Myst III: Exile – Thoughts After Playing

I recommend reading my previous entries for more context: Thoughts after playing Myst and Thoughts after playing Riven: The Sequel to Myst. I talk about those two games a lot throughout this post.

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)

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