I’m ranking the Myst games for no particular reason. I like thinking about them and I like writing, so here we are. Some readers may be surprised that there were more than two of these games–this list is for you.
This is emphatically a recollective ranking, not a retrospective ranking. I played these all a long time ago, and my memory has condensed into a few moments and emotional reactions. My ranking reflects not just the games themselves, but also who I was at the time I played them. I did not make any attempt to overwrite my memories by playing the games again, and I only did research for fact checking purposes. (ETA: I later ranked these games again using a retrospective approach.)
7. Uru: Ages Beyond Myst (2003)
Uru was developed as a massively multiplayer online game, and was released the same year as Second Life, one year prior to World of Warcraft. If you’ve never heard of this before… welcome to this list!
At some point during development, they pulled the plug on the multiplayer part, but the resulting game had MMO thumbprints all over it. In the traditional Myst games, you navigate the world by jumping between designated “nodes”, seeing beautiful pre-rendered images from carefully chosen perspectives. Uru did away with nodes, allowing you to freely explore its 3D world–but it wasn’t prerendered, so it didn’t look nearly as good. It had a third-person camera, and an avatar editor that seemed advanced at the time. Despite the avatar, they wanted to maintain the player’s identification with the player character, so they encouraged you to make an avatar that looked like yourself.
Uru contained a traditional Myst game in it. That means there’s a hub world, and multiple “ages” that you access through books. But in Uru, there was nothing at the hub world, and I cannot for the life of me remember any of the ages.
I think what made the ages dull was a total lack of context or history. There were just a few books sitting on a large and empty bookshelf. The game was originally intended to be episodic, but later episodes were canceled. So the ages just felt like odds and ends, with no coherent arc. The game took place far in the future relative to other Myst games, and you’re on the trail of Yeesha, the daughter of one of the characters from the main series. She was a mystic archetype, she was mostly vague and insufferable.
There were no further episodes to the game, but they did release the online content in an offline format. I remember big dull underground ruins where you would search for sparse secret collectibles. I suppose for an MMO you need to give people enough busy work to maintain an active player count, and then the social aspects can flesh out the rest of the experience. Here it was a lot of dull exploration, traversing distances that just seemed way too long. And I can’t imagine multiplayer would have improved the experience, unless you like people.
The very idea of making a Myst MMO was wild, even at the time. It seemed fundamentally flawed. Myst is about high quality content meant to be experienced once. MMOs require content to be spread thin and be repeatable. Nowadays, the only people who remember the online content are likely to be die-hard fans, but in my opinion as a casual player who just happened to be there, it was the worst Myst game, by a lot.
6. Myst V: End of Ages (2005)
Myst V commit the worst sin: it reminded me of Uru. Like Uru it took place in a 3D world, and had worse graphics for it. It also took place in the distant future, again starring Yeesha. I have barely any memories of the ages in Myst V, and the memories blend with those of Uru. One thing I remember were a few frustrating physics puzzles (or was that Uru?). I do not think Myst needs physics puzzles. The physics engine was not powerful enough to make them non-frustrating.
5. Myst (1993)
You can tell a lot about a person by where they place the most seminal games in their video game rankings. Well I’m putting the first Myst in the bottom half! I must insist that this is a player-centric ranking, meaning I just don’t care how innovative the original game was or what a big step it was for its creators or for video games. I only care about how I felt playing it, at the time I played it.
Myst has a few problems, one of which is that the typical player is likely to get stuck, immediately. You want to access some of those fantastical book-worlds what the series is known for? Sorry, you can’t, the clues are too obscure. And it turns out the crucial clues to all four books are actually in a single location, so if you miss one clue you miss them all, and you’re stuck. I don’t think this is good design. I also think the Selenitic age is annoying. And that the game infodumps in books a lot, in a way that is inaccessible to young kids (which I was at the time!). Okay, I’m done complaining.
Myst has some of the most memorable ages in the series. Possibly this is because it was the first in the series and we remember firsts. But you know, a maze of wooden platforms in a swamp? A boat stuck in an island rock? Iconic. And even if you didn’t read the in-game books, some recurring themes were obvious: the rooms of Sirrus and Achenar. They both obviously had very violent hobbies, although Achenar’s villainy was more masculine-coded, while Sirrus’ was more feminine-coded. And Sirrus had the best musical motif.
Sirrus and Achenar themselves were trapped in books. They lived in a dark void, obscured by static, cajoling you into setting them free. This is wonderful horror material, if you’re a kid.
4. Myst III: Exile (2001)
Myst III makes one small graphical leap compared to previous games. In previous games, you would see a series of fixed images, like a slide show. Myst III allowed you to freely rotate the camera. You’re still restricted to nodes, so you can’t roam free, but I think it’s a good compromise between the high graphics of pre-renders and free exploration.
Myst III is chiefly about Saavedro, a native from one of the book-ages who somehow got separated from his native society. He has been trapped among several empty worlds originally used by Atrus to train his two sons (Sirrus and Achenar). Saavedro is not happy about this, he is the villain.
I recall it being a bit campy. And the fact that these were training worlds is used to justify some of the more contrived puzzles, in a series already full of contrived puzzles. But Myst III was the most frictionless of the Myst games. It wasn’t too difficult, it was just a good time.
3. Obduction (2016)
Obduction isn’t actually a Myst game, but it’s the first post-Myst game to be made by Cyan Worlds, and a spiritual successor. Its chief plot element is a mystical force that teleports people away from their home world to live in a small community in a spherical bubble. And there are multiple bubbles, for humans and for aliens. But something has happened and almost everyone has disappeared. I remember there were a lot of layers to the story, and you’d be able to reconstruct an awful lot of its history. The premise is very sci-fi, but the story is very human, as it concerns a small community from varied backgrounds, and their encounter with the unknown.
I remember grumbling about this game a lot when I played it. It looks nice, I’m glad they finally got that right since the shift to full 3D. But it was poorly optimized and did not run well on my computer. Cyan Worlds chose to put less emphasis on puzzles than they did in the Myst series–which is just fine, I dig a walking sim–but somehow the puzzles that remained were still frustrating.
The part that annoyed me most, is somewhere they put a large machine full of switches and lights, and it was basically just a parody of earlier Myst puzzles. That’s cool… but some people liked those puzzles, why are you making fun of us? And it’s not like the actual puzzles in the game were less ridiculous. I kept going back to the machine wondering if, despite looking like a parody, it was in fact needed to progress.
Okay, but it’s been 7 years and thinking back, that was a good game. I loved the depth of story and environments rich with history.
2. Riven (1997)
Riven was the most expansive Myst game, developed after the runaway success of the first one. And yet, almost the entire game takes place in a single age, seemingly discarding what the series is best known for. Imagine if the later games in the series could be so bold.
Riven was definitely the hardest game. I’m not sure I feel comfortable recommending it, when I know a lot of people just won’t have the patience. I might have not had the patience at different times of my life (see: my review of Myst). But I remember becoming immersed. I hung on every clue. I hunted, and found, those pixels. I took actual notes, on paper. I decoded an alphabet of symbols. I learned all the quirks of the world, such as the antigravity water.
The story was about a delicate extraction mission. Atrus’s wife was trapped in an age–and so was his evil father, who was posturing himself as a god-ruler. You could rescue his wife by bringing in a linking book, but then Atrus’s father would escape as well. So you go in without a book, with the goal of trapping Atrus’s father, and rescuing his wife. Once everything was in place, you’d send a signal to Atrus (by doing something rather destructive) so he could come in and pick you up. Amazing that I remembered all of that.
1. Myst IV: Revelation (2004)
Myst IV was the last game to used prerendered images. Like with Myst III, you were limited to standing in certain nodes, but you could rotate the camera freely. In this case, the images were animated to make the world more alive. As such, Myst IV was the best looking game in the Myst series. And you know, that’s why we like Myst games, it’s the visual art.
So you remember how Sirrus and Achenar were trapped in books that contained nothing but black voids? I guess Atrus decided that was cruel and unusual, so he wrote more stimulating worlds for them, and got to work on their rehabilitation. Unfortunately, they’ve both escaped, and one or both of them kidnapped Atrus’s daughter Yeesha. Apparently the rehabilitation program failed! You travel to Sirrus’ austere Spire, and Achenar’s lush Haven, and try to figure out what the brothers were up to.
Myst IV had an in-game camera! You could take photos and write notes for each photo. Yes, I know we all love writing notes on paper, or just taking screenshots, but I think this is a bit more immersive. I do not understand why this isn’t a more standard feature of myst-style games. Seriously, The Witness should have had a camera. Maybe it’s harder to design puzzles when screenshots are made so easy?
In any case, I remember Myst IV including the series’ most elegant puzzles–more challenging than Myst III but almost as smooth. Each of the prison ages culminated in a final puzzle, and although I won’t say what they were, I definitely remember them and remember how satisfying they were.
I played all these games (Obduction excepted) in an earlier era, when I was less widely experienced with video games. But I think if I played them today, I would still like them–and perhaps would have greater appreciation for some. If I were to place Myst games into modern categories, I’d consider them a blend of narrative games, walking sims, and puzzle games–three genres that I continue to enjoy.
That said, between the narrative, exploration, and puzzle elements, I think the puzzle elements would fare the worst. Today I’m spoiled for good puzzle games, and I’m not sure I could tolerate the rather mixed track record of Myst games. The way I see it, the ideal Myst puzzle does not stump or confuse, but just makes sure that you slow down enough to take in your surroundings.
Rob Grigjanis says
Riven is the only game I’ve tried. It was fun wandering around, getting some of the clues, but not quite enough fun to get me to play other games.
I played that using what I consider to be Cinnamon’s absolute killer feature, it’s built-in flexible screenshot facility. I hit Ctrl(direct to clipboard)+Shift(select area)+PrtScr, drag select any area of screen, and it’s immediate pasteable into anything else, web browser, email client, discord, and for The Witness, straight into gimp running on the other monitor. Where I can use the pencil tool to trace experiments round the boards, and ctrl-z to return to the pristine board. Really good for any geometric/board style puzzle solving.
Unfortunately Cinnamon has other serious bugs that mean I can’t just run it everywhere, leaving me pissed off that other desktop environments don’t have the same thing, instead forcing me to do crazy stuff like loading in files and manually cropping the bit I want.
Hey, I do that too. I mean, I just have a PC and I paste into MS Paint. I wasn’t doing that in 2004 though. I also think it’s just nice to have the option without leaving the game.
I’m not so sure: if the interface was in-game it would probably involve leaving the play mode and dealing with some other interface which I guarantee would be an awkward piece of shit (see: anything that pretends to contain “email”), and it wouldn’t have an image editor to run trials on. The above is really about as close to text cut-n-paste as you can possibly get and anything that is even one iota more complicated than that has in my view failed irredeemably.
(Of course if you only want to save screenshots for later, then you can run pretty much anything under Steam, and it can inject its own overlay system including screenshotting on top of them.)
One thing that was different about Myst IV’s system compared to MS Paint (not sure about your custom solution) was that I could screenshot a bunch of stuff, and it was all organized into a notebook. In MS Paint, I just put all the images together in a funny collage.
Ah, I wasn’t saving them or doing any kind of organisation. Just copy, paste, solve, play through and forget.