Review: Myst 4: Revelation

Official web page; Official Myst site; UbiSoft (developer and publisher).

Review written by Andrew Plotkin

Very good
Dialogue and writing
Excellent (though the acting is sometimes weak)
Very hard
Forgiveness rating
You cannot die or make a fatal mistake, except for one choice at the very end

I finished this game without any hints at all.

I shouldn't lead off with that line, because it's not a very important review comment. With some games I go to the walkthrough; with some games I don't. You don't really care. Oh, you care whether the puzzles are fair, and you care how easy it is to overlook a vital clue. But you don't care whether I am in a sufficiently stubborn mood to batter through all the exploration and experimentation and re-re-searching. It so happens that with Myst 4 I was feeling very, very stubborn. I spent nine evenings solving it, which is more than most adventure games take me. And I solved it all myself.

You may not care about that, but it makes me very smug. So you're just going to have to cope.

Review, review. Where shall I begin? I could begin at the beginning, but that would be either tediously detail-oriented (did you notice that the Cyan splash logo precedes the Ubisoft logo? In Uru it was the other way around. I wonder what that means) or tendentiously user-interface pedantic. (Yet another game falls into the "mystery meat" menu trap. You're faced with a circle of illegible icons, and you have to scrub your mouse around to tell "New" from "Save" from "Load" from "Resume". You have to do this every single time you use the menu. I must have scrubbed those icons fifty times in my week-and-a-half -- at the end I still couldn't find "Save" in less than three tries. This isn't me being tendentious, by the way, this is me explaining that the main menu in Myst 4 was designed by a moron, and his mental deficiencies do not excuse him from owing me a personal apology.)

Well, I don't want to start off by being tedious or tendentious... or smug... or self-referential. So I'll start off by talking about the game interface.

I saw some official marketing name for the interface that Myst 4 is presented in. "Living Myst" or "Live Myst" or something like that. It was too close to "Uru Live", so I immediately forgot it, but it's essentially the standard anamorphic-panning interface with three new gimmicks. First, you can click on just about anything within arm's reach, and you'll get at least a tap-tap-tap reaction. Second, there are way more environmental animations than usual. Third, you click and drag most moveable objects, instead of just clicking on them.

All of these gimmicks are tangential to gameplay. They don't affect the puzzle mechanics at all. They exist solely to make the game world more immersive. And, zowie, they are good immersive gimmicks. I love them. I want every graphical adventure game I play to do this stuff.

Tapping on things? It's a "nothing happens" response, but it's an appropriate response. You hear a metallic "tink tink", or a wooden "tump tump", or a papery "rustle". Or crystal or stone or sand. If you tap something electrified, it crackles and your hand-cursor jerks back. In any adventure game, the non-reactive scenery outnumbers the interactive game objects -- sure. But a game comes across as detailed if the author has paid at least a little attention to each object, scenery or not. The tapping provides that trace of detail.

Animations? Graphical adventures have been patching animations onto their panoramic views since, oh, Zork Nemesis, if not earlier. Myst 4 has more. But, I mean, more. An order of magnitude more. So more that it feels like an entirely new interface.

The visual designers simply did not hold back; you can tell they didn't. One wanted birds to flutter across the path, and another wanted the trees to sway in the wind, and another wanted clouds scudding across the sky. So they layered the birds on top of the trees on top of the clouds. And added rippling water to boot. And maybe an animal that stares at you until you chase it away. Then someone said, hey, if clouds are crossing the sun, shouldn't the whole world be subtly darkening and lightening? So they did that too. And every outdoor location in the Age has that much detail -- with the birds fluttering and perching in the appropriate relative positions.

Some areas are more dynamic than others, of course. An underground passage is naturally going to be quiet. But nobody ever says, "Ok, these animations cover 50% of the viewing sphere, it's time to stop." They go the extra layer.

The dragging of world objects is tied into this. In most graphical adventures, when you click on a cabinet, you see the cabinet swing open. That much animation is expected. In Myst 4, the opening cabinet is just one layer of animation -- which means it can proceed at its own pace, independent of everything else which is going on. The designers use this cleverly. You don't just click on the cabinet door; you grab the edge and then swing around, with the usual lateral pan. The cabinet swings open -- perfectly animated -- in sync with the motion of your hand-cursor. You can even wiggle it back and forth (although it will fall completely open or closed when you let go).

Is this a big deal? It's less convenient, if you take the tendentious-user-interface-pedant point of view. But I liked it. It gives one more facet of interaction with the game world. It may not pay off big; but when I slid a piece of metal off a stack of paper, and then pulled the top sheet aside to reveal the next, I smiled.

The "Living Myst Live Technology Suite" actually includes a fourth gimmick, which is the hand cursor. It's a tiny little 3D model, which actually rotates slightly as you move it towards the corners of the screen. And it too is vastly more animated than in most adventure games. When you move it over a navigation spot, it doesn't just change to a pointing finger; it smoothly extends a finger and points forward. When you move over something examinable, it brings out a magnifying glass. With a flourish.

But I don't include this with the other immersive gimmicks. Because, first, it isn't any more immersive than the usual set of adventure cursors. You can't pretend that it's an image of your in-game hand -- the scale is completely wrong, and there's no arm attached. It's just a cursor. And second, the animations are horrifically slow. If you move the cursor over a hotspot, it won't even start to change shape until you're off the other side. Then you get an odd "shink" sound, and the hand flourishes out its magnifying glass, and immediately flourishes it away. This means "You just missed a hotspot. Go back and hunt for it." It's very graceful, and very frustrating, and completely misses the point of a dynamic cursor, which is to tell you what would happen if you clicked right now. As opposed to two seconds ago. Scratch this, please, go back to a cursor that works.

(I'd even let them keep the smooth animations, if they only used them on when leaving a hotspot. When entering the hotspot, the change had better be instantaneous. I'll give you one tenth of a second if you're desperate for intermediate frames. Not two tenths. You will be timed.)

I have a few other quibbles with the interface. Some of the grab-to-drag hotspots are too small -- I felt like I was trying to position the "magic knuckle" of the cursor-hand over the knob, or panel, or whatever. (Another reason to use arrows and crosshairs instead of animated hands.) Opening the larger chests and cabinets was awkward. Okay, realistically awkward, but maybe too much so. And, if I can be really nitpicky, an N-position slider should snap to the nearest position when you let go -- not to the next lowest position.

On the positive side, both the story and the puzzles make heavy use of an amulet you acquire early in the game. The amulet's power is to bring forth memories -- your own or another's -- locked in an object or location. As you can imagine, this gives you storyline flashbacks a-plenty. It also allows the designers to repeat important bits of dialogue, including clues and instructions, without resorting to the usual trick of "NPC mechanically repeats his dialogue for you." It's a clever use of a story element to firm up game mechanics.

But, good grief, enough about the interface. What is Myst 4 about?

It is twenty years after the events of Myst and Riven. Atrus and Catherine are living in Tomahna with their daughter Yeesha (now a cute ten-year-old). Atrus has invited you to visit, and to help him with a problem: he has re-established contact with his rotten kids, Sirrus and Achenar. They've been stuck in their prison ages ever since Atrus destroyed the infamous red and blue books at the end of Myst. Now Atrus is trying to decide if it's time to let them out.

His initial step (and the introductory puzzle of the game) is to tune in Sirrus and Achenar with a remote Age-viewing device, which you may recall from the Rime Age in RealMyst. However (I'm sure you won't be surprised to learn), the plot soon leads you to Haven and Spire -- the two prison Ages -- to explore, learn more about the sons, and ultimately answer Atrus's question.

(By the way, this completely contradicts the way prison books worked in Myst and Riven. I recommend you smile and let this pass by. Nothing else you can do with it, really.)

The story is good. It's got twists and complications. It fills in the backstory of the rebellion of Sirrus and Achenar. It also brings out their characters, both back in the days of Myst and in the present, after twenty years of imprisonment. The new material fits fluently with the previous games, and it's a vast improvement on the page-demanding whiners we saw dimly in Myst.

We get more of Yeesha, too, of course. She is at the beginning of her story here. (The baby in Myst 3 didn't get much characterization.) But her relationships with her family are the real core of Myst 4, and they're well written. We begin to see where she's going (and how, may I say, she wound up such a mystical woo-woo as an adult in Uru.) And we even see some of Yeesha's relationship with you, the protagonist. Which gives you a nice trace of characterization. It's not a description of you -- you remain the behind-the-eyes first-person figure, named only as "Atrus's friend". But you've now known Atrus's family for twenty years, and Yeesha's happy chatter in the first scene brings this out.

Unfortunately her acting isn't really up to the level of the writing. This is not a huge problem, and I've certainly seen worse acting in my game-playing career. But if I had to name one flaw in the story side of Myst 4, that would be it: the kid mostly sounds wooden and unconvincing. Oh well. Everyone else does a creditable job. Sirrus and Achenar were played by the Miller brothers in Myst, but the designers wisely cast new actors this time, who nonetheless look correct. They hold down their parts, albeit with some scene-chewing. Rand Miller remains the original and ideal Atrus. Catherine remains the grating annoyance she was in Myst 3. (Sorry, I just don't like her voice. Fortunately she only has a couple of lines.)

The overall shape of the game is pleasantly complicated. It isn't the single snarled knot with which Riven bedevilled us; but neither is it the simple four-chapters-plus-beginning-and-end format of Myst. (And of Myst 3, albeit with three independent chapters instead of four.) You have a beginning, of course, and then you gain access to Haven and Spire. But you're free to either focus on one of those at a time, or jump back and forth. And, sort of in the middle of those, the plot advances -- events are actually progressing around you, at least occasionally. That's something which previous Myst games have avoided. You gain access to a third Age, and you can explore that one as well. Naturally, you will have to complete each Age in order to reach the true end of the storyline; but they're not entirely independent. Which is good.

On the other hand, the significant plot events are more tightly pre-programmed than in previous Myst games. Now, as I said in reviewing Dark Fall 2, I don't mind games in which the author keeps control over the plot. But I do prefer to be involved in the big plot decisions. Even if it's not expressed as a puzzle.

Myst, for example, led up to the classic "Do I trust Sirrus or Achenar?" dilemma -- and that was at least a bit of a puzzle, because the answer was to trust neither. You had to find a third course to reach the ideal ending. Riven had a surprising number of possible endings -- at least ten variations -- depending on your actions.

Myst 4 has nothing like that. The designers have dropped that form of plot resolution entirely. In fact, at one point they seem to go out of their way to avoid it. One character tells you "Under no circumstances do X!" and a bit later another pops up to say "Do X immediately!" But it isn't a choice. You can't do X if you try; it's not available. I felt like my Riven-style alternate ending had been offered and then rudely snatched away.

Instead, each major plot point occurs when you are dropped into a set-piece puzzle -- something which is entirely isolated from the rest of the game world -- and told "Solve this to continue." You get an unlimited number of tries, which is of course good for gameplay; but in no way do you feel that you are making a major decision. (In each case, there's literally a voice telling you what your goal is for the scene.) This is a reasonable structure to begin the game, but a mediocre one to end with. Unfortunately, Myst 4 uses it once at the beginning and several times at the end.

Yes, there's one spot near the end where you have a true game-world choice. But again, you're dropped into it. It's not a situation you discover, set up, or achieve understanding of. It's two switches, and you have to pull one of them right now. To continue.

I don't want to imply that you are hand-led through all of Myst 4. There are lots and lots of puzzles in this game. Most of them are classic, fully-integrated, understand-the-world-and-take-action puzzles. They are all satisfying and well-designed. All require exploration; some require experimentation; a few, I think, require some trial and error. (Although I'm pretty sure I missed a clue for the puzzle for which I tried 120 different combinations in order.)

The puzzles benefit from the game's interface improvements, as well. I know, I said that the gimmicks don't affect puzzle mechanics, and they don't... but they make the world clearer. And that gives you more feedback for puzzle-solving; which gives the puzzle designer more latitude. For example, the rich animation technology allows you to see a moving object from many locations. Therefore, more puzzles involve parts of the world shifting around you. The click-and-drag interface opens up new possibilities -- unlike in previous Myst games, you can intuitively push objects around, albeit in a limited way and without picking them up. Several puzzles make excellent use of this.

Nor am I saying that I disliked the set-piece puzzles. Each one was the perfect difficulty, at least for me. Each time I entered one, I would fool around for a while, thinking "Wow, this looks complicated and difficult. I have no idea how to solve this." Then I'd make a guess as to what my exact goal was. Then I'd confirm my guess, and say "Ok, I know what to do, but I have no idea how to proceed. This is going to take hours." Then I'd try to break down the problem into simpler cases. Then I'd find a trick that worked, catch the knack of it, and put the solution together in satisfyingly short order. The balance between a mechanic which is puzzling before you understand it, but manageable and non-tedious after you master it, is very hard to achieve. These puzzles achieve it.

I can't even complain that the set-piece puzzles are poorly integrated into the story. They fit fine into the storyline. The final one, in fact, is made of story; it refers back to events throughout the game, and adds detail to the plot threads as it draws them together. I've designed games that did that, but not nearly as effectively. I was impressed.

No, the distinction I'm trying to make is between the challenges (puzzles) you undertake to explore the world, and the challenges you undertake to change the world. To change the world at the highest level, I mean -- plot-significant actions. Every adventure game has puzzles in exploration, but it's the plot-significant puzzles which give you the feeling of complicity in the plot. Even in a game which is "linear" overall -- a game with exactly one real ending -- you can feel you're making a difference if the key puzzles let you succeed or fail. And you feel even more involved if you discover and begin those puzzles on your own. The realization of "Hey, I could do this! Let me try it!"

The key moments in Myst 4 have neither of those attributes. You cannot fail; the puzzle lasts until you succeed (or temporarily step back). And, as I said, you are hand-led, thrust, or drop-kicked into them. They're part of the plot, but they're isolated from the game environment. The earlier exploration puzzles wait for you to uncover their subtleties; but the end-game mostly comes at you on rails.

And so, after a week and a half of one of the most enjoyable puzzle games I've ever played, I wind up writing three pages of criticism and disappointment. That's what you get for setting the bar so high, I suppose.

To give an accurate impression, I should now spend nine pages talking about everything I did like in the puzzles. But I see I've covered the high points already. Please go back and re-read those paragraphs a few times...

But, really, why do you think I was so stubborn about finishing Myst 4 myself? Because it was worth it. I had to explore, I had to infer, I had to fill in gaps, I had to theorize. I had to throw away failed theories and invent new ones. (How many games walk that line successfully?) I had to strike out at random and pay attention to the results. Everything was fair, and everything was fair game. Everything made sense as part of its world; everything was directly or thematically related to the story. When I finished an Age, by damn, I knew I'd accomplished something worthwhile -- and I knew more about Sirrus, Achenar, Yeesha, or all three.

This is not to say that if you get stuck in Myst 4, you are unworthy. Good grief, no. At times, I felt I had stumbled across a clue by blind luck... and while you make your own luck, of that sort, you can still be unlucky. And -- I can't repeat this enough -- even when I had all the clues, I often had to try two or three different interpretations before I got results. Patience, and the bloody-minded refusal to give up. Call that admirable or not; I shall forgive you. (I can be smug all by myself.)

I took six pages of notes -- not counting the D'ni alphabet key I printed out from a fan website. (It's in the game too, I just wanted a hardcopy.) I commend to you the in-game screenshot system. But even with it, there's a lot of information to collate. In at least two places, I had to draw a map. I never draw maps in graphical adventures. I had to in Myst 4. They weren't true mazes -- there were plenty of landmarks -- but they were complicated areas, and the layout mattered. And not merely for navigation. Interconnections, geographic relationships, elements flowing from one area to another. The worlds themselves were puzzle elements, which is of course as it should be. But unless your spatial sense is really supernal, you're going to have to take notes.

There are the classic shibboleths, timed puzzles and sound puzzles. Neither is egregious. The most complex sound puzzle only requires you to distinguish high, medium, and low tones; the timed sequences give you an unlimited number of tries. But if you're severely hearing-impaired, or are very slow with your mouse handling, you will have unwarranted trouble.

I've drifted back to whinging again, and not even for good reasons. Here, let me close with one more whinge: the title. Myst 3: Exile was a boring and unmemorable title. Myst 4: Revelation is just as bad. Walk into a store -- hell, walk up to me -- and mention "Revelation," and you'll just get a blank stare. The next game better have a real title.

Oh, and another. I played the Mac version, and it really was rather buggy. At least once a night, the game would crash on me. It autosaves every few minutes, so I never lost much progress -- but I recommend you save frequently anyhow. After the first night, I undertook to restart my Mac before playing, and shut down every other application, including my virtual-desktop and application-menu UI extensions. That seemed to reduce the crashes, but it didn't eliminate them.

(I can't tell you how common an experience this is, because Ubisoft has locked my web browser out of their web forums. (Idiots.) Usenet chatter indicates that Windows users really should have their 3D drivers up to date, but that wasn't my problem -- I've got OSX 10.3.5, which contains the latest drivers.)

Oh, and one more thing. (Which isn't a whinge.) I just realized why the Cyan logo comes before the Ubisoft logo. Myst 4 (as you know) was created by an Ubi in-house development team -- in Montreal, I believe. Cyan just contracted out the rights, as they did with Myst 3. This is in contrast to Uru, which was developed by Cyan and merely published by Ubisoft. So naturally the logos are in the opposite order.

Myst 3 was rather a weak design job; Myst 4 is a very strong one. Rumor has it that Cyan's new project (code-named "Something Else") just might be Myst 5. For once, Cyan has a milestone to hurdle which they didn't set themselves.

Conclusion: Your sense of self-determination may falter at the end, but Myst 4 is still the best-laid and most challenging adventure game of the year.

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