Wednesday, September 25, 2013

Game Retrospective: Myst-use of Time

In the name of dissertation research, I've finished a playthrough of the original Myst.*  My thoughts and the explanation behind the asterisk, after the break.

Okay, first the asterisk. I played the 10 year anniversary edition of Myst rather than the original, because that's the one that's available through online distribution, and I don't have a working CD-ROM drive to play the original on anyway. I don't think there's a difference, except maybe the hint system, which I didn't use. (Nothing noble behind that motivation--I just found it easier to use online walkthroughs over a hint system designed to offer oblique clues to the next step.)

As I finished the monumental task of completing Planescape: Torment, I was faced with a dilemma: I was only a quarter through the games I was planning on playing for my current chapter. And time was marching on, with or without me. Ultimately, then, I decided to do a very quick playthrough of Myst and Doom, and leave Night Trap by the wayside. (Alas, poor FMV, we barely knew thee.) The results were... kind of disappointing. I've spent a week on Myst, which is better than the time I spent on P:T, God knows, but it's still a week where I wasn't writing much of anything. And there's still DOOM to go. But as long as I've gotten as far as I have, let's go over some bullet points regarding what I thought about the grand daddy of Pre-Sims gaming.

We Are Experiencing Technical Difficulties. Around this time last year, I was playing It Came From the Desert on a Commodore Amiga emulator for another dissertation chapter, and it was a mess to get working. Myst wasn't quite that bad, but it was still surprisingly difficult considering this was a game designed for Windows. Granted, Windows 2000, but still. It took me a while to figure out that the sound was actually better if I turned OFF the Windows 2000 emulation, but the graphics were better if I set it to go to 256 colors. The real kicker, though, was the animation. I was a full two hours into the game, and it looked like there was nothing I could do anywhere that I hadn't already done, when I figured out that the fault was not me, but the game. Specifically, none of the animations were playing, which meant I wasn't getting the graphic recording of Atreus telling Catherine the first clue. To solve that little problem, I had to uninstall QuickTime, and reinstall an earlier, more compatible version. Fun. And even then, the game crashed on occasion, and I could only restore a save if I did so from within the game, not from the menu screen. To top it all off, I STILL couldn't interact with some of the animations; no matter how yearnfully I clicked, the match in my hand would not light the furnace, and thus I couldn't complete the Candlewood Age--or enter it, for that matter. And so, I had to watch the last half or so of the game on YouTube (that's the other reason for the asterisk). There's a message here about the difficulty of preserving digital artifacts. Books are easy to preserve--games aren't. So much technology is contingent on time and cost.

It's quiet. Too quiet? I read a paper recently that argued that Doom and Myst are constrained in different ways by their technology, that if their designers had their druthers, both would be fully-voice acted, and populated with NPC as far as the eye could see, if only the budget and tech would have allowed it. I'll grant that this has some truth to it, but at the end of the day, a game scholar has to evaluate the game at hand, not the game idealized. So you take the tech into consideration, but it's important not to overuse it as the excuse for the game's limitations. 

What I'm getting at here is that for all that it was praised as ground-breaking in its time, Myst has a very direct lineage in text- and graphic-based adventure games. (And it's somewhat ironic that it's the genre's most financially successful example, but also a nail (of many) in its 90s coffin, as it raised the bar for what was expected graphically for such a game to such a point that many developers couldn't reach it.) It borrows a lot of the puzzle types, especially in terms of its water puzzles and pointlessly hard to navigate mazes--something the text-based era can keep, thank you very much. The big innovation, besides the graphics, which I'll talk about later--is the first person perspective, and the implicit result that the player is the avatar to a level a 3rd person perspective can't allow. But, as first person games have struggled with since, the problem with creating that illusion is that it means the protagonist can't talk, and you're in the awkward position of having characters emote and befriend a being who ignores all of their entreaties to speak (See also: Half-Life.). And this is a big part of graphic adventure games, traditionally. (Not text, though--the implication in text was usually the avatar = you as well.) Their PCs are always visible, and usually have a personality distinct enough to interest the player in the plot, make them care about the outcome, and generally distract from the fact that the game's a linear railroad. Hence some of the most memorable characters in videogames: Guybrush Threepwood, Leisure Suit Larry, the cast of Day of the Tentacle.

Cyan's solution to the issue is to remove interaction with other characters from the occasion. There are a grand total of three other peeps in the game, and most of the time, they're talking to you from positions where they can't hear you talk back. And this issue, whether you label it a technical limitation or a design choice, is absolutely crucial for shaping every element of the game. Myst is a quiet, somber game because there's no people here. It's empty, and empty in a way that gives it a sense of eeriness, and sometimes, of hostility. Myst isn't really a game of tension in terms of the individual puzzles (though there is some escalation as you get closer to collecting the pages). You never feel in danger, or even any particular sense of urgency. Rather, the whole game gives the sense that ever has happened to this world has already happened--the player is not there to effect great change, to save the day and defeat a great evil, but to witness the remains. It's an interesting reversal of most games' hero-centric focus, and perhaps part of the key to Myst's success. The player acts as forensic detective, or maybe archaeologist, working out what happened. It's an aesthetic choice/technological limitation that sets the game's tone, but also one that sets the stage for its failures, as I'll get to.

The Ending is Not Yet Written. And it's the story that reinforces the sense of detective most of all. The plot comes out slowly (although not by any means evenly), through written text, the brothers' testimony, and the details of the surroundings. You come to on an island after falling through a book. Everything seems deserted and locked. A note will lead you to counting the switch boxes around the area, and then in time you will be pushed to the library. Once there, you'll find a red book and page, and a blue book and page. Put the blue in blue and you meet the crazed Achenar; put the red in red and you get the sneering Sirrus. (It won't let you put blue in red or vice versa; presumably, you'd cross the streams, and a marshmallow disaster would result.) It's staticky, but both brothers tell a similar story as you return more pages to them: each says the other has been corrupted, and is responsible for their father imprisoning them, before killing their father. The other major source of information is the journals in the library, which you'll have to read at some point, as, if for nothing else, you can't get past the piano puzzle without it, and the constellation puzzle would require some very intuitive leaps.

What we get from the journal is their father Atrus' side of the story, as he explains how he created the various Ages, built the artifacts you spend much of the game interacting with, and introducing his sons to the world. You don't get much of the sons' temperament, which I suppose is necessary if you're to avoid spoiling the final bit, but it does make Atreus look rather oblivious, and creates a lacuna of sorts between their portrayal in the journal and their personas in the prison books. You also get sketches, clues to various puzzles that only make sense later, and a hint or two to the nature of the books. It's basically the brunt of the game's backstory, so they have to fit a lot into these journals.

So the game is predicated as a choice. Do you gather the blue pages to free Achenar, or the red to free Sirrus? Each brother claims they're innocent, and so in addition to playing the detective, you take on the role of the judge. (Spoilers from here on out on the story--skip to the next section if you're worried about being spoiled on the ending to a twenty year old game.) The other hint to the narrative is the islands themselves, and the bedrooms the brothers set up. (For two people who are willing to sell each other out now, they were once pretty damn chummy, as their bedrooms are almost always within two or three screens of each other.) Achenar comes off as not just crazy but dangerous, as his rooms contain torture instruments and various weapons. But Sirrus doesn't come off great either, as his rooms are filled with treasure chests, and valuable artifacts. And if you think about it, neither of their stories really hang together--if their father sealed them both in books, how could either of them have killed him?

 It's hear where the game introduces, in the final act, the twist. Both brothers warn you the green book is a trap. It is, but it's a trap that's already been activated, with big daddy Atrus inside. He tells the truth: his sons got too big for their britches, torched the people of Myst, and threw him in the green book without the page he needed to escape. And then each took one of the trap books he left lying around and imprisoned themselves. (Which leaves the glaring question of who exactly ripped out their pages to begin and scattered them, but never mind.) To get the good ending, you have to solve the last puzzle to retrieve the missing page (and it's a nice homage to the game's first puzzle--I appreciate the full circle aspect) and free Atrus. Hints of a sequel, and credits roll. It's a very simple story, one that's far more told than shown, and even then, the game design and relative dearth of NPCs means it's simpler than most games of its genre. Sirrus and Achenar are so clearly villainous that it makes Atrus look seriously flawed in judgment as a consequence. I don't care how hands-off your parenting is, when your son can't say five words without giggling maniacally, it's time for some tough love.  That said, it was a pretty decent twist to put into the story, and one that fits Achenar and Sirrus as they're presented. It's a clever variation on the "Lady or the Tiger" type choice.The simplicity of the story works in its favor to an extent, because everything builds to that final choice.

Make a Mustache to Impersonate the Mustache-less Man. Let's talk about the game's puzzles. Other than the constant tech issues, the puzzles were by far the most frustrating part of Myst.  When I started complaining about this game on Facebook, I got some pretty heated responses, in favor of it and against. I think the determining factor here is nostalgia, whether or not you managed to get past the puzzles all by yourself in the game's original heyday back in 1993, before the days of the widespread Internet FAQ. For me, I not only don't have nostalgia for the game, I've got anti-nostalgia. See, my memory of Myst is associated with its sequel. And Riven's puzzles are... hard. Ridiculously hard. Convoluted, difficult, to this day impossible for me to solve without a walkthrough hard. I hated it then, I hate it now. And some of that hatred sloshed on to Myst. Unfairly, I'll admit. Because even while Riven's puzzles required "Babel Fish in the Ear" level of intuitive leaps, Myst isn't too bad. As long as you find the journals and realize how the tower rotation puzzle works, everything else flows more or less equally. Granted, the Selentic Age puzzle is hard, but the piano puzzle on the way in gives the clue. And each of the separate ages are self-contained--all the tools you need for a given puzzle are contained in that world. Puzzle-wise, Myst plays it fair with the player.

That said, there are three problems with them that simply wouldn't fly in modern gaming, and probably hastened the end of the adventure game genre. First is the nature of the puzzles. If you're going to sell a game on its photorealism, then you have to also sell it on the realistic nature of the world. And none of the Ages are particularly realistic because they're all bizarre puzzles set up for no obvious reason. Yes, you can vaguely hand-wave that if Atrus had figured out his sons' nature, he'd have run around setting up various delaying mechanisms to prevent them from getting ultimate power right away, but it still seems more than a little ridiculous. You can't access the mechanical age without first aligning the tower to get the clock combination, unlocking the clock tower, and solving the crank puzzle inside. You can't access the Stoneship age without using the tower to get the dates to plug into the solarium to press the symbol columns. And you can't access the spaceship age without setting the right voltage using a system where the fourth button gives 22 volts, and the fifth 17, then using the key combination in the journal on the organ in the spaceship to give you a sense of the tones to tune the sliders on the other side of the ship. It's not uncommon for adventure games of the era to include Rube Goldberg machines in order to draw out their playtime--and that's one of the reasons they died out. Many of those games had humorous characters or story to distract from the contrived nature of the puzzles; Myst's largely empty nature makes the design issues stand out more.

Second, there's the sensitivity of the puzzles. I'm going to assume this is a technology limitation, and I'll admit a track pad isn't the best tool for issues that require a sensitive mouse. But I spent ages adjusting sliders to get to just the right damn date, and rotating the tower in the Mechanical Age was not a happy point of my life. But the absolute worst were the sliders in the space ship, where I had to match the sliders to precise key tones. The designers chose to set it at a very fine gradation, even though creating a series of notches was entirely possible. I get why they did it that way--in adventure games, there were often points where the player had to input a number or result, and the designers didn't want them to brute force it. (It would have been incredibly easy to set up a flag where the player couldn't input a code until they have the number, but never mind.) So, you make your puzzle with thousands of combinations to prevent the guessing. But with five sliders in this puzzle, and, say, a seven note range, you'd still have enough combinations--over 16 000--to make guessing impossible. As it stood, it took me a full half hour to solve that puzzle, even though I knew exactly how to do it. It shouldn't take that long in a puzzle game to go from understanding how the solution works to implementing it. At that point, you're less trying to prevent brute force, and more trying to artificially inflate playing time.

And that's the biggest annoyance--the way the game artificially inflated how long it took me to play. Because of the nature of puzzle games, once you know how to solve it, they generally go pretty quickly. But at the time (as now, to an extent) the value of a game was bound up with how long it took to beat it. So adventure games tended to have a lot of wandering and back and forth that, strictly speaking, didn't need to be there. The worst in Myst is maze you have to navigate through in one of the ages, where a very, very small portion of the screen is devoted to the track in front of you. It's clearly a scene designed to show of the animation power of the game, but the result is that you're forced through a large track that requires a brute force solution, tediously turning at every step. Part of the problem is that instead of just the four cardinal, you can move the ship in 8 directions. So turning gets a little tedious. And there's some twists and turns in the paths, so mapping is less than easy. Imagine a puzzle-based game nowadays that would require mapping. (Granted, there may be some clue to navigation based on the sound effects and pings the engine makes, but I could never figure it out.)

But the real culprit that seems designed to inflate play time is the inventory limitation. The point of going to each time period is to collect the pages you need to finish the brothers' books and free them from their prisons. But, if you want to hear what both brothers have to say, you'll have to visit each Age twice--because your avatar is incapable of holding two pages at the same. And while some of the puzzles stay set, others reset when you return. The game crashed a little after I did the second trip through the maze, so I had to navigate through it AGAIN TWICE to get those pages--that's four times through that damned maze, all because the designers seemed a little worried I might lose my head and do a speed run.

To sum up, then--Myst isn't the most tedious adventure game I've played, nor the most illogical--you'd have to go into the text-based to hit those heights. The puzzles are mostly fair, even if the implementation of them is not. But that implementation is annoying enough that it'll never be a classic for me. I'm going to note its significance in larger game culture, strip-mine it for image-text issues (journals play the major role here--and the use of books as transport, and the amination), and move on.

Later Days.

1 comment:

Person of Consequence said...

Interesting postscript here: a year and change later, I'm willing to change my tune. Myst's annoyances have faded from mind, and what's left is a memory of puzzles that, for the most part, were doable, and fair. Nothing I said originally about the game is incorrect, but it seems time does indeed dull the pain, in this case at least. (Though it'd probably be a different story if I had to navigate that maze again.)