Awesome Games: Myst III: Exile
WTF is Myst III: Exile?
The Myst series is a suite of first-person adventure-slash-puzzle-solving games, in which you wander around pulling levers and fixing machines in order to advance the story. As the unnamed protagonist of the series, you keep running across this careless god named Atrus who builds worlds inside of books and likes to impose on you for help when things go wrong. In the first game, things went wrong because his sons are total psychopaths (which is relevant, here) and in the second game, you had to rescue his wife from a cage or something.
In Exile, Atrus just wants to hang out for once without asking for a favour, but then this random, vengeful weirdo named Saavedro (played by Brad Dourif, because, come on – this guy is always played by Brad Dourif) jumps out of a book and sets everybody on fire. It’s your job to run after him when he jumps into a second book called J’nanin, so that you can try to recover a third book, called McGuffin Releeshahn. The conceit of these games is that books can transport you to fantastic new worlds, so it’s sort of like Reading Rainbow, if LeVar Burton was always too busy to help you, and the butterfly wanted to kill your whole family.
In this case, your quest is focussed in J’nanin, a world that Atrus built for his worthless, psychopath sons, to teach them how to be world builders (as you may imagine, that turned out really well). J’nanin links out to three more teaching worlds that operate according to separate and unique principles that you must discover and learn to manipulate, so that you can follow Saavedro to his final destination. Along the way, you find several creepy video messages Saavedro left for Atrus (assuming that Atrus would be the one to follow him instead of farming it out to a stranger – obviously he’s never met this dude), and the messages describe how Atrus’ psychopath sons destroyed his world.
From a story point of view, the question is whether you will now learn the things that Atrus’ sons failed to learn – including compassion.
Why is that awesome?
If you liked the first two Myst games, it might not be.
Myst was sort of presented as the thinking person’s computer game when it came out. You were dropped on a weird, stupid island with no back story about why you were there and no clear mission. For 99% of the game there were no other characters. The idea was that you were supposed to wander around randomly, and then become intrigued by scraps of paper you found in various places, and puzzles in want of solving. Gradually, through care, and innate interest, you were supposed to become enthralled by the mystery slowly unfolding in front of you, as two different men spoke to you from the pages of damaged books and lamented their wrongful imprisonment.
People liked it because it was insanely hard.
In practice, Myst was deliberately designed to give you the least amount of feedback possible, and the result was that you literally couldn’t tell if you were making progress most of the time. It was a system where you would pull a lever and then wander around for a few days, trying to see if it did anything. That’s interesting as an artistic statement about what games can be, but it’s not necessarily fun.
Riven, the second game, had a little more structure and was (to my mind) easier to figure out, but Exile is the first instalment of the Myst series that resembles a traditional game, with a story structure and a mission and clear signs as to whether or not you’ve progressed. That means it’s also the first one I really enjoyed, though I can see how fun would ruin it for some people. Here’s what I like about Exile:
- Exile takes what I think were the most promising elements of the series (organic, world-based puzzles) and makes them more accessible to players. Because there are clear parameters surrounding the puzzles, and because you can tell when you’ve solved them, it’s less frustrating, and you can appreciate how beautiful and clever everything is.
- Even though the studio still didn’t spring to have someone on screen with you for more than a few minutes, Exile brings character to the center of the story. As players, we’re interested to know what’s going on with Saavedro, and the emotional core of the story has to do with how we respond to someone who’s obviously horrible but has also been mistreated. It seems like a simplistic question, but it’s important, and it provides a thread that holds the rest of the story together.
- Bringing character to the center of the story also develops a theme. Atrus failed with his early worlds; he failed with his sons – now, he can achieve through you what he wasn’t able to achieve at the start. You can do all of the things his sons were supposed to do, and you can confront an antagonist whose antagonism directly represents all of Atrus’ previous failures. There’s a tension between the beauty and magic and wonder of the early worlds that Atrus created and the total clusterfuck that they seem to turn into because his family just totally sucks.
- Speaking of beauty and magic and wonder, the graphics in this game were excellent for the time it came out, and the worlds you explore are all unique and beautiful. My personal favourite was the world based on biology, Edanna. It’s full of plants and animals and solving the puzzles there depends on developing an understanding of the world’s ecosystem – how living things effect each other; the dynamic relationships between them. It’s a nice break from the mechanical puzzles that dominate the franchise.
- The puzzles in this game are structured logically and thematically. There are boundaries and parameters, and you instantly see a result if you do the right thing. Usually, you also get some kind of feedback when you do the wrong thing. One could argue that that also makes the puzzles easier – and it does – but to me, there’s a difference between having a puzzle that’s “hard” because you need to think in order to solve it, and having one that’s “hard” because the game doesn’t tell you when you got the right answer, or because it’s “hard” to figure out what you should even be trying to do.
When you put all of those things together, you have a story about big themes of right and wrong, legacy, forgiveness, and revenge tied to clever gameplay that presents clear challenges to the player and rewards right answers. The graphics are beautiful, the casting – if hilariously predictable – is good, everything makes sense, and you can beat it without going online and asking someone how. I had a really great time playing Exile when it was first released, and I remember it fondly all these years later. You know, unlike Myst, where I just remember staring at a sailboat and going “WTF?!”