realMyst: Masterpiece Edition Brings the Hunt for Red and Blue Pages to Switch
By Jeremy Parish
If The Secret of Monkey Island represents a high point for classic point-and-click adventure gaming, and Star Wars: Rebel Assault points to the genre’s bend toward “interactive movie” experiences once CD-ROM technology came along, Cyan Worlds’s Myst (and its updated version, realMyst) could be seen as a midpoint between the two.
Myst debuted in 1993 for Macintosh and PC and took what was, at the time, a radically minimalist approach to the adventure format. Despite its uncluttered interface and simple interface design, there was no mistaking what genre Myst belonged to. Its austere worlds were loaded with puzzles and mysteries, and players could absorb as much narrative and backstory as they liked while journeying through its unique environments. In every meaningful sense, it embraced the rules and design of adventure games. Myst simply made the genre more accessible to the masses than the often unforgiving works of the ’80s had been; its use of “Siliwood” style green-screened movies was sparing (to say the least). Full-motion video only showed up to depict environmental animations resulting from a player’s actions, and live actors only showed up around a handful of mysterious artifacts that tied into the player’s ultimate goals.
Perhaps because of this middle ground it treads, Myst has gone down in history as a divisive game, with critics and players split on whether it gave new life to adventure games or suffocated the genre. There’s no question, however, that it’s one of the best-selling video games of all time. Designed to take advantage of the enhanced storage capabilities of the CD-ROM format with its detailed, full-screen, computer-rendered environments, Myst quickly became a showpiece for new computer owners, who used it to show off their rigs the way stereo enthusiasts do with Pink Floyd’s The Dark Side of the Moon. Solitary, enigmatic, and gorgeous, Myst created a captivating world that enticed players to unravel its mysteries.
The game’s latest iteration, realMyst Masterpiece Edition for Nintendo Switch, carries forward that same evocative ethos, which co-creator Rand Miller describes as a mission of world-building. “When my brother and I designed and built the original Myst, we considered that we were making a world, not just a game,” says Miller. “We used all the technology we had at our disposal to try and make players feel like they had been whisked away to another world and had become part of the adventure. Because our goal was always to have players feel immersed in our worlds, new technology was simply a way for us to make the worlds more believable. realMyst is simply our evolution of Myst to make sure it is still the ‘surrealistic adventure that will become your world.’”
In short, realMyst recreates the puzzles and environments of Miller’s classic computer adventure while updating the tech to run in real-time 3D. The 1993 game was essentially an interactive slideshow, built around an aging technology called HyperCard, which limited it to a series of static images. Thanks to some clever design and a bit of custom programming, however, that slideshow appeared to push the boundaries of tech. “When the original Myst was released, the idea of having Myst-level graphics running in real time was impossible,” says Cyan’s Karl Johnson. “You'd click a hotspot on the screen, hear the whirring of the CD-ROM drive, and then be presented with the next image. Making everything pre-rendered was the only way that Myst could achieve its (at the time) believable graphics.”
realMyst, on the other hand, is better suited for modern expectations. It presents its environments as immersive 3D spaces players can maneuver around and through, allowing them to take in the island’s sights at their own pace rather than clicking from one pre-rendered image to another. realMyst debuted on PCs in 2000 and has appeared on numerous platforms since then, and with each revision it enjoys small improvements over the previous releases. For example, the original release of realMyst suffered sharp criticism for its jumpy graphical framerates, which some felt shattered the sense of immersion that had been promised. The Switch release, Johnson says, doesn’t simply run at a much higher resolution than the older PC version, it also maintains a steady 30 frames per second throughout. At the same time, it benefits from 20 years of refinement and experience, incorporating all the best practices of the releases in between in ways that specifically take advantage of the Switch’s unique hardware.
“When we made realMyst for iOS, we were faced with making things even more simplified than what we'd be expected to do for a PC or console experience,” says Johnson. “We figured out how to have a single touch interface for the whole game, which I would say was the most difficult part when developing it… understanding and maximizing the context of what the player will want to do. The Nintendo Switch has so many ways to play, we can take advantage of both types of player control without getting too much in the way.”
“Interface changes do usually bring design challenges,” says Neal Laurenza of developer Skymap Games. “The original Myst used a mouse-driven interface, which translates well to the Switch touchscreen. To tackle this, we simply mapped cursor actions to the touchscreen. What was a little trickier was porting the real-time mouse and keyboard-driven interface to the Switch controller. Mouse-and-keyboard works great for puzzles, since it's as easy as clicking and dragging, but fans of adventure/puzzle games know this doesn't translate well to a console.
“Lead Engineer Patrick Ryan and I decided to pitch Cyan on a hybrid control. We would make the gamepad work more like a typical first-person game, but when interacting with puzzles that require finesse, we'd lock the camera into position and provide a virtual cursor. They liked the idea as long as we could keep the ability to switch back and forth between touch and gamepad at-will. I think what we ended up with is a really nice, no-compromise hybrid. If you're undocked, you can play point-and-click with your finger, or with the standard gamepad. When docked, you can use the new controls to move around with the gamepad, and when you need it, use the cursor.”
The result is a take on Myst that actually is as immersive as the game felt back in 1993. In terms of content, however, Johnson says little has ultimately changed. “The game design had relatively stayed the same between all the versions of Myst, but realMyst just allows that extra little bit of exploration and interaction,” he says.
Laurenza says the move to Switch has made possible unique gracenotes beyond the flexibility to switch between different interfaces when playing in handheld and television modes. “We've added HD Rumble in areas of the game where it feels most natural,” he says. “My personal favorite is the vibration of the elevator going up the tower on Myst Island. Also for those who've played realMyst on other platforms, there's a nice UI update; it was much needed to improve the controller support.”
realMyst also adds new material to the game for those who have explored the original game inside and out. A sixth Age, or standalone world, has been added to the game: The Rime Age. Built around the lore detailed in both sequels and the Myst novels from the 1990s, the Rime Age helps provide greater context for the mysteries and conflicts players encounter as they explore the main island. However, Johnson stresses that players don’t need to undertake a deep dive into the Myst expanded universe in order to enjoy realMyst.
“Knowing the Myst game lore isn't necessary in order to jump in and play,” he says. “A lot of the narrative is found by exploring the environments and finding journals left behind by people who inhabited these locations. The Rime Age is one of the worlds written by Atrus, Myst's main protagonist. It's a really cold world with a few surprises for players who put in the extra work to get there.”
In short, realMyst Masterpiece Edition works as a definitive edition for one of the most popular games ever. At the same time, it’s also a highly personal venture for the teams at both Cyan and Skymap.
“Jason [Calvert] and I worked a few nights and weekends on proving that we could update realMyst to work on various platforms,” says Johnson. "We started with the Channelwood Age. At the time, a lot of the assets and tools were out of date, which made it difficult to believe that we could get things up and running. When we were able to show Rand and Tony Channelwood for the first time, I remember their eyes widening and being on board to making this side project a full production.”
“This entire process has been a dream for me,” says Laurenza. “Growing up, Myst and the other games within the series provided some of the most formative experiences in recognizing games as an art form. Having the opportunity to work on one of my favorite games on one of my favorite consoles has been a bucket list item few game developers get the chance to check off.”