Sunday, 7 March 2021

Two histories of Myst – Picking Up the Pieces

quote [ Denial soon set in even regarding Myst’s monster success. Beginning a long tradition in computer games, certain players and writers started trying to explain away the sales. When Quake’s retail launch bellyflopped, beaten on the charts again by Myst, CNET’s resident “GamerX” would have none of it. “Remember, though, these figures only reflect sales in the stores, not sales online”, he wrote. “Do you really think the original Myst is outselling Quake? Wake up, man!” ]

A very good analysis on the anti-casual gaming viewpoint.

Of course the whole gaming camp argument is stupid: You can get the same endorphines from playing Dwarf Fortress, hidden object games and bullet hell shooters depending on your mood.

More opinions and full text in the extended.

See also How video game difficulty became a cultural battleground (it relates to the recent post) and this honest Myst rant.

Reveal

Two histories of Myst - Picking Up the Pieces

John-Gabriel Adkins

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Myst (1993) by Cyan and Brøderbund.

The Myst 25th Anniversary Kickstarter raised $2.8 million from over 19,000 backers in May. Last month, the subsequent re-release of Myst entries three and four was met with fanfare. These are testaments to the staying power of one inconspicuous little game from 1993 — an anomaly created by two brothers whose prior history in the game industry was, to say the least, odd. An experiment whose budget this recent Kickstarter could’ve funded several times over.¹

Myst should need no introduction. It’s a puzzle-heavy, non-violent graphic adventure with a slick visual style and the simplest interface known to humankind. You, the player, are a genderless, unnamed interloper on a surreal island, a world that seems almost to have emerged from a madman’s mind. Things get weirder from here: alternate dimensions; magical books with people trapped inside; and an increasingly sinister plot. This project proceeded to sell more than 6 million copies — the highest sales of any computer game until The Sims.²

The ripples of Myst are visible even today, most obviously but far from exclusively within so-called “walking sims” like Firewatch: a focus on atmosphere, on a sense of being there, coupled with a seamless interface. Influence-finding, though, is not my main interest here. What follows is a history of this game’s histories. I want to analyze the dueling narratives that arose to contextualize and explain the single, seismic event that was Myst.

In the beginning

Myst creators Rand and Robyn Miller were Mac weirdos. Conveying this idea to a modern reader is challenging.

Apple’s Macintosh computer was, in many ways, a separate stream from DOS and Windows machines. Games made for it followed suit. The mouse and the window-based graphical UI were standardized on the Mac by 1984; the first true point-and-click adventure game was not LucasArts’ 1987 Maniac Mansion — with its awkward, joystick-reliant cursor — but ICOM’s Mac masterpiece Déjà Vu two years earlier. On the Macintosh, the left-field experimentation of Chris Crawford’s art games Trust & Betrayal and Balance of Power was in the water supply. Budgets were low and concepts were sky-high.

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The original 1984 Apple Macintosh, with its one-button mouse and graphical UI.

Before stumbling across its hit, the Millers’ company Cyan released three bizarre, goalless children’s games for the Macintosh: The Manhole, Cosmic Osmo and Spelunx. All followed the Myst format. Their interfaces were simple, their perspectives first-person, their controls mouse-based. They were deeply, irresistibly weird anti-games designed for non-gamers by guys who weren’t themselves especially interested in games. Most of all they were “worlds,” as Robyn Miller put it in 2013.³ Worlds inside the computer.

Books could be — indeed, have been — written about the concept of the “world inside the computer.” This is the true starting point of the computer game as such, and the enduring link between mainframe, DOS, Macintosh and Windows game development. All computer games are descendants of that first virtual world, the text-only Colossal Cave Adventure (1976–77), in one form or another. A few years later, Infocom’s Zork expanded and polished the idea. Both games were formative experiences for Rand Miller, and Zork II was, by the time of Myst, among the only games Robyn Miller had ever played.³ As Rand put it in 2015:

The feeling they provided was my first sense of actually exploring a virtual space on a computer, as opposed to simply moving through nondescript grids. I remember thinking that it was interesting to have an experience with a computer that would become the basis of a rather bizarre story that I would relate to co-workers the next day. “Last night? Well, I stumbled on a small cabin in the woods, and found a secret trapdoor underneath a rug that led down to an underground kingdom.”

“Virtual reality” today is cynical Silicon Valley marketing-speak; in 1991, when Myst began development, it was an overpoweringly real and present necessity. Computers were magic in the 1970s, ’80s and ‘90s. They were expensive, foreign, mysterious, Narnia-esque portals to other worlds: their true nature and potential were unknown, unmapped even by their own engineers. People craved virtual reality. The Infocom text adventures — each one a vast computer-world — saw incredible commercial success, even on the Macintosh. So much success, in fact, that their DOS-style command-line interfaces became a threat to the Macintosh brand.

The key to understanding Myst is this juxtaposition. It’s the glorious strangeness of Macintosh outsider art matched with the highest ideals of Zork. Fundamentally, right down to the way it requires the player to draw maps and take notes on physical paper, Myst is a text adventure plus graphics. But this design framework was run through the anti-game aesthetic of Mac development. The Millers didn’t want to make a game; they didn’t even have a demographic in mind, beyond themselves and the many others who didn’t care much for games.³ It was this magic mix that carried Myst into millions of lives, that sparked a gold rush and, ultimately, that made it the game industry’s favorite scapegoat and whipping boy for over two decades.

A long, long explosion

We live in an era of instant success. Infinity War made $1.7 billion in under a month. Call of Duty: WWII made $500 million in three days. It feels natural, when talking about hits, to talk about launch parties and $300 million advertising blitzes and day-one fistfights in the waiting line that stretches around three city blocks, probably lined with tents. This is the world The Phantom Menace gave us.

By and large, that wasn’t how computer games operated in the 1990s. It wasn’t how the adventure genre operated. And it definitely wasn’t how Myst operated.

When Myst launched, a typical hit computer game sold 100,000 copies in the long run — maybe its first six months, its first year; maybe longer. Even by 1998, only around 5% of new computer game releases hit that mark in their lifetimes. At GDC 2013, Robyn Miller recalled the moment when Cyan thought Myst could sell 100,000 copies, and the crowd laughed.³ It was a good joke. But it was grounded in a truth that many younger members of that audience wouldn’t have grasped.

Myst sold 100,000 copies, all right. It was a surprise hit on the up-and-coming CD-ROM format, already in the process of being popularized by Trilobyte’s odd interactive horror movie The 7th Guest. Suddenly “multimedia” and “new media” were the words on every venture capitalist’s lips; The New York Times was profiling the high-tech “Gurus of Multimedia Gulch” in San Francisco. Hollywood money, drawn by the promise of virtual realities with live actors as their stars, started to pour into Silicon Valley. Released in September 1993, Myst reached 200,000 customers by April — despite its being a Mac exclusive until March. Modest by today’s standards, but comically successful given its circumstances. The important part is that it kept selling for the next eight years.

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Trilobyte’s The 7th Guest (1993) put the CD-ROM on the map months before Myst.

Most people don’t want to sift numbers and statistics. There’s something deeply dry and unsexy about it; can’t we leave it for the suits and their accountants to parse? But nothing was more important about Myst than its revenue and reach. “Follow the money” isn’t just a political aphorism: it’s our method of understanding everything that’s happened or might happen or will happen or won’t happen in a late-capitalist world of enterprise. It took the naïve idealism of Rand and Robyn Miller, with their total lack of economic thinking, to create this magic. What happened afterward — down even to the games that were allowed to happen afterward—was the domain of the bottom line. And this realm was shaped inexorably by what Myst was doing at retail.

With that in mind, try to bear with the number-crunching that follows.

Myst wasn’t the fastest seller. Doom II was actually the best-selling PC game of 1994. Its blood-and-guts simplicity drew a different crowd: mostly excited young guys with disposable income and brutal FOMO (which didn’t yet exist). The 7th Guest outran Myst for a couple of years, too. By the time Myst finally broke the magic number in mid-1995 — the barely-ever-happened 1 million mark — The 7th Guest was at 1.5 million. But the blockbuster glamour of Doom II and Guest ultimately capped out between 2–3 million sales apiece.¹⁰ By comparison, it seemed at the time that Myst’s audience might be the entire human race.

Unlike with most computer games, Myst didn’t slow down over the years: it sped up. In the US, the world’s biggest computer game market at the time, Myst beat Doom II for the crown in 1995.¹¹ It beat Warcraft II the next year, with a ludicrous 850,000 sales and $28.8 million in gross revenue just that year and just in the United States.¹² It was finally toppled in 1997 by its own sequel, Riven, but still nabbed second place and another 870,000 sales.¹³ In 1998, despite its being five years old in an age characterized by rapid technological decay — as Weird Al put it in 1999, “My new computer’s got the clocks, it rocks / But it was obsolete before I opened the box”—Myst claimed third place. It actually outsold Riven that year: 540,000 copies to 355,000.¹⁴

The game was seemingly indestructible. Competitors were frustrated. “Myst is an anomaly — there is no logical reason to explain its success”, said Gary Griffiths of SegaSoft, one of the most ill-advised and incompetent PC publishers of that era. “All you need to do is look at the customer base to know that.”¹⁵ This was 1998, and these people hadn’t cracked the code. Nobody knew why Myst kept appealing to players who’d never bought a game before.

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Cyan’s gorgeous Riven: The Sequel to Myst (1997).

SegaSoft published a Myst clone, Obsidian, that earned roughly $4 million in roughly two years.¹⁵ Myst earned $132 million in the US by late 1997.¹⁶ Obsidian sold a little under 100,000 copies. There were 4.23 million units of Myst bought domestically by 1999,¹⁷ and 6.3 million internationally by 2000.² The original Myst, an eight-year-old game built for System 7 and Windows 3.1 and Windows 95, sold another 43,000 units in 2001. With its remakes and re-releases that year, this number rose to 130,000.¹⁸

This paradigm-shattering success made Myst impossible to escape. Everyone knew this game; everyone was talking about it. Corporations wanted a piece of the pie, but couldn’t get it; pundits wanted to say something valuable about the situation, but Myst seemed resistant to prediction or interpretation. How do you wrestle with this thing that’s driving the industry without being part of the industry? Computer game people understood Quake II, released around the same time as Riven: it sold to the same guys who read PC Gamer, an audience you could predict. The Myst games didn’t.

“In some ways, these games aren’t competing”, said the great Ann Stephens of PC Data in 1997, “because they’re attracting completely different kinds of people”.¹⁶

The great divide

Computer games were, at one time, unified. We didn’t even have the term “casual game” in 1993, let alone the idea that a first-person shooter (then an unnamed genre) could be considered a “hardcore title.”¹⁹ There were people who played computer games, and people who didn’t. People who got way into golf or Harpoon or hearts or text adventures — those were the “hardcore” players, in that they played their chosen field obsessively.

When Myst and the CD-ROM finally broached the mass market, this ecosystem was disrupted. Myst had, Robyn Miller makes clear, been designed to appeal to non-gamers. It sold to them. Enthusiast magazines like Computer Gaming World couldn’t set the taste for the industry anymore: there were millions buying games who didn’t read these magazines. An entirely new breed of player. In this situation, what could be more natural than concocting an us-and-them formula? In a very real way, it was already true.

The great narrative of Myst is that the “hardcore” game press and playerbase lambasted it when it launched. Disowned it. A slideshow, they called it. Abstruse, idiotic puzzles; pretty graphics and not much depth. “Critics and hardcore game players universally panned it as a slide-show that had little actual gameplay interaction”, claimed PC Gamer’s Michael Wolf in 2001.²⁰ That same year, a columnist for Maximum PC recalled Myst as a “tedious code-breaking and switch-throwing mess”, and saw its then-new remake realMYST as “a pointed reminder of why the press dumped on the original so heavily when it came out.”²¹

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Myst’s reputation as a “slideshow” came from its flick-screen movement, above.

Game developers shared this sentiment in the late ’90s. “When I look at Riven and Myst, they insult me,” said Sanitarium’s Travis Williams at a seminar during GDC 1998. He derided them as “a whole bunch of pretty pictures around those wooden peg puzzles”; and the crowd laughed and clapped. Moments later, a Mindscape employee denied that the two hits were adventure games at all.²² Cyan couldn’t have been less welcome at this event, entitled “Are Adventure Games Dead?” Many in the audience believed that Myst had killed the genre.

Myst became tied to the death of adventure games, in fact, for many years. As the 1990s wore on, the famed “LucasArts style” — failure-free, notation-free, dialogue-heavy, streamlined, linear, jokey, filmlike — became identified irrevocably with the adventure genre by game publications and an increasingly fractious audience. Yet Myst was almost the polar opposite, and its immediate influence on the field was much wider than anything Lucas managed until the 2000s. Almost everything became Myst-ified to some degree, although most today don’t remember John Saul’s Blackstone Chronicles, Black Dahlia, Dust, Starship Titanic, Lighthouse or Zork Nemesis. This style was a LucasArts fan’s worst nightmare. As PC Gamer put it in 1997, “[N]othing good could ever come of an adventure created with Macromedia Director.”²³

To many at the time, Myst’s influence looked like the creative death of a medium, to be followed (it seemed) by commercial death.²⁴ Even Myst’s adherence to tradition — its note-taking and nonlinearity; its sense of virtual reality; its general lack of filmic exposition — felt more and more like an aberration in a world of Full Throttle and The Curse of Monkey Island. These games manifestly were not virtual realities, but that didn’t seem to matter: especially for the latter, the awards from enthusiast magazines rolled in regardless. In just a few years, the industry had drifted far from the era in which Myst made sense. Its concerns were those of text adventures and Mac outsiders; the surging Doom generation had never known them.

By 1996, the blowback against Myst and its children had begun. An editorial in boot’s debut issue compared the game to Pandora’s box; to the author, it had started a revolution of “stultifyingly boring and fatally uninventive" dreck.²⁵ Denial soon set in even regarding Myst’s monster success. Beginning a long tradition in computer games, certain players and writers started trying to explain away the sales. When Quake’s retail launch bellyflopped, beaten on the charts again by Myst, CNET’s resident “GamerX” would have none of it. “Remember, though, these figures only reflect sales in the stores, not sales online”, he wrote. “Do you really think the original Myst is outselling Quake? Wake up, man!”²⁶

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LucasArts’ Full Throttle (1995), the filmlike and linear adventure game that industry insiders were allowed to love.

What “GamerX” said about the figures’ exclusion of online sales was true, but irrelevant: even by late ’98, brick-and-mortar stores still accounted for three-fourths of computer game sales.²⁷ Myst really was outselling Quake; and the industry’s fear of the reality that this truth represented grew by the day. To many insiders, this was the reality of non-gamers, outsiders, people who didn’t understand quality, idiots, the unwashed masses banging on the hallowed gates. Reflecting on the 1997 performance of Myst and its sequel, a nameless staff writer for PC Gamer commented that “the hard-core gamers here at PC Gamer are still trying to figure out how the gruesome twosome of Riven and Myst continue to sell in phenomenal amounts.”¹³

They weren’t really trying to figure it out, though. They’d already offered an explanation when they gave Riven a Special Achievement in Hype award in the previous issue:

Operating from the game’s single selling point as the sequel to Myst, one of the best-selling PC titles ever (another perplexing mystery), Riven managed to invade our collective consciousness to the point at which everyone, even millions of non-gamers, knew it was coming and that it was big, so everybody rushed out to buy it. Never has a game with so little to recommend about it been bought by so many.²⁸

There was nothing to it; the standard story: stupid lemmings, McDonald’s culture: the world of dumbed-down mass-market entertainment, all flash and no substance. “If rendered adventures appear in a museum, they’ll need only two exhibits”, wrote Jonathan Nash of PC Gamer’s British edition in 1998. “One is the millions-selling Riven, just to remind everyone that you can never, never know fully just how appallingly moronic the human race can be.”²⁹

By this point, the freshly-formed “hardcore” contingent had stopped bothering. Most enthusiast magazines barely addressed Myst and the Myst-lings anymore. “Denny Atkin, features editor at Computer Gaming World, says his magazine doesn’t cover immersive games [read: Myst-alikes] because his magazine’s audience just isn’t interested in them”, reported Salon in 1998.¹⁵ In other words, an entire demographic had finally receded into its shell.

Riven was, in 1997, the biggest-ever computer software launch this side of Windows 95.³⁰ But the hype came from the mainstream press: gaming magazines were conspicuously silent. So silent, in fact, that Strategy Plus’s underrated columnist Cindy Yans had a bone to pick with them about it. “[W]e didn’t see a heck of a lot about Riven in the gaming press during the months prior to its release”, she said at the time. “Are they crazy? Or did they just forget?”³¹

Feeling embattled and desperate, the self-anointed hardcore did the only thing they could in the face of an indestructible so-called “enemy”: shut their eyes, cover their ears and yell, “Lah, lah, lah.” Circle the wagons. Watch out for “casual” gamers. Don’t pay attention, and maybe it’ll all go away. Surely those sales are overstated, anyway.

“I mean, when’s the last time you heard someone confess that he had played Myst all night?” asked GamerX in 1997. “1994?”³²

The other story

The irony was that the mainstream, in many respects, took the mirror-inverse view of the Myst phenomenon.

In a time before Farmville and Minecraft and Fortnite — “even parents are relaxed about it”, claims The Guardian — made computer games mainstream-palatable, many outsiders saw them as a hobby for antisocial nerds and juvenile delinquents. Myst promised another way. It was non-violent, contemplative: artsy. It had nothing to do with Satan.³³

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The ubiquitous Doom (1993) by id Software.

As a result, Myst became the general public’s anti-Doom. Both were released in 1993, but they embodied vastly different visions of what games could be. “To many, Myst seemed like the good twin of the evil Doom”, the academic text Digital Play put it in 2003. The differences between these games were, to average people, far more pronounced than any similarities they might have shared. Again, Digital Play:

Where one was violent, the other was pacific. While Romero and his disciples at id swaggered with a calculated ‘badness’ that smacked of high-tech Satanism, the Millers were pious but soft-spoken Christians. Where Doom was the descendent of arcade shooters, the ancestors of Myst were the children’s games Cyan had developed for the Macintosh computer, games with titles like Spelunx and the Caves of Mr Seudo. Where Doom was a celebration of speed and terror, Myst was serene and beautiful.³⁴

Myst was also smart, which Doom — for all its many qualities — never even attempted to be. This game placed no emphasis on reflexes, but a massive one on patience and lateral thinking. To older non-gamers in the ’90s, it felt accessible: it could be solved through the same quiet, logical contemplation as The New York Times crossword puzzle. It began to look like computer games’ path toward adulthood, a final escape from adolescent-male power fantasies.

All of this was the narrative of the mainstream press, which at the time was separated by an uncrossable chasm from enthusiast magazines. Forgive the long quote, but these words from the Los Angeles Times in 1997 must be read in full:

Not so long ago, many in the industry believed the game business was poised for greatness. PC sales were booming, and every sale created a household of potential new customers.

This was accompanied by the hope that typically affluent and educated PC buyers might be ready for something more sophisticated than the shoot-’em-up titles that dominate the market for dedicated game machines such as the Sega Saturn and Sony PlayStation.

If any game served as a symbol of these lofty aspirations, it was an unheralded gem called Myst.

Introduced by Broderbund in the fall of 1993, Myst enthralled players with surreal graphics and sounds, right down to the lapping tide and screeching sea gulls in the game’s opening waterfront scene.³⁵

This is what Myst represented to the wider public. It was a sign of the industry’s future. It was an art film drawing crowds in an otherwise-scuzzy theater, sandwiched between screenings of Rambo and Friday the 13th. It was a portal into a beautiful, hyperreal otherworld that regular people actually wanted to visit. For the enormous New Age contingent in the ‘90s, its strange and peaceful atmosphere was a glimpse of white-people Nirvana.

When the Wall Street Journal reported on Quake II’s launch, you could feel the disdain drip from every line, as it pilloried the game’s young and unsophisticated fans with their own words. “It’s got cool stuff like flies buzzing over dead bodies”, raved one 16-year-old. The owner of fansite Planet Quake was quoted as mentioning “a smorgasbord of slaughter.” Near the end of the article, though, Riven and Myst appeared as a counterpoint. Dichotomies were drawn—rival games; “one appealing to the intellect and the other to primal instincts” — and sales figures cited, both in Myst’s favor. Thanks to Cyan’s hits, even a paper this conservative couldn’t write off computer games entirely.¹⁶

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id Software’s Quake (1996) was simultaneously the most “dangerous” game available and, to a certain demographic, the pinnacle of cool.

And yet Myst was losing the war for the industry’s soul, in the public’s mind. The Los Angeles Times reporter quoted above, Greg Miller, argued as much. By 1997, he saw artistic games as a dying dream. “Most of the other top-selling games last year [besides Myst] had the high testosterone quotient of a Schwarzenegger or Stallone action movie and the bloodthirsty title to go with it”, he wrote. He cited the sales failure of the lovely Neverhood Chronicles—one of many commercial bombs produced by a doomed, quixotic venture under the name of DreamWorks Interactive — as proof that computer games were relapsing into stupidity.³⁵

Beyond Riven, there were no other Myst-tier adventure game hits. Nothing else in computer games penetrated the mainstream consciousness like these titles had. There were huge successes, certainly; but the industry no longer even allowed for an event as big as Myst to occur. The late ’90s were a new world of shortening shelf-lives, shrinking shelf space and dying specialty retailers. Ascendant big-box stores wanted games to boom and then, ideally, to exit the shelves and make way for the next million-seller. As GT Interactive’s head put it in 1997, “If Myst came out in this retail environment today, it may never have even seen the light of day”.³⁵ It’s telling that even Riven didn’t match the exact sales pattern of its predecessor.

All of which was a problem, in the mainstream public’s mind. Games as a whole actually seemed to be getting more violent, more adolescent, no matter how much Myst sold. Computer gamers’ average age dropped and a men’s-magazine style of coverage—spearheaded by British journalism and American fansites, then blown up online and in print by Imagine Media and Ziff Davis in the US—claimed the industry.³⁶ Myst aside, the hobby’s reputation was getting worse; and developing irresponsible games was becoming a mark of pride for many inside the field.

By 1995, politicians like Joe Lieberman were angry, and then-First Lady Hillary Clinton wasn’t far behind.³⁷ Lieberman’s hit list the following year, the “Ten Least Wanted Computer Games”, included Bethesda Softworks’ The Elder Scrolls II: Daggerfall.³⁸ These people still saw games as children’s toys, somehow, and the idea of a child’s blowing up strippers in moronic products like Duke Nukem 3D scared them. (Minors were, unfortunately, doing just that — but that’s another story.) Battles over censorship raged. When school shootings started getting blamed on computer games, all hell broke loose.

Columbine wasn’t the first. In 1997, you had Heath, which claimed the lives of three girls. About a week before Columbine, in April 1999, those victims’ families filed a lawsuit against a scattershot assortment of media companies — including the producers of Doom — for their alleged inspiration of the shooter to shoot. The connection of Heath specifically to games, though, was questionable. Columbine was an entirely different animal. Here, the shooters avidly played Doom, described the planned shooting as Doom-like. The link couldn’t be scrubbed away, whether we liked it or not.³⁹

“The tone after Columbine was one of absolute certainty[. …] Society was absolutely behind this issue of linking video game violence to mass shootings”, game researcher Chris Ferguson recalled this year. Newt Gingrich got involved, as always, and the Clintons continued their long hunt for causation. The legal battles between the game industry and the wider world — opportunists, do-gooders and the legitimately concerned alike — defined the medium’s next decade in the US. Many inside the industry felt that the honor of stuff like Manhunt and Postal 2 was a hill worth dying to defend.

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Games like Rockstar’s Manhunt (2003) pushed the irresponsibility envelope despite, or perhaps because of, the public backlash against the industry.

In all this chaos, a non-gamer might wonder: what happened to Myst and the revolution it promised? Why did Doom father the new industry? Who asked for this thematic race to the bottom? Mainstream media outlets have returned to these questions over the years. For Vice, Myst represents the beleaguered “alternate timeline”: the sad story of what could have been. As the magazine’s Mike Diver wrote in 2015:

Would the last 20-odd years have been different — for games and those who play them — had Myst been the template upon which more titles were based? Would gaming culture have been less male dominated, a friendlier place to tweet in? Would video games have avoided being dragged through the tabloid press in the wake of the Columbine massacre and Anders Behring’s rampage of 2011? Perhaps. Maybe we’d all be a little friendlier to each other right now, in person and online, with multiplayer games emphasizing cooperation over annihilation.⁴⁰

A much better publication, the late-great Grantland, made a similar case on Myst’s 20th anniversary. “Twenty years ago,” wrote Emily Yoshida, “people talked about Myst the same way they talked about The Sopranos during its first season: as one of those rare works that irrevocably changed its medium.” The sense of forlornness in that sentence continues throughout the article, which is required reading in its entirety. For Yoshida, Myst was a failed coup against the twitch-gameplay status quo. This was 2013, and “the gaming industry couldn’t be further from the quiet, achingly lonely puzzler it had embraced two decades ago.”⁴¹

For the mainstream press, Myst was a beautiful failure, finally defeated; and we were left poorer for it. Computer gaming would always be Doom-ed.

The persistence of (false) memory

At first glance, the two histories related above are diametric opponents. One, on the mainstream side, tells of a heroic savior ignored; the other details an antichrist narrowly (if at all) defeated. What unites them is an inaccuracy of memory.

The game historian Laine Nooney has written eloquently on the issue of memory in this medium. Real history is scarce for us: most of the industry’s past is held as an informal collective chronicle, a shared urban mythology that the initiated all “know” but cannot say how or why. There is no lineage of tradition-keepers, as in the ancient world; but there isn’t a modern historico-critical body to keep the story straight, either. As a result, game history has been relegated to a kind of memorial natural selection: the industry’s history is nothing more or less than what those still playing games remember that history to be.⁴²

Consider the case of Steve Meretzky, designer of Infocom’s Planetfall and, since 2000, of many “casual” games for large online companies like Playdom. Even today, his fame is staked upon his Infocom work in the 1980s. He’s made games like Sorority Life since then, a megahit that reached three million monthly active players in short order, and retained five million after almost two years.⁴³ Do a YouTube search for Sorority Life, though, and you’ll be met with next to nothing. It isn’t in the history books; it doesn’t even have a Wikipedia article. His most successful game at Infocom was The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy, with around 400,000 lifetime sales.⁴⁴ This early work lives on, though, because the right people remembered it. The memories of millions of Sorority Life players aren’t the ones that quote-unquote matter: they haven’t entered “our” history, because these people aren’t part of “our” self-selecting collective recollection. To us, Meretzky will always be the text-adventure god.

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Recognize it? If you’re reading this article, probably not. Titles like Playdom’s Sorority Life (2008) have failed to enter insider game history.

There are few examples of this phenomenon more revealing than Myst’s reputation as a diseased invader of computer games. Put bluntly, its infamous drubbing by the “hardcore” press and playerbase when it first released is a fabrication. It never happened. The right in-group simply remembered it that way — wanted it to be that way — and memory was allowed to become history. Consider it a form of mass hysteria converted into truth by a twisted kind of survivorship bias. In actuality, Myst received a rave review from, as far as I’ve pieced together, every single North American publication that reviewed it. Let’s have a closer look.

  • PC Gamer gave Myst an Editor’s Choice Award and a score of 95%, which tied it as the highest-rated game of the magazine’s debut issue. “Very few games have been able to transport the player to a world so believable that the boundary between the screen and ‘real’ world fades to near nothingness”, raved Gary Meredith. “The Millers have managed to capture the surreal tint of dreams, while providing enough mental twists to stock a pretzel factory.” Myst proved that CD-ROM games were more than just shiny audiovisual gloss: “It sometimes seems that ingenuity and creativity in game design are inversely proportional to the capabilities of the hardware. But Myst is the exception to the rule.”⁴⁵
  • Computer Gaming World, which hadn’t yet started scoring games, offered Myst a glowing review and a nomination for Adventure Game of the Year. Its story? Strong. Its puzzle design? “Tough but fair.” After mentioning the game’s optional strategy guide, reviewer Christopher Breen declared, “I can’t understand why anyone would want to rush through the game by getting an easy answer: with Myst’s graphic beauty, lush sound, and compelling plot line and puzzles, it’s over all too soon.”⁴⁶
  • Strategy Plus, generally the third-largest PC game magazine in the United States, was equally effusive. “If there was a ‘dictionary of superlatives’, all of its words could apply”, claimed the reviewer. Myst is “a delight for the senses […] with a subtlety of style that is extremely complementary to the virtual reality feeling of the game.”⁴⁷ (As with CGW, Strategy Plus did not offer scores at the time.)
  • Electronic Entertainment, one of many names for the US’s fourth-biggest PC game magazine, gave Myst a perfect 10. This game “pushes the design envelope by combining traditional gaming elements in a unique interactive experience”, raved Bob Lindstrom. “An intelligent story line, mind-bending puzzles, and adventure-game intrigue combine with Myst’s rich and atmospheric detail to produce a game that is at once fresh and familiar.” Those puzzles people hated so much? They were “excellent and brilliantly tied in to the overall context of the game.”⁴⁸
  • Macworld gave Myst four out of five stars and named it the Best Adventure Game of 1994. “Myst is that rare game that doesn’t just push the envelope, it shreds it”, wrote Steven Levy.⁴⁹
  • CD-ROM Today, a sister magazine to PC Gamer, was also enthralled by Myst. Giving the game a perfect score in every category, Sandy and Selby Bateman called it “about as flawless a game as you're likely to find.”⁵⁰

This kind of praise was not short-lived, nor was it confined to reviews. In late 1994, industry bible Game Developer Magazine called Myst “a multisensory, virtual-reality envelope pusher.”⁵¹ Even in 1995, PC Gamer was casting about for successors: “nothing yet has captured any of its magic”, complained T. Liam McDonald.⁵² It bears mentioning that McDonald wrote that anti-Myst column in boot quoted earlier, and the complaints about realMyst for Maximum PC. As the zeitgeist swung away from Myst, it seems, even its erstwhile boosters were swept up.

Image for post

Even today, Myst’s art direction retains the power and “magic” that wowed critics in ’93 and ‘94.

To my knowledge, the only negative reviews for Myst in English came from British magazines, such as PC Zone (67/100) and the UK edition of PC Gamer (59%).⁵³ This would surprise no one familiar with British games in the ‘90s. “UK gamers aren’t particularly enamoured with the notion of political correctness”, reported PC Gamer in 2001, although it could have been 1994. Instead, they “love stuff with a ‘laddish’ element to it — i.e., for the men. No, not porn, but footy games and ‘humorous’ games where you shoot things and laugh.”⁵⁴ A game like Myst had little to offer lad culture and its testosterone-fueled magazines like PC Zone. Britain certainly produced mature games for mature players — Azrael’s Tear, Broken Sword, Theme Park — , but Carmageddon and the original Grand Theft Auto did not spawn from nothing.

This is the slippery, ephemeral nature of our game history, passed along through half-memories and demographic survival alone. Left vulnerable to distortion, it became distorted: within four or seven years, the truth inverted itself. Myst became a poison to industry insiders because the people who compiled our canon—the insiders who remained, many of them action-addicted newcomers, or British crossovers; the rest affected by the imperceptible continental drift of public opinion — remembered it that way. By the time of Riven, the original history had been overwritten like a palimpsest by the concerns of the present moment. We like to believe that the recent past is transparent to us. In this medium, that belief has often been false.

But the mainstream wasn’t innocent in this mess, either. The claim that Myst was the only product of its kind, or that computer games were adolescent male fantasies until 1993, is beyond parody. Computer games carry the heritage of Ultima IV, King’s Quest III and A Mind Forever Voyaging. Sierra On-Line was targeting families and women and the “mass market,” and seeing enormous success doing it, from the early 1980s onward. Even amid the downward spiral of Doom- and Quake-clones, games for adults and families were highly present and highly successful. America’s second-biggest seller of the decade, behind Myst? The serene Microsoft Flight Simulator. Westwood Studios’ much-lauded Monopoly adaptation outsold any of its Command & Conquer games here. Barbie Fashion Designer and SimCity 2000 beat Quake.¹⁷

In fact, the Doom-ification of the computer game business was always more an issue of image than market reality, despite the claims of the mainstream press. By and large, after a brief peak in 1995, those games didn’t dominate the charts. Mass-market games did: games founded on the non-gamer friendliness of Myst, and often on the budget pricing that blew it up during its later years. Games targeted at the Walmart everyman.⁵⁵ From whence came Deer Hunter, Who Wants to Be a Millionaire and Lego Island; Rollercoaster Tycoon and The Sims; You Don’t Know Jack and Backyard Baseball, and Nancy Drew. Publishers invented the label “casual games” for this push, and soon, almost everyone was on board. Only a single shooter — Max Payne, at number 19 — cracked the year-end top 20 for 2001.⁵⁶

Browser games, likewise aimed at the non-gamer demographic that Myst had made so desirable, emerged during the same period. Your aunt or uncle or grandparent who bought Myst probably played Microsoft Ants or Double Trouble on MSN — and, later, PopCap’s Bejeweled. Many of these people would never call themselves gamers, and gamers themselves probably would not accept them. Yet, can a Riven owner with 2,000 hours on Bookworm and Super Collapse be a non-gamer? Designers like Jane Jensen of Gabriel Knight fame jumped into the browser-based social game world for a reason, as did Steve Meretzky, Brian Reynolds, Bruce Shelley, Christy Marx, Bob Bates, Paul Neurath and a laundry list of other legends. The “casual” space evolved, in time, into an empire that today dwarfs even the largest AAA releases: the empire of Angry Birds, Candy Crush and Clash of Clans. Did Myst and its non-violent, non-gamer revolution truly lose?

Image for post

PopCap’s Bejeweled (2001), the unlikely successor to Tetris and the demographic cousin of Myst.

The narrative of toxic computer games for toxic boys was easy, and the industry’s self-perception simply made it more enticing; but Myst was an outlier only in the minds of those who’d lost the plot. Still, it was an easy plot to lose. Game journalism became ever-more-“hardcore” in the 2000s, which meant that “casual” games often weren’t covered, weren’t canonized. Many sites and magazines never even reviewed Bejeweled, important as it was. Left without a specialist press or wider community of its own, increasingly disunited, the “casual” contingent became more invisible even as its influence and profitability grew. In the other camp: the “gamers,” now defined almost reflexively by their own marginalization. And these latter people, whose collective memory shaped the insider history of games, were delicious tabloid fodder for an outsider press that often wanted the public’s worst fears to be real. On all sides, memory and history grew deformed.

The function of computer game history in our time is to interrogate memory-histories like the ones above. Rarely have we asked, “Whose memories are these, anyway?” All of us have inherited a canon created with little formal process, or professional input. A canon forged almost by accident. Too often, even the scholarly attention we’ve received has taken its cues from our body of myth. This has given us context and, in a way, allowed us to survive during computer games’ long march to respectability. Memory-histories helped to carry us here. But we’re all much older now. The time has come to outgrow them.

FOOTNOTES

  1. Estimates of Myst’s actual budget have fluctuated over the years, and Robyn Miller had forgotten the final number by the time of his 2013 GDC retrospective. In these situations, I like to rely on the earliest sources available — such as Rusel DeMaria’s interview with Rand and Robyn Miller in the revised Prima strategy guide for Myst, published in March 1995. According to Rand, “It cost $600,000 to produce the game. Half of the money came from Sunsoft, a Japanese company, which has rights to all versions of the game except for the Mac and MPC versions, which of course Brøderbund bought from us.” Even accounting for inflation, the recent Kickstarter campaign would’ve paid for Myst almost three times over. [BACK]
  2. We know that Myst’s lifetime sales topped 6.3 million units worldwide by November 2000 thanks to a GameSpot article published at the time (the article seems to be undated, but its real publication date is visible at the bottom of this archived page). GameSpot likewise recorded the moment when The Sims broke that record in March 2002. It bears mentioning, however, that Myst never stopped selling. Its lifetime sales will have far surpassed 6.3 million units by now: even today, it reigns as GOG.com’s best-selling adventure game. But the era of digital distribution has been one of frighteningly little transparency when it comes to the business side of games, so it’s anyone’s guess exactly how many copies Myst has sold as of 2018. [BACK 1], [BACK 2]
  3. A detail derived from Robyn Miller’s excellent Myst retrospective at the 2013 Game Developers’ Conference. [BACK 1], [BACK 2], [BACK 3]
  4. From a series of remarks that Rand Miller made to IGN in 2015. [BACK 1], [BACK 2]
  5. This detail comes from Richard Rouse III’s freewheeling interview, in his book Game Design Theory & Practice Second Edition, with Steve Meretzky of Infocom, Legend Entertainment and Boffo Games fame. Meretzky states that Infocom’s products were “extremely successful on the early Macs”, and abnormally plentiful because of their portable code. “For example,” he says, “there was a time when there were about twenty-five games available for the original Macintosh, and fifteen of them were Infocom games. This annoyed the Mac people at Apple to no end, since we didn’t use the Mac GUI.” At a time when Apple was desperate to differentiate itself from DOS-based machines, products that represented the Macintosh identity were a necessity. [BACK]
  6. This comes from Greg Costikyan’s 1998 article for Salon, “The adventure continues”. [BACK]
  7. These figures and dates courtesy of Mark J. P. Wolf’s book Myst and Riven: The World of the D’ni (2006). [BACK]
  8. We know this because the Orlando Sentinel reported PC Data’s year-end sales charts for 1994. PC Data was an extremely influential market tracker in the 1990s that, arguably, had more influence on the computer game business of that decade than any other company. Its point-of-sale tracking service was revolutionary in the games field, and PC Data founder Ann Stephens became one of the most-quoted, most-consulted game industry figures by the press — mainstream and enthusiast. In the 1990s, what PC Data said about market trends turned heads. In many cases, these were the numbers on which executives across the industry were basing their decisions. [BACK]
  9. We have these numbers because of a 1995 article in NewMediaa Wired competitor during the 1990s that, for one reason or another, has fallen completely out of the history books. Good luck finding print issues; we’re just lucky that the editors thought to archive the magazine online, way back when. [BACK]
  10. Like Myst, The 7th Guest built its sales over time, although not to the same volume. Thanks to the GameSpot article mentioned in footnote 2, we know that The 7th Guest’s sales topped 2 million by November 2000. Sales of Doom II are a little trickier, and Kushner dances around the subject in Masters of Doom, as he is wont to do when it comes to placing limits on id Software’s success. From him, we only know that it earned around $100 million worldwide. He attributes $80 million of that revenue to the United States, where other sources confirm sales of 1.55 million units by September 1999. (PC Data, while dangerously good at obscuring the fact, tracked sales specifically in the United States.) Extrapolating a bit, it seems like a safe bet to place Doom II’s international sales slightly over 2 million copies for its original run. We know for certain, in any case, that it didn’t sell more than 3.5 million: id Software itself confirmed that Doom 3, at over 3.5 million sales by 2007, was its highest-selling game ever. [BACK]
  11. Details from PC Data’s year-end sales rankings for 1995. I believe these figures were reported in the Hartford Courant in February 1996, but I’ve lost the link to the original article and have no personal access to NewsBank and the rest. All that remains online is a Twitter image that I used to illustrate the chart last year — which, I suppose, will have to suffice here. The number on the left represents the chart position; on the far right, average retail price. [BACK]
  12. From PC Data’s 1996 chart, as it was reported by the Los Angeles Times. To my knowledge, this chart was the first year-end top 10 to include hard sales and revenue data, which are always welcome additions. [BACK]
  13. Another year-end PC Data chart, this time for 1997 and reported in PC Gamer’s United States edition. We have this one thanks to someone under the handle Roushimsx, who kindly uploaded the relevant page of PC Gamer to Imgur in 2011. [BACK 1], [BACK 2]
  14. From the 1998 PC Data chart as it appeared in PC Gamer’s United States edition. As before, the scan comes courtesy of Roushimsx. [BACK]
  15. As seen in Greg Lindsay’s 1998 Salon article, “The games people play”. The handwaving SegaSoft lines therein, it should be said, are a bitter read for anyone familiar with that company’s antics during the 1990s. [BACK 1], [BACK 2]
  16. From an article published by the Wall Street Journal in December 1997. [BACK 1], [BACK 2], [BACK 3]
  17. These are PC Data figures from September 1999, as they were reported by IGN that year. While IGN is characteristically oblivious — the writer seems to think that PC Data’s numbers cover worldwide sales, and that “shipped” is a synonym for “sold” — , the chart itself remains a valuable historical artifact. This chart also appears, in a slightly different form, in James F. Dunnigan’s The Complete Wargames Handbook, Volume 3. [BACK 1], [BACK 2]
  18. These numbers come from a sales chart published by the upstart site Just Adventure, whose late founder Randy Sluganksi was at one time the adventure genre’s loudest champion in English. Sluganski attributed the figures to “PC Data,” but we can take this as shorthand for the NPD Group, a rival market-tracking firm that had absorbed most of PC Data earlier in 2001. [BACK]
  19. The issue of the “hardcore-casual” divide is a very, very complex one, which has been tackled at book-length by Jesper Juul (A Casual Revolution, 2009), although I feel that his analysis stumbles a bit in regard to the earliest history of casual gaming. Juul cites a May 1998 speech by designer Scott Kim as the beginning of the terminology’s modern use, but the flaws inherent to 2009-era game scholarship influence his conclusion here. Many key sources simply were not available at that time.
    For example, in Computer Gaming World’s January 1998 issue (almost certainly on stands in December 1997), the magazine published a survey it had commissioned earlier in the year regarding “hardcore” and “casual” players. Exactly how it define its terms is unclear, although a similar survey from 1997 pinned the “casual gamer” as someone who bought an average of 3.4 games per year, a number that also makes an appearance in Computer Gaming World’s survey. This was clearly a strained attempt to quantify a very qualitative concept — just how is something done “casually,” anyway? — , but it shows that the industry’s business side was splitting the market into “hardcore” and “casual” demographics even in 1997.
    However, it is certainly the case that phrases like “casual game” and “casual gamer” had little-to-no recognizable meaning just a few years before that. Here I appeal again to Rouse’s interview with Steve Meretzky in Game Design Theory & Practice Second Edition. Discussing his 1995 game Hodj ’n’ Podj, in hindsight accepted as a casual title, Meretzky recalls that it was made “before the phrase ‘casual gamers’ had really entered the industry vernacular.” And this is true. While one finds references to “casual gamers” clear back in Computer Gaming World’s 1980s issues, the meaning is different: here it always refers to potential readers, and sometimes to the writers themselves. It merely delineates the diehard genre nerd from those with less obsessive tendencies.
    As for the idea that early first-person shooters were hardcore games, let alone a genre of their own, the evidence is thin. Far from satisfying the demands of a pre-existing “hardcore” demographic, Wolfenstein 3D derived much of its popularity from new players: its “fast-scrolling action captures the hearts, minds and hard drives of CGW readers and non-gamers alike”, Computer Gaming World declared (emphasis added). First-person shooters were typically called arcade games, shoot ’em ups or, most notably, Doom-clones until roughly 1995 or 1996. It took time for them to solidify as anything more than a passing fad, or an interesting spin on Wing Commander. [BACK]
  20. From Michael Wolf’s review of Myst III: Exile for PC Gamer’s United States edition. [BACK]
  21. These comments come from the “Random Thought” subsection of T. Liam McDonald’s Game Theory column in Maximum PC (February 2001). McDonald was a serious mover-and-shaker in the computer game industry of the 1990s — his byline appeared on countless PC Gamer cover stories and GameSpot articles — and his Game Theory series often provided keen insights into the workings of the business. [BACK]
  22. From the GDC Vault’s audio recording of the seminar “Are Adventure Games Dead?” The quality is very poor in sections, but it’s worth the pain. The seminar was a watershed moment in the history of adventure games, and it provides a peek into the collective consciousness of the fields’ developers. Books could be written about this event—expect future articles on Picking Up the Pieces to take a closer look at it. [BACK]
  23. This remark comes again from McDonald, in his review of the game Callahan’s Crosstime Saloon for PC Gamer’s United States edition. The scan is courtesy of Roushimsx. [BACK]
  24. Explaining how titanic success can cause commercial ruin sounds a bit like trying to square a circle, but valiant efforts were made. Some of these efforts were very much insane. Gamecenter, usually an excellent website,
[SFW] [games] [+4 Interesting]
[by Paracetamol@7:04pmGMT]

Comments

Space_1889 said @ 8:05am GMT on 8th Mar [Score:4 Underrated]
It was interesting to read the linked article and then the Myst rant article. I am old enough to remember playing Myst when it first came out, and can still remember my reactions. I played a variety of computer games, and Myst is one of the few that sticks out in my memory.

The strange thing is that I agree with both articles. Yes, the game was odd and frustrating. The Myst rant article is correct that the experience can be infuriating. However, that article is incorrect that Myst was the preserve of Mac owners - many copies were sold to folks who had PCs.

The one thing I remember about playing Myst that neither article mentions is the shear beauty of the game. By today's standards the graphics seemed quaint, but at the time they were breathtaking, not to mention the sound design. That, along with the slow pace of the game, contributed to a contemplative atmosphere and satisfying problem solving and gradual exploration.
Paracetamol said @ 10:34am GMT on 8th Mar [Score:1 Informative]
Right. The game tapped into an existing need of player imagination and one shouldn't condemn the creators for it. The predecessor Manhole was a kids game and both games were prototyped via the Hypercard engine. So the criticism of an “interactive presentation” is spot on but doesn't acknowledge the creative potential of it.
biblebeltdrunk said @ 7:47pm GMT on 7th Mar
Did you prefer RealMyst or not? I wanted to play the original to compare nostalgia vs reality but only RealMyst actually ran for me.
Paracetamol said @ 8:59pm GMT on 7th Mar
mhh … I tried this 3D version once but only for a moment.

Having a pretty vivid memory of the original John Walker was probably right in his review. Games like Zork: Grand Inquisitor or the later installments were better than the original Myst. On hindsight smaller games like Entombed fared better than overblown CD productions as puzzlers.
biblebeltdrunk said[2] @ 9:21pm GMT on 7th Mar
I'm still able to enjoy myst despite how it looks but it was one of my first games at all, let alone prerendered, and have gone deep enough into the lore to have read three of the books. So I think I qualify as too overinvested to have an unbiased view.
the circus said @ 1:56pm GMT on 8th Mar
I tried Real Myst when I wanted to revisit the game. Regular Myst points you at what you need to look at. Without that it's definitely more frustrating, even if it feels more modern.
RokDragon said @ 4:52am GMT on 11th Mar
I played Myst on PC in high school when it came out, and later played Riven, and even Exile. I definitely don't have the patience for something like that now, but at the time I was fascinated! I was even a big enough dork that I read the book trilogy.
mechavolt said @ 5:56pm GMT on 11th Mar
John Walker is my favorite video game writer that I most commonly disagree with.

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