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: