Mystic simulacrum

Exile, the sequel to Myst and Riven, is beautiful eye candy, but not quite art.

Published May 29, 2001 7:30PM (EDT)

The only thing more quixotic than preferring my favorite type of computer game -- first-person, exploratory, solitary, puzzle-based graphical adventures -- is trying to write criticism of the genre. The field has only two masterworks, Myst and Riven, both created by the same company, Cyan, founded by brothers Robyn and Rand Miller.

Everything else is a mere, pale shadow of what they created -- in fact, Myst and Riven are actually categorically different from their many imitators, sui generis. Not only that, but we aren't likely to see any new breakthroughs in the field, since the graphical adventure genre is not just expensive and difficult to develop but also unpopular: Most gamers prefer multiplayer shooters, strategy games and simulators of various kinds. Even the other adventure game fanciers want to interact with game characters or role-play à la Dungeons and Dragons.

Not me. Some people call all that stuff fun; I call it stress. I live in Manhattan, where instead of the elements, we have humanity. Just walking down a sidewalk in Midtown requires about all the strategizing I care to do on any given day, and by the time I get home, more interaction is the last thing I'm in the mood for. Don't even ask about role-playing. The imaginary environments in games like Myst and Riven offer me something I rarely get unless I leave town or hole up in my apartment: solitude. Of course, I have to hole up in my apartment to play any computer game, but even a merely decent graphical adventure game can make me feel like I've been transported to strange new lands -- lands blissfully devoid of other people.

The truly great games, the ones like Myst and Riven, invoke a potent sense of place -- which to my mind is the imaginal thing that the digital medium is best at creating. Although we sit at our computers alone, we really are communicating with others and building relationships when we send e-mail and participate in lists and discussion boards; digitized social life is real, not virtual. But the sensation of travel we have when we do something like "go" to a Web site is utterly metaphoric and illusory. That illusion reaches its most sophisticated form in the nonexistent "spaces" we "move" through in computer games. So while action game fans will no doubt scoff to hear it, I'll go out on a limb and assert that Riven is the greatest computer game of all time because it creates the most persuasive, immersive, alluring sense of place.

Of course, Riven, like Myst, used a still-image "slide show" format, which, in an age of 3-D game engines, has earned it yet more scorn from aficionados of the cutting edge. Nevertheless, Riven, the place, feels 10 times more real to me than the settings of the 3-D adventure games I've played. I'm not opposed to 3-D per se -- I would love to be able to explore the islands of Riven in all 360 degrees of their enigmatic beauty, and indeed 3-D game play is a selling point for a recently released sequel to Myst and Riven, Myst III: Exile.

In contrast to its predecessors, Exile offers the ability to look up, down and all around the various environments you explore in playing it. And Exile certainly is a fine piece of eye candy. The player travels to several different "ages" -- which is Myst-speak for alternate universes, although the typical Myst age consists of a fairly small island set in a vast and otherwise uninhabited sea. Each of the four largest ages has a different theme, for example, "energy" for the barren, rocky Voltaic Age, whose chief features are mechanical devices like steam engines and water wheels, and "nature" for the trippy Edanna Age, a place entwined with weird exotic plants whose sinewy vines, tumescent fruits and oversize orchids suggest the workings of an overheated, but interesting, sexual imagination.

The fan boards at sites like RivenGuild have been raging with debates about the quality of Exile's graphics (the worth of the dissatisfied parties' hardware has been called into question, and them's fightin' words), but on my basic iMac, running in software mode (I don't have a video card), it all looks just fabulous.

And yet, like Rand Miller in a recent interview, I'd have to call Exile a "distant cousin" of Myst and Riven rather than a "grandchild." One member of the RivenGuild community may have put it best when he plaintively wrote that Exile hasn't found its way into his dreams the way Myst did when he first discovered that earlier game. It's not that Exile isn't scrupulously faithful to the Myst mythos; it is. And it's not as if it doesn't stick pretty close to the aesthetic and thematic concerns that wove through the previous two games; it does. In fact, it's hard to find any motif or notion in Exile that can't be traced directly back to something in Riven or Myst -- from the Pacific Northwestern feel of the architecture, a sort of "Middle Earth goes art nouveau" look, to its use of mechanical puzzles that rely on the player's real-world understanding of cause and effect. (One exception, and a delightful one, is the way the puzzles in Edanna are based on the workings of ecosystems.)

Yet what Exile feels like is not so much a new work in the spirit of Myst and Riven as a simulacrum. It's as if someone had painted a vase of sunflowers or a cornfield in the manner of Vincent van Gogh; the result could quite possibly be an appealing picture, and it might even convince a casual observer, but it still wouldn't be a van Gogh. The analogy is grandiose, I admit, but at its kernel lies an elusive truth about the nature of art. Myst and Riven feel like art, while Exile feels like an entertainment. The superficial similarity of the three games makes the distinction that much more important, but also that much harder to nail down.

One thing that distinguishes Myst and Riven from most other computer games, adventure or otherwise, is the density of their back story. Their creators have invented an entire culture -- including a language, alphabet, numbering system, metaphysics and history -- from which the characters and events in Myst and Riven spring. These people, called the D'ni, once lived under the surface of our Earth (though there seems to be some debate over whether it really was the same planet we inhabit) and mastered the craft of writing books that allow people to access other worlds. They suffered a disaster that nearly wiped them out entirely, but the hero of all three games, a man called Atrus, survives and is attempting to create a safe world for them to rebuild. So far, three novels have been spun off the games, providing more information about the characters and events that appear in the games. On fan sites you can find experts on the D'ni language discussing the intricacies of the Myst universe and debating the philosophical aspects of "the Art," that is, the writing of the D'ni's magical books.

Exile, however, was developed by Presto Studios, not Cyan, the company founded by the Miller brothers. Cyan has licensed to Presto the rights use the fictional Myst universe in new CD games, while devoting its own energy to developing a project -- originally code-named Mud Pie but now apparently dubbed Parable -- for a multiuser online environment using high-speed audio and video connections. Although Exile doesn't have the collective genius of Cyan behind it, Presto did consult with Cyan while developing the game.

It's hard to say who precisely is responsible for what in the collaborative invention of the Myst universe, although Robyn Miller is generally considered to be the main contributor on the creative side, with a younger brother named Ryan playing a key initial role and a Cyan staffer named Richard Watson carrying the title of official D'ni historian. Although Robyn Miller left Cyan to pursue other projects after the release of Riven, Cyan is obviously still deeply invested in the imaginary world it created and elaborated. On Cyan's Web site, in a list of products, there's a maddeningly brief item about Mud Pie/Parable that includes not much more than the sentence "D'ni lives."

Traveling through the ages of Myst and Riven, the player stumbles across the evocative remnants of the D'ni, and of Atrus' own troubled past. (His father and both of his two sons were bad eggs who exploited and misused the D'ni's world-building powers and served as the villains of the first two games.) You enter rooms where the very furnishings hint at the sinister nature of whoever once lived there, where toppled glasses and discarded knives suggest their hasty departure. You open a drawer in one room to find a hypodermic needle. A bloodstained chopping block and chains can be found in another. No one ever tells you exactly what happened here, or where all the people went, but you can guess that it's not a pretty story.

In Riven you explore a deserted fishing village, complete with a schoolhouse featuring children's toys and D'ni inscriptions. The handmade artifacts of the village's inhabitants (who mostly remain out of sight) can be found here and there, wonderfully crafted and available for close examination.

By contrast, the ages in Exile don't really amount to more than the puzzles they contain. The only one with any man-made structures, Amateria, is initially so ravishing -- with its Oriental buildings and meandering grotto dotted with floating paper lantern boats, all dramatically lit by a sunset with storm clouds (and animated lightning!) in the east -- that it's saddening when you come to realize that it contains no signs of sentient life. In fact, it's nothing but a giant pinball game. Apparently in anticipation of this complaint, the game's premise explains that these ages are all "teaching worlds" built by Atrus so that his sons could use them to learn -- what? The answer remains pretty vague, although supposedly it's revealed in the game's concluding sequence, which does take place in an inhabited world, although access to it is truncated and the residents' vocabulary seems to consist entirely of New Agey abstractions like "balance" and "dependence."

I've yet to delve very deeply into the D'ni story. (I'm worried that the novels and other paraphernalia will strike me as cheesy or prosaic and therefore ruin the haunting, unexplained quality that makes the games so arresting.) But it's clear that to the people who created both Myst and Riven, the D'ni do live, that in addition to the pretty pictures and ingenious puzzles in those games, there's also a vivid sense of meaning. As good-looking as Exile is, it just doesn't feel like its creators believed in it in the same way; it's got lovely graphics, but no ideas.

What's more, although Exile subscribes to the Myst back story, it doesn't really contribute to it. The game's plot involves a bitter native (played by Brad Dourif) of a world trashed by Atrus' sons, a man now intent on revenge. Murals and journal pages scattered throughout the various ages fill in the details of his betrayal, but it's pretty routine, uninteresting stuff, and Dourif does little more than taunt the player, rant on about his lost wife and kids and otherwise chew up the digitized scenery. The by-now formulaic adventure-game device of an evil saboteur or thief who must be stopped before he destroys the world is just too thin, too wheezy a piece of Hollywood claptrap, to convince in this context.

All of which doesn't keep Exile from being just about as good as an adventure game can be before it becomes something more than an adventure game. Last fall, to little fanfare, Cyan release a 3-D version of Myst titled Real Myst -- it's exactly the same game, but you can explore the various settings more fully than is possible in the slide-show version. The decision shows a remarkable confidence; after all, does Cyan really expect any of the 6 million people who have bought (and presumably played and finished) Myst to fork out $30 more for a game whose puzzles they've already solved? If Cyan considered Myst to be essentially a game, of course, it wouldn't. But it knows that to the people who fell in love with Myst, it's more than a series of brain twisters. It's a place, a favorite place, and therefore not exhaustible the way a mere game is. You can't help wanting to see more of it, and at the same time you know that its mysteries will never be entirely yielded up. And that, come to think of it, is a pretty good definition of art.

By Laura Miller

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

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