The adventure game Myst is now 20 years old. Yet to most people in my generation who grew up in a close relationship with games, it remains unforgettable. Its opening moments deposit the player on a beautiful, mysterious island full of ancient buildings and opaque machinery against the ambient sounds of creaking wood and lapping water.
It had to take place across islands, its creators have said, because the invisible walls necessary to confine gameplay in open spaces broke the immersion too much. And these spaces were uninhabited by humans, because the technology to make that interaction plausible wasn’t quite there yet – you could argue it still isn’t, and that we don’t yet know how to build interactions with game characters that don’t exaggerate the inhumanity of games.
Glassy-eyed AIs swaying in place and offering dialogue trees require more than a little suspension of disbelief. The only way to interact with people in game worlds that feels plausible has to be brief and quickly dispensed – the player needs to snuff out their animatronic lives before she has the chance to notice how unnatural they are.
For a game that doesn’t include combat, it’s better for people to be distant concepts and rarely confronted; better to be gone altogether, because then the player has a job to do. The absence of life is also an unnatural state, but it’s one the player can resolve slowly and thoughtfully. Myst’s few characters are flickering echoes – part of the mystery of why the dreamlike islands exist at all.
From a few sensible design constraints, a transformative adventure game was born. In Myst’s heyday, it was thought to represent a bold new direction for games themselves, yet its success would never be repeated in its time.
Cyan’s Rand Miller told me recently that’s because that breed of environmental puzzle design – transporting, purposeful, story-driven – is deceptively difficult to do well. At the time, it took money and resources big publishers were apparently not eager to expend.
Things are quite different now, of course. You no longer need a big publisher or a well-heeled studio to make a game of Myst’s ilk. You can do it with a mod, or with a low-cost engine, and many do. Gone Home is an exploration-based game that hewed to similar constraints – a single house full of physical objects where all the people are gone; Dear Esther’s storytelling was enhanced by obeisance to the same concepts.
It’s interesting to think that if Myst arrived in today’s landscape, it would be viewed by the traditional gaming audience as an esoteric indie ‘not a game’. Can you imagine that? It’s generally frowned upon to express a preference for a lack of violence. If you don’t like combat in firstperson games, you must not be hardcore enough. You aren’t a ‘real’ gamer. You might even be a girl. But the current renaissance of developers exploring alternatives to combat – pushing against our understanding of what’s entertaining, or permissible, to portray in firstperson spaces – is telling.
These are not creators who are too soft. Rather they’re unearthing massive unsolved design problems – potential shelved at the waning of the adventure age because best practices were too difficult, too complicated to divine and perfect.
At the time of writing, Myst’s original creators are seeking Kickstarter funding for a new firstperson environment-driven puzzle game made in, of all things, Unreal Engine 4 [It has been successfully funded since]. Things come in cycles, Rand Miller told me. Industry watchers have anticipated the saturation point for FPSes for some time.
Being bored of making combat games doesn’t indicate a developer too sensitive for blood and violence, or unable to compete in the hardened realms of supposed ‘true’ gamers. True appreciation for and participation in the form should mean a continuous willingness to seek new challenges and new means of interaction, shouldn’t it? Toughness means the irrepressible urge to dredge up ancient problems and devise innovative solutions to limitations. Combat may just be a distraction from all the other interesting things that can be done with firstperson play.
It’s interesting to see that the traditional audience continually revolts, and often loudly, when anyone suggests that violence might be undesirable or excessive in a game, and that firstperson games without combat are somehow not real. To be fair, this is likely the result of two decades of moral panic around games, which are continually called up to play scapegoat for problematic behaviour in society. Real-world violence is, of course, not the fault of games, and somehow fans have completed their logic loop by declaring it treacherous and impure to criticise game violence in any way – even if the criticism is that the focus on violence is inhibiting to new avenues in the medium.
Audiences that profess a desire for violence are likely to be served more of it. It is unpopular to ask whether that’s the best use of our time or our medium, but it’s important. Perhaps experimenting with alternatives in the firstperson space will be embraced as it ought to be in time: as genuine bravery and devotion to a diverse and ever-expanding form of play.