The rage of 1993 has been the monster CD game. The first of these was The Seventh Guest from Trilobyte. These are the first games that require the use of a CD-ROM, and have an art budget to match. The results, of course, are splendid. The Seventh Guest has been a big hit, already selling more than 100,000 units.
Myst is another entry in the big-time CD-game sweepstakes. Myst represents a departure for Cyan, the team of brothers (Rand and Robyn Miller) who made Manhole and other story products for children. Unlike these kiddie products, Myst is not aimed at children. It is instead a graphic adventure in the classic sense, souped up with snazzy graphics.
The graphics are the selling point of the game. There’s no question, this product has very impressive imagery. Each image is a full 256 colors and about 512h x 342v (my estimate). The artwork is of the highest quality. Textures on objects are excellent, with specular and diffuse reflection, fine shading, and a huge variety of other demonstrations of the technical skill of the graphic artist.
The designers created a 3D model of the environment in which the player moves, and then took shots of the model from the vantage points that the player can reach. The individual shots are stored on the CD. The result is a set of imagery that succeeds in communicating a sense of position in a real environment. This works because the artists worked so hard to create a richly detailed visual environment.
There are also a few QuickTime movies in the game, but the animations that I saw were simple. This may be because I didn’t get far into the game; perhaps there is more animation deeper inside the game.
The game also comes loaded with a wide variety of sounds, mostly environmental sounds such as waves lapping or the wind whispering through the trees or machinery humming. While these represent a great deal of effort on the part of the designers, I do not believe that they added much to the experience. The sounds were technically excellent, but emotionally flat. The designers didn’t use sound to communicate explicit emotion; they just stuck it in to add to the sensory environment. I failed to notice any interactive element in the sounds, either. Interestingly, other reviewers were much impressed by the sounds.
The game is implemented through HyperCard with QuickTime movies. There is no realtime movement through regions. Instead, you jump forward a step at a time, dissolving from one image to the next.
This product is not a technical tour de force in the way that The Seventh Guest is. The Cyan team devoted a great deal of effort to creating beautiful imagery and good sounds, but the technical standard appears to be straight HyperCard. I do not mean to sound critical here; it is a good thing that artists can create a viable product without devoting all their energies to building the latest, hottest graphics hack.
The interface is clean and simple: pure point and click. There are no standard buttons, menus, or other such paraphernalia. Instead, a screen image that is active will be highlighted with a special cursor. Click when you see a special cursor, and something will happen.
Of course, as with all CD products, the game is very slow. Every transition causes an agonizing delay while the computer fetches more of that magnificent imagery and sound that we all love so much. You point, you click, and you wait. Then you point, click, and wait some more. Fortunately, they added an option that allows one to strip out some of those time-consuming sounds and animations, so that the game runs faster. There’s also a nice feature that allows you to zip down long paths without all the tedious intermediate steps. I have to wonder, though, if they need to put in an option to take all this stuff out, why not just leave it out in the first place?
There’s a QuickTime movie included on the disk called "The Making of Myst". It presents a summary of the design activities behind the game. Sad to say, I had to give up halfway through the movie; the QuickTime glitches and jerks made the conversations undecipherable after about five minutes. But there were some interesting tidbits. The Miller brothers aver that they spent a grand total of one month designing the game itself. I suppose this is appropriate for a graphic adventure. Their sound expert demonstrated his technique for collecting bubble sounds by dipping the microphone in the toilet as it flushed. I wondered just how far he went in getting true realism.
My main reaction to this product, though, is that the design is antediluvian. I do not exaggerate one iota in describing this as Zork with snazzy graphics. It’s all absolutely standard graphic adventure stuff, with little puzzles scattered around, and you the player shuttling back and forth across the playfield, picking up bits and pieces in one place that you need to solve puzzles in another place.
It even requires, just as Zork did, lots and lots of note-taking. I would think that, after all these years, some really insightful adventure game designer would have noticed by now that computers are really good at keeping track of petty details. But apparently the designers of Myst wanted to take us back to the good old days of voluminous note-taking; they even provided us with a notebook and the exhortation to write down everything we came across. To make it more challenging, they provided us with the notebooks of a game character who wrote many pages of material, all loaded with clever details that we are obviously meant to copy down slavishly. I’m sorry, fellows, but I have better things to do with my time than copy down all that crap. The designers seem to think that this is some sort of quaint exercise that will get us into the spirit of the game, allow us to drink in the totality of the Myst experience. What a blunder!
Otherwise, most of the design is the standard collection of obscure puzzles and meaningless juxtapositions of trivia. Basically, you jump through all sorts of arbitrary hoops to open doors, access information, or otherwise get where the designers want you to get. In defense of the designers, I will readily acknowledge that I have no patience for the adventure genre of games. There are, of course, a great many people who enjoy these exercises in tedium, and I am sure that such people will find the puzzles in Myst sufficiently obtuse to provide hours and hours of gropingly good fun. I am sure that it will sell well, and if so, I congratulate its creators. Indeed, it has garnered high praise in all four of the reviews I have seen. So I must concede that this is an excellent product for consumers. But this is not a consumer’s review of the product, it’s a designer’s review. There are plenty of reviews out there that focus on the game’s entertainment value for consumers. This review examines it from the very different perspective of the designer delving into the architecture of the product. My final conclusion is that, as a demonstration of design technique for other designers, Myst has no new ideas to offer.
I suppose it is unfair to single out Myst for such harsh criticism. The shelves have been glutted with an avalanche of lesser products that offer mightily leaps in graphics and sound and absolutely nothing in the way of game design. Myst is only the most noteworthy addition to this crowd. It may well be the best of the lot.