Myst: 20 years of point-and-click adventuring
The genre-defining game that made us all buy CD-ROM drives
Antique Code Show For many years it was the best-selling computer game ever – at least until The Sims turned up. It created a whole new gaming genre, and it was a major help in getting a new computer storage format established. Yes, ladies and gentlemen, we're talking about Myst.
Myst debuted on the Mac back in September 1993 after two years in development. Devised by two brothers, Robyn and Rand Miller, Myst was in essence a classic adventure game: the player explores a bizarre world by visiting a series of fixed locations, learning as he or she goes more about the place's backstory and trying to solve puzzles which unlock even more places to investigate and plot to assimilate. There might be a maze or two to walk through. Puzzles are typically solved by acquiring long lists of items: open the safe to get the matches to start the boiler to turn the generator and so on, and so on...
Myst island rendered in the most photorealistic graphics available on a mid-1990s micro
Nothing new there: it was a standard adventure formula, from the text-only games of the 1970s through to the text'n'graphics titles of the 1980s. But Myst had a number of features that made it very different from the adventure games that preceded it. First, it was entirely visual; it wasn't based on text descriptions and you didn't interact with the world you were exploring by keying in commands. And, unlike previous graphical adventures, which largely presented pictures to illustrate the descriptions, Myst was rendered in near-photorealistic imagery presenting what the player could see out of his or her character's eyes.
No crude, limited colour palette and blocky graphics here, but rather ray-traced, textured art that was about as realistic as graphics could get on a desktop computer back then. Of course, Macs and PCs lacked the horsepower to render Myst's first-person perspectives in real-time, so adventurers had to make do with static shots.
To address the lack of dynamism, the team at Cyan – the company founded by the Miller brothers in the early 1990s – used video footage encoded with Apple's then still novel QuickTime technology. Small movies were played over the picture, giving the impression of animation. Of course, since neither the 3D static imagery nor the QuickTime movies were rendered in full, 32-bit colour – or even 24 bits, as they were all 8-bit images with carefully chosen 256-colour palettes – the dithering used to emulate out-of-range hues would sometimes stop the video from blending smoothly into background. But to gamers used to much less sophisticated graphics, the effect was nonetheless remarkably immersive.
The second clue sends you to the library. Books have power in this interactive story
This was especially the case when you coupled the visual effects with the large selection of environmental sound effects and ambient incidental music included in the game. These were created, respectively, by Chris Brandkamp and a third Miller brother, Ryan. Cyan assembled just enough video and audio to engage the imagination of players without the computer slowdowns that full-screen animation would undoubtedly cause and which would have inhibited the suspension of players' disbelief.
The sensation of being there was aided by the control system Cyan employed. Instead of traditional typed commands – "Go North", "Examine Knife", "Search Room", that kind of the thing – players interacted with Myst's world directly with their mouse. Click on a door and it opens – if you have the key. Buttons, wheels, cogs, lifts, switches – they all move with a tap of the mouse buttons. Select a book and it opens – click to turn the pages.
And thus was the pure point-and-click adventure born.
The eerie Stoneship Age
It was an approach to which the mouse-centric Mac and its users were well suited. Indeed, Mac technology helped the Cyan team work more quickly: they assembled the game using Apple's HyperCard, a visual tool for building simple, interactive applications that Apple had bundled for free since the early days of the platform. HyperCard applications comprised a "stack" of pages or “cards”, with button- and event-triggered hyperlinks connecting each card to one or more others.
Using this framework, the Cyan embedded team member Chuck Carter's 3D renderings – created in StataVision 3D and manually tweaked in the first version of Photoshop – and added hotspots which, when clicked, might trigger the playback of an overlaid video, a sound effect or move the player to another card and another location.
Myst's five worlds – its four "Ages" in the jargon of the game, and Myst island itself – were each implemented as a separate HyperCard stack, all of them together encompassing some 2,500 player viewpoints. Despite very careful image compression – primarily, as mentioned, by optimising each picture's colour palette into under 256 entries – the Cyan team still ended up with a game that weighed in at more than half a gigabyte of data, well in excess of what other games required.
Always look out for clues, though there are precious few in fact
They all shipped on floppy disk, but that was out of the question for Myst: swapping floppies would have surely killed the sense of immersion stone dead. Instead Cyan and publisher Brøderbund turned to a new medium: the CD-Rom. Each disc could hold more than 650MB of data, more than enough for Myst's HyperCard stacks and QuickTime movies.
Few Macs had CD drives built-in back then, and standalone drives were not cheap, so it was something of a gamble on the publisher's part. Would gamers be willing to splash out on extra hardware just to play a game – and a fairly laid back one at that? Myst's aesthetics and ambient aural effects were quite at odds with the fire-fire-fire, action gameplay of most other titles in the early to mid-1990s. Remember, most gamers of the time were playing the likes of Wolfenstein 3D and looking forward to the imminent and arrival of the even more intense and visceral first-person experience of Doom, and might not take a shine to a slow-paced, cerebral adventure game like Myst.
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