There is a grim austerity to Myst Island that is unmatched in the vast majority of other gaming experiences. Myst, which launched on Macs 30 years ago this month and on every platform under the sun in the years since, opens by leaning into that absolute abandoned grimness. A small island made up of a few screens that you click your way through, half idyllic greenery and half baroque machinery fit for science fiction. A telescopic observatory, a rocket ship, a spinning tower, a clockwork isle, and two men trapped in what might be monocolor hell books.
And you, there on that island, left to figure out what has happened to make this place feel so bad. You and a letter from someone named Atrus who, we learn, deeply hoped that his wife Catherine might be joining him instead of you.
Myst is a fascinating game to try to situation historically, if only because it is tempting to call it “first” in categories that it simply was not first in. We want our historic high water marks to be something special, something that stands out against the backdrop of the rest of culture because it poked its head out of the tide that surrounded it. In a universe of founders, genius game devs, and singular visions, it is much more banal to look at the emerging point of Myst and say: well, it came and did the thing well.
After all, the adventure game genre had been cranking away, first in text and then with images, as an entire industry for more than a decade. First-person games had emerged and made themselves cornerstones of the videogame world, particularly in the role playing game space. Even the game’s soundtrack was following the course of history rather than setting it. We might be tempted to say that the way it married these different trends together, centered on the hypercardic “click the hotspot” puzzles, constituted something new. And maybe it was, if only because the computer-generated images and how we interacted with them there were so clearly and cleanly designed for each other.
From the vantage point of 30 years, I don’t think it is worth dwelling on the technical or the conceptual as the thing that (continues to) make Myst sing. Instead, it’s much more worthwhile to ponder the aesthetic, that stuff we see and hear and contemplate as we rake our brains over the raw interface trying to find our way out of the Mechanical Age or whatever.
The central conceit of Myst is that you are traveling to several Ages in order to find a man named Atrus. The Ages are his, and he’s capable of writing Ages into existence as texts, taking his descriptions and ideas and translating them directly into places that can be visited and engaged with. He lived and worked with his sons, Sirrus and Achenar, and his wife Catherine. His family fell from within, as both of his children turned to cruelty and violence and greed, and from without, as what befell Catherine is only revealed in Riven, the sequel to Myst.
Overwhelmingly, these things are not told to us through dialogue. While there is some light exposition, it is through an absolute feeling of abandonment that all of this is communicated to players. Journals and diaries are left in key places, each filling in the histories of the family and Myst Island itself, and using those personal narratives, the player gathers clues to solve the puzzles that they find on the island and in the Ages that they can unlock. Everywhere they find nothing—each place lacks human beings, and is nearly devoid of animal life, but retaining an absolutely haunting sense of human habitation.
Playing through the original release only a little while ago, I realized that these worlds are the reason that I, and many others, have returned to this game so often over 30 years. Channelwood is made of massive trees growing from shallow water, with pathways between. It is alien, yet natural, and has the work of human hands all over it. One of its primary puzzles is turning valves to get water from one place to another, and it is careful listening that helps you solve it. Sitting in that abandoned world, surrounded by trees and pipes, listening and considering your next action. That feeling, indescribable, originally accomplished with a small CGI image and puzzle design that leaned into the visual capabilities of that image.
How do you make a world that feels like it is already over? How do you create worlds made by humans and abandoned to dust? These are intangible ideas, and certainly not a science, but it is undeniable that one of the thrills of being in these Ages as a player is reinhabiting, and activating, these long-dead puzzles and to operate on the spaces. In Myst, interaction is surgery, breathing life into the corpse of reality for just a moment—feeling intelligent and glamorous for altering a world that feels like it has been in suspended animation for a thousand years.
When we think of the games that stretch out from this origin point, whether it is Myst’s own sequels or Dear Esther or Firewatch or The Witness, the central wonder remains intact. The fantasy is that we are agents in the world able to gaze upon it and experience some kind of aesthetic transformation. We can look into the Stoneship Age, see the ship cracked by the jagged edge, and come to effect some kind of alteration in this abandoned place. We’ll find the linking book; we’ll get back to Atrus. We’ll resolve the world into something else other than it is, breathing life into it with our very interaction.
That feeling that Myst was and is so good at communicating is a rare one, one made by the interlocking reality of technological limitations and gods-as-creators plot construction. Robyn Miller’s soundtrack remains unmatched across 30 years. Notably, messing with the formula of abandonment cheapens the thing—2021’s fully 3D rendered remake is too warm, too enlivened, too human from the outset. The original game is abandoned; the remake is a world where everyone just went out to get groceries and will be back in a jiff.
30 years of Myst unrivaled seems impossible, and yet here we are, its puzzles and ideas and strange hand-scrawled tracts of universal history still standing, lasting longer in our memory than the holiday hits of a few years ago. Here’s to 30 more—of empty courtyards and traps left behind by terrible, entrapped sons, waiting for their father to obliterate them from the earth at the request of a mysterious stranger.
Cameron Kunzelman tweets at @ckunzelman.