"Island Escape" by Rebecca Clingman
Back when OS9 was king, and the reign of floppy disks was finally in its twilight, there was only one game worth playing, as far as I’m concerned: it was Myst. I’m no gamer, but even I know that this one was special. If you needed an escape via the screen, and I sort of did, this was it.
I played Myst as a tween with a friend who didn’t go to my school. We couldn’t drive or go out on our own, so we’d been finding other ways to entertain ourselves. We were still young enough to be inventing imaginary games and stories, but we were old enough that they were getting weird. I remember that we once locked her cat (who was named Trotsky) in the bathroom for an entire afternoon. We’d come in every 15 minutes to photograph the poor thing and take notes on its mental state, pretending we were scientists performing a strange experiment on a captive Russian. We got the photos developed and made a little scrapbook about the afternoon called “Trotsky in Confinement.”
Eventually we reached age 12 or so, and imaginary games weren’t enough anymore. We needed more elaborate entertainment. Her family was rich and there was a lot of stuff at her house, so we usually hung out there. But then—lo!--one day we found a computer game called Myst at my house, gathering dust on whatever bookshelf my sister had abandoned it on, and we were hooked from the jump. Now that I had Myst, my house became fun too. Moreover, Myst soon became the basis of our entire friendship, because when you’re 12, your friendships are defined by what you do rather than who you are. And make no mistake, we burned our eyes out of our skulls playing it.
***Warning: spoiler alert for a very old game you’ll never play***
Myst was designed and directed by Robyn and Rand Miller, and they worked on it while my friend and I were born, between 1991 and 1993, which is an insignificant but pleasing fact. When the game was released for Mac (and only Mac lololol), it was an instant critical success and a best-seller, even if today it seems mostly to be remembered as a cult hit. The thing even got academic attention. Jon Carroll, writing it up for Wired at the time, called it “the first artifact of CD-ROM technology that suggests that a new art form might very well be plausible, a kind of puzzle box inside a novel inside a painting. Only with music. Or something.”
Right when you start the “something” up, you’ve been dropped onto an island. There are no words on screen, nothing and no one telling you what to do, not even instructions on how to move. You don’t even have an avatar—just a first-person view of a misty landscape and a path. So, you click, anywhere. And you move! Still no feedback or clues on how to proceed, but at least you can move. By wildly clicking in different areas, you figure out that you can turn to look around and that the world spreads out in three dimensions. That’s the first important thing. Depending on your personality, you then find the other things out. You might be the type to follow the first lead—probably a certain painting in the library—and go from there. That would be to start with the “puzzle box” (via the “painting”, I suppose). Or, by continuing to walk on as far as you can, you might realize that you’re on an island, and when clicking further doesn’t allow you to swim, that you have to find out why you’re here. That would be to start with the “novel”, because it’s then that you realize that there’s no enemy to fight, and that you’re completely alone. The underlying game of Myst is to figure out the story.
As you set yourself to doing this, you encounter a lot of buttons on doors and walls, and since the mouse is your only tool, you have to click them. The results are subtle. Either the button triggers some kind of ominous noise and nothing happens, or you get a piece of information. Could be a string of numbers, or a map, a shred of a letter, or even just a clicking noise, but nothing that’s useful on its own. Once you get enough of these bits of information, you begin to connect them, and you begin to recognize the existence of puzzles where before you just saw buttons. You put the information into the puzzles, and the game starts moving forward. You travel to beautiful, linked worlds, collecting pages of books that help you fill in the story. The worlds have visual and auditory themes running through them that nudge you to put the pieces together. My friend and I filled a lot of glittery notebooks with maps, sequences, codes, and even attempts to describe noises that might be significant later (“three dings followed by a gong—also heard it in the smaller tower when we tried to open the door”).
The final, elegant beauty of Myst is that you never had to play to win. With a stroke of random luck, you could have won the game about 15 minutes into playing it. In fact, for us, the opposite happened. After all that puzzle solving, in our desperation to explore more territory, we banked on the wrong version of the story, and we lost. There was no going back. The credits just rolled on a black screen. Later, we would play the sequel, Riven, and a bit of the third in the series, Exile. But by the time Exile rolled around, we were in middle school, and we weren’t hanging out as much. Actually, we barely even said hi in the hallways, though we still occasionally called each other up to sit in front of the computer on the weekends. She was pretty and smart as ever, with nice hair, while of those things I was only smart. Teenagerhood was giving us new stuff to think about, and that’s normal. Myst came to us at the right time, and then it went, as fleeting as 12 years old.