‘Image slideshow’ is a fairly accurate description of how this game functions: it’s basically a succession of frames that you navigate between. It plays in first person, with a hand cursor on the screen to handle all interactions with the environment, be it moving, reading journals or solving puzzles. Concerning movement, you need to click on a spot in your current frame to move in that direction. Say there’s a staircase you want to go up: click on it, and the view will change to the next frame, where you’ll find yourself closer to the staircase in question. Some spots are inaccessible, so clicking on them won’t have any effect. There’s also a ‘zip’ option, represented by a lightning bolt cursor, which you can toggle manually and which basically enables shortcuts: clicking on the lightning bolt when it appears will whisk you off directly to the desired location, provided you’ve visited it before. The drawback being that there’s a chance you’ll miss important clues or simply a screen on which you need to manipulate something. It’s possible to save at any time, by bringing up a drop-down menu at the top of the screen.
In most frames, you can click on the sides of the screen to turn left or right, and sometimes, to look up or down as well. Solving puzzles sometimes requires you to mimic the movement to be performed with the cursor, e.g. striking a match. All in all, however, there’s nothing complicated about the interface.
What all Myst games have in common is the abundance of reading material. Everyone in Atrus’ family appears to be fond of keeping journals, which, of course, is very convenient for your investigative purposes. In this game, each of the four ages you explore has its own descriptive journal, penned by Atrus. Each journal contains some helpful hints for either navigating the age itself or solving the puzzle to access its linking book on Myst island. They also provide some context and background story, which helps to establish an atmosphere for each age.
The game’s structure is typical of the series and will be reprised in most of the subsequent games. Myst island functions as a hub, connected to the various ages you need to explore. Each age has an identical underlying structure: one puzzle to access its linking book on Myst, then one or two puzzles within the age itself, solving which will lead you to the linking book back to Myst. You simply need to keep an eye out for the red and blue pages along the way.
As for the puzzles themselves, none of them are excessively difficult, at least not in terms of figuring out the solution. Nowhere near the level of some of the mind-bogglers from later games. Execution is a different matter, which some people might have difficulties with. The puzzle for accessing the Selenitic linking book, for instance, might pose problems to people who have no musical notions, and the one for Channelwood, as already mentioned, is timed. Stoneship also features a timed puzzle, but it’s nowhere near as hectic as the Channelwood one. The biggest puzzle-related problem you can encounter is the fact that Mechanical needs to be explored as early as possible, due to the fact that it contains clues for a different age. There’s no indication of this in the game, so people who save it for last (or simply explore the other age beforehand), may find themselves stumped. It’s still possible to solve the puzzle without the indications from Mechanical, but it’s a lot more difficult.
As far as Sirrus and Achenar are concerned, it’s perfectly acceptable to collect both blue and red pages, and find out what they both have to say, if you don’t feel like taking a stand right away. The first time you talk to either of them, the connection will be very faulty, and you won’t be able to make out more than a few words. Each page added to their books will make the connection clearer, but, in case you’re worried, the last page to be collected from an age won’t automatically free them. Turns out there’s still another, very well hidden one of each out there, and that’s the point where you’ll have to make your final decision as to whom to trust. The only issue with collecting both the red and blue pages is that, while they don’t hinder your puzzle-solving abilities–the cursor will register that you’re holding a page, but you’ll still be able to use it normally–, you can only carry one at a time: if you try to pick up the other one, you’ll drop the one you’re carrying, and it will return to its initial location. This effectively means that you’ll need to make two trips to each age to collect all pages. While this is very easy in the case of Mechanical and Stoneship, it’s distinctly more aggravating for Channelwood and Selenitic, the first one because of the timed puzzle to access its linking book, the second one because of the maze to reach the book back to Myst. Up to you to decide whether you want to bother or not.
Finally, matters of life and death. It’s not possible to actually be killed in the game: there are no life-threatening situations or aggressive creatures. There is, however, the possibility of screwing up the ending. There are four endings in total, only one of which is good, the rest all being variations on the ‘stuck somewhere with no way back’ theme. It may sound daunting, but once the decision rolls around, the correct solution is rather obvious. The only problem is that the good ending is so thoroughly anticlimactic. Good thing the subsequent games in the series dealt with this problem.