Ranking the Cyan games (again)

By In April, I wrote a ranking of all the Myst games. I emphasized that the list was a “recollective” ranking based on how I remembered them, as opposed to a “retrospective” ranking based on giving them a fresh look. Well, I gave them all a fresh look, and that caused my assessments to move around.

For the Myst games, I watched Keith Ballard’s blind Let’s Play series, which lets me see the games through the eyes of a new player. I also replayed Obduction, and added the new game Firmament—at which point this is no longer a Myst ranking, but a Cyan games ranking.

1. Riven (1997)

As I watched Riven again, it dawned on me: this game is about colonialism. Gehn, the villain, colonizes the native worlds that he links to, posturing as a god emperor. Where other games mainly use linking books as an excuse for the spectacle of fantasy worlds, Riven is more concerned with the political repercussions of linking books.

Riven also has an unusual approach to puzzles. For the most part, there aren’t really “puzzles” in the traditional sense. Mostly, there are a series of hidden passages and simple switches. There are two mega-puzzles to be solved through clues spread across the game. One puzzle must be solved through the eyes of Gehn; the other must be solved through the eyes of the natives. These really require you to pay attention and understand what’s going on.

Riven is the most mature game of the series, and if anything I appreciated it more retrospectively. But, if for some reason the reader is using this list as a buyer’s guide, I recommend waiting for the remaster that Cyan is currently developing.

2. Obduction (2016)

As I replayed Obduction, back to back with watching Riven, some of the similarities really came forward. Obduction also doesn’t really have traditional puzzles, it’s mostly a series of simple switches that require an understanding of the space. That said, at times it feels like the puzzles have been boiled down to their most frustrating essence—when all you have to do is press a few switches, the player is liable to miss one of the switches and wander around aimlessly until they find it. There’s also one puzzle sequence that isn’t difficult, but requires the player to go back and forth through a loading screen about 30 times. Here, Obduction really benefitted from a replay, because my current computer takes seconds to load, instead of minutes like it used to.

Previously, I praised the story of Obduction, but truthfully, there isn’t much there. I think the game leaves so much implied, purely from environmental clues, and I had constructed a more complex story in my head compared to what was actually there. But I think that still says something about how much they could do without dumping a pile of books on you. Obduction‘s big gimmick is teleporting spheres, which leaves spherical bits of landscape out of place with their surroundings. It looks cool, but also each sphere tells a little story, I love it.

3. Myst III: Exile (2001)

Myst III is way on the opposite end of the spectrum compared to Riven. You travel to little kiddy worlds (literally written for kids within the story), bathe in some spectacle fantasy, and solve some very contrived puzzles. Rather than themes of colonialism, we have vague platitudes like “energy powers future motion”.

But I like it! As I said before, it’s just a good time. Myst III went up in my rankings because I realized that it was closer to my ideal Myst game, where the puzzles aren’t frustrating, they’re there to provide just enough friction to make sure you explore. I also gained a greater appreciation of Saavedro, the villain with sympathetic motivations. He’s so hammy, but he also has a point? Hands down best acting in this list.

4. Myst IV: Revelation (2004)

Myst IV was, in my memory, the top Myst game. Yes, it’s true that it was the best-looking Myst game. But in order to achieve those graphics, it required a second of loading time between each node. This small delay causes a huge disconnect between control and feedback, with downstream impact on the game design. To reduce the number of loads needed to traverse the game, they made nodes much further apart, to the extent that it’s disorienting to travel around. Most puzzles also seem to be designed so you can solve them while standing in one location—so a lot of fiddling with obtuse user interfaces.

Frequently the game takes common puzzle ideas and repurposes them to fit the story. For example, one of the earliest puzzles is basically a water jug puzzle, but recontextualized as allocating power across multiple devices. Back when I played this, I would have loved the idea. Today, it strikes me as trite.

One of the puzzles involves rearranging snippets of voice acting to reconstruct a dialogue. The method given to you is a Mancala game—you pick up a stack of snippets, and one by one drop each snippet into a new slot. Yes, it integrates with the story but is not explained by the story, and is rather tedious to solve.

Nonetheless, I still think Myst IV is very pretty, and has at least a few great puzzles. The central story about the possible redemption of the two brothers (villains from the first game) is well done, even if it did retcon a few details.

5. Myst (1993)

My opinion didn’t really change about Myst. Myst is iconic in a number of ways, and more memorable because of it. But I continue to have complaints about the beginning of the game—all the essential clues are piled in one location, and there’s a big infodump, one of the worst in the series.

I would add that Myst is very short compared to the others. It’s also been remade to allow you to freely navigate a 3D world. It’s a decent access point for someone who wants to try the series, but it’s not the series at its best.

6. Firmament (2023)

Firmament is a newly released game by Cyan. You play the role of a keeper, someone who maintains three distinct realms under the direction of a hologram that a previous keeper left behind. You seem to be the last keeper, and it’s up to you to figure out what keepers are and why they disappeared.

I feel like this game works significantly on paper than in practice. In practice, most of the story gets explained at the very end, and there really wasn’t much environmental storytelling to support it, or even drive home the central mystery. The settings are grand when viewed from a distance, but lack personal detail and come off as a bit generic.

One of the issues with Obduction was that it was easy to miss interaction points. Firmament addressed this by giving you an arm device that interacts with “sockets”, which all have a standardized look. The result is a bunch of puzzles that aren’t particularly difficult, but are impressively long and complex. I liked them, but some might consider them a bit tedious, as they take far longer to execute than to solve.

7. Myst V (2005)

In my previous ranking, I said I barely remembered Myst V, and now I know why. It’s really short and mediocre. The story has you going through a handful ages in order to acquire a stone tablet. The tablet is a macguffin of such great power that the game can’t even begin to describe it, and therefore does not even bother trying.

It is said that Myst V was constructed from leftover parts from Uru, and it certainly feels like it. It feels like the ages were created without any particular story in mind, and then hastily strung together in an attempt at a story. There is a serious lack of environmental storytelling. The environments are sparse, and the puzzles are just there to be puzzles, and hardly build upon the world. Most of the story comes from the villain, who frequently teleports in to explain what each age is for. This icy world… was a prison planet, he says. Good to know, because there was no other way we could have known.

8. Uru (2003)

To be honest, I hated Uru the first time I played it—in my previous ranking I was pulling my punches because I thought maybe I just didn’t appreciate it at the time. But as I watched the Let’s Play, I experienced a sort of hate-nostalgia. This game is even worse than I remember!

Uru is broken into three parts, the main game, “To D’ni”, and “Path of the Shell”. The main game consists of four ages, which really are the worst in the series. The puzzles require illogical solutions, refuse more obvious solutions, and give little feedback about when you’re on the right track. Some of them require physics or platforming, which is particularly garbage. There is a lack of motivation; the player character is supposed to be you, and therefore doesn’t have any motivations beyond your own morbid curiosity to watch this train wreck of a game. Your immediate goal is to collect handprint cloths, but there is an obstinate refusal to explain what they are or why you are doing this. The general theme is exposing the seedy underbelly of the fallen D’ni civilization, but despite so many words wasted on the “lore” of several dozen D’ni kings, there is not enough specificity to flesh out what’s going on or why we should care.

The first DLC, “To D’ni” is the content I most remember hating. It allows you to explore the D’ni ruins, a vast empty space originally intended for multiplayer. I don’t even like how it looks—a dark and monotonous place. For lack of better things to do, there is a scavenger hunt for floating invisible white spheres. It would be better if the scavenger hunt did not exist.

The second DLC, “Path of the Shell” is one that I never played, for obvious reasons. I didn’t miss much. It consists of ages originally intended to be solved multiplayer, hastily converted to be solvable by single player. Inexplicably, it has four completely independent puzzles that require you to just wait for several minutes. It combines the bad puzzle design of the main game with the overly large and empty world design of “To D’ni”.

On the Let’s Play videos, I was baffled by commenters saying they loved the game, and had played it many times. Actually most of the time these commenters were complaining that Keith had missed something “obvious” that wasn’t really (e.g. “that button has the number 3 on it, which means you should press it 3 times, even though nothing happened the first two times”). I’d guess this is a pretty small group of superfans. Admittedly, Uru has a very distinctive quality–bad puzzles spread very very thinly–that some people might be into, particularly with multiplayer. Or perhaps it appealed to people as a proto-walking-sim. But I like walking sims, and still can’t stand Uru. It belongs in a museum of follies.

Concluding remarks

Ordering the games from best to worst leaves a bitter taste in my mouth, like why do I even like this series? People generally blame the poor quality of Uru and Myst V on their troubled development cycles, but I think it’s a chicken/egg problem–their development cycles were likely cut short because there was internal recognition that they weren’t working.

But looking past a few bad eggs, I think the series has held up fairly well. While Myst games no longer have cutting edge graphics by today’s standards, they still look plenty good enough. The environmental storytelling still shines even in today’s crowd of walking sims.

But I think it’s clear that the series struggled with its own story. Myst 1-4 focused on Atrus’ family. This worked well as a story of betrayal and interpersonal strife, but felt like it was retreading the same territory for want of any new ideas. Uru and Myst V switched to more sociological storytelling, being about the restoration of the D’ni civilization. That’s not a bad idea, but in practice it felt like they shied away from telling a more specific story, lest they interfere with the story that might have emerged from the players in an MMO environment. So the game turned into a mystical spirit quest to collect all the macguffins, and it was bad.

I think Obduction shows that their writers can do so much more when freed from the burden of Myst canon. Firmament was a bit of a disappointment, but had some good ideas that I hope get iterated in the future.

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