If you haven’t yet watched my Subnautica Playthrough, here’s a short clip of one of the more… exhilarating moments. Watch through the whole thing – it just keeps happening 🙁
Myst 4 was a game that I ended up liking a lot, despite all its efforts to the contrary. Out of all the entries in the series it has had the most technical issues when running on current-gen systems, and some odd UI choices didn’t exactly create the best first impression. I was even set up to expect it to be somewhat lackluster given the trajectory I saw from Riven to Myst III, the fact that this was now the 3rd development company to be in charge of its production, and the fairly mediocre review scores online. Despite all that, I found myself enjoying it a great deal, to the point that its strengths far outweighed its flaws.
While compatibility issues with new hardware and software aren’t exactly flaws in the game, I think they are worth mentioning as they can still hamper the player’s enjoyment of it. The most serious was that my mouse cursor would occasionally jump around the screen while trying to move it. It was possible to alleviate this a bit through changing my mouse’s settings, I couldn’t eliminate it entirely, which did cause some frustration during puzzles that required specific timed movement, or required moving my mouse slowly and steadily.
This game was also in no hurry to do, well, anything. For a game that is based around doing a limited number of actions a large number of times, it included a lot of design choices that made those repetitive actions take longer than necessary. Take for example the cursor – it now has “active” states that indicate when the player has moused over an object that can be interacted with. I really like this idea, however, the cursor “hand” would perform a short animation into and out of these states during which actions couldn’t be taken. Similarly it was very handy having an in-game way to capture images to reference later, but a several-second animation would play each time either the camera or photo viewer was opened, somewhat reducing their utility. The time to load each screen while travelling through the game was also somewhat shocking to me – approximately 1-2 seconds for each screen transition. This was mitigated by the “zip” system that allowed for fast-travel between certain points within an age. But there were some areas that would disable zipping out, often gated by lengthy un-skippable cutscenes or other mandatory interactions. As I played I did become accustomed to most of these things (or was at least able to overlook them), but I don’t think it’s an exaggeration to say that a solid 10-20% of my total playtime was taken up simply through waiting.
One positive UI change was the addition of proper mechanical interaction with objects in the world – e.g. “clicking and dragging” to move and manipulate objects, rather than simply clicking once to change its state. I talk about this a lot in my post about The Room series, and while it was not done quite as skillfully here was it was in The Room, it still created a much stronger sense of connection with the world. There were a few sections where clumsy implementation made these interactions either difficult to discern or somewhat frustrating to execute, but overall the effect was a big net positive.
In terms of playstyle and puzzle design I would say this entry resembles Riven in a lot of ways, but with a decent amount of influence from Myst, and I consider the combination resulted in a very satisfying and playable game. Like Riven it includes a lot of diagetic puzzles and clues that require keen observation and synthesis to reach correct solutions, but it also has a somewhat more focused progression and throws the player a bone more often in terms of providing clear interactable puzzles that need to be solved. One strong example is a contraption that produces a few different tones when operated but otherwise provides no feedback, overlooking an area where some creatures are blocking the player’s view of an important object. In another area is a journal which broadly discusses the local wildlife, particularly noting a “danger” call made by the creatures near the contraption. In yet another area, it’s possible to startle one of the creatures causing it to make a noise and run off. That noise can then be replicated on the contraption, causing the creatures to leave, allowing the player to view the object properly. All of these details could be observed independently as believable or natural parts of the world, but together they can yield a very specific and useful piece of information. This sort of synthesis has become far and away my favourite way to solve puzzles, and to my delight Myst IV uses this pattern (or similar) a number of times.
I would consider Myst IV’s contribution to the overall series canon to be the strongest overall. On top of being a direct continuation of the story from Myst III, it explores what happened to Achenar and Sirrus after the events of Myst, and also provides some connective tissue between the main series and Uru (which becomes even more relevant in Myst V). The story felt very organic in its delivery and pacing; rather than only triggering character-driven scenes at regularly-spaced intervals in progression, it felt like they put a lot of attention into placing these scenes where they’d be most relevant and interesting. And despite the bulk of the game playing out in two “parallel” ages with similar driving factors, the actual story progression we get within those ages does not feel parallel or repetitive at all. The one place things fell a bit flat for me was at the “ambiguous story choice,” which was kinda predictable (and wasn’t all that ambiguous), and didn’t include the “hidden, better option” that has become a staple of the series. There’s simply a point where the player has to make a choice – one leads to a game over, the other leads to the rest of the game.
I’d recommend this game pretty strongly to folks who are a fan of the series and/or genre, as long as they don’t mind taking things a bit slower, and possibly troubleshooting some technical stuff before playing.
And my favourite part: notes!
Uru exists in that weird space where, even if you loved the game, you’d have a hard time recommending it to others. The controls are wonky, many of the puzzles are inscrutable and frustrating, the engine is unpolished and mildly buggy, and at times the game’s interface actively works against you. But with the proper context and motivation to understand why this game is the way that it is, it becomes a fascinating and compelling artifact to examine. And despite its flaws, I never really found myself wanting to stop playing it (with one notable exception I’ll get into below.)
First up, context: Uru is a spin-off from the primary Myst Franchise, developed by Cyan Worlds, now spearheaded primarily by Rand Miller after his brother Robyn left to pursue other interests. It exists in and expands upon the lore of the main franchise games, but focuses on different characters and places. The original idea was to produce a massively-multiplayer puzzle game with a persistent world that would feature ongoing releases of collectible ages to explore. Uru: Ages Beyond Myst was initially released as a single-player game while the online version – Uru Live – was being beta tested. Uru Live was eventually scrapped due to the lack of interest necessary to sustain a subscription-based service, and the content that had been in progress for release on the online version was repurposed into expansion packs for the single-player version (Uru: To D’ni, and Uru: Path of the Shell). The online version was eventually re-launched and then re-re-launched as “Myst Online: Uru Live (again)”, which is now available for free.
Knowing that Uru was initially developed to work in a multiplayer setting adds a lot of sense to some ostensibly bizarre design choices. From the odd attention to character creation and collectable outfits, to the large empty areas with little apparent use, to the bookshelf which displays your collected ages that only uses about half of its available spots, to the many obscure and circuitous puzzle solutions. As a single-player experience these decisions are odd and distracting at best, and frustrating or off-putting at worst. But if you imagine yourself seeing other players in these spaces, collaborating and brainstorming on puzzles, sharing and comparing your exploration and achievements, you can see how much potential the game had, and just how big Miller’s plans were.
If we take a step back and look at the game as it is, though, it has some pretty significant issues – particularly when it comes to the UX and puzzle design. Firstly, the intended 3rd-person view/controls are just… bad. I used it for about 30 minutes at the very start of the game as I wanted to get the “full experience,” but quickly abandoned that to use the first-person view. This was also somewhat quirky to control, but worked well enough once I got used to it. Second, the game has a lot of issues with puzzle feedback and discoverability. I chalk much of this up to technical limitations within the game engine. The whole world was rendered in real-time 3D, so there was only so much fine detail and interactivity they could get back in the late 90’s/early 2000’s. But the most common reason I got stuck in the game was either because I didn’t realize that I could interact with something important, or a puzzle/contraption didn’t give any meaningful feedback about what it was doing; things that could have certainly been mitigated. Most frustrating were the puzzles that didn’t even indicate how to interact with them, such as one that required walking through a room in a certain way – not only was this the first time this mechanic was introduced in the game, the correct solution is intentionally misleading, and the only time the puzzle gives any feedback is when you complete it successfully and a path opens up. I think it’s likely that if I didn’t have any hints available, I simply wouldn’t have completed the game.
“Completed” is maybe not the right word because I didn’t finish it entirely, though I did more-or-less get to the very end. However, one of the ages in the final expansion became bugged right as I was about to get the final piece of the solution to the final puzzle, which soft-locked my progress and required me to reset the entire age if I wanted to resume progress. In most cases I would do so and do some quick catch-up to finish things off. However, the age in question contained two of the three instances in the game having a puzzle solution require waiting for 15 full real-time minutes (which is, in itself, a baffling choice). And given how those puzzles worked (and sometimes didn’t work), there was no guarantee I’d only have to do them once. I may return one day to finish things off, but for now I’m happy to settle for “close enough.”
Despite all of that, I did enjoy my time with Uru. As I said earlier, only a game-breaking bug truly made me want to give up. Even with the unpolished controls, the ability to actually walk through these worlds is a huge upgrade from the node-based navigation of the main franchise entries, in terms of both immersion and exploration. While a lot of the spaces in Uru felt big and empty, they still felt like real places that things and people could exist in. And though the puzzle mechanisms were often frustrating to operate (or even figure out how to operate), the way that clues and solutions were woven into the world clearly took a lot of inspiration from Riven – in a good way. For example, throughout the entire game there was a relatively constant feed of new lore about the Myst canon – often in the form of journals. On top of provoking interest in the world and providing a welcome “brain break” in between times of feeling stuck, the journals would sometimes (but not always) contain puzzle clues. This way of providing clues in semi-ambiguous contexts remains one of my favourite methods of creating a strong sense of integration between game mechanics and game world.
Bottom line: I wouldn’t recommend Uru: Complete Chronicles to anyone, really, other than maybe die-hards of the series or genre. Though even then, or if you have read the above and it has piqued your interest for whatever reason, I would instead recommend playing the Myst Online version. I haven’t tried it yet, but it’s free, and I have been told it’s improved a lot since the version that I got to play – graphical updates, additional content, bug fixes, etc. They’ve even made the game’s engine open source so that fans can continue writing improvements and new content. And really, I think just having other players “around” would make the whole thing feel so much more alive.
As always, here are my notes from the game:
I’ve started uploading my Outer Wilds playthrough to YouTube – check the playlist below! There’s only two episodes as of writing this post, but I try to upload one per week so check back for more.
To watch me play games live, check out https://twitch.tv/danielsunshine <3
This entry covers The Room 1-3, plus The Room: Old Sins.
The Room series is an absolute master class in tactile puzzle UX/design. I don’t know if there’s a specific term to describe it, but I’ve variously called it things like “mechanical interaction” and “physical manipulation.” It describes the overall process of how the player can interact with objects within the game; a combination of how the object is visually (and sometimes audibly) presented, the physical actions a player can use to interact with the object, and how those actions manifest in changes to the object. The Room series excels in its approach to all three areas.
An important principle I learned when studying web UX is that while children enjoy hunting for interactions, adults do not. Or to put it another way: if you want a user to interact with something, it should be visually apparent that they can do so. These games make heavy use of visual cues (e.g. evenly-spaced parallel lines indicates an object can be rotated/moved) to help the player to see what they can do (if they are observant enough) and avoid a great deal of clicking on random things to see what happens. They also include a lot of visual clues about the “steps” necessary for a mechanism (e.g. a lock needs to be removed before a bar can be shifted to unblock a door) to give the player a clear plan of attack. These measures don’t remove 100% of roadblocks and frustration, but I found that I’d typically get stuck because I hadn’t yet seen something important, rather than because I didn’t realize I could do something with the things I’d seen.
A prime example of this is how The Room requires the user to click and drag for most interactions with objects: opening doors, flipping switches, spinning wheels, rotating objects, etc. In many other games these actions would boil down to a simple “click” to interact, which is simple and intuitive, but also can leave the game feeling a bit “flat” and artificial. Given the user more fine-grained controls introduces more complexity, but when handled well it can make the world feel much more immersive and satisfying to navigate/manipulate. I won’t dig into all the small details about how they did this portion well, but suffice to say that it’s easily the most polished and easy-to-use implementation of this style of interaction I’ve seen. Aside from a few minor quirks with how the game recognizes “rotation” (likely due to having played the PC port; the game was originally designed for iPad) and some practical limitation in how inventory items are used, the majority of interactions in the game are downright pleasant.
In terms of difficulty, I’d place the series more at the “casual” end, so don’t expect a great deal of complexity in the puzzles. Though it does sprinkle in some relatively simple traditional puzzle elements (locating combinations, laser/mirror puzzles, mazes, etc.), the bulk of the game is focused around being observant and creative with how you’re able to examine and explore. I don’t consider this to be a negative; it feels intentional, and it’s executed well. Even though there are many periods of “find the next interaction to proceed down a linear set of actions” – the interactions themselves are satisfying enough to keep me engaged from start to finish.
All four games keep a surprisingly high level of consistency and quality throughout, though if I had to pick I’d say that the first and fourth entries were my favourites. In the first, I really enjoyed the sense of working on a single densely-packed puzzle in a limited space that would continually unfold and grow into something more and more impossibly complex. The middle two entries experimented more with spreading out the puzzles across more objects and rooms which I felt was more narratively compelling, but diluted the experience somewhat. The fourth entry finally got to a point where the openness really paid off, and was presented in a way that managed to interweave various puzzles in different ways to still give it that densely-packed and unfolding feeling.
I would recommend The Room series to just about anyone who doesn’t explicitly dislike puzzle games. I will note that the games do progressively start to add more horror/suspense elements, so avoid if you don’t like creepy/spooky content. I would consider these games to be a “must read” for anyone who wants to develop a game that features the sort of “mechanical interaction” that I’ve described here.
Here’s the first part of the Subnautica playthrough I streamed on my DanielSunshine Twitch channel about a year ago. This was my first time playing through the game and I had done a pretty good job of avoiding spoilers, so you can watch me experience the whole thing for the first time!
Subnautica is also on my list of games to write up a “Thoughts after playing…” post on, but I’m working through that in mostly reverse-chronological order, so it’s a bit further down on the list. A mini-review in the meantime: “Subnautica good.”
* I forgot to record some of this playthrough, so there’s a small gap between the first and second videos which means it’s not entirely “complete” – though nothing major was missed!
Spiritfarer is a special game; it’s truly a marvel. It falls into the category of game I call “perfect.” Not that I think it’s objectively without any flaws, but rather that it’s such an exceptional experience that despite any flaws it still feels perfect. The game’s whole package of aesthetics and mood showed off an incredible amount of care, attention, and intention, and any compromises it made felt fully necessary in service of the game’s broader themes.
At its core, Spiritfarer is a game about a very difficult topic – the inevitability of death – and it feels like virtually every design decision was made with the purpose of making that difficult topic easier to confront and process. This purpose manifests in a sense of gentleness and comfort that permeates the art, story, writing, sound design, mechanics, pacing, and so on. There are no “hard edges” in this game – so to speak – there’s such little opportunity for frustration for feeling overwhelmed; progress is easy, constant, and un-rushed; the audio is slow and calming; the animations smooth and satisfying. It helps the player to reach the natural conclusion of each character’s story of being guided to the afterlife – and engage with many different realities of that process – without dread, guilt or resentment.
In a game full of strong assets, the ones I felt the strongest had to be the art and sound direction. The careful integration of these three aspects resulted in moods and tones were not only remarkably consistent, but also very powerful. The delicate sounds of an oar gliding through the water as I paddled in silence – bringing a spirit towards the Everdoor through calm red water – created a sense of tranquility that I felt in my bones and will likely never forget.
If I had to describe the writing in a few words, I’d pick “grounded” and “thoughtful.” The characters felt incredibly believable, and while they didn’t necessarily resemble any of my personal relationships I could imagine myself having them, or imagine my loved ones having these relationships with their loved ones. They all had their own strengths, weaknesses, likes, dislikes, motivations, and goals. I also adored how the character stories were allowed to progress on the characters’ terms, sometimes in ways that defied the players’ expectations; they were able to decide when they were ready “to go” and were allowed to do so in the manner of their choosing.
Similar to what I had mentioned in Thoughts after playing Manifold Garden, Spiritfarer was careful not to get into its own way when executing its strengths. For a game that takes 20+ hours to play through, the gameplay itself does require a fair bit of meat to avoid getting repetitive. However, adding any significant challenge could risk evoking unwelcome emotions in such a carefully crafted emotional landscape. Instead the “challenge” of the game is largely a low-stakes logistical puzzle of exploration and obtaining various materials in order to unlock new areas, materials, characters, etc. The majority of tasks either had no true failure state – producing a minimal level of progress even if done “poorly” – or were quick and simple to retry. The player is also encouraged to take their time with no critical time-based outcomes: crops do not wilt if left unattended, food doesn’t burn if left in the oven, and so on. Characters will become hungry over time, but that exists more as a motivation to interact with them regularly and experiment with cooking, as I don’t think there is any mechanical consequence to letting a character go hungry (though there is an emotional one!) At some point this does leave some of the gameplay feeling a bit hollow and rote, but never to the determent of the game’s primary purpose. And, to its credit, the mechanical progression was very well designed and satisfying; the gameplay kept me engaged right up until ran out of new things to unlock and the remainder of the work was gathering up various quantities of already-available materials.
I didn’t have a specific topic to tie these thoughts to, but I felt that it’d be a disservice if I didn’t mention: 1) yes, you can pet the cat, and 2) you can hug every spirit that comes aboard your boat, and it’s always adorable.
I would recommend this game to folks who like powerfully emotional story-driven games, low-stakes management sims, and high-quality game design. The subject matter can be rather difficult so that’s an obvious caveat, but as someone who has a lot of hang-ups about death and mortality (and can easily fall into angst and rumination about it) I found myself leaving the game with a healing and hopeful (if bittersweet) mood.
I’m also just gonna make a note right at the top here that while it’s true that I felt this game was a bit of a step back for the series, I did enjoy it overall, so don’t read too much into the mostly critical tone. It just turns out that, given how much I’ve already talked about the positive qualities of the previous games in the series, I found it more interesting to talk about how it differs from them.
Have you ever been a fan of a band that burst onto the scene with an excellent (if rough around the edges) first album, released a more complex and challenging second album that had less commercial appeal (though would later be regarded as the fan-favourite), then in an attempt to recapture some of their initial success produced a highly-anticipated third album (possibly after losing/changing a member or two) which shows a technical improvement and maturation but ultimately misses the mark? (No? Just me? How about if I compare it to Community season 4?) Well, this arc very closely describes my experience playing through the first three Myst games, and Myst III is that third album: an achievement in technical ability and attempt at “return to form” that, while still enjoyable and possessing its own unique strengths, lacked the underlying drive and spirit of innovation that set the previous titles apart.
If we look at the circumstances of the development of each game, it can shed a lot of light on how each of them ended up the way that they are. Myst was developed primarily by brothers Robyn and Rand Miller; they were breaking ground with a number of new technologies (CD-ROMs were brand-spanking-new, and Quicktime – which they used to put video into the game – wasn’t even available when they first started development). They had assistance from a small team of 4 others at Cyan Inc., but by all accounts the Millers did the vast majority of the work. Riven was a bit less bleeding-edge, but with a budget somewhere between 20-40 times that of Myst, they had the resources to hire a much larger team and really showcase what they were capable of when given room to run with the idea. Additionally, they brought on Richard Vander Wende as a third member of the conceptual team, who Robyn would later attribute for some of the more significant differences seen between Myst and Riven. By the time Myst III went into production Robyn had left Cyan and the company had its sights set on developing an MMO-style spinoff rather than continue the main series, and the task of creating Myst III was given to Presto Studios (developers of The Journeyman Project series).
I don’t want to say anything too negative about the overall effort that Presto Studios put into creating Myst III; they delivered a high-quality game that aesthetically feels right at home in the Myst franchise, and it’s quite apparent from the end result that they had a deep appreciation for the series. But, to me, this entry marks a shift in the motivations and goals behind its continuation. Whereas the first two games feel like the product of the Millers’ passion for creating games and innovating in digital storytelling, the third feels more like the result of a franchise owner (Mattel at the time) wanting to continue making money from the series – with or without the original team. And while I think that Presto made a commendable effort in not only replicating but also improving upon the original formula established in Myst (the 360-degree views were amazing, and the presentation of the story was top-notch), some important elements were lost in translation.
For me, the biggest missing piece was that the puzzles in Myst III didn’t make me feel smart. The moment of understanding how to get past an obstacle typically was happening as I was executing it: trying all the levers/buttons on a contraption to figure out some correct order; locating a partially hidden critical path; finally finding that “one specific spot” that I needed to click on. I was given very few opportunities to gather, synthesize, or transform clues, and the few times that this did happen were greatly undercut by the puzzles being equally solvable through trial and error. The difference between “Ah, that’s how I’m going to solve that” and “Oh, that’s how I solved that” is subtle but very important, because it can be the difference between feeling smart and feeling like I’m following a complex series of “next” buttons. To give an example: the game teaches you about how a few plants behave in an organic-themed age, and then reference that knowledge later as part of puzzle solutions. However, the knowledge is not strictly necessary to solve those puzzles; they are simple enough that a person who didn’t know about the plants could still reasonably expect to solve the puzzles just by trying stuff out – which in some cases was still how I solved them even knowing the clues. The primary payoff is that some interactions that happened one time happened a second time, which is entirely different than the payoff of being able to solve a puzzle based on understanding its component parts.
I also loved the concept for the final puzzle as it required using information that you get at the very beginning of the game and I enjoy that sort of “closing the loop” feeling. But its execution honestly felt very sloppy, since the required information is never really indicated as a clue at any point, and by the time you get to the puzzle you’re given so much seemingly-relevant information that it’s not at all clear that you’re missing anything. This means that it’s highly likely the player won’t be motivated to search for the missing info because the game guided them to do so, but rather because they’re frustrated with not being able to solve a puzzle with missing pieces. On top of this, the puzzle doesn’t really provide a clearly defined success state, nor does it provide any feedback until you’ve solved enough to already be sure of the solution. I ended up asking for a minor hint after about 20 minutes of feeling completely lost, but I could have easily spent hours if I had tried to tough it out. There are ways to make an hours-long puzzle fun; this was not one of them.
I would still recommend Myst III to fans of the series, and to diehard fans of the genre. It’s visually captivating, and the continuation of the story from the previous games is very well-done, keeping in the tradition of morally ambiguous characters and endings. Beyond that, as a stand-alone puzzle game it’s fine – I didn’t hate it, but I wouldn’t put it at the top of your to-play list.
Bonus content: Note pages! (Warning: Fairly significant and unambiguous solution spoilers)
For additional context, first check out my Thoughts after playing Myst – I’ll be referencing Myst a lot.
The difference between Riven and Myst is remarkable. Not only in how much more Riven is in just about every way, but also in how the Cyan team were able to deliver a sequel so far advanced from the original and and still absolutely nail it. If I were to play the games without context, I would have assumed there was at least one or two entries worth of refinement between them. More than just “holding up” like I have said for Myst, Riven is one of the best puzzle games I’ve ever played.
So, what exactly does “more” mean? On a technical level, an easy way to express it is that where Myst came on a single CD-ROM; Riven was 5. It was once-again on the forefront of graphics in computer games. There were more images (with a higher fidelity), more video (now often full-screen rather than relegated to a small box), more dialogue, more locations, more lore, and so on. But beyond that, there was just so much more to the game itself – to learn, experience, and understand.
As a child I played Myst far more than I played Riven simply because – as I’ve mentioned – my puzzle solving ability was largely non-existent at that age. In Riven, particularly near the beginning, there were relatively few mechanical devices to click on and interact with, and the objects that could be interacted with didn’t make it obvious what they did or were useful for. Simply put, I couldn’t really figure out how to do anything. This made it very boring to play as my younger self, but it set the stage for an absolute treat of an experience as I returned to it later in life.
To borrow a phrase from another review I read, Riven is less a puzzle game and more of an archaeological expedition. Most of the gameplay revolves around just exploring and being observant in order to learn about the world and how it works. I would expect most people to say that Riven is much harder than Myst – not necessarily because the puzzles are more complex or more difficult to solve based on the clues, but rather because Riven is a much more self-guided journey. If the player doesn’t pay attention, they might be able to explore all of the islands of Riven, but won’t end up with the tools necessary to complete the game.
Something that Riven does exceedingly well is making the puzzles and clues feel “diegetic” – that is – as if they are genuine and meaningful parts of the world, rather than abstract obstacles. It feels like every single piece of information you’re given has an in-world justification. One illustrative example (minor spoilers ahead) – and one of my favourite design elements of the game – is where the player is able to learn the in-game numeral system by playing a simple mechanical game that can be found in what appears to be a classroom. Rather than present the info directly through a diagram, or maybe something to decode, the game allows the player to interpret a believable in-game artifact based solely on their interactions with it and the context it’s found in. To add on even more clever design work in this very simple event:
- Once the player figures out the operation of the game, it essentially reveals one random numeral from 1-10 each time the player interacts with it. The symbols that make up the numerals make it possible to determine the full set of 10 numbers after only learning 6 or 7 of them, and the random nature makes it more likely that the player will attempt to work this out, rather than continuing to rely on chance. (For the record, I learned 9 of them before cluing in)
- Not only is learning these numerals required to complete the game, it’s also necessary to know how to “count” up to 25. These additional numbers are not provided directly by the game, but the ways that the symbols and their combinations exist from 1-10 also provides the player with the clues to reach 25. (This method of providing incomplete information that needs to be synthesized through related clues is re-used several times throughout the game, always to great effect)
Another very smart choice made in this game is to not make it immediately obvious what clues are necessary to solve which puzzles, or even what pieces of information are truly necessary clues. Most things that look like a clue do end up being a clue – or at least meaningful information – so the player isn’t punished for being observant by wasting their time (unless you’re like me and spend an hour trying to decode the D’ni alphabet to find it’s only got 25 letters and is definitely not a straight cipher for English). But I found that when the game was less clear about its immediate intentions with clearly important details, it led to a more inquisitive and curious mindset. I didn’t just care about the discreet details of a clue, I also cared about the context that I found it in, and how it might relate to other pieces of information I’ve gathered and contribute to what I know about the world. I didn’t just feel smart when I pieced things together, it also felt like I was understanding something cohesive and logical.
I will say that the game is not without its flaws; it does fall victim once or twice to the typical “hunt for the single detail on the single screen you haven’t noticed” roadblock that seems to happen in most point-and-click games (in fact, I found an actually hidden button well before I found one particular intended path). Also the steps to obtain one of the endings were somewhat difficult to intuit, and somewhat contradicted by a different ending. But, in a game that otherwise has some of the smartest and most engaging puzzle design I’ve ever come across, I consider those relatively minor points.
I’d recommend Riven to folks who are fans of the series and/or genre (particularly those who enjoy studious note-taking); folks who like to study game design; and honestly anyone who read all of the above and didn’t immediately think “ugh.”
I’m continuing to play the series! Here are my Thoughts after playing Myst III: Exile
Bonus content: As I’ve said previously, I love games that encourage/require taking notes. Here are the notes taken during my playthrough:
Note: I was playing the original Myst; not realMyst or the 2021 remake.
Myst was one of the first two games my family purchased for our brand-new Windows 95 PC back in the early 90s (the other being Sim City 2000), and so my recent playthrough had a very thick layer of nostalgia settled over the entire thing. As a 7-year-old I wasn’t able to solve many of the puzzles, but I was still able to make varying amounts of progress through trial-and-error, random fiddling, and a decent amount of luck. Even still, playing it decades later, I could vividly remember many of the locales, mechanics, and even the broad details of the story.
Nostalgia aside, I felt that the game held up relatively well for its age, though parts of it certainly feel dated. It occupies an interesting space where the designers clearly took a lot of care and attention in their craft, but the medium and technology were still new enough that a lot of modern design conventions didn’t yet exist. For example: as part of one mechanism, something changes from white to red to indicate it being “active” in a context where, as a modern player, my first thought was that it was telling me something was wrong. Since the colour wasn’t the only piece of feedback being provided it wasn’t difficult to ultimately figure out the correct meaning, but it did lead to a bit of wheel-spinning that likely wouldn’t have even been an issue to folks playing the game closer to its release. There are also a few puzzles that rely more on tedium than cleverness to solve, but still I found these interesting from an anthropological perspective more than they were frustrating.
One thing I’ve always appreciated (and continue to appreciate) about the Myst series is that they try to make the puzzles feel like they arise from the logic of the world, rather than appearing solely as an obstacle for the player. The level of success here is variable, but if I accept that the story’s characters have a compulsion to build needlessly complex mechanisms for relatively simple tasks, I can find myself believing in the worlds as real spaces that served a real purpose. And, in return for hand-waving away a bit of contrivance, we’re rewarded with a very integrated-feeling experience, and a very impressive and fantastical visual style.
I’d recommend this game to folks who played but weren’t able to finish the game as a child (I was able to knock it out in a single 4-5 hour sitting); folks with general nostalgia for early-90’s FMV/point-and-click puzzles games; folks with an interest in historical game design; and folks who want to play through the whole series should absolutely start here. I don’t have any particular cautions, as I feel like the game is pretty upfront about what it is.
Bonus content: I love puzzle games that require taking notes. Something about puzzle solutions that can’t be held in my brain all at once plus the act of writing on a physical medium I find very satisfying. Here are the notes I took while playing Myst (excluding the page with the final puzzle’s solution):