Released in 1993, Myst was the groundbreaking 3D adventure puzzle game from Cyan that redefined computer gaming and set the record for PC game sales, unsurpassed until The Sims in 2002. Cyan Worlds, Inc., followed up with sequels well into the 2000’s: Riven: The Sequel to Myst, Myst III: Exile, Myst IV: Revelation, Uru: Ages Beyond Myst, and Myst V: End of Ages. As most sequel chains do, it showed sales ranging from robust down to dwindling. Then it became rapidly forgotten today except for a tight cult fanbase.
Readers are likely familiar with the series already – you found this page, didn’t you? But in case you’re not, rather than recap this game’s backstory, we’ll let this Ars Technica documentary speak for it:
Just reading the comments under that YouTube video should tell you that this game was the Star Wars of PC gaming. It had an impressive impact. Whole families played it together. Silicon Valley console jockeys traded clues over the coffee pot Monday morning. You had to be there.
Was it overrated? Sorta yes, but also no. It’s complicated.
[[SPOILERS!]] abound below in case you’ve never played the game and fully intend to – though the technical issues with getting every game in the series to run on modern hardware make that a daunting prospect.
What set Myst apart?
Granted, the 3D graphics were groundbreaking for the time, but we needn’t say it again. Many early tech geeks, your humble author included, were driven to seek out 3D graphics rendering as a career or hobby, much in the same way Tron (1982) inspired a decade before. Most of us ended up at POVRay. I know I did, and disappeared down a rabbit hole for a couple years trying to get good at it. The rest moved on to Blender, which has indeed been used for CGI in film and gaming.
Let’s forget the graphics for a minute. The real aspect of Myst that captured the public imagination was just how unique it was. Soak up a few scenes and ponder this. Here’s the opening intro that the world saw in 1993:
Here’s Catherine’s rescue scene in Riven:
Yeah, thanks a lot, Catherine! I was going to go back up the elevator to double-check for any more clues I’d missed, but I guess that’s out of the question now. As if the puzzles in this sequel weren’t treacherous enough. Anyway, here’s a villain confrontation from Exile:
That is the delightfully hammy cult film character actor Brad Dourif, one of the first times a video game managed to land Hollywood-class acting talent. One more signature scene from the series and then we’ll stop. Yeesha’s escort to Tomahna from Revelation:
So by now, I’m establishing a point that Myst created a universe that was completely unlike anything else ever made. With most other games, we see a clear historic source material: Wolfenstein from WWII, World of Warcraft from medieval mythology and high fantasy novels, The Sims from sitcom suburban life, and even Minecraft was lifted from an earlier game called Infiniminer, which was itself inspired by Lego.
Myst starts with the premise of linking books, which just happened to be a metaphor for HTML hyperlinks in the still-new-then World Wide Web. Books can contain anything from a forlorn prison island to a whole world with civilizations and empires. Because travel between dimensions is made so easy by linking books, security measures have to be deployed in the form of clever lock mechanisms on everything. Unfortunately, the unforeseen side effect of this strategy is that a deviously clever psychopath can freely roam around causing havoc. And boy howdy, do they ever!
But these books aren’t just magicked into existence by wizards – oh heavens no, creating linking books is a science known as “The Art.” And linking book authors actually create these worlds, within which can dwell inhabitants who themselves can craft more linking books, et cetera infinitum. Meanwhile the main patriarch of the series, Atrus, has this whole family involved along with various allies and enemies living in these worlds.
This is a completely original sci-fi / fantasy template, not beholden to Alice in Wonderland nor Peter Pan, but still with the same depth of possibility for endless expanses of wonder. The whole universe is filled out with epic music, dramatic confrontations, deviously clever puzzles, and a drawing-room steampunk aesthetic. All of this was summed up at the time as “a game for adults.” Critics fell all over themselves to praise Myst as the dawn of video-game-as-art, but all was not toasts and cheers in Tomahna.
Imminent death of gaming predicted : film at 11!
Adventure games had existed before, with gaming companies like Sierra, LucasArts, and Infocom as prominent examples. Beyond the obvious fan favorites, adventure games based on niche franchises also thrived, like Duckman: The Graphic Adventures of a Private Dick or Sam & Max: Hit the Road. Ah the memories.
But Myst swept the market to the degree that there was a panicked backlash. Myst attracted its share of critics even right after release. Honestly, no game before or since has drawn so much hot flaming from so many highly-placed camps. It’s like the game actually offended some people on a political level! Like it was a threat to their way of life. To this day, the refrain “Myst killed the adventure game genre” echoes from the earliest web archives.
Looking back, this was also a huge overreaction. There were a spawn of imitators the way there is with every hot game. Two notables ones to mention are Starship Titanic by Douglas Adams, based in the Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy universe, and Schizm: Mysterious Journey, the latter of which out-Mysted Myst by having even harder puzzles including one that required trigonometry to solve and another one where you had to beat an AI at a board game twice. The popularity of today’s casual “hidden object” and “escape room” game genres both owe a debt to Myst. Even today you can find Myst clones and tributes in casual browser games, such as Wyst. There’s even a whole genre of real-life, physical escape rooms popping up all over the world.
Saying that Myst killed the adventure game is like saying McDonald’s killed the hamburger.
And it’s not like Myst reigned unchallenged for a decade. Throughout the ’90s, this was also the heyday of id Software and its 3D first-person shooters, Doom through Quake. It was the advent of game studios which would have a bigger impact in the 2000s, such as Bullfrog Productions, Valve Corporation, Blizzard Entertainment, and Rockstar Games. Far from killing adventure gaming, Myst helped evolve it, while other game genres also had their Myst moments.
Not so special after all?
Let’s go for the most outrageous comparison we can, since we mentioned Rockstar Games back there.
Grand Theft Auto is another example of a stunning innovator in gaming. Where every other RPG and its dead parrot is patterned after medieval high fantasy, GTA is about being a West Coast gangsta. And if you’ve lived in the hood, you can appreciate what a faithful translation it is. GTA lets you be a street criminal and indulge your darkest impulses. But likewise, its wide-open worlds are deep and detailed, it has a soundtrack that’s the envy of other game franchises with the unique gimmick of radio stations as a bonus, and it attracts top-notch voice acting talent too.
I contend that it takes just as much brain power to succeed at a gang turf war in GTA as it does to solve a combination lock with symbols in an alien base-25 numbering system in Myst. Which also points out a big reason why Myst is no longer a big deal: the first-person puzzle adventure is a limited genre. To make puzzles fair for the player, you have to give them infinite time to solve them. This languid, leisurely pace makes these barren, alien worlds necessary.
Myst definitely has an aesthetic value all its own and will always have its unshakable cult audience, but everything that made Myst special is now being done all over the place everywhere else. If you have to say that one game genre took over gaming, we have the almighty first-person shooter as 90% of the non-mobile game market right there.
Myst was gorgeous for its time and remains an artistic achievement which history will remember, but really, in terms of game-play? You do a few things: You search for clues, you twiddle with puzzles, and you eventually crack them only to be confronted by a new puzzle steps away. It has the same pace as math homework.
Meanwhile if you want original challenges, you can also solve the many crafting recipes in Minecraft while also figuring out how to design your base to efficiently house your stuff and creeper-proof it. You can start your own farming business in Stardew Valley, or your own everything-business in Township. Katamari Damacy lets you take over the world as a giant rolling ball of junk, and the Guitar Hero series lets you make a game out of music.
So yes, Myst could be said to be overrated, by the same logic that the Beatles could be said to be overrated. It came along at the right time and place when its medium was only half-evolved. But it still earns its niche in history because it showed people what was possible.