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Subject: Myst Mania (mid 90s)

Written By: 90s Guy on 07/03/21 at 12:48 pm

Does anyone else remember this?

My family got a computer either in 1994 or 1995...Hard to tell, likely early 1995. But I remember we got Myst around this time and we tried figuring it out, and my dad told me that around that time a lot of his co-workers (think people in their late 30s/early 40s in the mid 90s) got computers JUST to play Myst. Like, they didn't have water coolers at his job but Myst was like, water cooler discussion basically, beating that game was like a thing.

Does anyone else remember this? Maybe it was a 30+ thing but it seems to have been an actual thing for a time around 1994-1996.

Subject: Re: Myst Mania (mid 90s)

Written By: wagonman76 on 07/03/21 at 11:57 pm

Never heard of it. I didn’t get a computer until 1997.

Looking it up it appears to be early 3D animation like Doom.

Subject: Re: Myst Mania (mid 90s)

Written By: Voiceofthe70s on 07/04/21 at 9:23 am

Never heard of it. I didn’t get a computer until 1997.

Looking it up it appears to be early 3D animation like Doom.

I never heard of it either.

Subject: Re: Myst Mania (mid 90s)

Written By: 90s Guy on 07/05/21 at 1:02 am

It was literally the best selling PC game of all time from 1995 until The Sims came out.

Wired and The New York Times were among the publications that pointed to Myst as evidence that video games could, in fact, evolve into an art form.

Entertainment Weekly reported that some players considered Myst's "virtual morality" a religious experience.

Myst was an immense commercial success. Along with The 7th Guest, it was widely regarded as a killer application that accelerated the sales of CD-ROM drives.

Broderbund sold 200,000 copies of the Macintosh version in six months after its September 1993 debut; such sales would have been enough to make it a best-selling PC game, and were extraordinary in the much smaller Macintosh market. Although requiring a CD drive further reduced the potential market, the difficulty of software piracy for CD-ROM software before CD burners became popular also helped sales.

Broderbund began porting Myst to Windows immediately after the Macintosh version's debut, with a larger team than the Miller brothers' group. It appeared in March 1994 on Windows and was even more successful. More than one million copies of the game were sold by spring 1995; even a strategy guide written in three weeks sold 300,000 copies. Unusually for a video game, sales continued to increase; 850,000 copies in the United States in 1996, and 870,000 in 1997. US sales decreased to 540,000 copies in 1998, but the growing popularity in Europe of multimedia PCs increased sales there. Myst did not depend on poor quality full motion video unlike other early CD-ROM products, so its graphics remained appealing long after release.

By April 1998, Myst had sold 3.82 million units and earned $141.7 million in revenue in the United States. This led PC Data to declare it the country's best-selling computer game for the period between January 1993 and April 1998. Myst sold more than 6.3 million units worldwide by 2000, including more than 4.3 million in the United States.

Myst was the bestselling PC game throughout the 1990s until The Sims exceeded its sales in 2002, and was the top-selling game in the US for a total of 52 months between March 1993 and April 1999

Subject: Re: Myst Mania (mid 90s)

Written By: Philip Eno on 07/05/21 at 1:13 am

I never heard of it either.
Ditto for me.

Subject: Re: Myst Mania (mid 90s)

Written By: 90s Guy on 07/05/21 at 2:45 pm

The game isn't called Myst Mania.

It was called Myst, released in September 1993.

I noted the sales figures. It was literally considered among the most important PC games released during the entire 1990s and along with Doom and a few other titles did a lot to help sell computers. Like Doom, it was also ported to a number of consoles, as well.

Note as said above; it was the highest selling PC game in North America until 2002 when The Sims surpassed it.

Subject: Re: Myst Mania (mid 90s)

Written By: 90s Guy on 07/05/21 at 2:46 pm

Subject: Re: Myst Mania (mid 90s)

Written By: 90s Guy on 07/05/21 at 2:50 pm

''In one of the earlier weeks of this semester, I had students play Myst (Cyan 1993) and read Mark J.P. Wolf’s Myst & Riven: The World of the D’Ni (University of Michigan Press, 2011). The majority of my students are juniors and seniors, and while I have a graduate student and a few older students thrown in the mix, most of the students in the class are around age 22, meaning they were at most doing some advanced toddling when the game first came out. Despite this, many of them had very specific memories of their parents playing Myst in the years after its release. One student recalled his parents sitting up at night talking about bits of the game they’d figured out; another said his father had traced maps from the computer screen, to study and take notes on. In short, despite being just a shade older than the game, many students had distinct memories of Myst as cultural phenomenon.

To describe Myst as it was is a bit difficult. The game was the top-selling computer game for nearly 20 years — The Sims beat it out in 2002 — and was so hot that people bought CD-ROM drives just to be able to play the game. While it’s common to hear people talk about the video game (read: arcade and console) game craze of the early 1980s, it seems easier to forget the extent to which Myst captured public attention and drove obsession, even among people who may have never played computer games before, and, according to my students’ recounting of parental Myst habits, may not have shown much interest in computer games since. For me, Myst was definitely a landmark, and was one of the first computer games I owned. My family didn’t own a computer until Christmas ’93, and, after much begging and very specific instruction on what exactly I wanted, I received Myst the subsequent Christmas.

In assigning Myst this semester, I wondered how my students would respond to the game. While we’re playing many old games of various kinds (Adventure, for example, and Pong), Myst is distinctive for its emphasis on graphics and its position as a benchmark specifically for computer (not console) gaming. In class, most of my students said they enjoyed the game; I won’t doubt them on this, since they were very frank about finding Adventure exasperating. We also spent a long time discussing how the game’s sound effects serve informational purposes while setting the tone for the game, and how the graphics have aged remarkably well. Part of this, I believe, is the persistence of point-and-click adventure games. Myst doesn’t feel that old because so many games mirror its format. Myst is a historically significant game that also remains compelling

Subject: Re: Myst Mania (mid 90s)

Written By: 90s Guy on 07/05/21 at 2:51 pm

''If you so much as glanced in the direction of a computer in the mid-90s, you'll have heard of Cyan's seminal graphic adventure game, which not only heralded the advent of the CD-Rom as the format that would drive the future of computer gaming but also achieved the rare feat of becoming a cultural phenomenon. In 1993, everyone was playing Myst and when they weren't playing it, they were talking about it.

Completing one of the game's notoriously complex puzzles became a marker of vanity and social worth, bringing with it the satisfaction not only of in-game progress but also being approached by awe-struck peers desperate to know how you pulled it off and listening with a quiet sneer to their tales of frustration in worlds you have passed through days before. New sights and accidental discoveries were instantly broadcast amongst friends, desperate to claim the front-runner spot in the race towards the game's conclusion.

The first who completed the game were spoken of in awe and the trepidation of not knowing whether to call them up instantly and get all the answers, or resist that epic temptation to maintain the glee of making every discovery on your own and the knowledge that your advancement was down to nothing but your own wits. But then, your friends were already talking about raising the sunken ship... would it really be so bad to ask for just one little hint...?

I was eight years old when the game's popularity exploded and even I watched in fascination as family members struggled to find the links between the clues and codes scribbled onto their computer-side notepad. School friends of the same age were having much of the same experience, even though none of us were old enough to understand what was going on or even how the game worked. We saw our elders enraptured by the worlds on-screen and did everything we could to be there with them and share in their fleeting moments of glory.

Over time, Myst's reputation has taken quite the battering amongst the gaming community, who have accused it of being everything from the beginning of the end of the point-and-click adventure, to an 'anti-game' for its slow pace and lack of death threats or puzzle-solving assistance. Publishers' eagerness to capitalise on the title's success by porting the game to every conceivable system regardless of compatibility (much lamented versions of the game have even appeared on the DS and PSP, despite the game's requirement of note-taking and long-term deduction surely antithetical to the nature of portable gaming) can't have helped, nor the diminishing quality and increasing pretensions that came with each of its four sequels.

There's no denying that with the benefit of hindsight there are plenty of issues with the game that simply wouldn't hold up today. While the logic underpinning the many puzzles is actually far more straightforward and cohesive than we might be willing to accept given difficulties experienced at the time, the vast majority of them are variations on the mundane trope of finding a code and then the right place and manner in which to input it.

The game's non-linearity is one of its greatest assets in allowing the player to discover the secrets of Myst island on their own, but it also means that clues can be collected in such a random order and accumulated in such numbers that it becomes an overwhelming task to remember which ones are linked to which place and how they can be fitted together and used - the aforementioned similarity between the puzzles and plethora of four-digit or symbol codes only exacerbates the issue.

Once you manage to organise yourself and get moving at a steady pace through the game, the quantity of backtracking weighs ever heavier as an artificial barrier to progressing as rapidly as you deserve. Having to make a return trip to each discovered world (or 'Age') because your character can only carry one of the vital book pages back to the library hub at a time feels like quite the insult after having spent so much timing decoding a path to having both within your grasp at once.

But Myst's protracted length and crowded, over-familiar puzzle structure were issues already identified by critics and players at the time, even if their impact can be felt more keenly now with the advances in design made in the fifteen-odd years since its first release. While famous for its difficulty, the puzzles were never the game's big draw.

The game's real success is the cohesion with which it blends its story, its symbols and its environments. The advancements in graphics technology have meant that most remember Myst's visuals within the damning epithet of 'impressive for their time' without affording them the necessary examination to see why their impact was the result of a far more considered and complex equation than merely pushing the technical boundaries of the time. The game's main island was not only visually impressive, but its every landmark and object designed to inspire players' curiosities and imaginations.

Just as the Legend of Zelda series was born out of the young Shigeru Miyamoto's enthusiasm for exploring the caves near his home, Myst packs its hub with the kinds of places and symbols representative all the mysteries and adventures that inspired our exploratory instincts while growing up. Who as a child didn't dream of finding treasure amongst sunken ships, unravelling the patterns of the night sky, unlocking the forgotten knowledge hiding in Ancient Grecian libraries or devising coded languages of animal symbols? Myst island is a construction made of the bricks that are foundations of our imagination. The magical books, hidden within its depths, offer portals to new corners of creation we can only travel to on the wings given by the sights and sounds folding together our dreams.

Unlike the busy island linking them together, the individual Ages feel like stages waiting for a first story to bring them to life. Their themes are at once familiar and eerie in their contradictions (the natural and the mechanical, the artful and the scientific, the sail and the rock), with each of their offered toys placed too deliberately and purposefully to be anything other than an invitation for you to bring definition to them and their homes.

The books in the game act as symbols of imaginative leaps of faith, the brilliance and bravery of our ability to create new realities from the world that has been written for us, enriching it with our individual interpretations. This theme is at the heart not only of the game's story, but the entire experience of the game. You are alone in Myst's playground, without the only help or hindrance to discovery being yourself because to involve any outside party would violate the very heart of what is to be taken away from the experience: we write the stories of our own lives, through the way we see the world, how we solve it and how we make it our own.

At the end of the game, a choice is given between accepting the testimony of the captured storytellers who have tried to make us see the world from their perspective and bring them the final page to complete their books, or put faith in choosing a new book whose details are unknown to us (which the other storytellers threaten will lead to imprisonment).

Though Robyn and Rand Miller's game is now most famous for its mind-bending puzzles, Myst's appeal goes far deeper than the nature of its play mechanics, driving players to explore its worlds by tapping into the symbols and dreams that represent the human imagination's hunger to explore and write stories to give meaning to everything it finds. The intimate link between the the game's art design and themes give it a relevance and depth that even more technologically advanced titles rarely come close to achieving. While later entries in the series betrayed this vision, resulting in declining sales and popularity, Myst deserves to be remembered for the reasons it inspired rather than frustrated us. As it's so keen to remind us, any story can be rewritten.

Subject: Re: Myst Mania (mid 90s)

Written By: Philip Eno on 07/05/21 at 2:52 pm
Still does not ring any bells with me.

Subject: Re: Myst Mania (mid 90s)

Written By: 90s Guy on 07/05/21 at 2:55 pm

''Myst would prove to be one of the most polarizing games in history, loved and hated in equal measure. Even today, everyone seems to have a strong opinion about it, whether they’ve actually played it or not.

Myst‘s admirers are numerous enough to have made it the best-selling single adventure game in history, as well as the best-selling 1990s computer game of any type in terms of physical units shifted at retail: over 6 million boxed copies sold between its release in 1993 and the dawn of the new millennium. In the years immediately after its release, it was trumpeted at every level of the mainstream press as the herald of a new, dawning age of maturity and aesthetic sophistication in games. Then, by the end of the decade, it was lamented as a symbol of what games might have become, if only the culture of gaming had chosen it rather than the near-simultaneously-released Doom as its model for the future. Whatever the merits of that argument, the hardcore Myst lovers remained numerous enough in later years to support five sequels, a series of novels, a tabletop role-playing game, and multiple remakes and remasters of the work which began it all. Their passion was such that, when Cyan gave up on an attempt to turn Myst into a massively-multiplayer game, the fans stepped in to set up their own servers and keep it alive themselves.

And yet, for all the love it’s inspired, the game’s detractors are if anything even more committed than its proponents. For a huge swath of gamers, Myst has become the poster child for a certain species of boring, minimally interactive snooze-fest created by people who have no business making games — and, runs the spoken or unspoken corollary, played by people who have no business playing them. Much of this vitriol comes from the crowd who hate any game that isn’t violent and visceral on principle.

But the more interesting and perhaps telling brand of hatred comes from self-acknowledged fans of the adventure-game genre. These folks were usually raised on the Sierra and LucasArts traditions of third-person adventures — games that were filled with other characters to interact with, objects to pick up and carry around and use to solve puzzles, and complicated plot arcs unfolding chapter by chapter. They have a decided aversion to the first-person, minimalist, deserted, austere Myst, sometimes going so far as to say that it isn’t really an adventure game at all. But, however they categorize it, they’re happy to credit it with all but killing the adventure genre dead by the end of the 1990s. Myst, so this narrative goes, prompted dozens of studios to abandon storytelling and characters in favor of yet more sterile, hermetically sealed worlds just like its. And when the people understandably rejected this airless vision, that was that for the adventure game writ large. Some of the hatred directed toward Myst by stalwart adventure fans — not only fans of third-person graphic adventures, but, going even further back, fans of text adventures — reaches an almost poetic fever pitch. A personal favorite of mine is the description deployed by Michael Bywater, who in previous lives was himself an author of textual interactive fiction. Myst, he says, is just “a post-hippie HyperCard stack with a rather good music loop.”

After listening to the cultural dialog — or shouting match! — which has so long surrounded Myst, one’s first encounter with the actual artifact that spurred it all can be more than a little anticlimactic. Seen strictly as a computer game, Myst is… okay. Maybe even pretty good. It strikes this critic at least as far from the best or worst game of its year, much less of its decade, still less of all gaming history. Its imagery is well-composited and occasionally striking, its sound and music design equally apt. The sense of desolate, immersive beauty it all conveys can be strangely affecting, and it’s married to puzzle-design instincts that are reasonable and fair. Myst‘s reputation in some quarters as impossible, illogical, or essentially unplayable is unearned; apart from some pixel hunts and perhaps the one extended maze, there’s little to really complain about on that front. On the contrary: there’s a definite logic to its mechanical puzzles, and figuring out how its machinery works through trial and error and careful note-taking, then putting your deductions into practice, is genuinely rewarding, assuming you enjoy that sort of thing.

Depending on your preconceptions going in, actually playing Myst for the first time is like going to meet your savior or the antichrist, only to find a pleasant middle-aged fellow who offers to pour you a cup of tea. It’s at this point that the questions begin. Why does such an inoffensive game offend so many people? Why did such a quietly non-controversial game become such a magnet for controversy? And the biggest question of all: why did such a simple little game, made by five people using only off-the-shelf consumer software, become one of the most (in)famous money spinners in the history of the computer-games industry?

We may not be able to answers all of these whys to our complete satisfaction; much of the story of Myst surely comes down to sheer happenstance, to the proverbial butterfly flapping its wings somewhere on the other side of the world. But we can at least do a reasonably good job with the whats and hows of Myst. So, let’s consider now what brought Myst about and how it became the unlikely success it did. After that, we can return once again to its proponents and its detractors, and try to split the difference between Myst as gaming’s savior and Myst as gaming’s antichrist.

Ironically given that Myst was treated as such a cutting-edge product at the time of its release, in terms of design it’s something of a throwback — a fact that does become less surprising when one considers that its creators’ experience with adventure games stopped in the early 1980s. A raging debate had once taken place in adventure circles over whether the ideal protagonist should be a blank slate, imprintable by the player herself, or a fully-fleshed-out role for the player to inhabit. The verdict had largely come down on the side of the latter as games’ plots had grown more ambitious, but the whole discussion had passed the Miller brothers by.

So, with Myst we were back to the old “nameless, faceless adventurer” paradigm which Sierra and LucasArts had long since abandoned. Myst actively encourages you to think of it as yourself there in its world. The story begins when you open a mysterious book here on our world, whereupon you get sucked into an alternate dimension and find yourself standing on the dock of a deserted island. You soon learn that you’re following a trail first blazed by a father and his two sons, all of whom had the ability to hop about between dimensions — or “ages,” as the game calls them — and alter them to their will. Unfortunately, the father is now said to be dead, while the two brothers have each been trapped in a separate interdimensional limbo, each blaming the other for their father’s death. (These themes of sibling rivalry have caused much comment over the years, especially in light of the fact that each brother in the game is played by one of the real Miller brothers. But said real brothers have always insisted that there are no deeper meanings to be gleaned here…)

For all its emphasis on visuals, Myst is designed much like a vintage text adventure in many ways. Even setting aside its explicit maze, its network of discrete, mostly empty locations resembles the map from an old-school text adventure, where navigation is half the challenge. Similarly, its complex environmental puzzles, where something done in one location may have an effect on the other side of the map, smacks of one of Infocom’s more cerebral, austere games, such as Zork III or Spellbreaker.

This is not to say that Myst is a conscious throwback; the nature of the puzzles, like so much else about the game, is as much determined by the Miller brothers’ ignorance of contemporary trends in adventure design as by the technical constraints under which they labored. Among the latter was the impossibility of even letting the player pick things up and carry them around to use elsewhere. Utterly unfazed, Rand Miller coined an aphorism: “Turn your problems into features.” Thus Myst‘s many vaguely steam-punky mechanical puzzles, all switches to throw and ponderous wheels to set in motion, are dictated as much by its designers’ inability to implement a player inventory as by their acknowledged love for Jules Verne.

And yet, whatever the technological determinism that spawned it, this style of puzzle design truly was a breath of fresh air for gamers who had grown tired of the “use this object on that hotspot” puzzles of Sierra and LucasArts. To their eternal credit, the Miller brothers took this aspect of the design very seriously, giving their puzzles far more thought than Sierra at least tended to do. They went into Myst with no experience designing puzzles, and their insecurity  about this aspect of their craft was perhaps their ironic saving grace. Before they even had a computer game to show people, they spent hours walking outsiders through their scenario Dungeons & Dragons-style, telling them what they saw and listening to how they tried to progress. And once they did have a working world on the computer, they spent more hours sitting behind players, watching what they did. Robyn Miller, asked in an interview shortly after the game’s release whether there was anything he “hated,” summed up thusly their commitment to consistent, logical puzzle design and world-building (in Myst, the two are largely one and the same):

Seriously, we hate stuff without integrity. Supposed “art” that lacks attention to detail. That bothers me a lot. Done by people who are forced into doing it or who are doing it for formula reasons and monetary reasons. It’s great to see something that has integrity. It makes you feel good. The opposite of that is something I dislike.

We tried to create something — a fantastic world — in a very realistic way. Creating a fantasy world in an unrealistic way is the worst type of fantasy. In Jurassic Park, the idea of dinosaurs coming to life in the twentieth century is great. But it works in that movie because they also made it believable. That’s how the idea and the execution of that idea mix to create a truly great experience.

Taken as a whole, Myst is a master class in designing around constraints. Plenty of games have been ruined by designers whose reach exceeded their core technology’s grasp. We can see this phenomenon as far back as the time of Scott Adams: his earliest text adventures were compact marvels, but quickly spiraled into insoluble incoherence when he started pushing beyond what his simplistic parsers and world models could realistically present. Myst, then, is an artwork of the possible. Managing inventory, with the need for a separate inventory screen and all the complexities of coding this portable object interacting on that other thing in the world, would have stretched HyperCard past the breaking point. So, it’s gone. Interactive conversations would have been similarly prohibitive with the technology at the Millers’ fingertips. So, they devised a clever dodge, showing the few characters that exist only as recordings, or through one-way screens where you can see them, but they can’t see (or hear) you; that way, a single QuickTime video clip is enough to do the trick. In paring things back so dramatically, the Millers wound up with an adventure game unlike any that had been seen before. Their problems really did become their game’s features.

On the other hand, a certain glaciality of pacing seems part and parcel of what Myst fundamentally is. This is not a game for the impatient. It’s rather targeted at two broad types of player: the aesthete, who will be content just to wander the landscape taking in the views, perhaps turning to a walkthrough to be able to see all of the worlds; and the dedicated puzzle solver, willing to pull out paper and pencil and really dig into the task of understanding how all this strange machinery hangs together. Both groups have expressed their love for Myst over the years, albeit in terms which could almost convince you they’re talking about two entirely separate games.

So much for Myst the artifact. What of Myst the cultural phenomenon?

The origins of the latter can be traced to the Miller brothers’ wise decision to take their game to Brøderbund. Brøderbund tended to publish fewer products per year than their peers at Electronic Arts, Sierra, or the lost and unlamented Mediagenic, but they were masterful curators, with a talent for spotting software which ordinary Americans might want to buy and then packaging and marketing it perfectly to reach them. (Their insistence on focus testing, so confusing to the Millers, is proof of their competence; it’s hard to imagine any other publisher of the time even thinking of such a thing.) Brøderbund published a string of products over the course of a decade or more which became more than just hits; they became cultural icons of their time, getting significant attention in the mainstream press in addition to the computer magazines: The Print Shop, Carmen Sandiego, Lode Runner, Prince of Persia, SimCity. And now Myst was about to become the capstone to a rather extraordinary decade, their most successful and iconic release of all.

Brøderbund first published the game on the Macintosh in September of 1993, where it was greeted with rave reviews. Not a lot of games originated on the Mac at all, so a new and compelling one was always a big event. Mac users tended to conceive of themselves as the sophisticates of the computer world, wearing their minority status as a badge of pride. Myst hit the mark beautifully here; it was the Mac-iest of Mac games. MacWorld magazine’s review is a rather hilarious example of a homer call. “It’s been polished until it shines,” wrote the magazine. Then, in the next paragraph: “We did encounter a couple of glitches and frozen screens.” Oh, well.

Helped along by press like this, Myst came out of the gates strong. By one report, it sold 200,000 copies on the Macintosh alone in its first six months. If correct or even close to correct, those numbers are extraordinary; they’re the numbers of a hit even on the gaming Mecca that was the Wintel world, much less on the Mac, with its vastly smaller user base.

Still, Brøderbund knew that Myst‘s real opportunity lay with those selfsame plebeian Wintel machines which most Mac users, the Miller brothers included, disdained. Just as soon as Cyan delivered the Mac version, Brøderbund set up an internal team — larger than the Cyan team which had made the game in the first place — to do the port as quickly as possible. Importantly, Myst was ported not to bare MS-DOS, where almost all “hardcore” games still resided, but to Windows, where the new demographics which Brøderbund hoped to attract spent all of their time. Luckily, the game’s slideshow visuals were possible even under Windows’s sluggish graphics libraries, and Apple had recently ported their QuickTime video system to Microsoft’s platform. The Windows version of Myst shipped in March of 1994.

And now Brøderbund’s marketing got going in earnest, pushing the game as the one showcase product which every purchaser of a new multimedia PC simply had to have. At the time, most CD-ROM based games also shipped in a less impressive floppy-disk-based version, with the latter often still outselling the former. But Brøderbund and Cyan made the brave choice not to attempt a floppy-disk version at all. The gamble paid off beautifully, furthering the carefully cultivated aspirational quality which already clung to Myst, now billed as the game which simply couldn’t be done on floppy disk. Brøderbund’s lush advertisements had a refined, adult air about them which made them stand out from the dragons, spaceships, and scantily-clad babes that constituted the usual motifs of game advertising. As the crowning touch, Brøderbund devised a slick tagline: Myst was “the surrealistic adventure that will become your world.” The Miller brothers scoffed at this piece of marketing-speak — until they saw how Myst was flying off the shelves in the wake of it.

So, through a combination of lucky timing and precision marketing, Myst blew up huge. I say this not to diminish its merits as a puzzle-solving adventure game, which are substantial, but simply because I don’t believe those merits were terribly relevant to the vast majority of people who purchased it. A parallel can be drawn with Infocom’s game of Zork, which similarly surfed a techno-cultural wave a decade before Myst. It was on the scene just as home computers were first being promoted in the American media as the logical, more permanent successors to the videogame-console fad. For a time, Zork, with its ability to parse pseudo-natural-English sentences, was seen by computer salespeople as the best overall demonstration of what a computer could do; they therefore showed it to their customers as a matter of course. And so, when countless new computer systems went home with their new owners, there was also a copy of Zork in the bag. The result was Infocom’s best-selling game of all time, to the tune of almost 400,000 copies sold.

Myst now played the same role in a new home-computer boom. The difference was that, while the first boom had fizzled rather quickly when people realized of what limited practical utility those early machines actually were, this second boom would be a far more sustained affair. In fact, it would become the most sustained boom in the history of the consumer PC, stretching from approximately 1993 right through the balance of the decade, with every year breaking the sales records set by the previous one. The implications for Myst, which arrived just as the boom was beginning, were titanic. Even long after it ceased to be particularly cutting-edge, it continued to be regarded as an essential accessory for every PC, to be tossed into the bags carried home from computer stores by people who would never buy another game.

Myst had already established its status by the time the hype over the World Wide Web and Windows 95 really lit a fire under computer sales in 1995. It passed the 1 million copy mark in the spring of that year. By the same point, a quickie “strategy guide” published by Prima, ideal for the many players who just wanted to take in its sights without worrying about its puzzles, had passed an extraordinary 300,000 copies sold — thus making its co-authors, who’d spent all of three weeks working on it, the two luckiest walkthrough authors in history. Defying all of the games industry’s usual logic, which dictated that titles sold in big numbers for only a few months before fizzling out, Myst‘s sales just kept accelerating from there. It sold 850,000 copies in 1996 in the United States alone, then another 870,000 copies in 1997. Only in 1998 did it finally begin to flag, posting domestic sales of just 540,000 copies. Fortunately, the European market for multimedia PCs, which lagged a few years behind the American one, was now also burning bright, opening up whole new frontiers for Myst. Its total retail sales topped 6 million by 2000, at least 2 million of them outside of North America. Still more copies — it’s impossible to say how many — had shipped as pack-in bonuses with multimedia upgrade kits and the like. Meanwhile, under the terms of Sunsoft’s original agreement with Cyan, it was also ported by the former to the Sega Saturn, Atari Jaguar, 3DO, and CD-I living-room consoles. Myst was so successful that another publisher came out with an elaborate parody of it as a full-fledged computer game in its own right, under the indelible title of Pyst. Considering that it featured the popular sitcom star John Goodman, Pyst must have cost far more to make than the shoestring production it mocked.

As we look at the staggering scale of Myst‘s success, we can’t avoid returning to that vexing question of why it all should have come to be. Yes, Brøderbund’s marketing campaign was brilliant, but there must be more to it than that. Certainly we’re far from the first to wonder about it all. As early as December of 1994, Newsweek magazine noted that “in the gimmick-dominated world of computer games, Myst should be the equivalent of an art film, destined to gather critical acclaim and then dust on the shelves.” So why was it selling better than guaranteed crowd-pleasers with names like Star Wars on their boxes?

It’s not that it’s that difficult to pinpoint some of the other reasons why Myst should have been reasonably successful. It was a good-looking game that took full advantage of CD-ROM, at a time when many computer users — non-gamers almost as much as gamers — were eager for such things to demonstrate the power of their new multimedia wundermachines. And its distribution medium undoubtedly helped its sales in another way: in this time before CD burners became commonplace, it was immune to the piracy that many publishers claimed was costing them at least half their sales of floppy-disk-based games.

Likewise, a possible explanation for Myst‘s longevity after it was no longer so cutting-edge might be the specific technological and aesthetic choices made by the Miller brothers. Many other products of the first gush of the CD-ROM revolution came to look painfully, irredeemably tacky just a couple of years after they had dazzled, thanks to their reliance on grainy video clips of terrible actors chewing up green-screened scenery. While Myst did make some use of this type of “full-motion video,” it was much more restrained in this respect than many of its competitors. As a result, it aged much better. By the end of the 1990s, its graphics resolution and color count might have been a bit lower than those of the latest games, and it might not have been quite as stunning at first glance as it once had been, but it remained an elegant, visually-appealing experience on the whole.

Yet even these proximate causes don’t come close to providing a full explanation of why this art film in game form sold like a blockbuster. There are plenty of other games of equal or even greater overall merit to which they apply equally well, but none of them sold in excess of 6 million copies. Perhaps all we can do in the end is chalk it up to the inexplicable vagaries of chance. Computer sellers and buyers, it seems, needed a go-to game to show what was possible when CD-ROM was combined with decent graphics and sound cards. Myst was lucky enough to become that game. Although its puzzles were complex, simply taking in its scenery was disarmingly simple, making it perfect for the role. The perfect product at the perfect time, perfectly marketed.

In a sense, Myst the phenomenon didn’t do that other Myst — Myst the actual artifact, the game we can still play today — any favors at all. The latter seems destined always to be judged in relation to the former, and destined always to be found lacking. Demanding that what is in reality a well-designed, aesthetically pleasing game live up to the earth-shaking standards implied by Myst‘s sales numbers is unfair on the face of it; it wasn’t the fault of the Miller brothers, humble craftsmen with the right attitude toward their work, that said work wound up selling 6 million copies. Nevertheless, we feel compelled to judge it, at least to some extent, with the knowledge of its commercial and cultural significance firmly in mind. And in this context especially, some of its detractors’ claims do have a ring of truth.

Arguably the truthiest of all of them is the oft-repeated old saw that no other game was bought by so many people and yet really, seriously played by so few of its purchasers. While such a hyperbolic claim is impossible to truly verify, there is a considerable amount of circumstantial evidence pointing in exactly that direction. The exceptional sales of the strategy guide are perhaps a wash; they can be as easily ascribed to serious players wanting to really dig into the game as they can to casual purchasers just wanting to see all the pretty pictures on the CD-ROM. Other factors, however, are harder to dismiss. The fact is, Myst is hard by casual-game standards — so hard that Brøderbund included a blank pad of paper in the box for the purpose of keeping notes. If we believe that all or most of its buyers made serious use of that notepad, we have to ask where these millions of people interested in such a cerebral, austere, logical experience were before it materialized, and where they went thereafter. Even the Miller brothers themselves — hardly an unbiased jury — admit that by their best estimates no more than 50 percent of the people who bought Myst ever got beyond the starting island. Personally, I tend to suspect that the number is much lower than that.

Perhaps the most telling evidence for Myst as the game which everyone had but hardly anyone played is found in a comparison with one of its contemporaries: id Software’s Doom, the other decade-dominating blockbuster of 1993 (a game about which I’ll be writing much more in a future article). Doom indisputably was played, and played extensively. While it wasn’t quite the first running-around-and-shooting-things-from-a-first-person-perspective game, it did became so popular that games of its type were codified as a new genre unto themselves. The first-person shooters which followed Doom in the 1990s were among the most popular games of their era. Many of their titles are known to gamers today who weren’t yet born when they debuted: titles like Duke Nukem 3D, Quake, Half-Life, Unreal. Myst prompted just as many copycats, but these were markedly less popular and are markedly less remembered today: AMBER: Journeys Beyond, Zork Nemesis, Rama, Obsidian. Only Cyan’s own eventual sequel to Myst can be found among the decade’s bestsellers, and even it’s a definite case of diminishing commercial returns, despite being a rather brilliant game in its own right. In short, any game which sold as well as Myst, and which was seriously played by a proportionate number of people, ought to have left a bigger imprint on ludic culture than this one did.

But none of this should affect your decision about whether to play Myst today, assuming you haven’t yet gotten around to it. Stripped of all its weighty historical context, it’s a fine little adventure game if not an earth-shattering one, intriguing for anyone with the puzzle-solving gene, infuriating for anyone without it. You know what I mean… sort of a niche experience. One that just happened to sell 6 million copies.

Subject: Re: Myst Mania (mid 90s)

Written By: wagonman76 on 07/05/21 at 5:00 pm

^This might shed some light on why none of us remember Myst even though it was the best selling game of the time.

I would have preferred if prefer puzzle games dominated, rather than shoot-em-up games. I didn’t have a computer that could run either one.

Might have something to do with the way the internet has evolved. 20 years ago I said the world could be a hundred times smarter with the ability to so easily share knowledge.

But never underestimate the general public. We have accomplished a lot of knowledge sharing, more in the last decade, but it seems the internet is still dominated by stupid stunts and spreading hatred.

Subject: Re: Myst Mania (mid 90s)

Written By: 90s Guy on 07/05/21 at 8:37 pm

^This might shed some light on why none of us remember Myst even though it was the best selling game of the time.

I would have preferred if prefer puzzle games dominated, rather than shoot-em-up games. I didn’t have a computer that could run either one.

Might have something to do with the way the internet has evolved. 20 years ago I said the world could be a hundred times smarter with the ability to so easily share knowledge.

But never underestimate the general public. We have accomplished a lot of knowledge sharing, more in the last decade, but it seems the internet is still dominated by stupid stunts and spreading hatred.

Also could just be a small sample size, because I mean...

Ton of people obviously played it, and owned it going just by the sales, and even though it didn't influence the game industry the same way Doom did, it was a cultural phenomena which has been noted. It spawned from the mid 90s through early 00s a lot of imitators, as well.

I think it's just a small sample size.

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