Today, the adventure genre of gaming is all but ignored by the vast majority of gamers. Websites like this are dominated by articles about first person shooters, World of Warcraft, Halo and the like. Of course, that makes perfect sense given that those types of games are what keep the gaming industry thriving. But for me, adventure games are the best possible rebuttal to critics who insist video games cannot be art. And nothing exemplifies the adventure genre better than the Myst series. Roger Ebert has become particularly notorious among gamers for his repeated assertion that video games will never be an art form. I doubt your average shoot’ em up would persuade him otherwise. But if he were to play Myst, he might begin to reconsider.
Released in 1993, Myst helped to popularize the CD-ROM format and was the best selling computer game of all time until The Sims took that title. Why was it so successful? The answer was simple: crossover appeal. With its user-friendly point and click interface and stunning (for its time) images, Myst was accessible to people who had never played video games before. You didn’t have to be a die-hard gamer to appreciate the experience. Its success spawned sequels, a series of novels, a 3D remake, an online spin-off game and dozens upon dozens of imitators.
Myst had a somewhat humble origin. After making a series of kids’ games, creators Rand and Robyn Miller decided to try something different. Jules Verne’s The Mysterious Island was their chief inspiration. The abandoned island that gave the game its title also served to draw players in. But it was the story of betrayal and family intrigue that allowed for a whole new level of interactivity. The most ingenious part of the game was the premise of books that linked to other worlds. Not only did this give players a nice variety of locations and puzzles, it ensured the series’ future by providing an entire universe to explore.
There was a giant leap forward in terms of graphics between Myst and its 1997 sequel Riven. The Millers and their expanded team of designers went a long way toward making us believe we were part of the world on our computer screens. This trend continued in further sequels. Myst IV in particular is one of the most photorealistic games I have ever seen. It may have come out eight years ago but I think its breathtaking visuals hold up even today. There simply aren’t many games that can match the Myst series when it comes to the beauty and diversity of their environments. The sound quality and music are also top-notch.
But the series isn’t just a great argument for video games as art. It also forces people to think more creatively than they would if they were playing a game where the goal is to blow things up. The games certainly helped improve my problem-solving skills as a child. They’ve even been used in the classroom. A teacher in the UK named Tim Rylands was recognized by the British Educational Communications and Technology Agency for his use of the Myst series to help his students become more literate. Now how many other games have been praised for helping to actually increase literacy?
While it’s true some of the puzzles were far more complicated than they needed to be and some of the acting was subpar, the series nevertheless had a lot more to offer than a typical mass-market video game. And I like to think it still does. Although the multiplayer game Myst Online failed to meet the expectations set by developer Cyan Worlds, a group of devoted fans have kept it alive. Cyan recently allowed user-generated content to be added to the game, fueling hopes of an expansion at some point in the future. There is also talk of a Myst movie that just might see the light of day. As we approach Myst’s twentieth anniversary, I believe the series’ protagonist Atrus had it right when he said, “the ending has not yet been written”.
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This article was first posted on December 13, 2012