Thoughts on the announced Myst TV Series

What is there to say about Myst?  It’s one of gaming’s first genuine hits with mainstream audiences.  It was a pioneer of computer graphics and game visuals.  It’s approach to storytelling and puzzle design have inspired modern games like The Room and Gone Home, and its sense of mystery and wonder was one of the big inspirations behind the TV series Lost.  For me, it was one of the games that got me into wanting to learn computer graphics and make immersive worlds, alongside the original Doom.

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While later games in the series released in the early 2000’s eventually lost the widespread appeal that the early games did, the series made a splash again when it was released on iOS in 2009.  It was on the top sellers lists for a while, as people who owned the game back in the day but never finished it bought it again on their touch devices, and it found a new audience as well.  It also was a pioneer of “serious” games on mobile, with its success at an (at the time) astonishing 727 MB download encouraged other developers to make bigger games on the platform.

In this light, Legendary’s recently announced partnership with Cyan to make a Myst television show alongside a transmedia game element makes a lot of sense.

I look at the comments sections of articles reporting the announcement, and I see a lot of reactions similar to this Penny Arcade joke.  I’m not sure how much of this is the internet snark machine and how much of this is people not understanding how much potential there is in this idea, so I figured I’d talk about why I think it’s a good idea and talk about my theories about what it might look like.

I actually just did a full playthrough of the game in the form of RealMyst: Materpiece Edition on Steam, which updates the original Myst to the Unity engine with modern 3D graphics.  If you’re interested in seeing a gallery of my screenshots from that version of the game, you can go here.

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First of all, I’ll do what everyone else who followed the series has done and point out that Myst had a surprisingly rich backstory, fleshed out over 5 main games in the series, three novels, and a spinoff game/MMO.  However, most of the fans are thinking that this is going to be an adaptation of one of the novels (a miniseries or movie of the Book of Atrus would actually be  really good but I doubt that’s what they’re doing) or an adaptation of the plot of the spinoff game Uru, which details how modern humans find the ruins of the D’ni civilization which created the art of writing the series’ iconic linking books which take you to other worlds.

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So, while the first novel is one of my favorite books ever, and Riven is a work of art, and Uru fleshes out the history of the D’ni civilization in an ahead-of-its-time fashion, I’m guessing that a television series which needs to capture a large audience is not being greenlit based on these lesser known aspects of the series.  I’m certain that the writers will draw upon the series’ rich lore, but I’m assuming that those things aren’t strong enough for a studio to greenlight a large undertaking like this.

Instead I’m assuming that the studio was interested in a few specific things:

  1.  Obviously, the MYST name.  It’s one of the most iconic series in gaming history.
  2. I’m also assuming that they care about capturing the mainstream audience that bought the first game in the 90s, then bought it again on their iOS devices a few years ago.  They’re not interested in exploring the more obscure parts of the lore, at least not right away, and I’m guessing that they don’t care about appealing to the hardcore D’ni historians.
  3. I’m also assuming they care about the iconic imagery of Myst Island itself.  The library, the spaceship, the sunken ship… while later games in the series built worlds that felt more lived in and fleshed out, and had even more of a sense of place that the original did, and while the other games in the series still featured fantastic locales, there’s just something about the visuals of the original, about lighthouses and boats fused with jagged rocks in the middle of an endless ocean, about clock towers and libraries with people trapped in books, that immediately sparks the imagination and I feel was crucial to the game’s initial success.  It’s also what the aforementioned mainstream audience thinks of when they think of Myst.  They think of lighthouses and mechanical puzzles they were never able to figure out in the 90s.
  4. So on the “game” element or transmedia aspect to the show that was announced… I have lots of ideas on how a proper transmedia experience would work, but I’ll save those for another time.  But, a couple points of fact.  First of all, Myst Island itself and the books in its iconic library make for a great framing device for telling stories and exploring new worlds in a serialized show format (which is a core appeal of the franchise) while connecting everything back to Myst itself (which connects back to my third point above).  As others have said, the Linking Books make a great storytelling device in the vein of StarGate. Secondly, a lot of the mainstream audience that played Myst never finished it because they didn’t solve the puzzles, and later games in the series only got harder from there. Third, it’s almost a certainly that the newfound interest in the series is inspired by the commercial success of the games on mobile devices.

    Finally, you have quotes like this about the transmedia element:

    “Seventy percent of tablet owners use their device while watching TV at least several times a week. Cyan sees the potential to push the boundaries of interactive storytelling to a new level.”

    This quote and the above facts make it obvious to me that they’re going to be making a tablet-focused experience that they can continually update as the show goes on.  All the worlds in the original Myst were very small in size, unlike the sprawling worlds of later games.  I’m guessing that (especially if they use Myst Island as a base of operations) you’ll be able to log into the app, explore the worlds you see in the show, and maybe see some new things based on the events of the show.  There may be some clues hidden around to flesh out the worlds we see, or maybe some hints about upcoming events in the show.  They may include some puzzles but I’m guessing the number and difficulty will not be what you get in a “real” Myst game.  I’m assuming that the point here is to foster discussion and interest in the show, so the emphasis will probably be exploration (a hallmark of the series) and not overwhelmingly difficult puzzles.  Remember, they’re not making Myst 6, they’re making an experimental transmedia accompaniment to a television show reboot of Myst.

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So, with all of that said, what’s my theory about what the show will be about?  Why is a game about flipping switches good source material for television?

As I mentioned, I recently replayed the first game.  Everyone thinks of the slow pace, cerebral gameplay, and meditative atmosphere of these games.  Fans of the series know the backstory is filled with violence, with tyrants driven to madness by the power held within the linking books, and the genocide of the entire D’ni civilization which invented the books.  What I’d forgotten about the original though, is just how dark it is at points, with the violence much more direct.  Like Gone Home in modern times, everything you learn about the story is learned through subtle exploration of the environments.  In the course of your explorations, you’ll read Atrus’ journals of the Myst worlds, where you learn that 3 of the four worlds you visit used to be populated.  However, when you visit them, they’re all entirely deserted.  Exactly what happened is left to your imagination, but there’s enough clues that it can’t be anything good.  In the journal for the Mechanical Age, you read about the “Black Ships”, who leveled the majestic city rising out of the water built by the world’s inhabitants.  Atrus sketches the symbol of their flag, which you later see in a dresser that belongs to Sirrus (the brother in the Red Book) on another world.  Sirrus has caches of gold and wine in his rooms on many of the worlds, as well as needles and pills.  You see furniture smashed, possibly in a fit of rage or a struggle on Channelwood.  As far as Achenar, the guy has a secret compartment in his throne room on the Mechanical Age filled with jars of poison, an electrified cage, and a chest containing a mummified head!

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There’s enough there to suggest that, driven mad with delusions of godhood from the power they held in the Myst books, they slowly destroyed all of the worlds they visited, enslaved, and killed their inhabitants.  That’s one of the things that’s often overlooked about the game in light of its other great accomplishments; it was one of gaming’s earliest attempts at a morality tale; each of the brothers pleads with you to trust them over the other, but in the end the right answer is not to choose the lesser of two evils.  This attempt to include a moral conundrum into the game became a staple of the series.

So how does this relate back to the idea of the show and what I think would really work as a TV series based off Myst?

I think there’s really potential to show the character development of Sirrus and Achenar, the two evil brothers trapped in the books in the original Myst game.

It would be set on Myst Island, as a framing device.  They could explore new worlds all the time.  Shows like House of Cards and Breaking Bad are popular nowadays, as people have a desire to see how great villains are forged.  A Myst series wouldn’t have to be anywhere near that dark but there’s enough left to the imagination about how this happened that there’s plenty of room to tell a great story.  What experiences set them on this path?  We learn in the first Myst novel that Atrus’ grandmother Anna was his moral compass early in his life, and we know that she lived on Myst Island with Atrus, Catherine, and the two brothers, her great grandchildren.  At some point she died before the events of Myst (you can see her gravestone in realMyst).  How did her death affect the brothers and their moral upbringing?  How did it affect Atrus, their father?  How were they raised by Atrus?  Was he absent minded, thinking of the burden of dealing with his father’s evil (resolved in Riven, Myst’s sequel) and restoring his lost civilization?  I feel like there’s enough there unexplained that you could visit exotic vistas, tell great stories about the worlds visited, and build some great characters over time.

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