By 1993, video games were going hormonal on CD-ROMs, tripping out on 32-bit colors – let’s call it gaming’s high school days. Imagine yourself in game school. You’re Myst, sitting in class, mulling over how you’re going to get down the hall without Doom and Duke Nukem taking your lunch money. Gunstar Heroes is smacking you with a high-octane spitball. A Link to the Past is trying to catch your eye but you’ve got a crush on someone dark and shy and sitting way in the back of the room (her name is Zork). Super Mario Bros. is the teacher, and he asks you the minimum points you’d have if you beat World 1-1 with all the coins and half the time remaining. You stand up and before you know what you’re saying, you’re asking why it matters, if we’re all going to die anyway. If life is nothing but points, what mysteries remain? Isn’t it possible for games to evolve?
Your classmates would probably just stare (save Zork – I imagine her smiling knowingly under her eyeliner). You might be staring too, not realizing how long I’d labor that analogy. But as rudimentary as Myst looks now, we have to imagine its subtle rebellion, the kind that goes against teachers and classmates and everyone else, that your stomach tells you won’t work even as you’re blurting it out. The game wasn’t even a full 3D environment (you moved between still images, as you might turn the pages of a storybook). Against flashier and faster, Myst gathered a following around its essential spirit more than its graphics or gameplay. It was barely even a video game, as we understood them (The New York Times reviewed it in an article titled, “A New Artform May Arise from the ‘Myst’”). Some even suggested that playing the game was a religious experience, which required your full attention in entering its alternate reality, inhabiting its mystery, and deciphering its code of values.
Myst is interesting to view now, because of how high and low tech coexist within it. It may be the first software with interactive morality, a world of rights and wrongs deeper than to beat or not to beat. It’s also about as technologically advanced as a screensaver.
But think about it in the abstract. Compare, for instance, the inherent pressure of the chase in a game like Pac-Man with the sense of lonely discovery in Myst. It is a world without enemies, but not without evil – in cryptic notes and messages, secret passages and hidden rooms, Myst pressures you to wonder about your role in its universe, to discover its dark secrets and solve the crisis of its world(s).
The island – often thought to be an extrapolation of the player’s mind – borrows heavily from sci-fi grandpas like Jules Verne and H.G. Wells, but also from Jungian psychology. Myst is a dream space which strives to imagine how players view game worlds when they inhabit them. As a child I remember associating the rooms of Myst with sensations and memories. I remember it much more haunting and sensitive than it seems now.
And after all that, I don’t think it’s particularly fun to play. That’s right: I’m hurling spitballs with Contra and heckling with Mega Man. But I’m not interested in levying my opinion about its gameplay so much as looking at the industry and realizing just how much of it is a debt owed to Myst.
The question is what Myst truly contributed to the industry, if it wasn’t 3D graphics. The most noticeable feeling when playing it is an unsettling sense of freedom. Not only is there no tutorial, but there are no levels and no direction. Exploring the rooms and paths on your own, reading lore, discovering secrets, is entirely up to you. Doing it all under a blanket is recommended but completely optional.
It’s hard to find a game today that doesn’t involve this principle, which Myst used as a transgression against its level-based contemporaries and which creates the free player expression that reviewers at the time experienced as the dawn of a new art. From such distant sources as the looting in a Bethesda RPG to the simple exploratory horror-fantasy of games like Portal, the Myst-effect appears somewhat interpretively. But think about 1993, about what games looked like in that era, on the SNES and the Genesis, and it becomes easy to start seeing a huge section of the modern Indie establishment as literal homage to Myst, as though it’s a singularity that all games now approach or resist, but never escape.
Games like gone home and What Remains of Edith Finch? make the argument easy. You can keep going, citing Dear Esther and Rust, Firewatch and The Stanley Parable and Amnesia. Let’s do their genealogy: what game could possibly be their most distant ancestor? Super Mario World? Myst creators Robyn and Rand Miller said they were most inspired to deviate from the trends of high scores and fast action by looking to the imaginative adventures of gaming’s distant past. Their creative sweetheart was a game called Zork.
The fact that it’s text-based gets at my point perfectly. Myst is a game as we imagined them to be: its island is the Millers’ idea of the world of treasure and mystery they built in their heads to explore – text gameplay was merely the means, as the picturesque frames in Myst are. Their act of game design is actually an act of visualization, and it’s that which people took with them, and which I would only tentatively call a niche religion, when they experienced Myst.
The whole industry can become an act of nostalgia along this line of thinking: a quest to re-explore the palace we all used to build when games were simpler, by wandering the ones we can now render and inhabit for five bucks on Steam. VR gives us even more immersion in our hope to boil gaming down to essentials, and turn it into pure imagination.
Myst was our first call to embark on that adventure. After all the ones we’ve been on, like an old memory of home, it doesn’t seem like much now, beyond what it means to us personally. But the more games I see, the more I think it might have made all the difference.