MYST's Ultimate Illusion

This paper consists of two sections: some brief comments on the "look and feel" of the game[1], and an assessment of MYST as the alternate "reality" that it claimes to be.

1. The Technical Illusion

1.1 Atmosphere

I found this to be the most alluring aspect of Myst. The mood is eerie from the moment you click on the worn book of Myst and are drawn into the island world. There are familiar elements, but they are juxtaposed in a disturbing and unfamiliar way. The postmodern coexists with the premodern -- there is a monitor that provide the precise configuration of stars for a given date and time and a hologram which can display topographical maps or recorded video messages. There is also a clock tower housing grinding, hand-operated gears and a rocketship reminiscent of a dirigible. The incongruance of the presence of all of these items at one point in time arouse a vague feeling of discomfort.

This perception is heightened by the total lack of a human presence. There are characters in this world -- we receive written messages from them, read their journals, and are harangued by two unstable specimens who are imprisoned in books. But the overall feeling is one of isolation and abandonment.

1.2 Sound

The sound effects are excellent and integral. The overall stillness is only amplified by the background noises of birds and lapping waves. The mechanical effects are also evocative -- the gears, power generators, elevator movement, etc. are extremely realistic.

The music reinforces the surreal nature of the setting. As objects from different times give us a sense of uneasiness, so does the music mix -- new age and primitive sounds.

2. The Ultimate Illusion of Myst

The creators of Myst claim that it is an "alternate reality." How close does Myst come to fulfilling this ambitious claim? Although it tantalizes us with the illusion of a nonlinear and contextual world where contingencies are possible, Myst must ultimately succumb to the limitations of its designers and medium -- it promotes its own truth through its own determinist means.

Upon entering the game and island of Myst, the user feels that he/she has entered a world which takes on or reveals meaning as a result of his/her own actions. The meaning of the game and nature of the quest are not apparent. It seems a place of infinite possibilities. The user can wander about at leisure and at random, manipulating objects in an effort to effect some change in the environment. There are several means of travelling to manifestations of Myst in other times, some of them obvious -- a rocketship, a sailing vessel.

Time-travel in Myst is one of its wonderful nonlinearities. One doesn't know, even when one arrives, whether one has travelled into the future or into the past. The worlds are similarly abaondoned and show considerable signs of neglect. And it is not necessary to undertake the journeys in any particular order. It doesn't much matter whether one figures out how to travel using the rocketship before or after using the sailing vessel. The operation of these vehicles is based on contextual clues. Clues to operating these objects are found by exploring Myst and by reading journals in the library and making use of information found in journals residing on library bookshelves. Part of the sense of adventure in this process derives from the perception that one is creating one own's meaning through an individual experience with Myst.

However, despite the foregoing, Myst is ultimately determinist. There is an underlying truth here -- the programmer's vision and contrivance of what constitutes truth. Myst teases us with the possibilities of a truly contextual experience -- one in which we can create our own meaning -- our own" story about the game -- through the unique way we confront and make decisions about options we face in this strange world. But the Myst experience is ultimately constrained by the lack of true contingency inherent in a "programmed" experience. I have yet to finish the game; but will the outcome change depending on what action is taken by the player? I think not. The experience of Myst is a search for unambiguous resolutions to a series of small riddles -- resolutions often reached through circular and non-linear experimentation. And ultimately if there are multiple resolutions to the final question or riddle posed by MYST, even those contingencies are circumscribed to a known, definable few by the programmers. Myst raises one large question about the reach and limits of simulated reality: In a binary world, are there any true contingencies? A game like Myst can create a nicely satisfying, more richly textured and nuanced experience of "truth" discovery. The "truth" discovered, however, is pre-ordained, imbedded in silicon no less firmly than the tablets of Sinai. Ultimately, like rats in a maze, we may create our own unique experience -- the wholly peculiar pattern of twists and turns, starts and retreats, that comprise our experience of the game. Finally however, we find the correct exit(s)...or perish.