Developed by a sibling duo – Robyn and Rand Miller – Myst was one of the first games to popularise the CD-ROM and succeeded in setting up the nonviolent adventure genre, too. We explore the inception and creation of the game, and the impact it had on the industry…
ON ITS RELEASE, Myst sat upon the knife edge of public opinion – it was precariously balanced, with one side of the gaming hardcore lauding its unique approach to exploration and atmosphere, whilst others lamented its slow burning, plodding layout.
Thing is, that didn’t matter – Myst’s success wouldn’t lie within the devotees of gaming back in the early Nineties, no: it was the general public that Myst grabbed by the optic nerves, refusing to let go until players unaccustomed to games had finished the title’s final mind-bending puzzle. Despite some underwhelming reviews, Myst was the best-selling PC game of all time for years after its release. It remained best-seller for just under a decade, The Sims took its crown in 2002, nine years after Myst’s release.
Myst began life as an experiment – originally meant to be an interactive children’s book, where clicking on various items on the picture pages would take you deeper into the book itself. Myst’s then unique UI has its origins here, it was then expanded by Cyan’s desire to experiment with interactive storytelling and the creation of non-linear worlds – which, in 1993, seemed more like a pipe dream than a reasonable result.
After creating two children’s games, iterating on the core design philosophies that came from that original picture book idea, Cyan was approached by a Japanese publisher (Sunsoft) who wanted the developer to work on a game for an older audience. Cyan had already pitched what would become Myst to Western publishers – namely Activision – but the fledgling publisher rejected the idea, wanting Cyan to stick to kid’s games.
Funded by Sunsoft, Cyan began work on Myst – which would be completed two years later. One of the core tenets of the game’s design was to make it not feel like a PC game – hence the transparent UI that would set the standard for all exploration/mystery games to come after. More than that, though, Myst set the standard for immersion in games; its world was incredibly realistic for its time, and needed very little introduction or illustration to let players understand how to play it.
But it wasn’t just the graphics that won people over – beautiful and immersive as they may be, Myst was also supported by a fantastic ambient soundtrack with music composed by Robyn Miller, one of the brothers that oversaw production at Cyan. Originally, the game was built without music (the developers thought that the score would detract from the overall impact of the game), but after extensive work, a 40-track synthesized OST was incorporated into the game to great effect.
Still, Chris Brandkamp (responsible for the game’s ambience and sound effects) opted to compose the world’s nascent audio with the same philosophy in mind: realism. Sounds were intentionally amplified to act as a soundtrack of sorts in itself: the team wanted realism, they wanted to convey mood through the sound of waves, of gears, of psithurism. It’s another string to the game’s immersive bow. This design philosophy was doubled down on in the game’s sequel, Riven.
The constant quality of the sound and graphics fed into the open world level design – which was built intentionally so the player could get lost in it. This approach to what was essentially a puzzle game (which were ostensibly linear at the time) really shook up the genre. It showed developers and players alike that you could build a world fi rst and foremost, and then shape the gameplay elements around the realism later.
This open world was fleshed out with a story that, again, for its time was a revelation. You were a silent protagonist – The Stranger – who was more of a reactionary force than an active one. You were played off against two brothers that aimed to undo all the work their father had done on the island, and it all played out in a totally non-violent way. The art of the world was therefore constructed to keep the player intrigued, guide them on when there was fairly little action to keep them plugged in.
With its minimalist controls (mouse-based movement and one action button), its cinematic presentation and its lack of any distinct action, Myst frustrated as many people as it enraptured. But in 1993, when most people owned computers for word processing, spreadsheets or other miscellaneous tasks, Myst was a revelation – it was one of the first games to take advantage of the CD-ROM, packing the disc to the brim with sound, graphical texture and world size, and was no doubt revolutionary in bringing casual players into the PC gaming world.
The development team often used to imagine their grandparents trying to play the game when attempting to simplify the UI.
Myst contains 2,500 frames throughout the whole game – one for each possible area the player can explore.
A parody game, Pyst, was released in 1996 – it had no gameplay and featured only an island vandalised by frustrated Myst players.
The PC version of Myst could be bought packaged with a CD-ROM Drive, which was not yet a common item on PC towers.