Search Results for: myst

Making navigation work

I've been playing a bunch of mobile games this spring (for no reason except that I played a lot of PC games over the winter) and I keep thinking about navigation.

Here's a navigation scheme which is common in casual first-person adventures: you always face forward. In every room, there's some number of exits, plus one invisible exit behind you. So you can go forward in various directions (unless you're at a dead end), and you can go back (unless you're at the start). If you bang the "back" button enough times you'll always return to the start room.

I don't know if this scheme has a common name; I'll call it forward-and-back. Examples that I've played recently: The Frostrune, Agent A, Facility 47.

(I'm distinguishing forward-and-back from the common scheme of third-person adventures, where the room contains several exits but they're all visible and the character avatar walks from one to another. That's different; it has no sense of "forward" or "back", although it may have a sense of "left and right".)

Forward-and-back has some obvious advantages. The player always has the same orientation in every room, so the game only needs one image of each room. (Important for a low-budget game where the backgrounds are hand-illustrated rather than rendered from a 3D model.) If the player gets lost, they can smack "back" button until they're not.

The scheme doesn't really support complex 3D environments, or puzzles based on 3D environments. You can't move your viewpoint around to understand 3D relations within a room, and 3D relations between rooms are usually obscure. (The "forward" direction is usually different from one room to the next!) So the scheme has limitations, but okay, every scheme has limitations.

But after playing a bunch of forward-and-back games, I have a complaint. I always feel lost. Or, no, "lost" is wrong. I always know where I am. I have a mental map (a tree, of course). I usually remember what's behind me and what rooms are ahead. But moving around is a somewhat laborious process. These games always involve lots of running back and forth, and the running around takes effort; it doesn't feel automatic.

Compare this to the parser IF navigation scheme. IF compass directions take a lot of crap ("artificial", "unintuitive" -- here's the most recent of many threads on the subject). But, by dooley, if I want to get across Hadean Lands I type "N <enter> N <enter> W <enter> W <enter> W <enter> W <enter> S <enter>" faster than I can think. (Even in a game like HL which supports "GO TO GARDEN", I usually use the compass directions.) Thus, when I'm working on a puzzle, I'm always working on the puzzle. Even if I have to run around, I have no sense of being interrupted by the busy-work of navigation.

What's the difference? Why do six clicks in a graphical adventure feel like more work than six keyboard inputs in a text adventure?

My current theory (certainly overgeneralized): the forward-and-back scheme doesn't give you enough context to think about long journeys.

For the journeys in HL (and other parser IF), I plot out the entire course before I start typing. I enter the commands without reading the responses, or reading just enough to verify that I'm on the right track. (An unexpectedly locked door will stop me, but I might overrun by a few commands before my fingers stop.) But in the forward-and-back games, I can't do this. I enter a room, look around, pick out the right door, click it, and repeat. I can't click-click-click across the game world.

Of course the game designers want to give me context. They post signs; they make buildings visible in the distance. But this is rarely consistent, and it usually only signposts the next room -- not the destination of my journey. If I'm standing at a fork in the road, I have to visualize the world map, think about the next room, and then remember what the path to it looks like. That's the extra step.

Okay, that's a hypothesis. Let's test it against some other game schemas.

In the classical first-person adventure, all movement is "forwards", because you can turn around within a room. The original Myst had clunky slide-show turns, but the genre soon upgraded to 360-panning views (Myst 3) and then to fully 3D worlds.

Now, running around these adventure games is never trivial. There's always a lot of clicking (or holding the "run" button). It can take time. But it doesn't require much thinking, because (once you've learned the map!) you just orient yourself and go. The game gives you the context to look around, to build the entire world map in your head. You see the fountain across the lawn, but you recall that the clock tower is visible down the fountain path, so it's ahead and on the left, so... and the next several steps are clear.

(I am, of course, speaking from the privilege of my own head! I have excellent spatial perception and visualization skills. So this whole analysis may be bunk to you, but I have to work this out for myself first...)

Here's Submachine 1. This is a first-person view, but most of the navigation is up-down-left-right rather than forward-and-back. The world falls into a regular grid (or a few regular grids joined by "ahead" doors). Result: easy navigation! I can click-click-click around the world.

(Then the author makes the later Submachine games really big -- scores of rooms -- which makes the navigation harder again. But at least the difficulty buys me more game.)

In Seltani, my hypertext MMO/MUD, I struggled to make Myst-like physical environments accessible in text. It almost worked -- but traversing large Ages is laborious, even for me. Even the worlds I created! I enter a room, look around, pick the right hyperlink...

Isn't this where we came in? Navigating in Seltani feels exactly like navigating a forward-and-back graphical game -- at least to me. I can learn an area well enough to click the links faster, but it never gets fast; I can never click-click-click through the world. And I think the problem is the same: not enough context, no way to visualize the entire space. It's the feeling of trying to cook dinner without my glasses.

Here's a map of the area described above. Better, right? If I ever redo Seltani, I'll add clickable maps to all my Ages.

Finally, an odd case. Vignettes is a puzzle game with no physical space at all. You "explore" by transforming objects using Escherian perspective tricks.

I played a bit. Then I put the game down and said "Nice concept, but the navigation is terrible!" Is there navigation? Well, there's a map, as we see above. The map shows known, nearby transformations: from the fire hydrant, we can reach the trashcan and the pillcase.

But again: not enough context. The game challenges us to find every transformation, but the map never shows us the whole world -- not even the known world. Missing links are shown as question marks, but only the nearby ones. If the local zone is complete (as above), how do we run across the world to a new one? The map gives us no help. It's not even a clickable map; we have to redo every transformation to explore, even the known ones.

(Added frustration: one-way links. If you're trying to move across the map, you can fall down a chute and land back where you started.) (And even more: the chest metaphor lets you jump instantly across the world, but only to a region that you've completely mined out! It's useless for reaching incomplete regions, the ones you need to reach to finish the game.)

(For all this complaining, I did pick Vignettes back up and finish it. The map is small enough to be playable despite its faults. But I nearly had to draw a paper map to finish -- the unforgivable sin of a mobile game.)

So what qualities make a game truly navigable? I say:

  • the game must let you understand the entire shape of the world;
  • the game must let you apply that knowledge to move across chunks of the world without stopping to think.

There are plenty of strategies for each point. A large-scale map with "click here to jump" buttons will always solve the problem, but it's not the only possibility. The designer may not want jumping; they may want to preserve the experience of continuous movement. Or they may not have the resources to implement the jump button. (At worst, it can require implementing all your lock-and-puzzle logic twice, which is a minefield of potential game bugs. Ask me about Hadean Lands...)

A large-scale map without interactivity will help if the player can connect map features to game-world features. (This is where my Seltani district map falls short; map symbols don't match up well to text.)

(A player who draws a map is certain to understand the shape of the world! But asking the player to draw a map is pretty much unjustifiable if the game has any graphical capability at all. Grumble at these modern times or embrace them, as you like, but that's where we are.)

In a graphical environment, being able to see from one area to another is good; being able to look around and see the world from many angles is also good. Both together give the player a great deal of context. Regular grids, top-down views, and consistent viewing angles all help the player make sense of the world.

And finally, all these concerns apply even to completely abstract maps which have nothing to do with physical space. A limited horizon and inconsistent directions will leave a player feeling lost, even in a skill tree or a branching plot diagram.

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Quern: Undying Thoughts: design ruminations

When the Obduction kickstarter fired up in 2013, it seemed like a good moment for adventure games in general. With Unity3D well-established and the Unreal 4 engine coming up, small teams were in a good position to produce really stellar visual environments. Then Cyan got a million dollars out of nostalgic Myst fans. Good sign, right?

Sure enough, a couple of years later, I saw several Myst-inspired projects on Kickstarter and Steam Greenlight.

Of those, I have now played Haven Moon (my notes in this post) and Neptune Flux (didn't have much to say). We're still waiting on Zed and Xing. (To be sure, Xing's Kickstarter predated Obduction's -- plus one point for foresight, minus one point for taking longer. Give the point back for making progress on a KS payout way less than a million dollars.)

And I have played Obduction, and now I have played Quern: Undying Thoughts. Spoiler: those are the two good ones, so far. In fact, the great ones.

(Note: I was a Kickstarter backer on Quern. Also on Obduction and Neptune Flux.)

Just as it was impossible to talk about Obduction without comparing it to Myst, I cannot talk about Quern without comparing it to Obduction. They're both aiming at the same target: a first-person adventure in which the puzzles span every aspect of the environment. They are graphical IF in the sense that I used to talk about: you must engage with them immersively, placing yourself in the world, imagining those objects around you (and in your hands), considering what makes sense to do in that physical reality.

(Note that that "Characterizing IF" post is harsh on CYOA games. That was me writing in 2002. The field has advanced.)

Quern and Obduction are both top-notch adventure games. Both have really great, creatively constructed puzzles. They both take advantage of the 3D world engine, both visually and in their puzzle design. Both are lonely worlds; they avoid human interaction (and thus the high costs of character modeling and animation). And I finished both in roughly 15 hours of play time. So those are obvious similarities.


Now I can talk about the differences -- which are smaller, but more interesting to discuss.

Quern has lots of visual detail, but it's not so good on focus. You will frequently find a workbench full of tools, and it's not at all clear which are the important tools and which are just scenery. So many hammers! There are things in the game that I want to smash! Sorry, no hammer for you. Even more annoying, there's a loose ladder in the very first room, but you can't take it or use it to climb anywhere.

In contrast, Obduction keeps the really tempting tools out of reach. It also avoids puzzles that make you think "if I only had a hammer..." (Or garden shears, or a couple of sticks, or...)

Quern is generally in tune with Cyan's house style, but it misses a few of the details. Obduction is good about showing the difference between a two-way switch (which can be flipped back and forth) and a one-way switch (which locks after you flip it). The control might retract to show that it's locked, or you might see a pin drop into place. Quern tends not to do this. Thus, one-way switches feel arbitrary. It's particularly annoying when the effect of the switch is not directly visible; then then you have no way to experiment to figure it out.

(You might say that every control should be flippable back and forth. That's how real life works! But when designing a game, you often want to simplify. Once the power has been turned on, it stays on. Once door X is open, it stays open for the rest of the game. And so on. This is a useful trick for keeping the player out of stuck-unwinnable states.)

Obduction was built primarily around one puzzle mechanism: the seed machines. There are other sorts of puzzles (starting engines, finding passwords, using the mine cart) -- but they're very much the Lord High Everything Else. I don't mean it's 99% seed puzzles, but you wind up thinking of the puzzles as "seed machines" and "the other stuff".

Quern, in contrast, has lots of puzzle types. It's downright exuberant with them. Slider puzzles, machine puzzles, symbol-finding puzzles, symbol-matching puzzles, letter puzzles, sound puzzles, light puzzles, weight puzzles, alchemy puzzles (yay!). That's not remotely a complete list.

Moreover, Quern mostly adheres to the puzzle design rule of "do everything twice". (Once as a directly-presented puzzle; once in a new context where you have to remember that thing you did earlier in the game.) Obduction does this too, but it has fewer puzzle concepts! With Quern, by the time you're halfway through, you are balancing a mental map of everything you've encountered. Any of the mechanisms or locations could wind up being relevant again. Not to mention a mental map of the island and where every unsolved puzzle is -- because any of them might be next.

The down side of this is that, with so many puzzle types, a few are worn-out hats. There's a Mastermind game. There's a block-slider. (But not the worst block-slider, which you have to pay me $50 to solve these days. Quern's slider was okay.)

There are, as I said, a couple of audio puzzles. I did not see any accomodation for hearing-impaired players. This is not a fatal strike (not like that flippin' Donkey slider!) but you want to ask if an accomodation is possible. In some games, the puzzle is "notice the audio component at all" -- any kind of subtitling would spoil it. The audio puzzles in Quern are different; they're about noticing qualities of sounds. A non-audio indicator could work. But you'd have to think about it.

There is one terrible puzzle. I know puzzles are subjective, but at one point I said "I hit a bad puzzle" and my friend said "There is one very bad puzzle" and we were talking about the same puzzle.

I don't want to rag on that one puzzle, because the developers have said in a Steam forum thread that they're considering ways to fix it. You can read the thread for the details.

However, it's a great example of the perils of puzzle design. So I'm going to dig into it a little. I will try to avoid spoilery specifics, but I will describe some elements of the puzzle. Starting... NOW.

The puzzle has two stages. ("Do everything twice", remember?) The first stage is a straightforward information-matching puzzle. You need to look at two clues, figure out what each diagram means, combine the information, and apply the result to a device. When you push the right buttons -- you're not finished. The device ostentiatiously turns upside down.

It's clear that you have to use the device again, but with a new button sequence. You now have to interpret the clues "upside down". There are a couple of things that could mean, so you try one of them. Then you try a different one. Then you try applying those ideas to the other clue. Then you start trying combinations of interpretations...

(If you look back at the forum thread, one player mentions trying sixteen possible input sequences, based on different combinations of what "upside down" could mean. I went down the same road.)

None of this works, so eventually you give up and go to the forum. Lo, there is a thread explaining what you missed: you have to go to the other side of the island and look in a place marked by a familiar symbol. There you will find a third clue, which supersedes one of the originals. Now the second stage is solvable.

So. What is the design problem here? Missing the third clue, right? I saw players talking about ways to make the marker symbol more visible, or making it easier to extract the third clue.

But I would say that the problem is not missing the third clue; it's believing that the first two clues are sufficient! The ambiguity of the upside-down hint, while a fine puzzle element in itself, misleads players into thinking that that's the entire second stage of the puzzle -- figuring out the right interpretation of "upside down". As I noted, there are several possibilities. Each time one fails, you look harder for another. Nothing points you at the idea that you've got the wrong clues in hand.

This is, of course, why game design is hard. You have to imagine the state of not knowing -- and then keep imagining every stage of figuring out. Including the dead ends.

Also, once someone has run out of patience and looked at hints, they're not likely to appreciate your clever design any more. I went and got the third clue (nice puzzle in itself!); but then I didn't have to energy to work it back through the puzzle logic. I just looked at a walkthrough.

(PS: Video walkthroughs are still terrible, but I admit that this game would have required too many diagrams for a text file.) (PPS: Wait, someone made a text walkthrough with diagrams! See this thread. Thanks!)


I don't want to give you the wrong idea. I've spent a page and a half talking about the worst puzzle in Quern, because it makes a good case study. Quern is packed with puzzles that are much better than that. I recommend this game! You should play it. The designers should make another game.

This is a good time for adventure games.

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My Obduction nonreview

Obduction is a really good adventure game. You should play it.


I finished the game a week ago and I've had a heck of a time thinking of anything to say. To be sure, my Myst review was written in 2002 and my Myst 5 review in 2010, so the sensible course is just to wait five or ten years and see where Cyan's gotten to. An Obduction review will make an excellent retrospective.

But I do want you to buy the game. (To help make sure Cyan makes it another five or ten years.) So, yeah, it's a really good game and you should play it.


Some of the Obduction posts I thought about writing, but didn't:

Comparing Obduction to Myst. Everybody else has done that. Summary: it's Myst except larger, and also Cyan has gotten better at story and puzzle design. End of blog post.

Comparing Obduction to Riven. Yeah, Riven is also Myst except larger and with better story and puzzle design. So Obduction is pretty much a new game as good as Riven. End of blog post.

Comparing Obduction to The Witness. Problem is, my whole Witness post was just comparing The Witness to Myst. Summary: The Witness really has no interest in being Myst. It's doing something else. Obduction is doing the same thing as Myst only Cyan has gotten better at it. End of blog post.

Talking about what I liked most. Boring and spoilery. I want you to play the game, not read about it.

Talking about what I liked least. It's not a perfect game. The plot is weirdly off-screen, and the couple of times it's thrust on-screen are the scenes where you're most confused about what you're doing. A couple of the puzzles are underclued, and in one case a puzzle's clues become unavailable (so if you didn't take notes, you're in trouble). But these are not large gripes, and you should still play the game.

Talking about the puzzle difficulty. Worth mentioning. Obduction keeps a tight hold on its puzzle mechanics; there are just a few major ones and most of the puzzles are about understanding them. But the game also exercises restraint about how far to take them. It does not take the Witness tack of "push every mechanic until your brain explodes." The result is a fairly smooth ride (although there are some shaky spots, as I said). There is no "that damn puzzle", which I think we can agree Riven has one of (and Witness has two or two dozen, depending on your mood).

Describing the bugs. Good grief, that's what Steam forums are for. Go wallow if you like.

Talking about the shadow. I admit a desire to go on a tear about the shadow. The Witness gives you, without recourse, a male shadow -- tallish, slender, short hair -- probably Jon Blow -- or if not him, certainly not you. Obduction gives you a choice between two shadows. Is that different? It's not much different.

It would be a great expenditure of effort to import the whole Uru avatar-modelling system with body shape and hairstyles and clothing -- plus height! -- just to model the shadow. Perhaps that's silly. But at this point, offering the choice between a 160-pound male avatar and a 120-pound female one feels like a thoroughly inadequate gesture towards player inclusiveness.

(Yes, it happens that late in Obduction you get an exact readout of your weight. It's not my weight, I'll tell you that.)

And so: This is even less a review than most of my not-really-reviews. I suppose I feel somewhat bruised by today's culture of games discussion, where DID THE DEVELOPER LIE is a more central question than what the game is doing and how well it does it. Also HOW CAN YOU POSSIBLY CHARGE THAT MUCH. And THE BUGS.

I admit the bugs aren't great. (I suffered from the black-page journal bug, and had to hit a wiki to fill in the holes.) But when I look around, I see a bunch of discussion that I want to back right the heck away from. Thus, all these posts I'm not writing.

If you want to know whether Obduction is worth the money, go take a long walk and think about what kind of games you enjoy. If you enjoy environmental puzzle adventure games, play Obduction. And I'll come back and write a review in a few years, when we've all gotten a better idea of how the next generation of adventure games is playing out.

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Mysterium news roundup

The Mysterium fan convention is going on this weekend in Salt Lake City. I'm not there, but the events have been streamed on Twitch so I've been able to follow along.

The Starry Expanse team gave their annual report. This is a fan group that has been reconstructing Riven in a modern 3D engine. In fact they're on their third engine! They starting out with Plasma (Cyan's homebrew engine, which was used for Uru and Myst 5). Then they moved to Unity; now they're on Unreal Engine 4.

As a result, Starry Expanse has regressed somewhat, at least to the eye. In previous years the team had fully-textured playable demos of a couple of areas, built in Unity. Now, with UE4, they have larger areas, but untextured (except for some metallic-surface effects and ripply water). On the plus side: one of the tram rides is animated and ready to go! Watch the video to see it.

The other great Mysterium tradition is the videochat with Rand Miller. Cyan is of course head-down on finishing Obduction, but Rand took time out to chat with the fans.

These chats are generally not full of exciting news. (Because if you have a big announcement, you blast it to journalists, not little fan conventions.) Nonetheless, there were a few tidbits.

Obduction release countdown: The release date is August 24th! Obduction Kickstarter backers should receive email with details soon. The emails have already started going out, but it will take a few days to send them all. (There are 22000-odd backers and the emails are sent one-by-one from Rand's laptop.)

Obduction team size: Rand described the team as four programmers, six or seven artists, a couple of designers, eight QA people, and a few others doing this and that. He noted that people have multiple roles; Rand himself is doing some sound work as well as overseeing things.

He also noted that Obduction development has had a small, fast-moving, startup-like feel, like the original Myst:

This feels more like it's scrappy; there's not a lot of time and money and resources. [...] I know this doesn't seem fast to you, and probably with a Kickstarter a million bucks seems like a lot to you. But every bit of that money -- and then some, we had to get more -- has gone into this game, trying to squeeze every last little drop out of it.

(Cyan reported last year that they'd had development problems due to a publisher bailing on them at the last minute. So we know that they were seeking funding beyond the original Kickstarter. This statement confirms that they got some.)

Possible next projects after Obduction: They don't have one lined up.

It's hard to contemplate, and we know we should. If we were really a good company [...], we would already have had some guys lining up the next thing in parallel, and designing this, [...], so that our guys could roll into it, but we're just too into [Obduction]. Every bit of resources we have is into Obduction.

They're interested in porting Obduction to more platfoms, of course. They have lots of other project ideas on the back burner, but they'll have to see how Obduction does and what it might lead to. Rand noted that he's particularly interested in VR and multi-player experiences.

Republishing Myst 3 and Myst 4: (At least, I'm pretty sure that's what the question was! I couldn't hear the questioner.) They are getting closer but it's slow.

We just recently have talked more with the companies involved in those, and hopefully are making more progress. Again, this is much more interesting to us than it is to the companies who have those rights, who this means little or nothing to. [...] When one of our guys was on vacation in Europe, in France, he made a visit to certain companies to talk to them about doing certain things with this. So yes, as long as we can get the right people involved, at least theoretically we have them going "Yeah, we don't see any problem with that". But with big companies things bog down.

As we recall, Myst 3 was developed by Presto Studios and Myst 4 by Ubisoft; both were published by Ubisoft while Cyan was concentrating on Uru. Both are currently out of print. It's generally assumed that Ubisoft has the publishing rights and just hasn't bothered to re-release them.

Rand's statement doesn't leave us knowing much more than that. But Ubisoft is headquartered in France, so that's presumably one of the companies in question.

The Myst TV show: No news.

The brief excitement around Hulu's announcement last year has long since burned out. (Hulu announced that they were greenlighting a show on script approval, but that was over a year ago. Apparently they didn't approve the script.)

Rand's comments remain optimistic but noncommittal:

We still have exciting things happening [...] with the same company [...] Things start to get movement, and people start to be brought on board and attached to things. I still refuse to get too excited about it because it's been so long, and I really don't know how it works. But it feels to me that, yeah, progress is being made.

It could be one of those things that, [...] all of a sudden, boom! There's exciting things happening and announcements are being made and fun stuff's gonna be coming out [...] as soon as they get the right people attached and things start to move. There's potential for that.

But maybe not; maybe next year he'll be giving the same optimistic-but-noncommittal answer.

I believe that "with the same company" refers to Legendary Television. Cyan has been working with Legendary since 2014 to develop the Myst show concept.

That's all I noted down. Thanks to Rand Miller for the chat, and to the Mysterium crew for putting the con together.

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Mysterium news roundup

The Mysterium fan convention is going on this weekend in Salt Lake City. I'm not there, but the events have been streamed on Twitch so I've been able to follow along.

The Starry Expanse team gave their annual report. This is a fan group that has been reconstructing Riven in a modern 3D engine. In fact they're on their third engine! They starting out with Plasma (Cyan's homebrew engine, which was used for Uru and Myst 5). Then they moved to Unity; now they're on Unreal Engine 4.

As a result, Starry Expanse has regressed somewhat, at least to the eye. In previous years the team had fully-textured playable demos of a couple of areas, built in Unity. Now, with UE4, they have larger areas, but untextured (except for some metallic-surface effects and ripply water). On the plus side: one of the tram rides is animated and ready to go! Watch the video to see it.

The other great Mysterium tradition is the videochat with Rand Miller. Cyan is of course head-down on finishing Obduction, but Rand took time out to chat with the fans.

These chats are generally not full of exciting news. (Because if you have a big announcement, you blast it to journalists, not little fan conventions.) Nonetheless, there were a few tidbits.

Obduction release countdown: The release date is August 24th! Obduction Kickstarter backers should receive email with details soon. The emails have already started going out, but it will take a few days to send them all. (There are 22000-odd backers and the emails are sent one-by-one from Rand's laptop.)

Obduction team size: Rand described the team as four programmers, six or seven artists, a couple of designers, eight QA people, and a few others doing this and that. He noted that people have multiple roles; Rand himself is doing some sound work as well as overseeing things.

He also noted that Obduction development has had a small, fast-moving, startup-like feel, like the original Myst:

This feels more like it's scrappy; there's not a lot of time and money and resources. [...] I know this doesn't seem fast to you, and probably with a Kickstarter a million bucks seems like a lot to you. But every bit of that money -- and then some, we had to get more -- has gone into this game, trying to squeeze every last little drop out of it.

(Cyan reported last year that they'd had development problems due to a publisher bailing on them at the last minute. So we know that they were seeking funding beyond the original Kickstarter. This statement confirms that they got some.)

Possible next projects after Obduction: They don't have one lined up.

It's hard to contemplate, and we know we should. If we were really a good company [...], we would already have had some guys lining up the next thing in parallel, and designing this, [...], so that our guys could roll into it, but we're just too into [Obduction]. Every bit of resources we have is into Obduction.

They're interested in porting Obduction to more platfoms, of course. They have lots of other project ideas on the back burner, but they'll have to see how Obduction does and what it might lead to. Rand noted that he's particularly interested in VR and multi-player experiences.

Republishing Myst 3 and Myst 4: (At least, I'm pretty sure that's what the question was! I couldn't hear the questioner.) They are getting closer but it's slow.

We just recently have talked more with the companies involved in those, and hopefully are making more progress. Again, this is much more interesting to us than it is to the companies who have those rights, who this means little or nothing to. [...] When one of our guys was on vacation in Europe, in France, he made a visit to certain companies to talk to them about doing certain things with this. So yes, as long as we can get the right people involved, at least theoretically we have them going "Yeah, we don't see any problem with that". But with big companies things bog down.

As we recall, Myst 3 was developed by Presto Studios and Myst 4 by Ubisoft; both were published by Ubisoft while Cyan was concentrating on Uru. Both are currently out of print. It's generally assumed that Ubisoft has the publishing rights and just hasn't bothered to re-release them.

Rand's statement doesn't leave us knowing much more than that. But Ubisoft is headquartered in France, so that's presumably one of the companies in question.

The Myst TV show: No news.

The brief excitement around Hulu's announcement last year has long since burned out. (Hulu announced that they were greenlighting a show on script approval, but that was over a year ago. Apparently they didn't approve the script.)

Rand's comments remain optimistic but noncommittal:

We still have exciting things happening [...] with the same company [...] Things start to get movement, and people start to be brought on board and attached to things. I still refuse to get too excited about it because it's been so long, and I really don't know how it works. But it feels to me that, yeah, progress is being made.

It could be one of those things that, [...] all of a sudden, boom! There's exciting things happening and announcements are being made and fun stuff's gonna be coming out [...] as soon as they get the right people attached and things start to move. There's potential for that.

But maybe not; maybe next year he'll be giving the same optimistic-but-noncommittal answer.

I believe that "with the same company" refers to Legendary Television. Cyan has been working with Legendary since 2014 to develop the Myst show concept.

That's all I noted down. Thanks to Rand Miller for the chat, and to the Mysterium crew for putting the con together.

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Point-of-view in The Witness: design ruminations

I played The Witness to an ending, and then I went back and played until I had finished it to my satisfaction. (504 +82. I looked at just two hints, and no thanks, I am not going to beat the Hall of the Mountain King. Two of my friends did; I am happy to bask in their reflected glory.)

The Witness must be the most painfully-analyzed game release of the past few years. Painstakingly-analyzed? Both. I haven't even gone looking for the discussion threads. They're out there, because we all love to talk.

So I doubt I can say much. But (I love to talk) I will take a shot at the aspect I find most interesting, which is the game's presentation of its point of view. Your point of view? Both.

(This post will contain very general spoilers about the kinds of puzzles in The Witness.)


You can't talk about The Witness without mentioning Myst, but The Witness has curiously little to say about Myst. "Curiously" because Braid, the designer's previous game, was an extended and careful riff on Super Mario Brothers. Oh, it was plenty of things beyond that. But the design of Braid reflected SMB in its art, its enemy design, its jumping mechanics, and its frame story of a lost princess. And this was not unreasonable, because SMB has (perhaps retroactively) assumed the mantle of a videogame archetype.

So when I heard that Jon Blow's next game would be puzzles on a mysterious island, I said "Oh, he's doing Myst now." Myst is as much a videogame archetype as Adventure and Tetris. Taking apart Myst's conventions and assumptions won't necessarily make a great game (it might get you no farther than Pyst did) but it could be an excellent launching point.

Well, as everyone informed me the minute The Witness launched, it's not Jon Blow doing Myst. He went off in other directions -- fine. (One could make the argument that it's more of a riff on Portal.) But we can still pick up the thread, because it is a first-person graphical environment, and the conventions of Myst's design loom over all such games.

You are you; the game is your view of the world; you act by manipulating the world directly. These ideas were never perfectly implemented -- the original mouse cursor and 544-pixel-wide window strained to hold the illusion of being your hand and your eye. But the ideal seemed so obvious as to require no argument.

The Witness, with due consideration and no explanation(*) at all, rejects each of these conventions. Not blatantly; you won't even notice at first. But they all fall apart upon inspection. A disagreement so understated and distinct must be deliberate, I think.

(* Until near the end. We'll get there.)


You are you. The first-person view of Myst, like the second-person prose of Adventure, projects the world around a blank space which you invisibly inhabit. Your character has no voice, no body; your hand is abstracted down to a cursor.

Many adventures after Myst (and several before it) tossed this faceless ideal away with great force. Strong characterization serves most stories better than the invisible avatar -- what a later adventure mocked as the AFGNCAAP. And, of course, the blank protagonist isn't all that universal to begin with, not as long as "unmarked" still means "white, male, straight, not too old, not too fat..." (Yes, I've used the faceless protagonist in my own games. But I don't pretend that it counts as representation.)

The Witness lets you inhabit that blank space -- at first. You have a few moments to settle in and imagine yourself walking around. Then you emerge into the sunlight, and... perhaps you still don't notice your shadow. But when you do, the shadow is tall, lanky, short-haired, trousered, male. It's definitely not me. Is it Jon Blow? I certainly can't think of any other candidate, so let's assume that you play The Witness as a mute Jon Blow.

But why? "You" have no voice or background; the game does no work of characterization. But neither does it allow you to fill in your own. You are left a liminal, uncertain presence.


The game is your view of the world. Again, you initially have no reason to doubt this. The game's art style is not hyper-realistic, but we're all accustomed to visually stylized environments by now. Perhaps it's unusually low-poly for a modern game ("ironically low-poly", one friend commented). But then a lot of subtle work went into the texturing.

I figure the style was balanced to allow panoramic views across large swathes of the island. The Witness is generous with those. (Contrast Firewatch, which mostly hems you in with ridges, canyons, trees, and foliage to avoid the rendering cost of the whole world at once.)

Then you discover one of the game's more subtle puzzles, those of visual perspective. Why do two sticks, a rock, and a distant fence form that shape? It represents nothing in the world, but the game wants you to take notice.

Should we take the world as a purely visual contrivance, then, lacking physical reality? The perspective puzzles incline us that way, but then the island does have a physicality to it. Some clue-objects are bent or broken, implying a physical history: this twig snapped off and fell. A cable used to connect over there. That post was straight until someone leaned on it.

Again, we are left uncertain. The world wants us to believe every leaf was laid just so, but also that it is subject to physical decay. Why?


You act by manipulating the world directly. The first interaction most players encounter in the Age of Myst is a knife switch; you grab it with your cursor-hand and pull it down. From there, the game extends the arms'-reach metaphor in subtle but definite ways: you press buttons, pull chains, hold a lit match. (Plus, of course, the initiating moment: laying your palm on a magical book.)

Your first interaction in The Witness is a panel with a line on it. You drag the cursor along the line to activate it. For adventure gamers, the implication is clear: you reached out and swiped your finger along a touch-panel. (If you are my age, you went "Dzzzzzhhht!" like Kermit the Frog drawing a letter.) And you go on for quite a while, finding panels and tracing lines on them with your finger.

Only, maybe not. You might notice that your shadow, the ambiguous Jon-Blow-or-not, never reaches out to touch anything. According to your shadow, you're just standing motionless in front of each panel. A lazy animator, not bothering to construct the arm-motion? But you can see your shadow-feet shift and your shadow-head turn as you look around. This game does not scant the details.

It soon becomes clear that The Witness consists entirely of these path-tracing interactions. There is not a single lever, dial, or key in the game. Furthermore, you don't have to be in arms' reach to trace a path! The game makes it convenient to stand directly in front of each panel, but you can activate any path you can see. It works from any distance, as long the entire path is visible. (The visual-perspective puzzles hammer this point home, if you overlooked it.)

So we must give up the idea of swiping a finger along a surface. Touch has nothing to do with it. You never manipulate the physical world (if there is one!) in any way(*). Indeed, if you look closer, the island is most unwilling to react to your physical presence. You can hear your footsteps, but you leave no footprints, nor even ripple the surface of a puddle you step in. You cannot brush aside a twig or pick up a bit of paper to read.

You are a ghost, or a shadow of a ghost. Do you interact by observation? Perhaps you are simply recognizing the paths, and the panels react to that recognition. Or perhaps you are playing a game, manipulating it with your mouse or controller? Perhaps there is no metaphor at all.

But if you're a ghost, you're a ghost with eyelids and retinas. (Someone had to point this out to me! Hit the pause button; watch the solar afterimages fade.) And we like immersive metaphors, anyhow.

(* In a couple of places, the game seems to implement "pressure plates" -- triggers that activate when you stand on them. This might be a physical interaction, or it might be reacting to your presence (or shadow!) in some other way; it's not made clear. I'll let it slip by.)


So The Witness leaves us off-balance, uncertain in our presumption of how adventure games work.

We might question whether "adventure game" is the right label at all. Is this island just a pretty picture with abstract puzzles pasted on? No, that description is inadequate. The physical laws of the island may not involve you, but they exist -- sunlight, shadow, reflection -- and you must apprehend them to solve the game. You must consider how buildings connect and how they might have decayed. Those are the understandings of an adventure game. And there are, after all, gates and drawbridges and elevators to play with -- even if you do so by the tracing of control-paths on panels.

These ontological musings do not slow you down, regardless. The puzzles are before you and you work your way through.

(They're brilliant puzzles, by the way. This post is not a review, but I didn't want to leave that out.)

...And then you reach the end-game (or the post-game, maybe, or the epilogue). I said up top that The Witness has "no explanation"? Play far enough and you get, mm, not an explanation, but an indirect trickle of clue. You can make some guesses. If you pass through the post-end-game (post-epilogue?), you find a cut scene which exposes a little more information.

I won't spoil it, except to say that the game's motif is perception -- clarity, perspective, focus. That's the title, right? It (kind of) makes sense that you, the witness, are (sort of) seeing out of Jon Blow's eyes, and your presence is sort of perceptual (but not exactly), and the island is sort of physical (but not really).

But a theory isn't a justification. We can still ask why Jon Blow (the real one) wanted to make a game called The Witness, in which you are a ghost with his shadow. Yes, it's all a thematic package, but why that package? You have to bear the uncertainty through most of that game, after all, before the half-explanations ever appear. If that shadow is discomfiting, you spend a lot of time uncomfortable.

It's not an enticing discomfort. It says: something is wrong here, but don't ask why. It invites you to withhold rather than speculate. This is subjective, I know, but I never reached a point of saying "Aha, now it all makes sense in retrospect!" At best it was "Well, I have a theory which could be thematically consistent with it all."

In the end, I must chalk it up to an aesthetic disagreement. Jon Blow wanted his adventure game to be distancing and not-quite-immersive. He chose a theme and style (and title) which suited that effect. It worked. It's not what I would have done, and that's all I can say about it.

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Mysterium news roundup, 2015

Been a while since I cranked this machinery, hasn't it?

Mysterium was in Boston this year. It was fun! There isn't a whole lot of news out of Myst fandom, but I can point at a few things.

Obduction development continues. Cyan had a special preview trailer for fans attending the convention. Looked great, albeit very still-in-production. Yes, they want to release a trailer for everybody to watch, once they've got things more polished. ("Later this summer".) The game itself is running "a little late" and doesn't have a ship date yet.

There is no news on the Myst TV show front. (We recall that back in May, Hulu expressed interest pending script approval. Nothing has been announced since.) Rand Miller offered a lot of optimism but no details.

(For a liveblog of the Q&A session with Rand and the Cyan staff, see this Tumblr post.)

Starry Expanse development also continues. (This is the fan-made Riven-in-3D project.) You can watch the team's presentation and demo of Age 233 (Gehn's office). Or look at screenshots.

The convention built a "room escape" game in one of the hotel rooms! This was a fantastic construction, with journals and audio recordings and motion detectors and Arduino-controlled consoles. Cyan even contributed some audio of Atrus (Rand Miller) speaking. And... the game didn't really work. This is a darn shame. There were hardware bugs, software bugs, puzzle solvability issues. Several teams attempted the game; none solved it.

For a detailed post-mortem, see this Tumblr post. (With video tour!)

Disclosure: I was invited to help out with the puzzle design. Further disclosure: I got too busy and flaked out. Sorry! I contributed some ideas to the original brainstorming session, and I commented a bit during the design process, but that's all. Major props to Tonbury for the puzzle design, Taniith for heroic construction work, and Riv for a light-up linking book (the way out, which nobody reached). I wish we had had four more weeks for playtesting and polish.

And finally... well, not finally but pretty late on Saturday... I was on a panel about narrative games. I was joined by Ichiro Lambe (Dejobaan Games) and Dean O'Donnell (professor at WPI). This was a hoot, although somewhat unstructured; we bounced around topics and generally attempted to sound smart. Do we have video? Er... not yet. (Everything went out over Twitch but it hasn't all been wrapped up for Youtube yet.) I will update this post when that's available.

That is the news. (Or lack thereof.) Next year, hopefully, much more concrete information on Obduction and the TV show.

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Myst TV series acquired by Hulu

We noted last fall that Cyan had started developing a Myst TV series with Legendary Television. Yesterday this jumped forwards a notch:

The show is not yet greenlit. The deal seems to be that Hulu looks over the script, and if they like it, they'll start production on a season of TV (not just a pilot episode). The script is by Evan Daugherty, who is best known for the screenplays of Divergent and Snow White and the Huntsman.

(I've said snarky things about SWatH, but it was memorable and visually striking, at least...)

The producer will be Matt Tolmach; executive producers will include Larry Shapiro as well as Cyan's Rand Miller and Blake Lewin.

We still don't know anything about the script itself. The Deadline article says "It will explore the origins of the island of Myst from the game where a man wakes up on a mystery island..." But it's not clear if that represents any sourced information or if the journalist is just googling.

As a footnote: don't read the comments. I was half-amused, half-disgusted to find that there's a television equivalent of the "what about Android?" guy. It's the "what about Netflix?" guy. Since these articles are about games and TV, both species show up.

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Myst TV series suddenly appears on the horizon

Wow. I didn't see this coming, although in retrospect there were a couple of clues we might have picked up on.

Historically-minded fans will recall an abortive attempt at a Myst miniseries on the Sci-Fi Channel, back in 2002. The project wiped out due to creative differences between the producers and Cyan. (Fannish shorthand for the event is "The studio wanted to show Atrus and Catherine having sex on the beach." I don't know how accurate that is, but the Sci-Fi Channel did not have a great reputation for its mini-series and TV-movie events, even before the advent of the Sharknado/Mansquito era.)

And then there was the Myst movie drama.

So now there's this new thing. What do we know about it? Not a release date, sadly; it's too early in the process for that.

Legendary Pictures has a long slate of fan-favorite movies, including Pacific Rim, The Dark Knight Rises, and Inception. But this deal is apparently with "Legendary Television & Digital Media", a division of which I know less. It seems to mostly be a wrapper around recently-acquired Asylum Entertainment, which is known for... a bunch of things I don't know. (The Kennedys, etc.)

The Variety article also says:

The Millers see the Legendary deal as a way to not only create a compelling TV drama but to develop a true transmedia franchise that includes a companion video game and other platforms, particularly tablets, to expand plot points.

Could be good, could be bad, depending on how much attention it gets from Cyan. Hopefully the deal comes with enough money for Cyan to develop first-class new Myst content while still keeping Obduction on track.

Oh, and when I said "clues"? Robyn Miller had referred a few weeks ago to a possible TV show:

A friend and I wrote a very cool treatment for a #myst TV show. Alas, it's not to be. (tweet Sept 24)

We don't know whether any of that relates to the current announcement. It might have been a version that didn't get carried through, or it might have been completely unrelated. Or somebody just changed their mind.

Miller also recently tweeted about a couple of treasures coming up from storage:

Just found ALL the original hand drawn Riven maps! Thank you storage unit. I'll post them soon. (tweet Oct 5)

Wow! Just unrolled them and they're in perfect condition. Haven't seen these maps in at least a decade! (tweet Oct 5; photo)

Could be research materials being dug up! Or he just likes rooting around in old storage units full of treasure. Like the rest of us.

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Mysterium news roundup

I didn't go to Mysterium this year. I wanted to; it was held in Spokane, so the attendees got to visit Cyan's offices and chat with Rand and Robyn Miller and basically geek out all over the place. It didn't fit in with my summer plans, though. Fortunately the fans took copious notes. Here's the current Myst news:

Obduction development continues. Unreal 4 engine.

Cyan has posted a gigantic folder of Myst Online concept art (dropbox link). This is early material -- I'm guessing 2000 to 2002. A little bit of this wound up in Myst Online, and a bit more has leaked out online, but most of it is new to me.

A group of fans have gotten permission to work on Myst Online content -- updating areas from Myst 5, building areas from the concept art above, and importing original fan Ages. These may wind up in the official Myst Online server, although the final decision is up to Cyan, obviously. They say they're aiming to have something playable by the end of this year. I hope that works out. (More discussion in character.)

The Starry Expanse project (a fan remake of Riven) has made excellent progress building Riven's Jungle Island. Here's a video tour (youtube) of what they've done. You'll see that some textures are missing, and the water effects need work, but what they've got is fantastic.

Unwritten, the Myst-setting RPG, has been somewhat delayed but is making progress. They've shipped their Kickstarter tchotchkes; I have a nice D'ni-style notebook and some wooden tokens. (This is a Fate-based RPG, so there are Fate tokens.) The game manuscript itself has gone through a couple of rewrites, with input from Leonard Balsera. Last I heard they were aiming at shipping this month, but I get the impression it'll be another couple more.

There was a pancake printer. I don't know either.

Further notes from the convention:

Mysterium is back in Boston next year, and I hope to be there.

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RealMyst Masterpiece Edition

The updated RealMyst is now up on Steam (for Mac/Win). It also appeared on the Mac App Store briefly yesterday, but Cyan pulled it back out citing "a small issue". (It's not clear what the issue is, or if the Steam release has the fix already.)

(Screenshots from an iMac, 2.7GHz, lots-o-RAM, AMD Radeon HD 6770M 512 MB. I don't know a damn thing about video cards but maybe that means something to you.)

As you can see, this "Masterpiece Edition" is very shiny. I don't have the original (2000-ish) RealMyst around to take comparison screenshots, but you can internets it.

(To settle one issue for good -- this app still uses the Unity3D engine. Cyan's upcoming game Obduction is planned to be Unreal Engine 4, so there was some speculation that RealMyst would be ported to Unreal, but nope.)

(Apropos of this -- Starry Expanse, the ongoing fan remake of Riven, just announced that it would be switching to Unreal.)

Anyhow. The new RealMyst has nicer textures, a bit more model detail, and some lighting effects such as bloom and dynamic shadows. Most blatantly, it has a lot more sun/moon/clouds environmental shifting. All the Ages (I think) have a day-night shift, which cycles in real time as you play. Sunset on Myst Island was terrific.

Oh, and you have a flashlight. Hit F to switch it on and off. I don't know whether they added the flashlight because the night-phase is so dark, or if they deliberately dropped the ambient lighting to make the flashlight more fun. It works pretty well, anyhow.

(No, I haven't yet checked to see how the flashlight interacts with Stoneship's illuminate-the-dark-tunnel puzzle. I kind of hope your flashlight just flickers and dies in that Age.)

Performance was pretty good for me at the default settings. (The interior of the Mechanical fortress gets a bit draggy, as others on Cyan's forum have noted.)

I'm somewhat less happy with the interface. It's WASD keyboard control, with mouse-look active if you hold down the right button or if you're walking. (It took me a good long time to figure out that you don't have to hold down the right button while you walk.) When you're standing still, the mouse moves the cursor around instead. (As well as the flashlight beam.) Click and drag on things in the usual Myst style.

Maybe I'm over-familiar with the Uru control setup, but this feels really awkward. Something about the mode-switch -- right button versus walking -- is hard to get used to. I flail trying to look around, and then I navigate tight corridors like a long barge rowed by short mammoths. I dunno. I didn't have this problem with the iPad version.

If it's really unbearable, you can switch back to original-Myst-style node-and-hotspot navigation. But is there anybody left in the universe who wants node-and-hotspot navigation, except as a workaround for clumsy 3D UI?

(Mind you, I'm a terrible judge of what's popular. From the mainstream point of view, I'm a hardcore gamer. Scary, right? So maybe I should shut up about what everybody wants.)

Anyhow. This post is just an excuse to post the shiny screenshots, and I've done that, so you're on your own now. Eighteen US bucks.

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The first Seltani Age jam!

Seltani has more or less graduated to beta status. (Fanfare, applause...) Note that I've dropped the "dev"; you can now reach the server at its permanent home, http://seltani.net/.

To celebrate this, I am declaring an Age Jam! Stop by, build an Age, show it off. It doesn't have to be a prize-winner. In fact there will be no prizes. This is an opportunity to try the tools and get some feedback.

I'm not going to get formal about the rules, but I do want to have some fun with it. Therefore, a schedule!

  • Sunday, Nov 10, 1 pm Eastern time: Opening ceremony in the Seltani district plaza. I announce the theme: "Remaining Light".

(The plaza is in the Seltani district. Sign in, link into the Cavern, follow the path along the shoreline and then head right at the fork. Can't miss it.)

(The theme is just for inspiration. Interpret it however you want.)

  • Nov 10-23: Work on your Age! (Or Ages; multiple entries is cool.) When it's ready, add it to the bookshelf in the Seltani plaza. Or if you want to go for the dramatic reveal, wait and add it on...

  • Sunday, Nov 24, 1 pm Eastern time: Wrap-up. Meet back in the plaza, start visiting Ages. We can have group tours over the course of the afternoon, and then hang out and discuss what we've seen.

(I know that the meeting time is not ideal for everybody in every time zone. I have schedule restrictions too, so I just picked a time. If you can't be at either ceremony or both, I apologize -- follow along on the blog or the forums.)

I will be around these on-line areas (including Seltani itself) to answer questions during the two-week period. Hope to see you there.


Update: the entries! We have three. More may be offered; at least one Writer said he was working on something but not finished.

  • Vashmursë (by Pavitra) -- a nifty timed-exploration idea.
  • Télos (by Sandor) -- exploration.
  • Xical (by me) -- a small puzzle.

These links will add a page directly to your linking booklet, if you are signed into Seltani. If not, you'll have to sign in first.

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RealMyst update news

Twenty years ago yesterday, Myst showed up on store shelves for the first time. Not a bad start to an era.

Myst-related news has been thin recently, but Cyan took the anniversary opportunity to announce that they're working on a new update of the classic game: RealMyst Masterpiece Edition. Their news post includes three preview screenshots.

Myst has been ported and reimplemented a bunch of times. If you've lost track, here's a very incomplete history:

  • 1993: Original game ("slideshow-style"), on CD-ROM
  • 2000: Myst Masterpiece Edition (same style, but higher-res renderings)
  • 2000: RealMyst (3D environment, free movement, added "epilogue" Rime Age)
  • 2009: Myst for iOS
  • 2012: RealMyst for iOS (using the Unity engine)

This new version presumably also uses Unity, building on the work they did last year. However, it will target desktop machines (Mac/Win) and look much nicer. As is Cyan's recent habit, they will offer an option of free movement or fixed-node navigation. (See additional notes in a Facebook post.)

I confess that I can only get so excited about yet another Myst re-release. Better news: Cyan has continued to drop hints about an upcoming Kickstarter project -- unrelated to the Myst series, and possibly appearing in the next few weeks. (No primary source here, but see this forum thread.)

Finally, I'll note that the Starry Expanse people gave a nice demo at Mysterium in August. This is the fan "RealRiven" project that's been in progress for several years now. They released a tech demo last year, showing one of Riven's islands. They now say they have all of the islands in progress, although at early stages yet. A long video of their talk is up on youtube; jump to 08:30 to see some juice.

And finally... did I already do "finally"? This'll be "one more Myst-related thing", then. My Seltani project continues to move along. I've added three small Ages in the past month: Caelios, Fleuven, and the Endless Cave.

All three rely on the same sort of procedural text-generation that I've been using in IF for years. (In fact, the Endless Cave is a direct port of the "maze" area from Hunter in Darkness.) If you're curious how these tricks are accomplished, look at the Ways of Printing documentation page on the Seltani wiki, and then the Endless Cave source code.

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Seltani: an introduction

Last month I mentioned Seltani, my multiplayer hypertext Myst fan project.

Here's a detailed introduction to Seltani, with lots of screenshots.

(This is a version of a talk I gave a few weeks ago at Mysterium, the Myst fan convention. The original talk is available on youtube.)

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Riven news post

The Mystery Hunt is over, after a record-breaking 73 hours. I was pretty much out of solving juice by Saturday afternoon. Sunday night, I tried to help out with an invisible-ink puzzle, and wound up setting the puzzle on fire.

Okay, not on fire as such. It was lightly browned, but the invisible ink wasn't any browner. So much for that. Anyhow, that was my Hunt weekend. Congratulations to the winners, Team [text not available due to copyright restrictions]! Let's talk about something else. Myst news!

First: release of a new Riven for iPad app. You could already play the iPhone Riven port, but this has higher-quality graphics. (Also, as you might guess, a larger download size and another couple of dollars on the price tag.) I took screenshots, in case you feel like comparing:

(Original Riven for iOS on the left, displayed 2x to fill the iPad screen. New Riven for iPad on the right.)

If you want a more modern Riven experience, check out the new tech demo of Starry Expanse. (Mac/Win builds available.) Starry Expanse is a fan-built reimplementation of Riven using Unity. It's still very much in process -- this demo covers just a small segment of one island -- but it gives you the sense of what a true 3D RealRiven could be like. It's got a day-night cycle (highly accelerated for effect), cloud and water effects, and a circling bird. You can ride the elevator up, and even open the spinning dome (vs lbh trg gur gvzvat evtug; pyvpx gur ivrjre ohggba jura gur tbyq flzoby fcvaf cnfg).

Finally, Cyan has posted their Making of Riven video (Facebook video link, GameTrailers video link). This was included on the fancy-extra DVD release of Riven -- I don't think I ever saw it. (Still haven't, actually, as I write this.)

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Myst movie drama

The Myst movie project has been silent for several months. We just got an update, which describes a bunch of turmoil and sadness within the project team:

In our initial informal meetings with every major studio in town and their top brass, it became clear that the BoT [Book of Ti'ana] was going to be VERY hard if not impossible to sell as a starting point for the movie franchise. There is a litany of reasons for this, which have been discussed in detail in previous msytmovie.com posts so I won't bore you with them.

As the necessity for a new creative direction became clear, it was harder for some to accept then others. Of course Adrian and Patrick spent years developing and working towards a very specific vision for the BoT, including writing a full length spec script based on the book. As the changes were discussed among our LA partners, Cyan, and MFG, it became clear that Adrian and Patrick's plan to move forward was not aligning with everyone else. I don't think this is the time or place to get into the details, but Cyan ultimately came to the decision that the best thing for the property was to have Adrian step down as MFG's lead producer, and have me step into those shoes. (If you remember Patrick stepped down as producer for personal reasons a couple years ago.) This was of course, very difficult for everyone involved, but most of all for Adrian. I want to make it clear here that Cyan made a very difficult but well-informed decision, based on what was best for the property. Everyone involved sans Adrian and Patrick were in full agreement with their decision.

(-- Isaac Testerman, July 20, forum post) (cached on my web site)

To be clear, this isn't a case of Cyan hiring their own people and throwing out the original producers the next day. Adrian Vanderbosch and Patrick McIntire started this ball rolling; they pitched it to Cyan; Cyan gave them the movie rights. Over the course of the next few years, they worked with various people, including Isaac Testerman. I don't know the exact organization, but from the outside, it was a team. (Collaborating closely with Rand Miller and the Cyan people.)

It appears that the team ran into a classic case of Irreconcilable Creative Differences. The simplistic explanation seems to be "Do we adapt the Book of Ti'ana into a movie, or do something else?" but I'm sure there was a lot more detail than that. At any rate, it was ultimately Cyan's decision, and Cyan made it:

After a couple months both parties were not able to reach agreeable terms and as Cyan's option (the legal document that allows you to control the rights) with MFG was expiring, they chose not to renew it with them. Delve Films then entered into negotiations with Cyan and purchased the option, obtaining the audio/visual rights to the Myst property going forward.

(-- same post)

("MFG", Mysteria Film Group, is the group that Patrick and Adrian started. Delve Films is Isaac's baby. So this translates to "Patrick and Adrian got cut out", if you want to put it crudely; but more in the sense of "that company has become paralyzed, so we'll drop it and start over with as many of the same people as we can.")

The old project web site at mystmovie.com remains un-updated and may be moribund at this point. Followers and fans are blogging at mystmoviefans.wordpress.com.

So, at this point, we have some sort of Myst movie project, but not the one we thought we had. I have no more details than anybody else, so I won't try to predict what will happen next. The post alludes teasingly to "[bringing] in millions of new fans through multiple audio/visual and interactive platforms". Could be anything, then.


Update, July 24th:

Adrian Vanderbosch has updated the mystmovie.com blog with his side of the story.

It is, I think it is fair to say, an angry denial and denunciation of Isaac Testerman's story:

To put it bluntly, my departure from the "Myst" movie project was due to nothing short of a coup, orchestrated and executed by Isaac, with the support of the company heads of Cyan Worlds.

(-- Adrian Vanderbosch, July 23, blog post) (cached on my web site)

I will not try to summarize the post, nor would there be any point in me taking sides. It was already clear that the breakup of this effort was acrimonious. Isaac's post was short, politic, and general; Adrian's is long, emotional, and specific -- so there's no point-by-point disagreement. It's all a question of who did what in good or bad faith.

I will note the timeline, though: the "coup" (Adrian's term) or "[decision] to have Adrian step down" (Isaac's) occurred more than a year ago, in April 2011. Everything since then has been (failed) legal negotiation and people waiting for the clock to run out on MFG's film option.

My original comments stand: this is a bunch of turmoil and sadness. And whatever film project is in progress, it doesn't bear any resemblance to one we started hearing about several years ago. ("...we've had to go back to the drawing board", in Isaac's words.) We just don't have any meaningful details.


Update, July 25th: As was fairly predictable, the posts and threads I have linked to have been pulled down. I believe it is better to have a historic record, so I have cached these documents on my web site.

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RealMyst for iPad

As promised, Cyan's port of RealMyst for iPad has just hit the iOS App Store.

It requires an iPad 2 or the new (third-gen) iPad. Cyan's original promos also promised support for the newest iPhone, but apparently they couldn't make that work, because it ain't there. The planned price is ten bucks, but they're doing a launch sale at seven. So snag it now, if you're into buying Myst a lot. (We recall that the original flat-image Myst appeared for iPhone/iPad in 2009.)

It's very pretty -- of course; albeit with the slightly simplified RealMyst world. (The original Myst allowed arbitrarily detailed images, but a 3D engine has to count polygons.) This is probably at the limit of what the newest iPad can handle. Load times between Ages are pretty awful, and even moving between rooms induces a second or two of delay to load new textures. However, that aside, walking and looking around are quite smooth. The skies and ripple-animated water look fantastic. The only missing graphical element (so I am told) is the day-night lighting cycle in some of the Ages.

(And, may I say, the new iPad has a fantastic display. Go ahead, click through to the full-sized screenshot. 2048x1536, baby, and you can just spin around like an acrobat.)

The interface is good; I wouldn't say it's perfect. The basic model is "touch to walk, drag to turn, tap to interact." The gestures are blurry, however. If you try to walk (touch-and-hold) but your finger slips a little, it gets recognized as a drag, and you just turn very slightly while standing still. This is extra-confusing because you're used to being able to turn and walk at the same time. (That option is labelled "advanced" but it's the default.) So you feel like you should be in that mode, but your feet are stuck, because of a tiny difference at the beginning of the gesture.

(Reasonable fix? Maybe if you're dragging-to-turn, and you leave your finger in the center of the screen for a few moments, it should switch to walk-and-turn mode. Or just make the initial drag detection less sensitive.)

The game also supports running (double-tap and hold) and walking backwards (two-finger hold). Wisely, it introduces these one at a time, rather than throwing you a big control list at startup. That's all good. I also noticed some nice guidance for walking down twisty hallways; the engine tries to keep you from getting stuck in corners.

Things get blurry again when it comes to interactive elements. Myst has always been ad-hoc about interaction -- you tap buttons and doors, but drag switches. This extends up to being a puzzle element, with discoverable variations like tap-and-hold or tap-and-wait being clued by the environment's behavior.

The distinction between tap and drag was always cued by the mouse-cursor, however. That worked in the desktop world. It didn't work so well in iOS, as I said of the original Myst iOS port, and it's even worse now. In a 3D animated world, you really want to drag doors open and closed, drag wheels around. (Amnesia: Dark Descent got this very right.) RealMyst mostly doesn't allow that, and the few draggable levers just set up a false expectation.

Really, this port should have gone farther. Myst has several combination locks that offer a row of digits, and a button below each digit to cycle it. This is a familiar model (and popular in room escape land) -- but it's a legacy of mouse-game design. In a touch world, you should drop the buttons entirely, and just let the player drag the digit-wheels up and down. As I said in a post a while back, you cue interactivity by having the wheel jiggle when tapped.

If it were up to me, I'd revamp the whole interface to distinguish moving (two-finger tap) from looking and doing (single-finger tap or drag). That still leaves a possible confusion between drag-to-turn and drag-to-move-things, but I think that would be supportable. (As long as single-tap always jiggles an interactable object.)

But I'd better drag this post out of the sucking mire of interface design natteration. Should you buy RealMyst? Again?

You've probably already decided. It's not like we haven't all faced the question before. I think of these occasional app purchases as an irregular donation to Cyan, which is fine -- I've gotten my few dollars of value just wandering the island this afternoon and reminiscing.

But I will add this note, from an online chat with Rand Miller. The topic is Kickstarter:

[...] We've gotten so much feedback from fans and friends encouraging us to do it... We've really go only two issues... First - what product to propose (it's between two - one Myst related and one completely new)... Second - we need to get enough money from realMyst to fund a good Kickstarter proposal... with some great artwork and a convincing video.

(-- Rand Miller, chat in Uru Live, May 19th)

You may ask, what, they need to raise money in order to raise money? Depends what they're going for. Jmac and I did my Kickstarter video on a shoestring -- but there was equipment involved, which Jmac conveniently had. And at the other extreme, you figure that Neal Stephenson probably spent a fair pile making that Clang video. Cyan will be aiming at the high end, if they're sensible -- so yeah, it takes money to raise money.

And no, I don't really care what kind of game they're fundraising for, as long as it's a new work. The Myst universe is comfortable. They can go back to it if they want. That risks seeming anticlimactic if they try for yet another dramatic climax for Atrus's family -- Uru and Myst 5 pretty well drained that reservoir. But there are plenty of historical corners left to explore. Contrariwise, if they try a brand-new setting, that would be cool too.

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A couple of Myst links

Heather Larkin has started adapting The Book of Atrus as a web comic. (This is the first of the three Myst novels, written by David Wingrove from Robin and Rand Miller's storylines.)

The comic starts with Atrus as a child, living in the desert with his grandmother. It's kind of adorable. I wasn't a huge fan of The Book of Atrus as a novel, but this presentation is simpler, more direct, and touching. (Only three chapters are posted, covering roughly the first two chapters of the book; we'll see if it stays on track.)

(Also: Russian translation!)


Cyan has already released Myst and Riven as iOS apps, but now they're working on porting RealMyst to iPad. (Currently labelled as iPad 2 and 3 only.)

Yes, it's yet another release of the same damn game, but it will include the Rime Age. Rime was added for the original RealMyst release and is not available in the current iOS Myst (nor other ports of the 2D Myst engine).

Also, the technology is more up-to-date. As I understand it, this uses the Unity engine. The 3D navigation looks pretty smooth -- it avoids the trauma of the virtual d-pad, at least. (Don't ask.) Unity is well-supported these days, so it would be an easy port to other platforms, or as a starting point for a new original game.

Well, we can hope.

A couple of preview videos: Myst Island and Channelwood. The release date is given as "Spring 2012", which at this point means "when it's done", I suppose.

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Myst for the classroom?

With little fanfare, this press release appeared yesterday:

idoodlesoftware inc., an education software company offering innovative solutions to bridge the gap between traditional and digital learning, announced that it has signed an exclusive, global licensing agreement with Cyan Worlds, Inc. to bring the award winning MYST franchise, and other titles, to the classroom.

[...]

"Since the founding of Cyan Worlds over 24 years ago, we have always believed that the use of digital games in the classroom was a way to connect to students who are digital natives", said Rand Miller, Chief Executive Officer of Cyan Worlds Inc. "We are excited to see our portfolio being utilized in an innovative and rewarding way and believe that the products that are under development by idoodlesoftware will revolutionize the way students learn."

idoodlesoftware is currently developing several new products based on the Cyan portfolio, which will be released in the near future.

(-- idoodlesoftware press release, July 12, 2011)

There's no detail on the company's web site -- just a splash image saying "My MYST for the classroom".

Hard to say what this will look like, but it's probably good news for Cyan.

(Thanks to Eleri for the pointer.)

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Myst Online source release

More than two years ago, Cyan announced that they would be releasing the server and client source code for Myst Online: Uru Live.

It hasn't happened quickly. Any release takes time and effort, I know very well, and Cyan has been focussing on the projects it needed to survive.

But today the announcement came through:

Today we are announcing that the sources for the MOULA client engine and development tools (CyanWorlds.com Engine) will be made available as open source. At the same time, MOSS which is a MOULA server replacement (written by a'moaca' and cjkelly) will also be released. Both open source projects will be hosted on OpenUru.org.

The goal of the open source CyanWorlds.com Engine and the MOSS server is to provide a "playground" where new writers can learn their craft, and new maintainers can inspect it, and new cartographers can map it. The Cyan Worlds MOULA servers will continue to provide a (relatively) safe environment for the D'ni faithful to mingle and share.

(-- from a letter from Rand Miller, posted April 6 on the Myst web forums)

As you see, this is a joint effort: Cyan's client code, Cyan's modelling tools (3DSMax plugins), and a compatible server implemented (from scratch) by members of the fan community. All are available now, although you currently have to register for the download. I expect mirror repositories will pop up by tomorrow. (The server is GPL3; I haven't seen a citation on Cyan's license yet.)

If you can't tell by my hasty typing, I'm utterly jazzed about this. I wish I could spend a month or six learning the modelling I'd need to start firing up my own pieces of the Myst multiverse. But I have my own projects spread out before me, as you know.

Nonetheless, I am about to jump into the game -- which I now have to specify as Cyan's game, which will remain as the core of the Ages of Myst. I'll be in the pub, toasting with the gang.

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