Was the largest-selling computer game of our time a groundbreaking epic? The first truly successful interactive story? Or was Myst just a bombastic flash in the pan, a one-shot wonder, the "In-A-Gadda-Da-Vida" of the personal-computer age?
Depends on who you ask.
For computer consultant Gordon Currie of Dawson Creek, British Columbia, discovering the game was almost a spiritual awakening: "It brought out a creative side in me. It's like when you plug along in your life and all of a sudden one day somebody throws something on you that touches you so much that you have to go out and share it with others." After replaying the game many times, Currie created the most comprehensive site on the Web for the game, Myst Links.
Jeff Lundrigan, reviews editor of the gutsy electronic-gaming magazine Next Generation, considers this graphic adventure somewhat differently. A veteran of countless computer games, Lundrigan does not have nice things to say about Myst. "It's mysterious why the game was as popular as it was," he cracks, excusing the pun. "I mean, it's pretty. You wander from place to place. But after about 40 minutes you start to ask, What's the point? People say there is a logic to it but I don't get it." Lundrigan echoes the views of many a hard-core gamer.
Now the computer industry is watching closely to see how Myst's three-years-in-the-works follow-up Riven is doing. The success or failure of Riven, which was just released on Halloween, will show whether Myst was a fluke. Will the new game show itself to be the work of designers reasserting their leadership of the electronic-gaming field or of designers figuratively standing aside while time and technology pass them by?
Myst has sold more than 3.5 million copies since it debuted three years ago. "It was the right game at the right time," Lundrigan says. People were just starting to buy CD-ROM players, and Myst was one of the medium's first well-designed, smoothly running programs. Beyond that, it proved the medium could be an art form, providing a level of graphic detail and interactivity unlike anything else.
Myst was created by two reclusive brothers-Rand Miller (now 38), a computer programmer, and Robyn (31), then an anthropology student who spent a lot of time drawing fantastic lands. The Millers made more than just a game-they built an entire world into which Currie and countless others fell.
"It was one of those games that I played for hours and hours. You get totally enthralled with it. It took me about 40 hours to get to the end," Currie says.
Players are plopped down on a desolate island occupied by a sunken ship, a planetarium, a spaceship, and other objects either ancient or futuristic. You can hear the crisp turning of the pages of a book, or see sea gulls flying by in the "sky." Investigate enough nooks and crannies and eventually a story-a complex, multifaceted (and, to some critics, nonsensical) story-emerges: Two brothers have been encased in books and wish to escape; they urge you to search for clues to help them. You, theoretically, learn more about them and whether you should be on their side.
If being trapped in a book sounds bizarre, well, be forewarned: Myst dances around the laws of physics. Getting anywhere in this parallel world involves adopting the Millers' weird intuitive thinking. Players gather cryptic messages that may or may not be of some use when confronted with puzzles that must be solved to get to other dimensions. There's plenty of guesswork.
This weird cosmology has left many players gasping in wonder, and others irked. "Myst was the antithesis of good game design-the puzzles are just trial and error," Lundrigan complains. Indeed, many gamers never made it off of Myst Island to experience the other worlds at all. They just wandered about, marveling at the pretty pictures and getting precious little in the way of clues to reveal there was a story line.
Riven picks up where Myst left off (literally-it opens in Myst's last room). But the newer adventure is much, much more complex-not only in plot, but in presentation. Robyn Miller has said more than once that Riven is to Myst what J.R.R. Tolkien's Lord of the Rings was to The Hobbit-the latter a mere introduction to an alternate universe, the former a far richer trip through it. It's a gargantuan game by any measure-five CDs with more than 4,000 images, two hours of film, and an elaborate soundtrack. Riven takes place on five mini-islands populated by strange peoples and unworldly animals, and filled with tunnels, caves, and forests, all hand-rendered in amazing detail.
Still, much has changed in four years. Back in 1993 Duke Nukem was still a bitty side scroller, and Internet multiplayer games were largely unheard of because the Internet was largely unheard of. Since then more sophisticated games such as King's Quest have come out, making Myst's point-and-click interface-the same interface used in Riven-look archaic.
But Currie remains adamantly confident of Riven's success. He was given a preview of the game and, far from being disappointed, he found it to be "more than I ever would have expected. It's 10 times better than Myst. And that's not just my feelings. That's shared by many others who have seen the game."