Imagine you wake on a mountain peak, a small hut for shelter, and no way down. Other distant peaks pierce a level plane of mist like lone islands in a milky sea. There’s a curious pillar outside your hut – half totem, half chimenea, patterned with strange glyphs. Touching it reveals an inner chamber in which there lies a book. In the book there is a picture of a desert landscape, mostly flat but with a volcanic caldera in the middle. Touch the picture, you fade out, rematerialise in the desert. The desert is vast. You wander, eventually coming upon a lone guy lounging outside his trailer,…
So begins your adventure.
Back in the day when computers were young there was a game called MYST. It was unusual among computer games; there were no guns, no racing cars, and no zombies; it did not depict war, nor indeed any sort of violence. Instead, this was a two dimensional point and click adventure – dull you might think by comparison, except it shone. It was imaginative, immersive – fiendish puzzles at every turn, and though it was basically an animated slide show, it developed a cult following that has continued through various incarnations to the present day.
I didn’t play it in the beginning, I found it too hard, discovered Tomb Raider and Lara Croft instead. I felt MYST would have been more engaging as a 3D walk-through, like the Tomb Raider series, but the machines of the time weren’t up to the scale and the ambition of it. Now is a different story. Now the machines have caught up, and are capaple of handling the sheer polygonal density of it, of rendering it beautiful.
So, you’re in this desert and there’s a guy telling you he knows why you’re there, which is more than you do. He tells you to check out the Cleft.
The Cleft is gash in the earth, accessible by creaky rope ladder and dotted with caves. They look like they’ve been home to ancient natives at some point, but there’s evidence of recent habitation too. There are more glyphs here, and strange machines, some old world, some of an unfamiliar technology. Bewildered, you go back to the trailer guy, he gives you some clues, talks about an imager. You go back down the hole, eventually work out how to fire this imager up, thinking it might explain something. It does. A hologram appears; it’s a girl, telling you a strange tale. You have to find seven glyphs. Do this and the hole at the end the of cleft can be opened. It takes a while, but you find the glyphs. The trailer guy helps some more. You open the hole in the root of a tree and down you go in the world of MYST.
It’s bewildering, ingenious, beautiful, immersive, and, like dreams sometimes are, also a little unsettling, but unlike the world of Tomb Raider, there are no death traps. Pull a lever and there’s no monster behind the door, no trapdoor over a spike filled pit, only a puzzle, another door to somewhere else, and another layer of mystery to add to the layers you already have.
MYST online is a massive download, 1.2Gbytes, but to play also requires a permanent hookup to the internet. I’ve a feeling much of the coming winter will be spent down this rabbit hole.
MYST is so different from any other game. Go wrong, fall off a ledge and into the lava for example, we simply wake back to our mountain hut, unhurt and more thoughtful. No one is torn limb from limb. No one is cut in two or has their head blown off. Get stuck and you can return to the hut any time. And the hut changes, things appear as you make progress through the levels, books appear on the shelf to help you, a more lush vegetation begins to grow. It’s puzzling, enigmatic, seductive.
And the purpose? Well, I’m several hours in and I really don’t know without reading the cheats and walkthroughs, which I don’t want to do at this stage. I’m determined to let the game inform me of its own purpose as I go along. It’s a quest of sorts, to find the glyphs, like the girl said, scattered thorughout the various levels of the world, but the world is vast and it comes at you all at once. This is not a linear adventure – doors open on vast levels, each with doors that open onto others, and somehow link back to one another through books and memory. It is a story, but one you don’t read. You have to live it. There is an intellectual challenge here unlike anything I’ve encountered in a computer game before.
And you are not alone. This is all online, a so called Massively Multiplayer Online Role Playing Game which means there are others in here, though thinly spread throughout the vast dreaminess of the place. You can work with them, or you can go it alone. It’s up to you.
All of this sounds like I’m trying to sell it to you, and I suppose I am – but only because, like any enthusiastic traveller, I want you to see the things I’ve seen. And, remarkably, the journey costs nothing. unlike a regular game, say for a Playstation which costs anything up to £40 these days. But the developers of MYST are giving it away, just asking for donations on the startup screen to help keep the servers running. My machine’s a regular quad-core laptop and manages it smoothly. If your computer was built in the last two or three years, it’ll probably do the same. All you need is your email for an account, a couple of hours for the download, and you’re in.
Lost in MYST