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.

This is what happens to instructions that don't keep their mouths shut.

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.


Myst was acclaimed for its visuals and immersiveness. Considering the rest of 1993 you can see why.

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.

"I need a big ship, and then a little ship, and then a little ship inside a fountain, and then another big ship but it's growing out of a giant rock! Make this happen!!!""

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


  1. I have some issues with this article.

    1. The writer continually dismisses the narrative of Myst, but that narrative is where the player gets most of her information about how to solve puzzles and access the different Ages. Most of this narrative information comes from longform texts in the form of the journals of Atrus, the writer of the different Ages. The fact that these journals are the best inroad to the puzzles means that theses things are inextricable from one another. The only reason that I can think of why the author would want to selectively ignore and denigrate the plot is to make the larger point about Myst being an art game like the other art games that have come out recently. On some level, this argument doesn’t have to be made. I don’t think anyone who played Dear Esther has any doubt that it was influenced by Myst. As much as the community wants to have the fight, there is not a zero sum game between narrative and gameplay, and Myst depends on both for the entire experience.

    2. This is more of a editorial question, but I don’t understand why this is part of “After Pressing Start.” Most of this article is about the puzzles that exist far into the game, and it ignores anything about the opening of the game–the fact that exploration and tinkering, rather than puzzle solving, is the active force at the beginning, for instance.

    I just have a lot of love for Myst and I don’t like to see it misrepresented, especially since the story of the game is fairly unique and interesting.

    • I am a huge fan of Myst. But what you’re saying is absurd because it isn’t even true. Let’s start with the second one since that’s shorter:

      2) Not only do 1/3rd of the paragraphs in my article specifically reference the beginning of the game, I also have an entire paragraph devoted to the idea that exploring the mysteries in the game is the motivating force. Here’s a quote right from that part:

      “Some players don’t care about [discovery] 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.”

      And THEN there’s your ridiculous claim that I write mostly about puzzles “far into the game”. At what point? Out of my 12 paragraph article there’s only one paragraph where I mention specific puzzles. In that section of the article I am actually focusing on the visual motifs, mentioning puzzles off handedly, and in that specific paragraph I am talking about visuals and puzzles found in the Ages as well as at the start of the game on Myst Island. That focus on visual motifs (not puzzles) is the reason I created those four-part pictures to illustrate some visual themes found in Myst.

      In the entire article I talk about why the game starts the way it does and how this affects the rest of the game. I draw two points:
      1) It wants to make it clear that it isn’t a typical game
      2) It wants to generate an air of mystery to draws the player in
      That’s why it’s an “After Pressing Start” article.

      Now let’s get to your first point. I myself am a huge fan of Myst. But, pretty much everything you say in your first point is flat out wrong. One of the things you say that’s correct is that the story and the gameplay are both part of the total experience in Myst; that’s true. However, the story is not a part of why the game starts the way it does which is part of why I don’t talk about it. As for the rest:

      1) If you want to claim that the puzzles and story are intertwined then provide some examples, but I’ll tell you right now, you’ll find none. The player gets NONE of her information on how to solve puzzles and access Ages through the narrative. ABSOLUTELY NONE. The narrative in the journals doesn’t give you any clues on how to solve puzzles; it acts mainly as long form flavor text. There are clues to the puzzles in the journals but those clues are not a part of the journals’ narrative and they only happen twice. Let’s break it down:

      Mechanical Journal: No puzzle clues
      Stoneship Journal, 1 clue: Constellations in back of book; the narrative is not needed to understand them
      Channelwood Journal: No puzzle clues
      Selenitic Journal, 1 clue: Keyboard drawing in back of book; the narrative is not needed to understand it

      Those journals aren’t the “best inroads to the puzzles”; you can solve over half the puzzles on Myst Island and all of the puzzles in the other Ages without the journals, and none of those solutions need the narrative.

      It’s worth noting that there are two notes scattered around which are clues to puzzles which are kind of intertwined with the plot, but not that much. Also, the brothers tell you the answer to the fireplace puzzle (which isn’t really a puzzle, it’s a barrier that needs a key like a blue door in Doom), but even there, though you’re getting the answer through the narrative, it is in no way a part of the narrative. In Myst, you could remove the story and 98% of the puzzles would remain exactly the same and 2% of the puzzles would have to change only slightly.

      Look, I love Myst. It is tied in first place as my favorite game of all time, along with Myth: the Fallen Lords. I have replayed Myst and Riven so many times that it borders on lunacy. But that doesn’t mean I have to be a fanboy. I can still admit that Myst’s story barely exists, and that it’s average at best, without loving it any less. And it makes sense that Myst’s story isn’t that important. If you look at Cyan’s previous games (the Manhole, Cosmic Osmo and Beyond the Holy Mackerel, and Spelunx and the Cave of Dr. Seudo) you can see that Cyan wasn’t really interested in story so much as creating incredibly imaginative worlds. Now, as for Riven. Riven does have puzzles that are deeply intertwined with the plot, but that’s mostly the influence of Richard Vander Wende. Before he came along, the Miller brothers, and company, were still working on the same isolated-from-narrative puzzles for Riven as they had made in Myst. For examples: the number learning gallows puzzle was originally just a poster on a wall of the school (kind of like a page in the back of a book); the awe inspiring Wahrk scene that gave clues to the D’ni color symbols was originally just some paint jars in a closet.

      I apologize if at points in my reply I sound upset, but I am. Whether you intended to or not, you wasted my time by bringing up things that are factually untrue. That I focus on talking about puzzles far into the game: quantifiably untrue. That Myst’s narrative gives clues and information on how to solve puzzles: completely untrue. You would have realized that last point by replaying the game (as I did while writing the article) and/or trying to come up with tangible examples of Myst story being key to solving Myst puzzles.

      Thanks for the comment, but I wish it had referred to things that I was actually talking about.


        But seriously, you’re right. I mostly had vague thoughts about the article (and I was being a little bit of a fanboy, I like my Myst stories), and I was goaded into commenting after having a small grump session on twitter.

        That said, I think your comment is ten times more fascinating than the actual article. Why don’t you include that historical and design-level information in the article itself? It is obvious that you’re smart on the subject, and not including all of that info in the article is a crime.

        • That’s interesting, and it’s actually a really good point. I personally have noticed I prefer hearing stories about the making of games more so than articles that academically interpret those games.

          Maybe I’ll write another article talking about the creative process that went into Riven, and maybe show what modern game designers could learn from it. Thanks for the comment, Kuzelman?

          Btw, have you read “Masters of Doom”? It’s about id software and the story of the two Johns. I just read it a little bit ago and it is one of my favorite non fiction books.

          • I think that is a great idea. I really liked Riven, as well, and you’re right that the entire aesthetic and narrative experience of Riven is a part of the puzzles.

            I haven’t read Masters of Doom, though it and the new book on Grand Theft Auto are both on my “to read” pile.

  2. Nick

    Myst in my opinion is one of the most underrated, ignored games of all times, relatively speaking. I was immensely impactful to me and my becoming a gamer. People talk about FFVII as if it was the pinnacle of gaming and look at me funny when I talk about Myst. Reeaaalllyyy enjoyed the article. Can’t believe I never saw the parallels to games like Dear Esther. Going to link the shit out of this.

    • Thanks! I’m really glad you enjoyed it.

      I agree that Myst is underrated. My theory is that it had to do with the times, back when gamers wanted their games, like Doom, to be pure entertainment and didn’t care if there was any depth. Which isn’t a bad thing, but I think it’s part of the reason that Myst was a revolutionary game that started no revolutions. Instead it just spawned a bunch of mundane Myst-clones.

      Game designers could learn a lot from Myst these days. Riven as well. Riven is a very different game than Myst. It is much more of a game and much less artsy, but the amount of detail put in the world is extraordinary. Almost every visual is meant to represent some aspect of the story or some aspect of the characters. The antagonist’s personality is erected everywhere in Riven to reflect his ego and his domination of the world you’re exploring. I remember reading how in one area the player was going to ride a boat that belonged to the antagonist, but the developers realized this didn’t reflect the antagonist’s controlling personality. So they changed it to an underwater vessel that moves along constrained rails. There are very few games which tell their story and express their characters through architecture, the types of weapons being used, or the nature of the vehicles you ride.

      Thanks again for your comment, Nick.

      • Nick

        Agree with you on Riven. While Myst was more impactful on me, that is largely because of what it was at the time it came out. Riven was great in how it used the puzzles and world design to further the narrative, communicating directly to the player, as opposed to the ‘anthropologist’ feeling I get when playing Myst. I always felt like I was exploring something ‘left behind’ in Myst that only connected to the narrative at the very end, whereas Riven felt more participatory.

        Speaking of how game designers could learn from Riven, I have to believe that Phil Fish took inspiration from the schoolhouse and numbers puzzle in Riven for the corresponding puzzle in Fez. There are some striking similarities.

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  4. Robyn Miller

    Thanks for this. Great article!