November 29, 2007

Myst versus Myst: why can't we have nice things?

Myst really ended with Riven (that's the second one.) Those two games told a complete story about the history of a civilisation. Then the rights get passed around to various developers and "The Further Adventures of Myst" are born.

Let's start with Myst 1, though. I promise I'm not about to take you through the entire series. After you spend innumerable hours wandering around the game trying to get a handle on things, you find your first clue. Two books in a library. Open them and on the first page there's a window from which a man, in real time, is talking to you (go with it.) The message is heavily distorted -- all you can make out is that you need to find missing pages to improve the quality of the signal. First of all, this is pretty cool. You have to assume bringing back the page will help you progress in this game that lacks any HUD or menu. You even have a choice about which book to get pages for. It's the only thing you can really do, appropriate since it's the only thing you know to do. If this game came out today we'd all be stroking our chins approvingly at this groundbreaking emergent narrative... in this game that came out 14 years ago and everyone played! Myst. So unappreciated.

The more pages you get the more you learn that the men -- brothers, Sirrus (megalomaniac) and Achenar (lunatic) -- are trapped in these books. You need to bring them the final page to release them, but there's only one final page. There's a third option, of course, but you have to discover it yourself instead of checking your journal and seeing "Sirrus and Achenar don't seem very trustworthy. Maybe I should look around the library before making my decision." Please.

The third option is to bring the page to the third book (surprise!), where Atrus, the father of Sirrus and Achenar, is trapped. He's actually the one who trapped them, because in case you hadn't figured it out (and this is by far the easiest thing in Myst to figure out) Sirrus and Achenar are evil, and they trapped him in turn. You free Atrus, you win, game over. But there's one more thing of note: after Atrus is released you're free to wander back through the library and you notice that where the Sirrus and Achenar books were, there's charred wood. Pretty chilling. That's the best moment in Myst, really. Come on, this game didn't deserve all that ire! Let me show you something that does.

Ubisoft's Myst IV: Revelation opens with a monologue by Atrus, which concludes thusly:

"I've often wondered if you thought I'd killed my sons when I burned up those two Books."

Not really, actually! In fact I knew you did, much like everyone who played the game and everyone who made the game, including you, Rand Miller, co-designer of Myst and Riven, who's speaking right now!

"But never once have I offered you the truth."

Oh, fuck off.

That's what Myst IV is. Sirrus and Achenar are back, with a vengeance. In Myst III Atrus and his wife gained a young daughter, Yeesha (?!) who is kidnapped at the beginning of this story following an explosion. Kidnapping? Explosions? What game is this? Myst is about arriving at the end of the story and very slowly piecing together what happened and then concluding it. Are you trying to make a Myst game into a thriller? What's wrong with you?

The "theme" of Myst IV is redemption, which basically means "a character is redeemed". It's a badly written, incredibly pedestrian game all around, really; ploddingly leading you from plot beat to plot beat ensuring you're fully comprehending this Screenwriting 101 high-stakes redemptive tear-jerker. You'd think poor writing wouldn't stand out in a Myst game since there's usually little of it, but Myst IV really piles it on. Too bad it doesn't have anything interesting to say. Unless you count the stupifying spiritual diversion -- seriously, watch this to experience an absolute gaming nadir. What a horror show.

Anyway, in this completely conventional and obvious game, we are stunned learn that Achenar isn't actually evil, despite every appearance to the contrary in Myst. Reinvented in Myst IV as the well-meaning, noble retard, Achenar works tirelessly to defeat Sirrus and rescue Yeesha, toward his grand redemption.

What's the best way to "redeem" a character? By "best" of course I mean easiest to write and over the fastest. Achenar sacrifices himself to save Yeesha, and she sobs over his dead body. It'd all be so very sad if it wasn't so very cloying. What just happened? Ubisoft switched out Myst's chilling, subtle death for total melodramatic banality. Thanks a lot. Next time keep your revelations to yourself. Did I mention Peter Gabriel shows up playing a spirit guide? Myst IV was actually better reviewed than Myst has proven to be. You reviewers are a soft touch.


super webgirl said...

I totally agree with you - the original Myst was fan-freaking-tastic and it looks like they tried to "standardize" it and in the process destroyed it. Sigh.

Duncan said...

Thank you for agreeing with me!