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Myst (PC) artwork

Myst (PC) review

"If you bought a computer between about 1993 and 1996, you'll have got a free computer game with it. Perhaps your mum will have played it, sitting in front of the PC for hours on end, trying to figure out solutions to the game's many puzzles as she wandered around the pretty environments. Myst quickly became one of the most popular games in the world, mainly because you couldn't bloody avoid the thing."

If you bought a computer between about 1993 and 1996, you'll have got a free computer game with it. Perhaps your mum will have played it, sitting in front of the PC for hours on end, trying to figure out solutions to the game's many puzzles as she wandered around the pretty environments. Myst quickly became one of the most popular games in the world, mainly because you couldn't bloody avoid the thing.

I mean, it obviously wasn't anything to do with its quality, right?

Oh, come on. Myst has everything to answer for. It made adventure game designers think it was okay to drop completely and utterly ludicrous puzzles into the game world, and just assume you'd muddle along and figure out what you're supposed to do. That isn't good game design. That's deliberate obfuscation of the stuff you just need to know in order to progress through the game. It's the adventure genre's equivalent of blocking off your path in an FPS with a knee-high wall, demanding you locate an alternate route to your destination instead of simply hopping over. No, scratch that. Imagine that, but where the game doesn't even tell you a destination in the first place. Hear that sound? That's the sound of a misguidedly smug designer, somewhere, saying, "Who cares if it doesn't make sense? We have to make the game harder!"

But we're probably getting ahead of ourselves. What was Myst? Myst was a first-person, screen-by-screen, point-and-click adventure game. You know - the sort that requires a lot of hyphens to describe. It dumped you upon an island which was exceptionally pretty in the context of early-mid-'90s game graphics, pretty enough even for everyone's mums to talk about them. And it failed to understand good puzzle design, but because the sodding thing became so needlessly popular, everyone thought it understood just fine, and so mimicked it for years to come.

You're dropped onto Myst's island without much indication of anything. You've a scrawled note, which doesn't seem to mean much at all. You can access a library, which has some books in it. You can go down to the waterfront and take a look around there. There's a bunker somewhere, too. You can trot around this island for ages, screen by screen, and still not understand what you're supposed to be doing, because the game doesn't tell you.

There are two ways to design puzzles for an adventure game. The first is to isolate puzzles to single areas, present a few obviously interactive items in the world, and to encourage the player to experiment with them to see how they operate. The second way is to allow the player to venture deeper into the world, across several different areas, giving them an overriding objective that they must achieve by some puzzling means. Often this will involve collecting inventory items, combining them, talking to characters, and generally analysing your way through - all the while having at least a vague idea of what you want the outcome to be.

Myst accepts both these schools, but doesn't quite get why they exist as mutual exclusives. What Myst does is this: it drops you into a large world, gives you no indication of where you're supposed to be heading, and drops levers around the place. Lots of levers. So many stupid bloody levers.

With these levers, you're expected to fiddle and fumble and generally mess around until something happens. Which would be fine if there were only a couple to try out. But there aren't. In Myst, so many things can be flicked or turned or pulled or pushed. Objects can be interacted with everywhere you look, but the only way, for much of the game, to understand what they do is to just give it a go and hope for the best.

This, as you might expect, leads to the most extraordinary frustration.

And games would go on to mimic it, once again providing no real clues as to how progress should be made, and offering very little feedback when you do stumble upon the right answer. There is no reward for your astounding patience, other than to be drip-fed the next bit of story, or allowed into the next part of the environment.

And yet... that's kind of why Myst worked; why it was popular and so many immitators weren't. The puzzles might be absolutely apocalyptically bad, but very slowly the game starts to open up into something that exudes a fair amount of atmosphere.

The story's a bit of a confusing mess that thinks it's more interesting than it actually is, but there's still something haunting that runs through its core. And while the game's almost-two-decades-old visuals now leave a lot to be desired, they still capture an essence of this place. Imagine it rendered with cutting-edge technology, as was the case with Myst back in the day, and it's easy to see what compelled so many people to ignore the crippling frustration and continue exploring anyway.

Myst is not a good game, and it never was. It's important to make that very clear. But what it is is a very good game world, one which gently tempts you into delving further into it. The only way to do so is to fluke your way through yet another abysmal lever puzzle, but contrary to what some would have you believe, the reward is something a little bit more than just pretty pictures to gawp at.


Lewis's avatar
Freelance review by Lewis Denby (March 25, 2011)

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EmP posted March 25, 2011:

Had you started to big this awful mess of a 'game' up, I would have been on the first train to Leeds. I would have found you. And done awful things. You're still on thin ice after the Broken Sword Directors Cut fiasco. I don't forget.

I commend if not fully agree with this review. Welcome back for a spell again.
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radicaldreamer posted March 26, 2011:

I'm confused. Are you using "big" as a verb Emp?
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wolfqueen001 posted March 26, 2011:

In the context in which he uses it, to "big up" something means ti praise it.

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