and has a largely nonexistent and irrelevant plot. The game doesn’t even give you an identity like Dr. Spacedeath, Ph.D. in Puzzlesolving; you are apparently playing as your real world self.
All of that is done because the developers of Myst wanted the game to be as little like a game as possible. At one point in the development they even considered not including any music because it might make the game seem too much like a typical video game. I’m not making that up.
It’s worth sidetracking to note that the game doesn’t start atypically just to avoid being a “game”. It’s trying to create a sense of mystery. Mystery is such an important element of the game that the developers took the first four letters of “mysterious island” and used it as the title; I’m not making that up either. By not telling you what’s going on, the developers instantly give the entire world a tantalizing mystique. “Tantalizing mystique” might sound like a character in an erotic version of X-Men, but in Myst it is what is used, in place of clearly defined goals, as the driving force for the player. Right from the start and through most of the game you’re constantly discovering new puzzles, new locations, and new sights which for the early- and mid-nineties were incredible to see on a computer screen. Some players don’t care about that and their self-confidence withers when they’re not given any clear cut directions, but others are explorers and they’re compelled to seek out new discoveries.
The main point, however, is that the game is not trying to be a video game. Myst is trying to be a digital art gallery that uses “gameplay” as its method of accessing content. A game might start you off with rules, obligations, and plot, but an art gallery does not. An art gallery just makes itself available to you and lets you explore at your leisure. In Myst you aren’t a player so much as a visitor who wanders a canvas looking at the artistry and talent displayed before you. You are only impeded by puzzles, which can make the discovery of new visuals more rewarding. If Myst had come out today, instead of 1993, I have absolutely zero doubt in my mind that gamers would be declaring it “art” along with Dear Esther, The Stanley Parable, fl0wer, or whatever art gamers are calling art these days. Still it’s easier to call Myst a “game”, since “digital art gallery explored through ludic interaction” is a bit of a mouthful, and DAGETLI sounds like a 1990s detective played by Al Pacino in a robot suit.
Unlike Detective Dagetli, Myst does not have any guns. I think the lack of conflict or combat is part of why Myst sometimes gets criticised as boring. I guess that can make sense. There are plenty of people who also think that parks, art museums, and libraries are also boring when guns are not provided. If those places did have guns, however, you’d be too distracted by bullets to notice everything else around you.
What’s going on in Myst is that the main area of the game, Myst Island, is a pastiche of visual motifs which are then elaborated on, played with, and reinterpreted in the various worlds you can travel to. A visual motif that’s used by one world can be referenced by another, weaving the game into a cohesive artwork. The magical books that let you travel to these worlds, which with names like Mechanical Age sound like Megaman villains, are hidden behind puzzles, which has a story explanation, but again that’s irrelevant. The point is that even the puzzles you solve establish puzzle themes which are reprised and played with in the worlds they unlock.
For example, on Myst Island, in a log cabin, you use steam power to lower an elevator tree to access a book that takes you to Channelwood Age, a forest world covered in water. In Channelwood you use water powered lifts to access the wooden tree-fort city above you. Another example: on Myst Island you access the book to Selenitic Age through a sound matching puzzle inside a Jules Vernian rocket ship. Once in Selenitic Age you emerge from a similar rocket ship to find a barren, craterous, moon-like landscape where the puzzles all have something to do with navigating based on sound.
These reprisals and reinterpretations of visual themes aren’t exclusive to Myst by any means. Games have often reprised visual themes, whether it was for narrative reason, because of development-time, or because of CPU constraints. The difference in Myst though was that these repeated motifs were the core of the game. The game was built around these themes because that’s the real point. You’re exploring alien worlds, you’re marveling at the art, the developers are showing off their talent and creativity, and all of this is done with nothing distracting you.
The start of the game tries to set you up for all this. Don’t worry about why you’re here, or what the story is about, or whether you’re doing things right. That’s not what’s important. This is a gallery not a game. Even the ending drives this point home. When you “beat” the game the main character tells you your reward is access to the worlds… the worlds whose puzzles have already been solved and which you’ve already explored. Because the point, as set up at the start, was not to win, or solve everything, or see everything. The point was just to see and experience and marvel.
After Pressing Start is a series running on Nightmare Mode every Friday by resident narrative guru Tom Auxier. It focuses on beginning, on the stories that happen directly after pressing start, and how those introductory stories influence the arcs of video games. This guest entry of After Pressing Start was written by Phil Rejmer. Check out some of the other APS articles: After Pressing Start