Pysting in the Wind

A new CD-ROM swipes at the medium's broadest target

By Scott Rosenberg

Published October 21, 1996 9:38AM (EDT)

The CD-ROM marketplace today is a shambles, full of worthless baubles and remaindered garbage. Only a tiny, select group of products has ever made any money or provided any pleasure — and at the top of this list is "Myst," which plunged players into a mysterious world to solve an elusive riddle.

"Myst" captured the market because it stood out from the crowd of raucous, violent computer games: it was meditative and pristine. You could spend dozens of hours making your way through the 3-D mazes of Myst's five "ages." But most people's experience of the game was shorter and simpler: first, a sense of the powerful stillness and beauty of the empty island you had to explore; then, mounting frustration as you tried to get beyond the few locations you'd already scoped out — and found that, without a hint book or a savvy 11-year-old to guide you, "Myst" was a bust.

Enter "Pyst" (Parroty Interactive/Palladium Interactive) — a "Myst" parody that cheerfully capitalizes on that frustration, and that works by wantonly wrecking its original's peaceful atmosphere. "Four million people have trashed the island," reads the "Pyst" box. "Now it's your turn!"

"Pyst's" island has become a litter-strewn tourist trap where dumbass graffiti mars every landmark and raw sewage flows noisily into the sea. A couple of unctuous announcers who serve as tour guides keep you posted about ambitious plans by the Octoplex Corporation to replace the island's creaking dock with a jet-ski marina and raze the trailer park to make room for condos. Meanwhile, the rotund "King Mattruss" (John Goodman) lounges in a hot tub, scheming to wrest his trampled paradise back from the developers. Why he's so determined to regain sway over domains like "The Chernobyl Room" — full of mutants and three-headed rats — remains a poignant mystery.

"Pyst" — which is list-priced at $14.95, about a third what you'd pay for "Myst" — is deliberately as shallow as its model was deep. There's no 3-D navigation and no baffling puzzles to solve; you'll exhaust the animations on its dozen or so screens within a couple of hours at most. An elaborate "Pyst" Web site promises to provide a more open-ended experience, with special bonus areas open only to purchasers of the CD and blinking ads for more comedy delivered via a 900 number. (The telephone network has got billing down in a way that the Web just can't compete with — yet.)

Normally, I'd say that the emergence of full-scale parodies like "Pyst" indicates that a new medium like the CD-ROM has arrived at its maturity. In this case, though, it's probably more a sign of the medium's arid decadence.

"Pyst's" mastermind, Peter Bergman, was an original member of the anarchic comedy troupe the Firesign Theatre, and he describes some subversive goals for the project: "At Firesign Theatre, we always felt that TV was a sorcery box — and the only way to break the spell was to laugh at it. Now, we're laughing back at the cyber-revolutionary."

"Pyst" does contain some jabs at a pseudo-cyberpunk character who calls himself "Hacker X" and who seizes control of the island's "Mumbo-Jumbo-Tron" giant TV screen — then forgets what he wants to say. But that's just a minor digital variation on a "we want the airwaves" theme that's been a comedy staple for decades.

If there's anything subversive about "Pyst," it's the way it sabotages "Myst's" sense of privilege. "Myst" made its users feel special; if you could get it to run, and then actually make your way through its secret passageways, you were an initiate, a savant. "Pyst" says, forget that — you're just part of a herd of loud, dirty, inconsiderate tourists, destroying the virtual environment as fast as your computer can generate it.

Ironically, CD-ROM universes like "Myst" are already old hat, so overripe for parody that "Pyst" risks instant obsolescence. Meanwhile, the real trashing has moved on to the Internet — with gawking day-trippers, time-share sales pitches and predations by real-life Octoplex Corporations. If "Pyst's" creators are smart, they'll leave "Myst" behind fast and use their new Web site to lob parodies at the Web itself.

Scott Rosenberg

Salon co-founder Scott Rosenberg is director of He is the author of "Say Everything" and Dreaming in Code and blogs at

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