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Memory Leaks: Myst

📚 Just take a look, it's in a book...

Myst was a point-and-click puzzle/adventure game published in 1993 by Broderbund and developed for PC by Cyan. It was a surprise runaway hit, becoming the best-selling PC in the world and holding onto that title until 2002. Its success helped drive CD-ROM as a format for gaming and PC entertainment. In it, you explore an island whose various locations contain books that double as portals to other realms called "Ages". In each of these realms you collect blue and red pages that can be used to complete books in Myst's central library. These books appear to be holding people inside them, each one swearing that the other cannot be trusted. Which one should you free?

How I Remember It...

This felt like a game for smart people--especially when you compare it to the other runaway PC gaming success of 1993, which was Doom, the game the popularized first-person shooters. Myst was a quieter and thinkier game that felt like it was deliberately targeting bookish, nerdy types as its audience. The whole narrative gimmick is that books will transport you to other worlds--I mean that's not even subtext, that's the literal text! There was no combat, just some really satisfying and layered puzzling. There were four main areas that you needed to complete, each one locked behind a puzzle on the main island of Myst that serves as the game's hub. Once you figured out how to access that Age, you then had to do a lot of exploration and trial-and-error to uncover the mechanics at the heart of how each world works. In order to navigate Channelwood, for example, you have to hook up the pipes that allow water pressure to power the lifts and bridges. This in turn opens up more of the map so you can find a red page, a blue page, and the exit.

Of course, the puzzling was only half of the appeal. The Ages of Myst all feel like they were recently abandoned. Every turn has you stumbling into something that wasn't supposed to be found. The aesthetic is vaguely steampunky--well before we'd all burned out on steampunk--and the game interface focuses on the artful presentation of the world. Unlike other first-person games where you move around freely in the environment, Myst is presented more like a series of still photographs that you flip between. Clicking on something in your view will move you forward either as a way to navigate the island or to zoom in so you can interact with specific elements. This means that the entire island is composed of pre-rendered images. You're trading restricted movement for a much more visually detailed world, which suits the gameplay wonderfully and really adds to the sense of awe and wonder you get from playing.

It's also very cleverly written. The whole gimmick with the ending (uh, spoiler alert, I guess) is that both options presented to you are bad. The two brothers Sirrus and Achenar have been trapped in the blue and red books for a reason, and the more you learn about them, the less trustworthy they seem. However, they are both adamant that you must not touch a third green book that is hidden on the island. It turns out this book is where their father Atrus resides, and finding him is the only good ending of the game. I will confess that I beat the game by accident the first time I played it, choosing to look in the green book thinking it would be bad just to sate my curiosity before finishing the game. So, you know, lucky me.

The game spawned a successful sequel called Riven that continues the story and provides a much bigger and more elaborate experience as you dig into why Atrus was imprisoned and what he's been trying to do while trapped in the Age of D'ni. A whole series of books were published that developed the lore and characters. Ultimately, there have been five games, but none were as successful or influential as Myst. I also ended up with a CD-ROM spoof of the game called Pyst that showed the island having become a tourist trap. It was narrated by John Goodman. Very weird, but amusing.

Myst and its sequels are readily available on PC. Myst was remastered with higher resolution art in 2000 as Myst: Masterpiece Edition, and got another glow-up in 2014 with realMyst, that has a fully interactive 3D world. And it's still worth playing, I think. The puzzles are challenging but very solvable by a casual gamer, and the joy of finding things in the various nooks and crannies is still quite rewarding.

In MEMORY LEAKS, Kurt is going through his favorite video games. See more posts.