MYST

Reviewed by Cherie Bowers: March 13, 1996
http://www.sils.umich.edu/~cpbowers/myst.html


This web site is created in partial fulfillment of the requirements for Professor Howard Besser's course, ILS Impact of New Information Resources, Winter 96 semester, at the University of Michigan, Ann Arbor.

Myst is a registered trademark of Cyan, Inc.
Copyright 1993 Cyan, Inc. All rights reserved.
Graphics used by permission of Cyan, Inc.

Purpose: This paper will offer a review of the CD-ROM game, MYST, Windows 3.1 Version 1.0.2. It will analyze MYST from the perspective of its sound design and explore its dependence on that design.

Why sound? or "Can a deaf person play MYST?"

MYST Description of the game

The Game
Robyn and Rand Miller, two brothers from Spokane, Washington, designed and developed the CD-ROM game, MYST. Two years in the making, Robyn, the artist, and Rand, the programmer, produced a non-pursuit, thinking person's interactive game marketed specifically for adults. In a recent US News and World Report poll taken in November 1995, MYST continues to rank as the top selling CD-ROM game. MYST has enjoyed such popular and critical success that the brothers' company, Cyan Incorporated, negotiated a million dollar contract with Hyperion, a publishing subsidiary of the Disney company, to produce three MYST novels and to license marketing rights for sweatshirts, mugs and mouse pads. Robyn and Rand are now developing MYST 2, with an anticipated December 1996 release date (Guttman, January 15, 1996.)

In the quick time movie, The Making of MYST, the brothers describe the development process of the game. MYST sound designer, Chris Brandkamp, illustrates some of his methods to create the sounds which give MYST the feeling of place in this 3-dimensional virtual world. For example, Chris strikes a wrench to create the chimes of the Clock Tower. Air is blown through plastic tubing in the basin of a commode to simulate the underwater bubbles of the Sunken Ship. In addition to sound effects, there are forty minutes of original music, written by Robyn Miller, to help set the mood for MYST.

The Sound
For the first trial, I choose to start the game with the sound turned off. I explored the MYST Island and discovered all the buildings and switches located on the main map. It was fun to note the Andrew Carnegie-style construction of the MYST Public Library. It is rare that a computer or video game establishes an information center as its core. I explored the library and read through each book on the shelf. With special interest, I recorded the following passage in the journal of MYST character, Atrus: "Though this world has little visual excitement to offer, it offers much to the ears. Sounds constantly flow through my ears and I have found where a few of them originate." I took this as foreshadowing that I would, in fact, have to rely on sound in order to move through the game. This passage refers to the elaborate sound puzzles of the Selentic Age, which I was to discover later in the game. But at that moment, this notion of sound dependence was validated when I inserted the blue and red pages in each book. Heads seemed to be speaking from these pages , perhaps imparting vital information which I would need to continue the game. Within the first 45 minutes, I had reached the limit of my patience with what I was able to do on MYST Island.

Therefore, I rebooted the game with the sound on. Through the course of revisiting the places I had discovered as a "deaf" player with the sound turned off, now I heard doors sliding open and closed, distant bird and chipmunk noises, and faint tympany rolls when the action started getting exciting. I was most impressed by the sound variations of the finger movement through book pages. When you page backward, there is a different sound than when you page forward. As for the musical score, the melodies were gently presented, and I found myself relaxing into the game playing. This music is in sharp contrast to the jarring, repetitive songs forced on players of other computer and video games.

During the course of play, I found the sound effects in MYST to be absolutely critical. Without sound capability, not only is your experience altered, but there are some clues which are unavailable to you. For example, one of the first clues on MYST Island is the holographic / audio message from Atrus to his wife, Catherine. The message is not particularly necessary for subsequent game playing, but a "deaf" player is left to speculate on the content of the message.

The same principle applies to the holographic messages from MYST characters Sirrus and Achenar. The content of these messages identifies that there is a conflict and signals the hunt for more red and blue pages. Yet, for a "deaf" player, these two characters may be saying "Watch out, large smelly creatures will try to eat you if you touch any of the marked switches."

These two examples don't interfere with solving the puzzles of MYST. However, the necessity for sound is never more vital than with the harpsichord keystroke puzzle for launching the spacecraft. Not only does the player need to strike the correct key sequence, then he or she must apply the notes heard to a levered launch control panel. Players not only have to play the correct tune, but have to be able to hear those notes clearly in order to "carry that tune" to another site. The spacecraft travels to the Selentic Age, in which players must be able to hear running water, whistling wind, roaring flames, grinding gears, and chiming pipes. Without this ability, players may be stuck forever at this level of the game.

My concern is that the marketing literature is not consistent in stating that computer systems must have sound capability to play this game (CD-ROMs in Print, 1995 and Software Reviews on File, 1994.) The box in which the MYST game is purchased lists the recommended hard drive size, megabytes of RAM, versions of Windows and DOS, color capability of the monitor, sound card, mouse, and CD-ROM, in that order. The game designers may have ranked these computer components in order of importance, although it is obvious that multi-media programs require all these pieces of equipment in order to operate the software. Therefore, the manufacturer has listed this necessity, while some reviewers have not.

According to the US News and World Report, January 15, 1996, the original version of MYST was created for the Macintosh platform first. With Macintosh systems, built-in CD-ROMs with sound cards are virtually standard. However, PC systems with added CD-ROM peripherals may not feature sound cards. Therefore, I feel that the reviewing literature may demonstrate a bias toward Macintosh platforms when evaluating MYST. It is hoped that with MYST 2, reviewers may evaluate and publish reviews of both platforms with more complete equipment listings.

Others Review the Sounds of MYST
Sound design is a critical feature for other MYST reviewers as well. George and Ben Beekman reported that the wind, water, wood, and machinery sounds combined with the musical sound track to make the game feel part movie and part dreamscape (Software Reviews on File, p. 81.) Barry Brenesal noted that MYST's soundtrack facilitated transitions, by featuring natural sounds for outside scenes, mechanical noises for machines and gears, and New Age music for creating ethereal, mystical moods (Software Reviews on File, p. 405.) According to Rothstein, 1994, quality multi-media programs, such as MYST, are blurring the line between games and films. Chris Brandkamp's sound effects are not run-of-the-mill sound card blips and boops, but digital audio samples which truly make the fantasy of MYST part game and part motion picture (Lindstrom, 1994.)

Conclusion
Sound design is just one aspect of a multi-media program. Therefore, MYST must be evaluated as a total experience of video, interface, storyline, and price. MYST has been criticized for some jagged transitions through abrupt changes of scene (Brenesal, June 14, 1994.) Karen Ohlson found that some of the steps needed to travel from scene to scene seemed unnecessary. Also, she thought an electronic notepad would have made more sense than a paper copy (Software Reviews on File, p. 81.) Some online review sources have noted the feeling of isolation and loneliness in the MYST worlds. When I first began to play MYST, I was tense about meeting attacking creatures. But, I eventually found comfort in knowing that nothing was going to lunge out at me from behind doors or bushes. I feel that MYST offers an escape from interacting with people for a time. MYST does not meet a need to collaborate, but to explore and to match wits with untimed puzzles. The collaboration and socialization comes when new MYST players beg more experienced players for the solutions to those puzzles.

On the basis of my experience, I found MYST to be a captivating game and one I would recommend. My advice? Play it loud.

References and Resources