21st: Reality check

How Myst and its riveting new sequel won our hearts and minds -- by dazzling our eyes and disabling our trigger fingers.

Published October 30, 1997 8:00PM (EST)

I used to think of myself as immune to addiction. I've never been ensnared by alcohol or drugs, never run up huge credit-card balances with compulsive shopping, never smoked -- I don't even gamble. Watching various friends battle their own habits, I've occasionally envied them the drama of it all, but mostly I've felt a little (well, maybe more than a little) superior.

That was before I found Myst -- or perhaps I should say before Myst found me. Pride cometh before the fall, and I suspect that the ferocity with which Myst seized and conquered my every waking hour was in direct proportion to my former arrogance. Suddenly I found myself up late, my lower back aching from hours of sitting, my eyeballs scraping around in sockets that felt like they were lined with sandpaper, my mouse hand contracting into a gnarled claw of inflamed tendons. And still, I couldn't stop. I had to admit that I was powerless over the bestselling computer game of all time.

My friends seem infinitely tickled by my little problem because I don't conform to their idea of a computer gamer. That makes me part of Myst's crucial bonus market, the people -- many of us women -- with no interest in shoot-'em-ups, role-playing or strategy computer games, who boosted Myst's sales to 3.1 million copies, almost twice as many as Doom II, the next bestselling game. Supposedly, Myst's success baffled game-industry execs, who still can't quite understand why a game that strikes them as (in the words of the New York Times) little more than "an interactive slide show" with "no killing, next to no action of any other kind and no substantial interaction with other characters" turned out to be such a hit.

But it has, and those of us hooked on that slide show had four long years of waiting before our next fix, Riven, Myst's sequel, was released last Friday. During those four years, I've had plenty of time to think about what made Myst so bewitching as I've attempted to slake my craving with the various imitations and derivations that have trickled into the marketplace. I discovered that most of them could be nearly as addictive as Myst, but they all lacked an essential quality that's been maddeningly hard to nail down -- at least until I played Riven, which stands out among them like an Arabian stallion in a herd of mules. The same basic elements are there, but you're clearly dealing with a whole 'nother animal.

I suspect that most compulsions stem from some vestigial animal part of ourselves -- what I think of as the Monkey Brain. Your basic graphical adventure game stimulates certain parts of the Monkey Brain as potently as an electrode embedded in the cranium of an unfortunate laboratory chimp. The two features that I eventually determined are essential to my adventure game fix are a sense of explorable space and puzzles. Myst may have been a compendium of still photos, but the mind leaps up into the gaps and joins those images together into a seamless experience, no doubt because it craves that experience so keenly (the game's wonderful environmental sounds help it along). Like most Myst players, I think of the islands in the game not as an assembly of digitally rendered paintings but as places I've actually visited.

Once there, the Monkey Brain's curiosity kicks in. Adventure games tap into our innate nosiness, the same urge that dictates that anyone left alone in a strange house will want to at least poke her head into every single room there, and maybe even investigate the medicine cabinets while she's at it. As for the puzzles -- well, every time I've become obsessed with some tile, musical or maze puzzle (those are all simple genres of puzzle found in the less inventive games), fussing with it for hours with a single-minded intensity that's rather alarming, I think of a famous series of animal behavior photographs. They show a chimp on the floor with three large, scattered blocks and a banana dangling from high up on the ceiling. Eventually, the chimp figures out that if he stacks one block on top of the other he can climb up them and reach the banana. In adventure games, the "banana" proffered when a puzzle is solved is access to more space.

Our curiosity and our penchant for problem-solving have been as crucial to the ascendance of the human species as any of our reproductive strategies. And, just as we still get a kick out of rousing our libidos even when baby-making isn't really an option, we like to exercise other aspects of our Monkey Brain even when the reward is a banana that's strictly virtual. Adventure games add yet another twist, though: Neither the exploring nor the puzzles would be anywhere near as much fun all by themselves. Put them together, make the opportunity to investigate new places dependent on unlocking a puzzle, and you've got order, a sequence of cause and effect that approaches another pleasure deeply wired into the human mind: storytelling.

For any adventure game that meets these simple criteria, I'm pretty much of a pushover, but that doesn't prevent me recognizing that most games feel thin compared to Myst and Riven. For people who consider Myst too "lonely," some games offer the chance to "interact" with other characters, but I've always found this irritating -- the bad video acting or cheesy animation usually expose just how impoverished the game's underlying vision must be. In one of the most popular, the Last Express, the player assumes the identity of a brash young fellow who wrestles sinister Russians and tries to pick up female passengers on a train. No thanks. I like the deep tranquillity of the solitude in Myst and Riven, the way these games (unlike life) allow me to focus meditatively on one problem at a time. Games with implausible and annoying characters popping up at regular intervals are just too stressful.

The games that most successfully echo the Myst experience use historical settings. With Qin, I searched the tomb of a Chinese emperor. In SPQR, I tracked an anarchist troublemaker through the forum of ancient Rome. In my favorite Myst rip-off, TimeLapse, I got to visit ancient Egypt, a Mayan temple complex and the cliff dwellings of the Anasazi before things got silly and I wound up in Atlantis. TimeLapse is so visually stunning that my memories of its Mayan beaches and Southwestern mesas are nearly as vivid as my recollections of real places I've traveled to.

For game makers, the advantage of a historical setting is twofold: You can claim that the game has educational value (and I did learn a lot about the Roman calendar, which dominates SPQR) and -- more important -- you don't have to invent a whole new world, as Robyn Miller, the creative force behind Myst and Riven, has. TimeLapse looks terrific as long as the visuals can borrow from the rich cultures of real civilizations; but when you get to Atlantis it's like suddenly finding yourself in a sterile industrial park littered with cheap, pseudo-Art-Nouveau tchotchkes.

Games like 9: The Last Resort and Obsidian show just how remarkable an achievement Riven is. Plenty of invention and wit obviously went into both games, but they're essentially fun-house adventures in which the player pursues the game's goal through an absurd, slightly nightmarish enclosed environment that ultimately winds up inducing claustrophobia. And all adventure games face the daunting task of integrating their puzzles into their environments. The puzzles in most games feel arbitrary -- like those songs, having nothing to do with the plot, that intermittently interrupt the story line in old-fashioned musicals. The very worst of these is the Seventh Guest, a popular early game with a haunted-house theme in which the puzzles have no relation to the setting at all. Add to this the wretched acting in the game's irrelevant video sequences and the hellishly hyperactive music (it can't be turned off -- now, that's terrifying!) and you have a game so poorly thought-out and with so many ambient aggravations that even I abandoned it.

And now, at last, there's Riven -- and the initial reactions have proclaimed it well worth the wait, with spectacular graphics and puzzles ranging from elementary to devilishly hard, though not a significant technical advance beyond Myst. It's still essentially static images (with some lovely bits of ambient animation, particularly with the water effects) and the kind of practical puzzles -- involving steam power and rotating rooms -- that shoot-'em-up gamers found so tiresome in the first game.

What is revolutionary about Riven is its imaginative depth. Robyn Miller has made an analogy to J.R.R. Tolkien's Middle Earth books -- Myst was like "The Hobbit" to Riven's "The Lord of the Rings." While neither game has the sheer storytelling brio and dramatic impact of those novels, Miller -- along with his collaborators at Cyan Inc., the company that produced Myst and Riven -- has aspired to Tolkien's achievement in inventing an entire land and culture, complete with its own language, artifacts, religion, history and architecture.

Books detailing the whole Myst and Riven back story have been published since the first game became a hit, but I've steered clear of them. Tolkien's own complex historical writings about Middle Earth turned out to be a crashing bore. They needed to exist, in their author's mind at least, to make "The Lord of the Rings" feel so vivid and convincing. Similarly, both actors and novelists know that the more completely they "know" a character -- the tenor of his childhood, his secret dreams, what he likes to eat for breakfast -- the more likely they are to make this entirely fictional person seem like a genuine, breathing entity, even if the play or the novel never reveals that information. It's part of the magic of art that audiences, readers and, in this case, game players, can sense the solidity of everything an artist has imagined, even if it's never made explicit.

Art, finally, is what Riven approaches. It has many other delights, particularly the way that almost all of its puzzles have a real-world quality, solvable by common sense and practical know-how (the Monkey Brain thanks you for that, Cyan). In addition, the design of Riven's gameplay has a graceful elegance that reminds me of a masterfully constructed novel.

But mostly, Riven is a thing of singular beauty -- a beauty that has eluded every other adventure game (with the arguable exception of Myst) simply because game makers have never asked so much of their creations before. Riven pushes the envelope of what an adventure game can be, not with technical bells and whistles, but with aesthetic ambition. It suggests that such games might become something more than an intellectual junk food that's impossible to resist but leaves you with a post-indulgence queasiness. Thanks to Cyan, the adventure game promises to be more than just an amusement -- but where it may go next remains as enigmatic as the worlds of Riven and Myst.

By Laura Miller

Laura Miller is the author of "The Magician's Book: A Skeptic's Adventures in Narnia."

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