Mini-Review: Myst 5: End of Ages

Designed by Cyan Worlds
(Official web site)

Review written by Andrew Plotkin

Welcome to Zarfville, where the tradition is to review Myst games several years after I first play them. Well, Myst games that aren't numbered 2, 3, or 4, anyhow.

I played Myst 5 when it was released, in fall of 2005. Later I stuck a note in the not-even-a-minireview section of my review page: "...yes, I enjoyed it. But I didn't wind up with anything really urgent to say about it, so I never wrote a review."

And this was true, but now it's false, because Cyan unexpectedly put Uru Live back online. For the past two weeks, I've been happily splashing through all the familiar Ages and puzzles. And when I got through all of them (okay, nearly all, I didn't finish the Great Zero hunts) -- I said to myself, "Dammit, that isn't enough pretty, pretty nostalgia. Let's replay Myst 5."

So I did. Now I'm writing the review. Please pretend it's 2005...

No, don't. This is the 2010 review, and it's what I've come up with since 2005.

Foremost: Myst 5 is pretty. Gorgeous, in fact. It's 2005 pretty, it's 2010 pretty, and I don't know what graphics will look like in 2015 but I think Myst 5 will be pretty then too, and not in any ha-ha-pixels nostalgia way; just lovely. The polygon counts are low by modern power-gamer standards, but the textures, it's all in the textures, blended and layered, flowing and changing if the environment changes, or dense and solid as stone.

Cyan has always gotten the environments right. They've always gotten the pacing of the environments right, and if you think a landscape can't have pacing, talk to a landscape designer. Some worlds are brief moments, that you experience in full as you pass through. Some are longer journeys, and you can be sure that your first glimpse is prologue; you will see other perspectives, other horizons, step by step as you advance. By the time you leave, you will know the Age better. That's what Cyan does.

The audio is equally good, but you don't need me to tell you that. (The state of the art hasn't shifted nearly as radically; the original Myst still sounds great too.) Environmental sound gives way seamlessly to background music, as appropriate to story events or environmental changes. Both are integral to the experience, as much so as the visual design.

No, I should talk about the puzzles. They're not perfect. Is that worse than Myst and Riven? I'm not sure.

I think of those early games as brilliantly designed, but frustrating in places, because that was my experience. Then I played Uru, which experimented much more broadly with what puzzles could be -- both succeeding and failing. But Uru was also under painful publication pressure at every stage. Ages were reworked from multiplayer to solo-play, or back, or both; or from rest area to puzzle quest; or simply pushed out too quickly. The result was mixed... or was that inevitable, in such an experimental game?

Myst 5 was designed as a traditional single-player adventure -- and was developed and published that way with no surprises -- and for that reason alone, I'm sure, it's a much more consistent experience. You can fairly say that Cyan has returned to its strengths. (Although if they ever return to multiplayer game design, I'll be fascinated to see what Uru taught them.)

Imperfect? I remember my first Myst 5 run, in 2005, as being frequently frustrating. I looked at hints quite often. In 2010, I remembered nearly all the puzzles (apparently five years isn't long enough for a replay!) and so the game went more smoothly, and more quickly as well.

I have serious quibbles -- can I say "serious quibbles"? too late -- with Todelmer, the telescope Age. The player motivation is either weak, or a step behind where the player ought to be in any given puzzle. If you look through a scope and see several distant objects, none interesting, you don't leap to the conclusion that one of them is blocking a clue. Yes, the connection is visible if you look carefully around and consider the underlying physical logic. That's my ideal of an adventure puzzle. But it's all just a bit too monumental and abstract. I never really got a sense of which cables went where.

(As for the cable-car -- that's flat-out player abuse. Red herrings are fine. A red herring that invites the player to turn a crank for five real-world minutes, discover it was a mistake, and then have to uncrank for five more -- bad juju. Bad designer.)

Forget the quibbles. The core game mechanic is the tablet, and that's clever and awful at once.

Myst 5's tablets are, at root, nothing new. Much of the Myst series consists of seeing symbols, remembering them, and using them in the right place to solve puzzles. Usually "using them" means turning dials; but the Myst fireplace was a tablet. You drew the solution, albeit with a coarse and tedious interface.

These are information puzzles (as opposed to pull-a-lever or pick-up-a-key puzzles). Information puzzles offer wonderful scope for hiding clues. You can draw them anywhere, in any artistic detail; and you don't have to pick them out with a clickable, tell-tale hotspot. The clues are purely elements of the game world, not of the interface. Thus, immersion.

But information puzzles have always been problematic, as well. In Myst, you can run straight for the fireplace, enter the solution from a walkthough, and skip the entire game. Myst 5 isn't quite that wide-open, but you can certainly bypass entire chapters if you feel like cheating. Is that a problem? I avoid it in my own game design practice, but it's hard to call it a serious problem. Cheaters can always cheat. As long as the player can't brute-force the puzzle -- and neither the fireplace nor the tablet puzzles can be reasonably brute-forced -- the fun remains.

So drawing glyphs on a stone tablet is familiar adventure-puzzle territory, offered with a twist. But the twist has a kink in it, which is the obvious problem: gesture recognition sucks. And blows. It fails coming and going. It just hates some images -- or maybe it doesn't like me. I must have drawn that damn fish a dozen times before the game gave up and accepted it as valid. (Looking at walkthroughs and copying their fish-shapes didn't help.) Worse, the reverse: in my first run, the game misparsed one shape as a different one, and teleported me past half the puzzles in Taghira. (Shades of the fireplace -- but by accident! Bad, bad juju.)

(I reloaded an earlier Taghira saved game, and played it properly. Because I am a good and honest person. Also greedy for puzzle experience. But it's still a bad situation to be in.)

I forgive the tablet, in the end; because the end is worthwhile. For all their flaunting (and all their imitators) of the "simple point-and-click" UI, Cyan has always been the master of the subtle, semantic, explorable game interface. The game interface which offers unobvious choices; the surprising actions which would be possible if you were really there; the true face of interactive fiction. In Myst that mouse-click became -- when appropriate, when you realized it -- a pull, a grip, even a lit match. In Myst 5... well, I won't say. You'll know when you're there.

Now I get to talk about the story.

There's a lot of it. "This game has a lotta talk," as Rene Auberjonois once said. Yeesha (Atrus's daughter) recites the whole history of the Myst series to you, piecewise, while Esher (the other main character) acts as tour guide through the game. It can be wearing. Especially if, like me, you thoroughly explore the Great Shaft area before you touch the linking books -- thus getting all of Yeesha's narration in a barely-swallowable lump. Followed by a long overdose of Esher. (Yes, it's nice to have the flexibility of what order to approach the game. It's just that, in the order I chose, this particular aspect comes out badly paced.)

The voice acting was fine, mind you. It's tied to a pretty decent avatar animation system, so you can see the characters pace and gesture as they talk. Yeesha's narrated journals don't have the animation, but you can read ahead and skip the voice-overs if you really want. It's all well-presented; it's just... more background than the game really needs.

(Footnote: I know it's an unpopular opinion in the Myst fan community, but I loved Esher's guttural accent. Do you know how rare it is for Fantasy Apostrophes, as in "D'ni" and "Ti'ana", to actually be orthography? So Atrus's family comes from a different social group, whose dialect has allowed the apostrophe to become silent... see, this is worldbuilding. End footnote.)

I know why Myst 5 goes overboard on the background infodumps. It was The Wrapup. Uru Live had been cancelled and its completed content released single-player. Cyan had years of planned storyline beyond that, and they seriously expected to never work on a Myst game again. (They may have worried that they'd never work again. In fact the company shut down right after Myst 5's release -- a classic "ship and pink slip" event -- and then was resurrected by a cardiac jolt of new funding.)

They clearly didn't cram all their story ideas into Myst 5. The "Behind the Scenes" interviews included with the game make that explicit. But they did try to implement the conclusion they'd been planning, together with enough background to frame it meaningfully. And that was, by any calculation, a lot of background. By my calculation -- too much. Not fatally; the game doesn't founder. It's just, as I said, overdone.

Also, honestly, the writing isn't all that great. This isn't a huge shock; the Myst series has always been adequately written, but no better, with a tendency towards the overblown. (Really, the only reason it works at all is Rand Miller's gently underplayed Atrus.) Yeesha is a daft hippie, Esher is an oily creep -- am I giving too much away? No, it's right there. The Bahro, the alien creatures who began turning up in Uru, wind up with a shallow explanation and a flat storyline. They're just not interesting, at the end.

The real problem, however, is the unanticipatable one. Cyan was resuscitated after Myst 5... and funded to launch Uru Live, for real this time. Which left them trying to, well, unwrap The Wrapup.

It's not just a question of completed plot threads, or even revealed surprises. Myst 5 has a distinctly bitter tone about the Uru era -- the audience's direct involvement in the restoration of the D'ni civilization. From Yeesha's point of view (and that is clearly a future point of view, decades after Uru's storyline), the restoration failed. She doesn't say what happened to the City in the cavern (the writers left themselves wiggle room) but that isn't the new D'ni which interests her.

Indeed, the entire notion of a story adventure game is somewhat tarnished. "The rules seem so arbitrary -- some game of the Maker that only he understands," writes Yeesha. "I know what must be done, but I cannot speak of it, for fear that it would somehow break the rules." Which is literally true. Rule: game characters never spoil the endgame puzzle. I refused to speak of it myself, a few paragraphs ago.

And that only makes sense from the game-maker's point of view, of course. By any realistic standard, Yeesha should tell you what to do, flat-out. It's the adventure game convention: we overlook the artifice of making these story events puzzle-y and challenging. But once the narrator herself points it out?

(...We are willing to fool ourselves again, it seems. The Uru Live of 2007-2008 was a compelling experience, understaffed and poorly guided as it was. I was willing to put Myst 5 aside and accept the "current" storyline. But that's another review of another game.)

No, looking solely at Myst 5, we are left with an odd artifact. It's very much worth playing; certainly the best single game experience Cyan has created since Riven. But it's a poor fit for the storyline, and for Cyan's development as a storytelling studio. As their farewell statement, it might have worked, albeit with an unfortunate tinge of self-pity. But they aten't dead after all; the fans are as enthusiastic as ever; a community-supported Uru and a Myst movie are real possibilities. Myst 5, in the midst of that, is the ghost at the banquet.

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