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.

I’m continuing to play the series! Here are my thoughts after playing Riven: The Sequel to Myst and Myst III: Exile

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):

Manifold Garden was, in every sense of the word, a treat. In a puzzle game, some of the key things I want to encounter are: outside the box thinking; novel mechanical concepts; interesting atmosphere; clean and intuitive presentation; puzzle solutions that make me feel smart. Manifest Garden delivered on all of these, and more importantly, it did very little to get in its own way. While it’s common to find games that include one or more of those positive qualities, it’s far more rare to find a game that lets you fully enjoy those things – with minimal exception – for its entire runtime.

To give an example: the puzzles in Manifest Garden are – relative to similar games – fairly short and simple. Given the baseline complexity of the game’s world, I consider this to have been an entirely necessary decision. The game’s two fundamental mechanics are that 1) the player can rotate the world’s orientation to change what direction is “down”, and 2) the world’s space is infinite and loops on itself (if you travel far enough in one direction you’ll end up where you started). This is in an incredibly novel and versatile concept, but as a game with physics-based puzzles and a first-person perspective it also has the potential to be incredibly disorienting. Adding too-complex puzzles runs the danger of having the player be frustrated by their non-Euclidean freedom, rather than being able to enjoy it. As someone who enjoys a good tough puzzle I might feel somewhat underwhelmed by its puzzles in isolation, but in the context of the game they felt perfectly suited, and I absolutely felt like a big brain genius after solving them.

To add some more, unstructured praise: The visuals were show-stopping throughout (I’ve always been captivated by fractals), I don’t remember much of the music (but in that good way where it supported the atmosphere seamlessly), and I was constantly delighted by how the game surprised me with new mechanical interactions that arose from very simple objects and concepts.

The few negative things that I encountered in this game are all broadly related to the design challenge of figuring out how to allow the player to understand “where” they are at any given time in a world where ideas like “position” and “orientation” are very flexible. One way this was mitigated was that, in open areas where this is the biggest concern, landmarks and points of interest were easily discernable – even from a distance. So even if the player doesn’t have a great idea about their current position, they can at least figure out their destination. The trade-off is, however, that navigating solely based on landmarks rather than an understanding of the layout of a space can make progress and travel feel somewhat disconnected and abstract. Yes I completed the game without feeling significantly lost at any point (which is, in itself, a huge accomplishment in design), but I often had the nagging feeling that I was leaving an area prematurely after homing in on a visible landmark and finding progress to a new area. The game does teach you early on that if you need to return to an area it will take you back, so you ultimately just have to put aside any internal instincts to “map out” the space and plan routes and instead trust in the game to guide you along.

I would recommend this game pretty broadly to folks who like puzzle games, particularly stuff that is mind-bending and messes with perception. Similar to (but still very different from) Antichamber and the Portal series. I would caution anyone who has trouble with spatial puzzles, dislikes feeling disoriented, and possibly folks who get motion sickness or vertigo (depending on how it manifests in video games).