Text Patterns - by Alan Jacobs

Thursday, September 26, 2013

Myst and its afterlife

Myst was the first computer game I bought — I had played some text-adventure games that I borrowed from friends, but didn't shell out money until I had my first computer with a color monitor (A Macintosh Performa 6116CD, if you must know). I played Myst a lot: I struggled to solve many of the puzzles but just couldn't let it go. When Riven came out a couple of years later I became fully absorbed in that too. I looked forward to playing many more games of this kind in the years to come. I waited for them to come out.

And — according to Emily Yoshida in this outstanding essay on the 20th anniversary of Myst — so too did the makers of Myst, Rand and Robyn Miller.

“We’re hearing lots of comments here on the 20th anniversary — people are going, ‘Man, I would love to see that same kind of experience [as Myst] again,’” Rand said. One of the first things that made him think there could still be a place for non-violent, open-world gaming came straight from the pages of that cultural barometer/hive mind Reddit. “On the front page, there was a [post] where somebody said, ‘Hey, I just put my grandparents in front of Assassin’s Creed in the gondola and let them sail around Venice for a couple hours.’ And then there’s a huge discussion after that — as there always is on good Reddit articles — where people are saying, ‘Yeah, why don’t people make these games? Why can’t we just explore? Why do we always have to shoot things?’ So, maybe the time is right again to try that. That’s exciting. I still think there’s plenty of room for something really cool in this genre out there. And I don’t think we’ve done it yet.”

So have we? I stopped playing computer games basically for one reason: I have no interest in shooting things (or cleaving them with a battle-axe or a light-saber). Are there exploratory, aesthetically interesting, non-violent games than I'm missing? And I mean wholly non-violent, not you-don't-have-to-do-a-lot-of-killing nonviolent: games you play with no weapons at all

Among recent games, the one that most closely meets this description is The Room, an iPad game that I absolutely loved. I'm glad to know that there will be a sequel. But I'd love to see a lot more like it.


  • Well, there's Proteus, Dear Esther, Gone Home, and MirrorMoon EP, all of which are exploratory and nonviolent. Possibly The Path or some of the other things from Tale of Tales. Antichamber has a bit more action, but is entirely non-violent.

    For upcoming things, The Witness, Everybody's Gone to the Rapture, Fract OST, the update to the The Stanley Parable, and probably a few more that I'm forgetting.

    There also also games that shade over into being adventure games, with more progression or narrative content and less strict exploration; Machinarium, Year Walk, Kentucky Route Zero.

    There are also non-violent action/puzzle games, such as Journey or Portal. Journey is about cooperation, Portal is about puzzle solving. Neither of them involve directly shooting anything, though the player does get attacked.

  • Lots and lots. You just have to look outside the mainstream blockbusters as you do with books, movies, music, etc.

    Myst itself had 4 sequels plus an ill-fated attempt at an MMO (Uru) which you can still play as a single-player game (for free). People disagree with how well they stack up to the original, but all are beautiful and contain some interesting puzzles (the writing and character acting is often weak).

    Kario is a minimalist, elegant game that creates surprisingly distinct and memorable places from very simple building blocks with environmental puzzles that don't require a bunch of note-taking or code-deciphering and a very streamlined interface. It made me feel like I was exploring weird alien ruins in an Arthur C. Clarke novel.

    PaPo & Yo is a surreal game about a boy in the Brazilian favela with a beautiful, metaphorical take on dealing with an abusive, alcoholic father.

    Miasmata is about a sick man exploring a beautiful island in search of flowers that may cure his disease and clues about what happened to the scientists who were there. Instead of puzzles it has a nifty mapping mechanic requiring triangulation. There is danger to run away from, but no combat.

    Interactive Fiction (the successor to Zork and other Infocom text adventures) has blossomed in dozens of directions. Not all are non-violent, but a solid majority are. Emily Short has a page recommending works notable particularly for interface, narrative, characters, narrative voice, setting, world design, and/or puzzles:

    Minecraft can be played on peaceful or creative mode. Explore a collaborative server run by adults like Twentymine or the Apocalypse to see some amazing architecture without being subjected to YouTube-level comments.

    Proteus, Gone Home, Portal, AntiChamber, Dear Esther, Machinarium, Stacking, Endless Ocean, Kentucky Route Zero, Braid, Journey, and To The Moon are all non-violent and contain at least some elements of what you seem to enjoy about Myst.

  • Games contain a lot of different elements and vary widely in where they try to be excellent and where they succeed: story telling, art design, game mechanics, puzzles, opportunities to explore. You might find a fascinating story in a game you don't have the reflexes to play or a beautiful game with clever puzzles but intolerably bad voice acing.

  • Myst was actually the first or second computer game my family ever bought, too (Civilization 2 was the other one), though we had had a Nintendo earlier. Myst was wonderful. Riven was too hard. :)

    Unknown is right, there are tons of interesting exploration games out there, just not as major blockbuster titles. For recommendations, he's done a much more thorough job than I could have. :)

    But one of the reasons that I think "exploration" games don't sell as big blockbusters is that they have an inherent limit on replayability. Once you explore an area/solve a puzzle, that's pretty much it. If you've beaten Myst, you're pretty much finished with it for good.

    Competitive games and combat games -- even single-player ones -- can have variable forms of challenge and interaction, which means it's easier for them to maintain replayability. And buyers like replayability (even if they don't actually take advantage of it all that much).

  • That should be "Kairo" not "Kario" above:


  • Thanks for the responses here — I also got some good ones on Twitter, most of which I retweeted.

Post a Comment

[Basic HTML tags can be used in this comment field.]