Good Old Reviews
Myst - Mystery Man

Grey Carter | 28 Nov 2015 08:00
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Even the puzzles are designed to reinforce the notion of the environment as a character. There's only a handful of self-contained puzzles, the rest will have you traveling all over the island figuring out how the various devices scattered around it work together. You're expected to recognize reoccurring art motifs, or subtle clues that indicate one random Jules Verne bullshit machine is directly connected to a similar Jules Verne bullshit machine on the other side of the island. It's not quite trial and error, but I can see how frustrated players might see it that way. Instead the game encourages a kind of holistic approach (warning: we have reached peak wankery) to puzzle solving. You need to experiment. You press a few buttons and see how the island reacts. You press a few more and watch carefully. Eventually a convoluted system begins to emerge. Even with the dimension hopping that starts to come into play in the middle of the game, Myst feels less like a series of puzzles and more like one large puzzle made up of dozens of smaller ones. It's really quite addictive once you've made a little bit of progress.

The vast majority of Myst's puzzles are fanciful, but grounded in a Verne-esque, steampunky, mechanical realism. They're machines that seem like they could actually exist, which makes figuring out what they actually do a lot easier. That being said, they're still very much old-school "puzzles" in that they serve no real in-universe purpose beyond being arbitrary roadblocks. If you're the kind of person who feels the need to ask why someone might hide a touch sensitive LCD screen inside their fireplace, then Myst might be a bit deliberately obtuse for you.

While they don't make a great deal of sense in terms of realistic environmental design, the puzzles fit perfectly with the game's surprisingly focused aesthetic approach. While the game's art direction is arguably far weaker than that of its sequel, Riven, there's a scholarly theme that runs throughout, from the Classical architecture of the central buildings, to the brass and leather of the hidden libraries, to the obvious colonial visual themes of the hidden ages. It's a good use of visual theming that almost makes up for how ugly the actual 3D work is.

Myst 03

And that brings us on to what was the game's greatest strength, and is now its greatest failing: Its visuals and the sacrifices it makes to deliver them. Myst was a graphical marvel back in its day. Many a mind was blown by its tubular, X-treme, 1993 CD-ROM grafix. By which I mean the game was essentially a series of pixelated screenshots of a pre-rendered environment made with primitive 3D modeling tools. That crack I made at the beginning about Myst playing like a PowerPoint presentation? That wasn't a joke. The game is literally a series of slides. There's the odd bit of animation, but the first thing you're likely to notice when you boot up the game is that the ocean surrounding the island is completely static. Most of it is static.

There's nothing inherently wrong with the system, but Myst obviously suffers from being the first of its kind and it seems like the devs were struggling to tell the difference between features and limitations. The game loves to change your orientation without telling you, and with no indication of which direction you're facing, it's very difficult to keep your bearings. Worse, some of the routes through the island are only noticeable when you're facing a specific way on a specific tile. For the most part, Myst is hard but fair (except the bloody piano puzzle), but it dips into bullshit territory when it starts using the crappy navigation system against you.

And it's not like Myst's pre-rendered backgrounds are particularly impressive. The 3D modeling tools used to create the island were obviously still in their infancy (Myst predates Toy Story by about two years and ReBoot by one). The world design is interesting and thematically appropriate, but we're looking at it through an awful early 90's jank filter. Look at those trees, man. Those trees are terrifying.

Ultimately, Myst is a great study in simple, efficient design, and I wish more modern devs would jettison bloat as ruthlessly as Cyan did in 1993. But, as I said in my opening paragraph, you should play a version of Myst, just not this version. Nearly every problem I have with the game is technical, and so many of those problems are solved in RealMyst: Masterpiece Edition. There's something to be said for authenticity and playing a game "the way it was meant to be played," but there's nothing in Myst that isn't done better in its own remake.

And seriously. Fuck that piano puzzle.

- Grey Carter

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