Trailblazer lost

The culprit: Uru: Ages beyond Myst (PC, Mac)

Hut in the skyI don’t think I will ever understand what possessed the makers of Myst to think that a multiplayer entry in the series was a good idea. Maybe this is just my inherent dislike of multiplayer speaking, but I’ve always considered the Myst series as the epitome of a personal gaming experience. Most of your time is spent exploring, gawking at scenery and thinking, and a great part of the appeal, at least to me, is being alone in a strange, otherworldly place, with just your wits to help you. There’s no combat and nothing that would be facilitated by the presence of another player. I guess you could bounce ideas off another person to solve puzzles, but the chances of you meeting a random player who hasn’t figured the puzzles out yet and is willing to team up to do so are slim at best. So what’s left? Sightseeing together? Surely you don’t need to create a whole game for that.

Apparently, I’m not the only one who thought so, as Uru: Ages beyond Myst, the fourth entry in the Myst series released in 2003, also proved to be its eventual death toll. The sales were so poor that they started Cyan Worlds, the developer, on a downward slope: the company almost closed in 2005, upon release of the final game in the series, Myst V, appropriately subtitled End of Ages. One of the main criticisms was that the online part of Uru…didn’t actually ship with the single-player version. The multiplayer content got delayed and eventually cancelled in 2004 due to a lack of subscribers, with the result that only the beta testers were ever allowed to try it out and sample what additional storyline there was. This was a massive failure of judgement on the developers’ part, which the release of the available online content as expansion packs barely mitigated. Some of the beta testers kept up their unofficial servers going, but they were unstable and didn’t feature any new content. Cyan got back on its feet somewhat in 2006, at which point content was gradually added until 2008, when more financial problems forced the game to go offline yet again, leaving the storyline in limbo. Finally, in 2010, Cyan released the source files free of charge, so that fans would be able to create their own content, and is now relying on donations to maintain the servers. The previously online-exclusive ages can now be played offline as well, with some help from a fan-made program called Drizzle.

Pink and blueParadoxically enough, fan support is the only thing that has kept Uru afloat throughout this snafu; they may not have been numerous, but they certainly were dedicated. All I really wanted was access to the online-only ages, and, with the latest resurrection of the online version, my wishes were finally granted. But was it worth it? I’m not sure. The ages are fun to experience, some are beautifully designed and some feature genuine brain-teasers as puzzles, but, overall, Uru distinctly feels like a lame duck. It suffers greatly by comparison with the previous entries in the series, as well as with its immediate successor, Myst IV. First of all, pre-rendered environments are gone, which dramatically affects the quality of the graphics. It’s not that it’s bad, but when you’re used to photorealistic detail, things in Uru feel a bit…plasticky, for lack of a better word. Secondly, the fact that you get to design an avatar for yourself also changes the game’s perspective. You can play in first-person view, but some puzzles are much easier in third-person. Besides, what’s the point of spending time and effort designing an avatar if you don’t see it in action? Lastly, and most importantly, the storyline that Uru introduces–to be continued in Myst V–is heavy on bizarre mysticism and only very tangentially related to Atrus’ history, another pillar of the Myst series, even though it features his daughter, Yeesha. So even after jumping through all the hoops necessary to experience a semblance of a coherent story and gaming experience, you might be left with a bitter taste in your mouth.

Detailed review available! Read more here.

Unforgotten, unforgiven

The culprit: Myst III: Exile (PC, Mac, Xbox, PlayStation 2)

After Riven, the Myst series changed hands, with both a different developer and a different publisher (Ubisoft), and Myst III: Exile went back to its roots. Instead of one very large age and two tiny ones, there is now a hub age and five smaller ones connected to it. Moreover, after the Gehn parenthesis, the story returns to its root villains, Sirrus and Achenar, or rather, the direct consequences of their actions in the first game.

Curious architectureThe problem is that changing developers is always risky. Some people were disappointed with the return to a Myst-like exploration scheme, after the evolution effected in Riven, but as this kind of hub-based exploration has since become the staple for the series, it’s Riven that now stands as an exception. Of course, this is largely what makes it the best game in the series, in my eyes, but no matter. The other controversial change is a more…‘gamey’ approach to things, for lack of a better term. Many felt that the puzzles were less integrated into their environment than they previously were, and that the game was overly intrusive in pointing certain things out. While that may be true in comparison to Riven, which has been criticised for being overly subtle, I don’t feel it’s accurate in comparison to, say, Myst. In fact, considering the in-game reason why the ages in Myst III were created, I feel that the puzzle presentation makes complete sense. I also feel that it justifies the ‘reward rides’ which conclude three of the ages. Another noticeable change lies in the soundtrack. Robyn Miller, who was responsible for the music in the first two games, left the team after Riven and was replaced by a certain Jack Wall, who has since achieved fame by working on the Mass Effect series, Call of Duty or Splinter CellMyst III was his breakthrough, and its soundtrack is therefore a lot more dramatic, elaborate and noticeable, which may have been jarring for some. I can certainly see where they’re coming from, but some of the tracks are very good.

The end result is that Myst III wasn’t as commercially successful as its predecessors, which I don’t feel is entirely fair. I genuinely enjoyed the game: it’s my second favourite in the series, and I would even rate it above the original Myst. It notably features my favourite age of all, Amateria. Graphical improvements are apparent, which, in a game so heavily dependent on outstanding visuals to create its worlds, can only be a good thing. While the point-and-click movement scheme of the preceding games is retained, the ‘slideshow’ look isn’t. Instead, you now have a 360° (or almost) camera, which allows for unbroken perspective at every in-game node; some people have termed this ‘bubblevision’. And last, but not least, the game benefits from a solid storyline and a fantastic, ambivalent villain. In short, I can only recommend it.

Detailed review available! Read more here.

Fulfilling great expectations

The culprit: Riven (PC, Mac, PlayStation)

Riven had some pretty big shoes to fill, as the sequel to one of the most famous games ever made. And I’m happy to say that, not only did it successfully match its predecessor, but actually trumped it in every respect, resulting in my favourite game in the Myst series, an opinion shared by a large portion of the fanbase. And this despite the fact that it adopts a mostly linear structure which would not be reused in subsequent games, thus making it something of a standalone in the series. Be that as it may, between its release in 1997 and the release of Myst III in 2001, Riven sold over 4,5 million units. Doesn’t quite match Myst’s 6 million, but it’s close enough to indicate a successful sequel.

In terms of gameplay and presentation, Riven is very similar to its older brother, but its scope is much greater, despite mostly taking place in a single age. Sounds paradoxical, but this titular age, on its own, is four to five times as large as a single Myst age, which, in a series so heavily based on creating immersive worlds, is something I can only applaud. The graphics have greatly improved, which also helps with immersion and creates a deceptively peaceful atmosphere with a disquieting undercurrent. If you get the feeling that you’re being watched…well, that’s probably because you are. Overall, the storyline is darker than its predecessor and has greater urgency to it, but also a significantly stronger backbone, culminating in a momentous, satisfying conclusion. With Sirrus and Achenar out of commission, the Stranger now has to deal with the fact that they lured their mother away to Riven to make trapping Atrus easier. Needless to say, it has resulted in a pretty big mess. Puzzles abound, just as they did in Myst, but they are more complex, more numerous and probably the most organically integrated in the entire series. This also fits the theme of the game, conveying the feeling of a cohesive structure attempting to hold a disintegrating world together (there’s a reason it’s called Riven).

Riven has never been remade, which I find to be a distinct shame. None of its successors have been remade either, but they either have free roaming or a 360° camera, none of which Riven has. Which means that, since the release of RealMyst, it’s the only game in the series which is still restricted to its original slideshow presentation. There is, however, an ongoing, fanmade project called The Starry Expanse which intends to remedy that. I hope it comes to fruition, but even in its original form Riven a wonderful, beautiful game, and if you enjoyed Myst, you are pretty much certain to love this one too.

Detailed review available! Read more here.

Saving Neverland

The culprit: Myst (PC, Mac, PlayStation, PlayStation Portable, Nintendo DS)

Myst was a surprise to everyone when it saw the light of day in 1993: to the public, who didn’t expect such a unique experience, to the industry and critics, who were baffled at how what was essentially an “image slideshow” could garner such success, and to its developers, who certainly didn’t expect their offering to become the best-selling PC game for almost 10 years, up until 2002.

To this day, the Myst saga remains one of the most famous and iconic game series, despite having seen its last instalment in 2005. With its characteristic style and atmosphere, which has since been widely copied, its intelligent, inventive and organically integrated puzzles, its trademark gameplay feature of books literally whisking the player off to different worlds (or ages, as the game calls them)–a smart and rather poetic metaphor for imagination–, and its storyline, bolstered by three books published in parallel to the games, which uses the fate of one family as a stepping-stone to explore the history and heritage of an entire civilisation, it stands tall among other adventure games. I’ll even take it one step further: this is my favourite game series, full stop. The name of this website should be ample evidence of that. So unless you’re 120% certain that the premise will not work for you, I’d urge you to give it a try.

If there was one word to define the entire saga, it would be ‘immersive’. No other game has given me the impression of ‘being there’ quite like this, made me wonder whether it would be warm or cold, how the breeze would feel, what the texture of the stone would be or what the plants would smell like. It’s a rare occurrence when the environment is so beautifully crafted that you’d simply be happy to walk around and take in the sights for a while. Everything conspires to engage your senses, pique your curiosity, encourage you to explore every nook and cranny to try to ferret out clues, and stimulate both your intellect and imagination. Obviously, if you’re expecting action, shootouts, acrobatics…or even lots of dialogue, you will be disappointed. This is an eminently solitary, contemplative, atmospheric and slow-paced experience, designed to make you think, feel and piece things together at your own rhythm. But then, the human mind is a wonderful tool, and when that is being put to work, beautiful things can happen. This is clearly what the developers were banking on, and, in my opinion, they’ve definitely succeeded.

Still, objectively speaking, the first game is far from being perfect, especially in its original form. In comparison to its successors, the graphics are dated, the scope feels fairly limited, the puzzles are rather simple, the age names are throwaway, and the ending is comparable to a wet firecracker. This is all a first-comer’s prerogative, however, as the subsequent entries in the series clearly try to address these issues (and mostly succeed). A remake titled RealMyst was released in 2000, and while it only addressed graphical and interface issues, it did so remarkably well. It was a bit of a chore for most computers to run, back in the day, but it should no longer be a concern: in other words, I highly recommend it.

Detailed review available! Read more here.