Myst: Masterpiece Edition

"Myst is one of the loneliest experiences in video games, and that's part of its beauty."

Myst imbued my childhood with a sense of haunting wonder that never wore off. I remember sitting in front of the television (we had the game for Sega Saturn), aiding my brother, who was at the helm, whenever and however I could, and my father stopping in to offer wild theories and potential leads. With no omnipotent Internet at our sides, we spent weeks trying to decode the arcane mysteries of that island. Myst had secrets to tell, and I would be damned if I never learned them.

Over a decade later, I beat Myst in about four hours, alone, without a single hint. What was over ten years in the making came to a close: I learned the secrets of Myst. The plot seems simpler now, and the puzzles less esoteric, but the haunting sense of wonder still kept me fascinated from beginning to end. I was enchanted, and my eyes hardly wandered from the screen. Despite its age, Myst is truly captivating.

Somewhat like this review, Myst tells the story of two brothers and their father through the eyes of an impartial explorer. This explorer is you, who stumbled upon a book with the power to transport the reader to the locale its pages describe. That place is the deserted and abandoned island of Myst where, through your wandering, you must uncover clues to its creation and its past.

What seemed to be a magical mystery as a child is still quite magical, although less a mystery than I once believed. Although narrative cues are few and far between, a plot eventually emerges to those who apply a little imagination. What little narrative exists implies a grand backstory with an air of surreal mystery that tantalizes the imagination. Even better, the island of Myst and its outer realms have a singular atmosphere of haunted majesty. The landscapes and structures seem plagued by the ghosts of some catastrophe that caused the desertion. Myst is one of the loneliest experiences in video games, and that's part of its beauty. Alongside loneliness, the game pushes other emotions onto the player. The arrangement of objects in a room can spell chilling dread and the words on a page might evoke melancholy. In the end, Myst does hold secrets, and while they aren't as universally enlightening as I once thought, discovering them proves powerful.

Without its art and sound design, Myst's atmosphere wouldn't be nearly as compelling and unique. Despite the Masterpiece Edition's higher visual and audio fidelity, the FMVs are still grainy and the sound is still simple; only one sound effect or music track can play at one time. But the pre-rendered backgrounds, the snippets of music, and even the sound effects establishes a surreal, ghostly atmosphere. Although the embedded Quicktime video clips stand out awkwardly against the pre-rendered art, their grainy quality only heightens the strangeness of the island. Music plays at all the right moments, creating complex, yet precise moods. Some areas feel forbidden and private, others chilling, and still more feel pregnant with puzzle solutions.

In an early graphic adventure like Myst, I expected to find the prototype for many puzzles now familiar in the genre. Instead, I found puzzles unlike any others. Although much more tangible and logical than I thought they were as a child, the puzzles have a special quality I haven't detected elsewhere in the genre that makes them feel more arcane. I believe this comes from the fact that the player rarely has a goal. Most graphic adventures give the player a destination or an object to fetch, often visible on the screen, but just out of reach. Myst gives no such directives, and I found myself surprised that I could make any progress at all. When I did, however, I felt all the more accomplished. Unfortunately, the game isn't very interactive. With few exceptions, objects can't be picked up and examined, and most things in the environment can't be manipulated. There are some neat (and wonderfully bizarre) interactive details that don't pertain to any puzzle, but I would have liked to see more.

My only major complaint involves navigation. Without a cursor to show direction, moving around Myst can prove tedious and difficult. The cursor, an open hand, never changes into arrows or similar shapes. Thus, determining where to click to move or turn around can be murky. Sometimes a click to the right produces a 90-degree turn, sometimes a 180-degree turn, sometimes a full move, and sometimes nothing. A few areas saw me moving back and forth between screens before I found the right clicking point for the desired path. A few puzzles also require precise manipulation of levers or buttons, which I found unreasonably tedious.

The Masterpiece Edition introduces a few changes, most of which might go unnoticed without research (or an eidetic memory). As I said, the graphics have seen improvement in resolution and color depth. Some FMVs are also reportedly clearer and the audio has been cleaned up, but I didn't actively notice any of these. The remake improves compatibility with various versions of Windows, although I couldn't get Myst to run on Windows 7 (as advertised) without frequent crashes. Finally, Masterpiece introduces a hint system that provides not only minor clues, but full solutions as well as helpful maps. While I didn't need them during my recent replay, my child self would have sold souls for such a tool. Those worried about an "impure" experience need not; this is largely Myst as it was in 1993. The differences are welcome, but not intrusive.

Myst took me over ten years to complete and it serves as a compass for my intellectual development. My having played many other games since then contributed surprisingly little to my new success; Myst is unlike anything else, in or out of the genre. Being transported to that iconic island is a disarming experience almost twenty years after its creation. Myst provides that rare experience of being able to feel like a child again.

© 2011 Cyan Worlds, Cyan Inc. All rights reserved.

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