“Myst and Riven is well-written, interesting, on-topic, insightful, and a real pleasure to read.”
—Edward Castronova, Indiana University
Video games have become a major cultural force, and within their history, Myst and its sequel Riven stand out as influential examples. Myst and Riven: The World of the D’ni is a close analysis of two of the most popular and significant video games in the history of the genre, investigating in detail their design, their functionality, and the gameplay experience they provide players. While scholarly close analysis has been applied to films for some time now, it has only rarely been applied at this level to video games. Mark J. P. Wolf uses elements such as graphics and sound, the games’ mood and atmosphere and how they are generated, the geography and design of the digital worlds, and the narrative structures of the games to examine their appeal to both critical and general audiences, their legacy, and what made them great.
Myst and Riven is the inaugural book in the Landmark Video Games series, edited by Mark J. P. Wolf and Bernard Perron, which is the first series to examine individual video games of historical significance.
About the Author
Mark Wolf is Professor of Communication, Director of the Mass Communication Program, and Director of the Multimedia Communication Major at Concordia University Wisconsin.
Read an Excerpt
MYST AND RIVENTHE WORLD OF THE D'NI
By Mark J. P. Wolf
THE UNIVERSITY OF MICHIGAN PRESSCopyright © 2011 Mark J. P. Wolf
All right reserved.
Chapter OneTHE MYST PHENOMENON
The first time I encountered Myst was at the 1994 Digital World Expo in Los Angeles. A back room, away from the noise of the main convention halls, was lined with software booths where companies were promoting and hyping their latest products. Among them one vendor area stood out not for what it had, but for what it lacked: the lighting was minimal, almost dark, and there was no one to answer questions, not even a booth for that matter, just three white pedestals with computers on them, running the same program. The only signage was a white card that simply said "MYST" with no further explanation. Each computer displayed a different screen from the game, wherever the last participant had left off. Drawn by curiosity, conference attendees wandered into the quiet space and attempted to find out what exactly this low-profile piece of software was, an experience very much like the game itself, with no directions or obvious objective, just the free exploration of a contemplative landscape. And I (along with many others, no doubt) was hooked.
In 1993, the same year Jurassic Park brought photorealistic computer-generated creatures to the big screen and the World Wide Web became worldwide on computer screens, Myst appeared and quickly became the best-selling computer game of all time. (Of course, to call Myst a "game" implies a broad definition of the word, as Myst is perhaps better described as a single-user interactive virtual environment; there was no term to cover it at the time, and game was more specific than software.) Initially inspired in part by Jules Verne's novel The Mysterious Island (1874), at least for its tone and setting, Myst was created by Rand and Robyn Miller's company Cyan (now Cyan Worlds) and released by Brøderbund on September 24, 1993, for the Macintosh, with an IBM-compatible version available the following March. By April 1994 it had already sold 200,000 copies, a phenomenal amount considering that most CD-ROMs of the time were fortunate to sell in the tens of thousands. By January 1995 Myst had sold 500,000 copies, and sales would reach a million five months later. By June 2001 it had reached 5.5 million copies. With continuing sales that kept it on the charts, Myst remained the best-selling computer game until 2002, when The Sims would overtake it with 6.3 million units sold.
Nine years is an amazingly long time to remain number one in a medium that is growing so fast, both aesthetically and technologically. What accounts for Myst's longevity? Myst was, at the time, a unique computer game experience, and its lush (for 1993) imagery gave it a different feel and more atmosphere than the typical video games of the day. Perhaps as important was Myst's crossover appeal. The success of many of the best-selling games throughout video game history, including PONG (1972), PacMan (1980), Super Mario Bros. (1985), Myst (1993), and The Sims (2000), has been due in part to their widespread appeal and ability to reach people outside of the typical audience in the video game market. Myst, like the other four games just mentioned, was also nonviolent and easy to play, and, unlike many games of its day, it was available on a variety of platforms, including Sony PlayStation, Sega Genesis, Atari Jaguar, and both Macintosh and IBM computers. Myst's system requirements allowed it to be played on a wide variety of machines; since its images were all pre-rendered, high processor speeds and graphics cards were not as crucial as they were for games that rendered their graphics in real time.
Myst's approach to graphics was another reason for its success. With all its imagery pre-rendered, Myst could offer beautiful graphics, allowing Robyn Miller's art background to come through in the play of light, shadow, and texture, despite the constraints imposed by 8-bit color and dithering. The rather limited use of animation and the slow, contemplative pace of the game meant that the imagery would be more closely scrutinized than it would in a game with fast action and quick-changing scenery, and Myst's images held up to that scrutiny. Four years later Riven: The Sequel to Myst would raise the standard even more, and later versions of Myst, Myst Masterpiece Edition and realMYST, featured graphical improvements that made the original Myst graphics seem crude and static by comparison, making it hard to remember just how groundbreaking Myst's look was in 1993. Not only did Myst have good graphics, it had more than 2,500 screens' worth of imagery, which helped make up for their stasis. This profusion became possible through the use of CD-ROM technology, and Myst became the first big hit to appear in the medium. For some people it was one of the main reasons to buy a computer with a CD-ROM drive. Myst was well suited to CD-ROM technology, due to the fact that the running of its program did not require continuous accessing of the CD-ROM, which is still, even today, a relatively slow process requiring pauses for loading to be worked into the gaming experience. Riven, with over 4,000 screens of pre-rendered graphics and video sequences on five compact discs, also worked the disc changes into gameplay by dividing its terrain into islands that could reside separately on different discs.
And finally, Myst's longevity was also due in part to a price-reduction scheme that kept broadening its market and kept its sales on the charts. In its first year or so of release, Myst cost around $64, a price it would continue to command while initial sales were strong (see the figures mentioned above). In 1996 the price was reduced to $50, and in November of that year it was slashed even further to $25, an act that, coupled with interest in Riven's impending release, renewed interest in the game and led to a surge in sales. Riven and Myst III: Exile followed a similar pricing scheme, and by early 2004 one could buy the Myst 10th Anniversary DVD Edition, containing full versions of Myst Masterpiece Edition, Riven, and Myst III: Exile, for under $20. On Amazon.com new, unopened copies of the original Myst were selling for as low as $2.55, and on eBay, used copies were selling for a penny each.
The success of Myst spawned not only revised versions and sequels, but an array of other merchandise as well: soundtracks for Myst, Riven, Myst III: Exile, and Uru: Ages Beyond Myst; three novels based on the Myst storyline; From Myst to Riven, a coffee table book on the making of the games; the Prima and Bradygames "Strategy Guides" for the games (something of a misnomer, seeing as none of the games involves strategy); shirts available directly from Cyan; and even Myst: The Puzzling New Board Game Adventure, which curiously is not mentioned on the "Goods" page of Cyan's website. Myst also spawned its share of imitators, none of which was able to match Myst's success. Most importantly, though, was Myst's raising of the bar concerning graphics, sound, ambience, and overall experience in the adventure game. Myst showed that puzzle-based games that favored contemplation over action were not only possible but could even be profitable, if the design was good and attention was paid to detail.
While I will be referring to Myst as a game, some may question its status as such, but with its single-player environment in which the player explores, solves puzzles, and uses various objects and tools to achieve certain subgoals, Myst's main objective places the game squarely into the already-existing genre of adventure games (which fits it best, although Myst can also be considered a puzzle game). To fully appreciate Myst's accomplishments, however, we should first consider its place in the history of the genre.
MYST AND THE ADVENTURE GAME GENRE
Before we look at the adventure genre and Myst's place in it, we might try to define what the genre is and what makes it unique. In my book The Medium of the video Game, I described the adventure genre as follows:
Games which are set in a "world" usually made up of multiple connected rooms, locations, or screens, involving an objective which is more complex than simply catching, shooting, capturing, or escaping, although completion of the objective may involve several or all of these. Objectives usually must be completed in several steps, for example, finding keys and unlocking doors to other areas to retrieve objects needed elsewhere in the game. Characters are usually able to carry objects, such as weapons, keys, tools, and so on. Settings often evoke a particular historical time period and place, such as the Middle Ages or Arthurian England, or are thematically related to content-based genres such as science fiction, fantasy, or espionage. This term should not be used for games in which screens are only encountered in one-way linear fashion, like the "levels" in Donkey Kong, or for games like Pitfall! which are essentially limited to running, jumping, and avoiding dangers (see Obstacle Course). Nor should the term be used to refer to games like Dragon's Lair, Gadget, or Star Trek: Borg, which do not allow a player to wander and explore its "world" freely, but strictly limit outcomes and possible narrative paths to a series of video sequences and linear progression through a predetermined narrative (see Interactive Movies).
Attempting to define the genre in such a way as to distinguish it from other genres, it seemed to me that the game's world and the player's use and experience of it are at the core of the adventure game. Many adventure games, while they have monsters and other characters opposed to the player's character, do not have an antagonist in the classic sense. The game's "world" itself takes on that role, as players attempt to learn its geography and the navigation of it, to gain access to its hidden, closed, and locked areas, and learn to use the various objects and devices within it. Exploration, navigation, areas to which access is initially withheld, and tool usage are found in many other genres, but in the adventure genre they occupy a central position, and are often the subgoals necessary to the achievement of the main objective. The discovery of how such subgoals contribute to the overall objective is itself also a part of the experience and essence of the adventure game.
The evolution of the adventure genre, then, relied on the development of navigable space (space is so crucial to the genre that solutions of adventure games are often referred to as "walkthroughs"). In the mid-1970s, Willie Crowther, a computer programmer, combined his interest in cave exploration and mapping, the role-playing game Dungeons & Dragons (1974), and his background in programming to produce what would come to be known as the first computer game in the adventure genre, Colossal Cave Adventure (sometimes shortened to just Adventure). The all-text game consisted of descriptions of a series of connected rooms through which a player moved by typing responses such as "n" for "north" or "d" for "down" (besides the four cardinal directions, there was some movement on the vertical axis). Several objects, like keys or a lamp, were also needed by the player during the game. The game's geography was based on Bedquilt Cave in Kentucky, and mentions many of its features. Crowther's description of the cave and its layout was accurate enough that one first-time visitor to the cave was able to find her way around based solely on her knowledge of the game. In 1976, programmer Don Woods found Crowther's program and, with his blessing, expanded the program, adding fantasy touches influenced by the writings of J. R. R. Tolkien. From there the program was ported onto various computer systems, and spread to universities and across computer networks.
Crowther and Woods's Adventure was the first in a long line of text adventure computer games, sometimes referred to as branch of Interactive Fiction, whose roots go back into literature. Text adventures are still being produced today, though no longer commercially. The innovations introduced by text adventures, particularly the concepts of rooms joined together into a navigable space, characters with which one could have brief conversations or interactions, and objects (like keys) that gave players access to new areas, would soon revolutionize the related field of video games. Video games before 1977 consisted of single screens of graphics in which the action of the game took place. The arcade game Super Bug (1977) by Kee Games (a subsidiary of Atari) was the first game to feature a scrolling screen (an innovation that Atari patented), which revealed off-screen space as it scrolled, but the space was still a single area, albeit one larger than the screen.
The following year, 1978, Warren Robinett was developing the first graphical adventure game for the Atari 2600, which would also be called Adventure. After playing Crowther and Woods's Adventure at Stanford, Robinett decided that it could work as a video game, and took on the challenge of translating such a game into a 4,096-byte Atari cartridge, a task that Robinett's boss at Atari thought was impossible. Problems that had to be solved included how to represent rooms and their connectedness, usable objects that could be carried around, picked up, and dropped, and autonomous creatures that could be encountered during gameplay.
Released in 1979, Adventure featured 30 interconnected screens that used the cinematic convention of cutting from one screen to the next rather than scrolling, making it the first video game to use multiple screens. The game also had "disjoint regions" that the player could only access with the use of certain tools (the keys to open castle gates, and the bridge to pass into walled areas), and even off-screen actions the effects of which the player could encounter later (for example, the bat could pick up and drop objects while the player was elsewhere). The game was far more sophisticated and detailed than any of the other home video games available at the time, and a commercial success as well, selling over a million copies at $25 each. Robinett's Adventure, while not a literal translation of Crowther and Woods's program, did successfully bring the format of the text adventure game to graphical video games. Robinett's work was followed by other graphical adventure games for the Atari 2600, many of which brought further innovations to the idea of a graphical navigable space. Superman (1979) featured a subway that was entered from doorways located near the center of the screen rather than at its edge, like Adventure's castle gates, and the subway screens, when exited, could not be reached by going back the way you came, resulting in one-way connections between screens. Haunted House (1981) had staircases (in top view) that connected identical-looking floors that differed in color, so that the player-character did not disappear and reappear elsewhere, but stayed visible in place while the screen changed behind it. Raiders of the Lost Ark (1981) mixed top-view screens with side-view screens of its mesas depending on the action occurring, and also had an inventory strip at the bottom of the screen, and 13 different objects that could be picked up and used. Venture (1982) showed its scenery at two different scales, depending on where the player was; the four rooms of the game appeared together on one screen while the player was outside them, but each room was shown on a full screen, with its interior visible, as soon as the player entered. E.T.: The extraterrestrial (1982), Krull (1983), Dark Chambers (1988), and the Swordquest series of games also featured variations on the way their spaces were depicted and connected, although all of them relied on cutting from screen to screen, or two-way scrolling.
Excerpted from MYST AND RIVEN by Mark J. P. Wolf Copyright © 2011 by Mark J. P. Wolf . Excerpted by permission of THE UNIVERSITY OF MICHIGAN PRESS. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
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Table of Contents
The Myst Phenomenon....................3
Myst and the Adventure Game Genre....................7
Early Works of the Miller Brothers....................22
The World of Myst....................35
THE STONESHIP AGE....................51
THE CHANNELWOOD AGE....................54
THE MECHANICAL AGE....................60
THE SELENITIC AGE....................62
THE RIME AGE....................70
Beyond the Game: The Other Myst Products....................73
From Myst to Riven: Subcreation and Expansion....................79
The World of Riven....................84
TEMPLE ISLAND (DOME ISLAND)....................88
JUNGLE ISLAND (VILLAGE ISLAND)....................91
TAY (THE REBEL AGE)....................96
BOOK ASSEMBLY ISLAND (CRATER ISLAND)....................98
SURVEY ISLAND (MAP OR GARDEN ISLAND)....................101
THE 233RD AGE (GEHN'S OFFICE AND BEDROOM)....................103
Riven's Fortunes and the Rest of the Myst Series....................106
Myst's and Riven's Influence on the Adventure Game Genre....................109