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RE[14]: Game Reviews


:: Myst III: Exile

* Point & Click Adventure, PC/Mac(PPC-OS8), PS2, XBox and other systems via ResidualVM

There are at least three different 'schools' of adventure gaming with distinct styles centring around how they each handle puzzles. You've got the 'rub everything on everything else' school dominated by LucasArts, the 'IQ test hidden in the form of a game' school which specialises in stand-out puzzles that exist more as distractions than plot items -- the Frogwares' Sherlock Holmes series largely typifies this -- and lastly you have the 'lateral thinking' school which is exemplified by the Myst series.

I will sidestep plot for the moment to say first that Myst III is a great deal more 'solvable' than Myst or Riven (Myst II). The need for walkthroughs for those games was legendary. Lateral thinking puzzles work not by rubbing your inventory items together (Myst games have almost no inventory to speak of) but by the configuring of state machines and automata based on perceptual clues (e.g. order, colour, sound) and it is very difficult to brute-force these in the 'I give up, let's just try using everything on everything else' kind of way.

Myst III's puzzles are not without their difficulties though: the complete lack of instruction on how a mechanism works -- a mainstay and fundamental part of Myst -- means that sometimes you either 'get it' or don't. The feeling of having worked a puzzle out from pure action and reaction is great, but it can be a two-edged sword, leaving you hopelessly lost and confused in other situations. Some puzzles can be conceptually worked out quite quickly but then may take a long time to execute correctly and this is all the more painful if you have to traverse several screens back and forth between actions. The final puzzle of the game is a complete curve-ball, requiring 'literally read our minds' level of lateral thinking -- you'll want to use a guide for that.

The first Myst is an okay game, notable as a touch-stone of the time and important for its historical context, but you wouldn't be missing a great deal if you skipped it. There are modern remakes with full real-time 3D graphics available that make the experience more engaging and a lot less perceptually 'slow'.

Riven (the sequel) is one of the most beautiful and captivating games ever made, absolutely worth playing even if you will almost certainly have to resort to an FAQ/walkthrough to be able to tie all the loose ends up finally.

Myst III is often overlooked and under-appreciated because it broke no real ground compared to its forbears and the games market at the time had swung very heavily to fast-paced, real-time 3D games. Myst III is the last of a generation of pre-rendered 'photo-realistic' adventure games and what this game achieves with such low-tech playback is nothing short of astounding to me, even in this age when there exists real-time photo-realistic VR.

Playing Myst III is very much like a modern-day VR-game (something that didn't exist in comparable form back in the day); you have a full spherical field of view and whilst you cannot move freely in any direction you instead 'step' from one POV to another, further along the scene. it's very much like those 'virtual tours' on websites -- the original game uses the same "QuickTime VR" rendering technology.

The move to the 'POV spheres' over Myst/Riven's slide-show system increases immersion a great deal. Now you feel much more within the scene rather than panning a fixed camera on a tripod around like you're on a Riven geological survey.

Gameplay consists of wandering the environments and playing with a large assortment of Rube-Goldberg like machines (sometimes organic) unlocking new areas and pieces of bigger puzzles. (A new way to describe this sub-genre has emerged and became popular as 'walking simulators')

I'm most impressed by just how effectively a handful of low-tech tricks adds more depth and realism. Static, pre-rendered scenes are made to look more real-time through the use of video/animated 'patches' on the POV sphere and areas of water have been masked with a simple 2D post-processing 'wobble' giving a surprisingly accurate (for such a blatantly simple trick) representation of the reflections/shadows of scenery rippling in the water based on a completely static rendering of a water surface.

The whole thing could be produced in JavaScript now without too much fuss but what pleases and inspires me most is just how much immersion can be produced with such little [playback] technology. It does serve to highlight how monumental and overwrought the task of producing a real-time 3D game with these visuals would be nowadays, vs. something your grandma's computer could run in a browser.

There is, of course, downsides to this approach. Since you can only move from one fixed perspective point to another, the game makes it needlessly difficult to perceive where the next available points are. You simply click somewhere on the scene and hope that an actual path exists that way (regardless of what visually you see). In the organic environment this gets particularly troublesome and more than once you will outright miss an available path and deal with quite a bit of disorientation. This issue could have been largely mitigated by providing a different cursor type for paths but perhaps they felt that broke the immersion level too much, it would certainly be appreciated as an option in ResidualVM (a modern open-source engine capable of running the game).

The pre-rendered graphics, state-of-the-art at the time, hold up fantastically well today. The whole game's premise is to be surrealistic and preternatural, which brings us on to plot. Now that we have explained what Myst III is, let's explain what it's about.

The plot of the Myst series generally revolves around a man named Atrus, one of a small remaining number of an ancient civilisation known as the D'ni who can create new self-contained worlds by writing books. Throughout the games you play an anonymous stranger who gets tasked by Atrus to sort out whatever issue is plaguing him. In the first game, this was restoring the lost pages of two books that Atrus had used to imprison his two wayward sons. In Riven you are sent in to a decaying world to rescue Atrus' wife from his power-mad father Gehn.

The third game is interesting for players of the previous games as it provides a side-story to the first -- the reckless behaviour of Atrus' sons had left a native of another one of Atrus' worlds trapped for a long time in a 'tutorial world' Atrus created as a learning exercise for when his sons were young. Here he has been setting up a cat-mouse game with the plan of trapping Atrus as revenge for his abandonment which he blames Atrus for. You, the player, end up in this trap instead of the intended Atrus and you'll have to work your way through the worlds within and catch up with the antagonist - a rather well acted, scripted and developed character which the designers have clearly worked at pains on making him more than your usual two-dimensional baddy.

You have various tasks to do in the first world to unlock and access three additional self-contained and distinct worlds before the showdown in a final world elsewhere. This structure mirrors the first game so whilst you'll still be doing a lot of wandering around (in required Myst-fashion), it's not nearly as broad and bewildering in scope as the 'barren desert of happenings' that is Riven (that game's more about atmosphere then plot goings-on).

Due to the quantity of media and the limitations of storage at the time (the game came on 4 CD ROMs), not least production costs for all that rendering, the game is fairly short -- approximately 5 hours. It's best enjoyed leisurely and resorting to a walkthrough only for hints to move forward after you've been wandering around for a while knowing that you're missing something obvious.... somewhere.

Myst III is -- as far as I know -- *not* available for digital purchase anywhere. It was available on 4 CDs and later as a single DVD. Whilst the game runs fine on modern hardware it requires the CD in the drive and you may want to use ResidualVM instead to avoid that and to play Myst III on machines without optical drives, or on a wider range of platforms including modern Macs, Linux, Amiga and even Haiku.

:: Highlights

* Outstanding atmosphere, visuals and immersion
* Better forward momentum and more reasonable puzzles than Myst & Riven
* Largely missed by players of the first Myst & Riven so a worthwhile game to track down

:: Areas of Improvement

* Nowhere near as enigmatic as Riven

* There are some graphical glitches where limitations in storage, media and technology at the time meant that they couldn't cram in more frames of animation on the disc to mask every instance of the transitions between static rendered scenery (particularly water) and video. If the source 3D files exist for the game, I'd love to see it re-rendered with always animating scenery

* The integrated live-acting video is of a noticeably lower resolution and quality than the other assets, a fault of the developer not using high definition cameras at the time. This would be the part most-difficult to remaster

* Despite a great increase in the quality of the FMV over Riven, compression artefacts still spoil some of the video pieces (and there's significantly more video than in Riven)

* Soundtrack is okay but not at the level of Riven

* Basically it's not Riven and Myst III will never escape that despite being a better playing game

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