Backtracking is a blogging project that I’m embarking on in 2024 in which I will play one game from each year since I was born. My goal is to engage with games I’ve never played and divert some of my attention away from new releases and towards older titles. I hope to cross off some major backlog items, learn more about the influences and intertexts that informed the games I grew up with, and practice my analytical skills. I’m using US release dates as the relevant year for my selections.
Why I Chose This Game
Myst’s influence is hard for me to fully comprehend, given how young I was when it released, not to mention the many ways that adventure and puzzle games have shifted in the decades since. But it occupies a particular space in my memory alongside the eclectic collection of 90s games that my dad had installed on the various PCs we had while I grew up. Some of these were games he nudged me to try, some of them were his own favorites that I would see him playing every so often.
The primary games he played were first person shooters, many of which weren’t appropriate for me when I was especially young. Years before he shared games like Half-Life and Halo with me, he shared Myst. I remember very little, but I believe I only poked around at it, never really getting a foothold or progressing. To me, it remained a closed book, a vague curiosity that lingered from my childhood but that I’d never had the commitment to return to. In my imagination, Myst feels like a focal point of a certain kind of puzzle design, world-building, and fantastical storytelling; this was my impression even without ever playing all that much of it.
Now, having played it this year, I think that was even more true than I realized.
What I Thought
I knew surprisingly little about Myst when I sat down to play it. I had a hazy memory of the island itself, of a few particular screens that stuck out in my memory. I never reached any of the ages when I dabbled in it as a child. I wasn’t honestly sure what to expect besides some puzzles and some world-hopping. What I didn’t expect was the precision of its craft.
In spite of its hand-wavy sci-fi concepts, Myst is a remarkably coherent object. It’s deeply committed to being an explorable world first and foremost. Its Ages (the other worlds accessible from the hub island) can be visited in any order, and the path to the end of the game can be completed in only a few minutes once the solution to its final puzzle is revealed. Despite being filled with small contraptions and puzzles, it does not make use of a classic point’n’click inventory system. Because of this, puzzles are largely self-contained, knowledge-driven, and rooted in the worlds themselves.
It took me an embarrassing amount of time to realize that I wasn’t going to be picking up and moving objects around (aside from the pages). There was a point during my explanation of the Stoneship Age, the first one I reached, when I suddenly understood that the elaborate scattering of items in the brothers’ rooms were entirely for the purpose of the narrative. The bottles of poison, the gilded furniture, and the strange contraptions were elaborating on the personalities and fixations of these two characters. The spaces that I was maneuvering through, though they contained puzzles and clues, were often primarily engaged in storytelling.
In pursuit of this story-first approach, Myst achieves a great deal of atmosphere within the limitations of mostly-static screens and sparing interactive elements. Reading the journals about each of the ages — in search of clues that will help you access them — creates a wonderful sense of anticipation and curiosity that pays off when arriving at each of those worlds.
Myst obviously means a lot to people for a number of reasons, but I think I can understand why it sticks so much in the collective imagination, why it sold so phenomenally in it’s day, and why it seems to justify a remake or remaster every decade or so. Its commitment to telling stories first, using puzzles as minimally-arbitrary friction to pace the adventure, makes it resonate as not just a sequence of challenges and solutions, but an actual place in which the characters spent time.
My favorite video game experiences involve exploring, learning, and coming to know a virtual place. From Hallownest to Zebes, from Gransys to Yharnam, I so often build my memories of games around the places they put me into. Now, 30 years after the fact, I finally paid a visit to the island of Myst and the worlds it connects to. Exploring such lovingly crafted spaces will always be a delight.
I think Myst might have had a greater effect on me if I was a little older when I was first introduced to it. As a grade schooler, it seemed neat but outdated, not quite worth what little attention I was capable of directing at it. Its storytelling is indulgent in a very earnest way, employing a certain genre fiction tone that I think I could have appreciated if I’d found the patience to engage.
Beyond just the attention span, Myst (together with A Link to the Past) has challenged my assumptions of just how obtuse, and in what ways, these early 90’s titles would really be. With Myst in particular, my perception of how dated it might be actively held me back — I found myself digging through the books in the library in search of esoteric clues before simply wandering the island and interacting with marker switches.
A lot of the difficulty in puzzle and exploration games comes from a mismatch between player expectation and developer intention. What the developers think is obvious may be easily missed by a player who was looking for something else. I think an important takeaway from these two games is that I can broaden the space in which I’m looking for solutions. Rather than scouring books for hidden messages, I probably should have been trying to better understand the interactive elements that I’d already encountered.
I hope this takeaway helps me meet older games where they are a little better than I have so far. It’s possible that I’m going to need it for the next one.