Myst Postmortem Observations

One of my favorite GDC sessions are the Classic Game Postmortems. These are presentations where the creators of famous old-schools games tell the story of how those games were created. The postmortems are great because they tend to reveal surprising facts about those often pivotal games. They also great because they often show a historical, type of game development which isn’t really all that relevant for modern big game production. The teams were small, often just one person. They made games by following a hunch rather than trying to maximize their revenue. Really, the Classic Game Postmortems actually have much more to do with indie games than with AAA games.

I saw two of those postmortems recently and wanted to share some observations:

The first one is Robyn Miller talking about Myst. This one is ESPECIALLY interesting for me because my game TRAUMA and the underlying final thesis was heavily inspired by Myst. There wasn’t too much information about the creation on Myst around but I did make some assumptions based on my study of the history of Adventure games. Watching the video now, I was pleased to realize how spot-on my analysis seemed to be.

  • In-Persona – One of the things the presentation really stresses out is how playing In-Persona was a major design philosophy for Myst and the previous games by Cyan. In-Persona means that the players don’t assume a character role. Instead they play as whoever they are as they interact with the game. It’s the silent protagonist taken to the extreme. The game isn’t a stage play where the player slips into a costume. It becomes a window into a different world.

    One of my thesis points was that this subtle difference may have been a major reason for the game’s appeal. A lot of so-called “casual” games are played as in-persona. Even games which have nothing to do with Myst, like Brain Age or Wii Sports. Interestingly, In-Persona style gameplay isn’t that popular among modern hardcore AAA titles. This may hint at a different mindset of approaching games for different types of players. More casual players want to just interact with a game and use them transport themselves into a different world. More dedicated players use games to play out roles, change who they are. This, of course, is just a hypothesis. But it was good to see it being supported by the Myst developers themselves.

  • Puzzles are not important – Myst is often seen as a game of puzzles. It was interesting to see how the developers talk about them. It turns out they don’t really like puzzles themselves and they never really made a big deal about them. They used the puzzles only as a means to stall progress for players or to give them something to do. The point of the game was the environment and the atmosphere, not the puzzles. Again, an idea I realized myself working on TRAUMA and attempted to develop further. It’s odd that the puzzles in Myst became so dominant after all. I wonder if this is a case of not getting the balance right. Or perhaps it seemed like a game that doesn’t emphasize puzzles for them at the time?

  • Zork – Which brings me to another fascinating observation. Myst appeared while Lucasarts was the dominant Point & Click adventure company. Interestingly, none of the Myst developers ever played a Lucasarts game before working on Myst. Their original inspiration were text adventures like Zork. In fact, this was the only adventure game they played before they developed Myst. Indeed, if you look closely, Myst is much closer to Zork than the Lucasarts games. Like Myst, Zork is played In-Persona. The games are dominated by a surreal atmosphere of mystery rather than the wacky comedy that fueled the Lucasarts games.

  • Proto-Zinesters – Generally, it seems like the developers of Myst weren’t that big gamers. They were able to develop games because of Hypercard, a very user-friendly programming tool for early Macs. This allowed them to experiment with different narrative experiences without worrying whether the result would fit into the category of what a game is. Myst was a phenomenal success because they were able to reach the same kind of audience – adult people, who weren’t experienced gamers. In this regard, Myst is an incredible example of Videogame Zinesters as described by Anna Anthropy.

    To be fair, this is to be taken with a grain of salt. While the developers didn’t consider themselves big gamers, they did mention playing a lot of Dungeons & Dragons and being inspired by that world. While not exactly a videogame, D&D certainly belongs to the Nerd culture videogames are embedded in.

I wholeheartedly recommend you to check out the video. And let me know if you found interesting points yourself.

Krystian Majewski

Krystian Majewski was born in Warsaw and studied design at Köln International School of Design. Before, he was working on a mid-size console project for NEON Studios in Frankfurt. He helped establish a Master course in Game Design and Research at the Cologne Game Lab. Today he teaches Game Design at various institutions and develops independent games.

2 responses to “Myst Postmortem Observations”

  1. Marc - shiftyweb

    It is not an in-persona, but Dead Space started with a mute hero and eventually ended with a talking one. To me this reflects what you said about in-persona avatar being unpopular in today’s triple A titles.

  2. Ralf Hebecker

    Puzzles add huge chunks of play time relatively cheap. And I think Robyn might underestimate the satisfactory value of a puzzle solved. Since you were asking for other findings: 1) Myst was a game for *non-gamers*, and 2) playtest with pairs of players.


The Game Design Scrapbook is a second blog of group of three game designers from Germany. On our first blog, Game Design Reviews we describe some games we played and point out various interesting details. Unfortunately, we found out that we also need some place to collect quick and dirty ideas that pop into our minds. Hence, welcome to Game Design Scrapbook. You will encounter wild, random rantings. Many of then incoherent. Some of them maybe even in German. If you don't like it, you might enjoy Game Design Reviews more.


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