Clickbait: Myst and The Pleasures of Confusion
I have been a gamer since 1998 when I received my first Gameboy and some computer games for the orange plastic Mac that sat in the guest room. I loved those point-and-click computer games from my childhood: Nancy Drew, I Spy – endless fun. After clicking around Myst for a few minutes it reminded me more of an experimental art piece than a videogame. Myst was designed by Robyn and Rand Miller and released for Mac in 1993 (hey, me too). It feels like a world in no rush to pressure its new inhabitant. There’s no time limit, and its “playable” features are not immediately apparent. Not too much later, these concepts of world building and gameplay would merge in things like MMORPGs, but Myst remains in an uncomfortable limbo between game and world. I felt myself helplessly clinging to the only slightly helpful text at the bottom of the screen, which delivered frustrating “hints” such as “If you knew what you were doing, turning those gears could make something incredible happen.” Alas I did not know what I was doing; and Myst knew it.
Should one commit to this world, it is possible to uncover more backstory
about your character, “the Stranger”, and the characters you read about on
the scattered notes and diary entries. Through puzzle solving and message deciphering one can even explore different spaces known as “ages.” This is more of a brief look at Myst as a concept or virtual installation piece than a game review. In part because I’m too impatient to uncover the tangled mysteries of Myst, (sorry!) despite the fact that I once spent countless hours catching a Pokémon with a specific nature (at the age of 23). Like any good nerd I began enjoying the game structurally and architecturally. The loose narrative and ambiguous characters were less important to me. I truly felt as if I had been left there and now I had to learn how to survive. The at first confusing simplicity of the graphics became a surrealist quality of this dream world that fit with the lack of straightforward objectives and haunting diary entries. I could imagine a contemporary digital artist rendering such a space to challenge the modern sense of ease and comfort associated with cyberspaces.
There was one moment in Myst where I clicked on what looked like a small space between the trees, and to my surprise it brought me to a log cabin hidden in the woods. It was genuinely exciting; this not immediately recognizable navigation kept me interested in Myst. I knew at that point that this game was not driven by my movements or my reaction speed, but by my curiosity and observational skills. This action of moving into a hidden space at once created a more pleasurable exploration experience and a sense of mistrust. Myst was not as simple as it first appeared, and if I wanted to survive here I was going to need to pay attention. More than other early arcade style games Myst truly is a “here”, something I had not experienced in my own gaming experience until I got my first Playstation around 2000.
This “here” sensation has since advanced enormously in games such as The Witcher 3 or The Legend of Zelda: Breath of The Wild. The key difference is that those worlds have rules, rules quite like our own world. You can walk (pretty much) where you like, bump into people, jump around, and even get a bad haircut. But Myst doesn’t let you walk where you like, and it doesn’t tell you where or what you can interact with, you just have to click it and see for yourself. So in a sense it is an action-based game, but this is a choice. One could simply wander and read, enjoying the space for its pleasant eeriness. I’ve read online that there’s a lot more to Myst, but I’m the type of gamer who spends weeks picking rare flowers and vegetables to make the best stew. Moving forward with the story is not my first priority to say the least.
As many early examples of new media, Myst created an idea that would later grow into something widespread and completely different, leaving its ancestor
in the dust. In addition to more general elements of gaming it inspired, I can think of recent games that are more directly inspired by Myst. Undertale is full of confusing sarcastic landscapes and characters, hidden “easter eggs” and it even mimics the 90’s graphics. Other places I see obvious inspiration are Spooky’s Jump Scare Mansion and Minecraft. Myst is already a piece of history: the fastest warping and most immediately visible, self-chronicling digital history. For sure it is a predecessor to modern gaming, but Myst also represents the unsteady and heavily debated construction of how one interacts with and navigates all digital spaces and interfaces. Myst is worth experiencing in its original form precisely because it is unsure of itself or its role in new media, and because it explores what are now set ideas, for better or worse, about navigable cyber-spaces.