Misty-eyed for Myst? Casual Compensations

By Becky Waxman


Myst released in 1993 and was my introduction to video gaming. It was developed by Cyan (now Cyan Worlds) and spawned multiple sequels plus an online multi-player game that's currently in its fourth iteration (MO:ULagain).

Nearly two decades after the original release, I returned to Myst Island to see how well the experience holds up. Despite its age (and difficulties running it on my Win 7, 64-bit system), Myst remains an extraordinary experience. Its influence was huge and inspired game developers to release similar adventure games frequently over the following decade. That influence has eroded, with the RHEM games as the lone surviving Myst-like series which adventure gamers can dependably anticipate.

Certain adventure-lite and Interactive Hidden Object Games exhibit elements that remind me of Myst. Can adventure gamers scratch that Myst itch by playing casual games?


Essence of Myst

First, what is Myst? It's an adventure game using the first person perspective and evoking a sense of isolation. You visit other Ages (worlds) using unusual portals found in books. You briefly encounter characters and/or creatures, but for the most part you are alone.

The gameworld is large, naturalistically rendered, with surreal details -- a model ship sunk in a fountain, a giant gear, a clock rising up from the sea. Exploration is nonlinear and frequently takes place out-of-doors, though you'll also discover underground or underwater chambers and rooms with evidence of engineering experiments and ingenious inventions. Ambient sounds and music contribute to an eerie atmosphere.

The Ages (and you, the player) are threatened by an evil force waiting to be identified and then reckoned with. Much is hidden; nothing is quite what it seems. Background story information is conveyed in books or journals, along with sketches and other illustrations.

Odd symbols and even odder machinery populate the fantastical environments. You analyze clues, discern the connection of parts, activate devices, and solve the mystery of how and why the world works the way it does.


How Myst Differs from Casual Games

The Ages in Myst are not environments with puzzles, but actual puzzle worlds. They are also much larger than gameworlds in typical adventure-lite or Interactive Hidden Object Games. Certain thematic differences -- engineering versus magic, for instance -- are also apparent.

Gameplay Differences

Casual game puzzles might use similar mechanical principals to those in Myst, but they aren't woven into the world in the same way. In the pipe puzzle in the Channelwood Age, you aren't looking at a top-down single screen with a configuration of pipes -- you're walking next to the pipes on a boardwalk, listening to the water and throwing switches. In the maze challenge in the Selenitic Age, you aren't manipulating a marble in a miniature labyrinth -- you're inside the maze itself. For a sound puzzle, you travel all over the Age, listening, taking notes, and then trying to find the control panel in which to input the information. In contrast, the challenges in casual games are more separate and discrete. They are more like mini-games. (The term mini-game throughout this editorial does not refer to a timed arcade game like "Whack-A-Mole," but rather to an untimed, self-contained puzzle viewed in a close-up screen.)

Myst puzzles are multi-layered, and much more exploration per puzzle is required than in casual games. Often clues are separated spatially from their solutions. Turning a valve doesn't always cause a change nearby, but often several screens away. The environments in Myst are large enough that just staying oriented can be a challenge. In contrast, I've seldom felt lost or disoriented in casual games.

In casual games, the means to solve puzzles is usually closer at hand -- if only because the gameworlds are so much smaller. An optional hint system is common in casual games, as is an opt-out or skip feature for the more difficult puzzles.

Thematic Differences

The linking books in Myst seem supernatural, but a scientific basis exists for them. In casual games, the stories trend more toward magical fantasy (even fairy tale fantasy), rather than science fiction. Though Myst's environments are detailed, they are seldom cluttered -- the acquisition of multiple objects and the accoutrements of wealth are symbolic of corruption and greed. In casual games, there is so much more "stuff"! This is true of the Hidden Object screens, of course, but also of the environments in general.


 Six Myst-like Casual Games

I've selected six casual games that -- though they won't completely fulfill the Myst yearning -- have elements similar enough to evoke nostalgia, while introducing new types of gameplay and suitably surreal worlds. All use the first person perspective and all have a point-and-click interface. The first three games are adventure-lite games. The other three are Interactive Hidden Object Games (sometimes inventory items are acquired by locating objects corresponding to a word list at the bottom of the screen).

All are part of various ongoing series. I've chosen a particular game from each group because of its Myst-like qualities or because I thought it would be a good place to start. If you find that you like a particular game, you should check out the other games in that series.

Note: I'm aware that many gamers play casual games in the company of a child. All the games below are like Myst -- gameplay is generally family friendly, though the story and some of the visuals imply past acts of violence.


Pahelika: Revelations

Pahelika: Revelations is the sequel to the adventure-lite game, Pahelika: Secret Legends. You assume the role of a young man who has stumbled across the Pahelika puzzle book with the magical ability to transport him to other worlds. In Revelations you uncover the history of the civilization that engendered Pahelika while doing everything you can to stop a power-hungry wizard.

Graphics are naturalistic with a subdued color palette and intricate use of shadow. The environments include courtyards and monumental buildings of stone. The background music suits the locations, ranging from relaxed, rhythmic electronic melodies to a wash of sound using exotic pipes. The graphic novel-like cut scene panels are supplemented by dramatic orchestral music.

You interact with a handful of characters, including a ghost, a sage and a grouping of sentient stone heads. The game is partially voiced.

You don't have access to a diary that is available throughout the game; however you frequently read brief sections of books and papers. The story in-game is somewhat disjointed; reading the background information in the "Pahelika: Revelations Strategy Guide" is helpful. Like Myst, the story strives for moral tension and even some moral ambiguities.

Challenges are varied: frequent inventory puzzles (including inventory combinations), a tricky set of riddles, sequencing challenges, jigsaw-like puzzles, spell-casting, and pixel hunting. The puzzles start out tough and get tougher. Even the "Casual mode" poses a significant challenge. The puzzles are packed tightly together, and the game feels more puzzle-heavy than Myst. Mechanical puzzles include the hydraulic bed puzzle, the key making puzzle, and the vault mirror challenge. (Pahelika: Revelations does not have Hidden Object challenges.)


Dream Chronicles: The Book of Air

The Book of Air is the fourth game in the Dream Chronicles series, and the start of a new trilogy. You assume the role of Lyra, half-human daughter of Faye, the heroine from the original trilogy. As the game opens, Lyra discovers that everyone in the town of Wish has disappeared and that she has slipped into a different time dimension. She must travel in a Jules Verne-esque airship to petition the Clockmaker -- a wizard/mechanic living atop a giant pedestal in the frozen northlands. The Clockmaker is rumored to be the master of time.

Complications arise in the quest to heal the timestream, and Lyra's efforts take her even further afield to more quaint, imaginative locations. Contemplative music using pipes and strings adds to the overall otherworldly effect, as do the subtle animations of clouds and water.

Lyra keeps a journal that includes story details and speculations. It becomes clear that her family hasn't been honest about her heritage. The game contains practically no character interaction. Lyra's thoughts are usually voiced, as are the letters she receives from Grandfather Tangle.

This adventure-lite game will have you deciphering messages, arranging patterns, using inventory items, casting spells, and solving mini-games with gears and colored stones (difficulty level: medium) . Mechanical puzzles include rotating the wind columns, the walnut channeling challenge, and the symbol imprinting puzzle. This game does not have Hidden Object "find" lists; however, you search each location for tiny dream pieces. Combining the pieces creates jewels that enable certain abilities -- among them the ability to shed light and transmute substances.

The Book of Air takes you to the point where one quest ends and another begins; the story continues in the sequel released in 2011 -- Dream Chronicles: The Book of Water.


Azada in Libro

You've been bequeathed a fortune from a mysterious relative you've never met. You travel to Prague to claim your inheritance, and find that you have acquired, not an inheritance, but a quest to save three worlds. A young man named Titus explains that his uncle, the dark magician Argus, is drawing power from three of Azada's worlds, each accessible through the pages of a book. The guardians for each world have disappeared. You are tasked with finding three magic keys, restoring the guardians if they are still alive, and defeating the evil Argus.

Of the six games presented here, this adventure-lite game comes closest to the way Myst draws the gamer into completely separate worlds. One world resembles an elegant European town, one evokes a rustic fantasyland forest, and one is parched and dying, with red fumes choking the sky. The graphics in Azada In Libro are stylized with a hand-drawn effect, and contain a jaw-dropping level of detail and animation. Ambient sounds add texture to the surroundings -- bird calls, splashing water, metallic groans. Orchestral music -- sometimes emphasizing plucked strings -- and a particularly lyrical piano melody add to the atmosphere.

You interact briefly with Titus, the Azada guardians, and a handful of creatures. The game is partially voiced. A diary contains the highlights of the story as you progress. It's illustrated with colorful sketches and occasionally records information needed to solve puzzles.

Many of the challenges are multi-stepped. Often they start with inventory challenges that progress to mini-games that resemble the mechanical puzzles found in Myst. For instance, getting the hook from the clockwork skeleton, assembling potions to activate the chimera portal, and moving a stalled train down the track. The difficulty of the challenges varies, though no truly dastardly puzzles are among them. In addition to inventory puzzles and mini-games, the game features jigsaw-like puzzles and pattern and assembly challenges. It has no Hidden Object challenges.

The Standard Edition of Azada in Libro ends rather abruptly. The Collector's Edition has extra gameplay that brings a greater sense of completion.


Hidden Expedition: Devil's Triangle

You're on a rescue mission to recover a pilot who works for the Hidden Expedition Adventure Team. The pilot apparently went down somewhere within the Bermuda Triangle. Gameplay starts in a submarine -- a puzzle-heavy environment. After a tussle with some pirates, you escape to a series of islands; one is the home to inventor Gideon Forsythe, who claims to have known Leonardo da Vinci.

Due to a device called The Da Vinci Node, certain natural laws operate differently here, making the islands feel like an alien world. You interact with several over-the-top characters whose isolation has left them somewhere on the spectrum between goofy and insane. The game is partially voiced.

The island locations are quirky, with classical structures next to biological oddities and crazy but functional inventions. Frequent animations -- along with haunting orchestral melodies and threatening background noises -- enhance the sense of a massive science experiment gone terribly wrong.

A log contains character files, objectives, and travel journal notes with photos, hand-drawn illustrations and sketches. These follow the story, sometimes give hints, and are written with broad tongue-in-cheek humor.

Devil's Triangle is an Interactive Hidden Object Game featuring frequent inventory challenges, including item combinations. You also decipher codes, mix explosives, interpret scientific notes, sequence symbols, and play mini-games. Some Hidden Object screens use traditional "find" lists, but others are more creative -- including pairing items by association, finding multiple items by type, and interacting with objects layer by layer. Puzzle difficulty is medium to hard. Mechanical puzzles include the sonar puzzle, the door constellation challenge, and the Powerchord giant instrument extravaganza.

The game ends in a cliffhanger; the sequel, Hidden Expedition: The Uncharted Islands, released a few months ago.


Empress of the Deep 2: Song of the Blue Whale

This sequel to Empress of the Deep: Dark Secrets opens as the protagonist, Anna, manages to escape the imploding underwater world once ruled by her family. She must find a way to reach an abandoned city floating among the clouds.

After repairing a hot air balloon, Anna puzzles her way into the city in this Interactive Hidden Object Game. An unknown voice penetrates her mind. It's mournful and pompous, and advises her that sentient beings have been enslaved and trapped here (brief interactions take place with each of these creatures). Anna must look deeper, into odd corners and hidden chambers, uncovering secrets about the royal family's past struggles. A colorfully illustrated diary contains descriptions and pictures of the locations. The game is fully voiced.

Song of the Blue Whale contains one interface oddity -- when you finish with a location, the game puts a large "Area Clear!" medallion in the top right hand corner. This eliminates much back-and-forthing, but reduces the feeling of "being there" immersion.

You will encounter many inventory puzzles, matching and sequencing challenges, and some mini-games. Difficulty level is easy to medium. Hidden Object screens with a traditional "find" list occasionally appear. Mechanical puzzles include the laser/mirror mini-game, the wire connection puzzle, and the frogs' heads sequencing challenge.

This game's greatest strength is its spectacular landscapes and skyscapes with their unexpected juxtapositions of natural elements. Winged dolphins ornament a staircase, stone visages emerge from a rippling pool, and diamond-shaped balloons ring the walkways. Clouds blow across the sky and mystical music reverberates in the background. Ambient sounds include the rustle of colorful foliage, the sound of grinding metal, and an occasional ominous cackle. The gameplay challenges are, for the most part, rather easy. The gameworld is particularly large for a casual game -- staying oriented is actually more challenging than some of the puzzles.


Mystery Trackers: The Void

In this Interactive Hidden Object Game, you assume the role of a rookie detective in a secret agency that investigates mysteries with "mystic or enigmatic" aspects. The old Void mansion has recently been in the news because three celebrities each attempted to spend the night there and subsequently vanished.

The mansion used to be the home of Dr. Malleus Void, an eccentric inventor/mad scientist spurned by the scientific community. Malleus had planned to turn his large estate into an amusement park to publically display his scientific discoveries. But the plans were never realized, and Malleus is now dead.

You roam the grounds of The Void and stumble across the remnants of Malleus' freakish biological experiments. You also discover evidence of the three celebrities, deepening the mystery. Sparse interaction occurs with a couple of characters and creatures; there are no voiceovers.

The Void's locations are photorealistic with a collaged, dreamlike effect. Dramatic orchestral music, occasionally with a contemporary flair, adds to the ambiance of corruption and threat. The interface features interesting sounds, with the diary pages flapping, inventory items making appropriate noises, and the hint system croaking.

The game's diary (the best of the six games mentioned here) is layered with photos, drawings, letters, speculations and clarifications. The story in this game is tantalizingly presented and had me speculating feverishly and anticipating the outcome.

Challenges include lots of Hidden Object screens, plus inventory puzzles and mini-games. Mechanical puzzles include the pump assembly, the three dimensional compass, and the phonograph programming challenge. The puzzles are quite easy at first, but increase in difficulty as the game progresses. (You can increase mini-game difficulty by not consulting the optional "information" clues.)


Could Casual Games Spring from the Myst Universe?

Will we ever see Cyan Worlds creating casual games that continue the Myst story? I couldn't help speculating about this possibility while I played the games mentioned here. It would require adjustments.

One adjustment: 3D graphics are expensive and many casual gamers aren't used to navigation through 3D worlds. A casual Myst series would probably mean a return to 2D graphics that are more like those of the original Myst than those of the later, 3D realMYST.

A graduated hint system, or a way to select difficulty level would have to be introduced into any new Myst-based casual game -- something way more explicit than the hint system in Myst: Masterpiece Edition.

Adventure gamers who are Myst fans would adjust their expectations too. The gameworlds would be smaller than in the past Myst adventure game releases. Even with a hint system, the multi-layered, difficult puzzles that shout "Myst!" would probably be simplified.

Casual gamers who are comfortable with Interactive Hidden Object games would need to adjust to the absence of Hidden Object screens, less interactivity per location, reduced inventory items, increasing subsidiary steps for solving puzzles, and the need to observe patterns in the gameworld that won't be useful until much later in the gameplay.

Could this happen? Or is mine just a fevered, surreal dream?


Coming up Next

Look to this space to see more discussion of casual games. Next up: Classic Tales Into Games

**Note: some of the ideas for the article were influenced by From Myst to Riven: The Creations & Inspirations by Richard Kadrey.


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