MYST XX: 1-IV: Ages Before Myst

The first of the brothers’ games, THE MANHOLE, was released in 1988 on floppy disks. Quite a few floppy disks. The game was in black and white, had no music, voice acting, or sound effects. Its art was significantly simple, distant and perhaps antithetical to photorealism. It also had no appreciable mechanics, or challenge, or win or loss states. In fact it is hardly a game at all. You simply wandered around a cartoon world, having the occasional simple dialog exchange with heffalumps and jabberwockies – until you eventually got bored and turned it off.

Yet in some ways it was groundbreaking. It was a first-person game when few had been made; it was a first-person adventure where none had been made. The simplicity of its interface was startling at a time when PC games were defined by achieving a complexity which console game could not match. (One might say that little has changed.) On the one hand this simplicity was demonstrative of a small and inexperienced development team working on a small and not much experiencable game. On the other hand, simplicity of interface put as little distance between User and Experience as possible. It brought about immersion.

Perhaps the most notable feature of The Manhole was its use of virtual space. Like many contemporary games (and most adventure games) it was made up of a series of still images; yet the images were not each ‘levels,’ they connected to make one giant level. Movement was not accomplished on-screen, but rather in the space between screens. The result was a primitive sort of three-dimensionality.

Looking back it was the same progression that brought us the movies: first still frames (slides), then a series of still frames which, when shown quickly enough, generates the illusion of movement (zoetrope); then a device which takes pictures so rapidly that they can be replaid in real time for actual mimesis (a movie camera and projector). The Manhole was a zoetrope. One which was spun at a very slow speed, to be sure. But this allowed the player to appreciate each individual frame. Indeed it required that each frame be worth appreciating, or the player would have been quite bored. It demanded a high level of detail.

The brothers Miller were working with the constraints of existing technology, both on the developer and the user side. The Manhole may have had no emergent gameplay, but it is a clear example of what I will call emergent design.

Despite its relative lack of pretentions, the quality of the artwork was well in excess of that being found in contemporary titles, even those escape-the-room puzzlers which had fewer panels than a Hogarth series and fewer pixels than a Mondrian litho. It was not meant to be realistic, but the graphics of The Manhole were on par with many a children’s book illustration.

The Manhole was particularly notable in the history of gaming for two reasons. One, it was the first game to be released on CD-ROM – yet I am at pains to stress that it was not released as such for several years, and then as a substantively modified (colorized!) game. Secondly it is, along with Cyan’s two subsequent titles, about the only computer game ever that contains absolutely no gameplay. There’s no purpose. There’s no narrative. There’s nothing to do, no mark to make. You just explore.

No other games have quite accomplished this – certainly not in a way associated with the sale of units. Some games come close. “Interactive narratives” like Heavy Rain have no gameplay to speak of, but they do require user actions to unfold a narrative. Even quite experimental games like Dear Esther have narrators, stories, beginnings and ends. Games like Minecraft have no narrative or win state, but they do have mechanics. The game is marketed as an educational game, yet it should be noted that every other such title contains both direct educational components, and some form of game component. These have neither. They are not typing tutors or historical simulators, nor are they even children’s stories; they are little more than browsing an art-gallery.

One might guess that their choice of childish subject & tone was based entirely on these two constraints: one, the fact that the cartoonish is less time-consuming to prepare; two, that exploration without purpose is not much suitable for any other market. One might wonder if The Manhole was not concieved as a use of technology first and a delivery of particular content second. One might wonder if The Manhole was really just a tech demo, with which they could prove to themselves that they were capable of making a real game – or, even better, prove it to a publisher.

The next game was the lighthearted COSMIC OSMO (later released in an improved version as Cosmic Osmo and the Worlds Beyond the Mackerel). The game was substantively indistinct from its predocessor, though it featured somewhat more intricate mechanics. Each static image could be clicked on at any given point to move to the next image, or clicked on the left or right border to turn in that direction (and then around). However, particular points on the image could be clicked upon to cause particular effects. These ‘hot spots,’ such as buttons or levers, would cause the player to move to a different frame (usually the exact same frame except with the leverl down) that suggested the player had interacted with, and even changed, their environment. The zoetrope was beginning to spin more quickly.

Their third game was SPELUNX (not to be confused with Spelunky, which could not be more the opposite this game if you held a sticky bomb to Derek Yu’s head). It was a black and white game released on floppies, with a colorized CD version released some time later. It was more directly education in content, dealing with subjects such as math and biology at a grade-school level. One might presume that the game was released to generate a bit of cash-flow during the lengthy development of Myst. Its most substantive legacy was to inspire the design of the Cyan Worlds headquarters.

It was noted by the brothers, particularly Rand, that the essence of a role-playing game was to, for lack of a more prescient phrase, play a role. It was about the player acting as they felt their character would act. It was escapist. The polar opposite of this was for a person to pretend that they themselves were in a particular scenario, and react accordingly. That was immersive. Perhaps they are both escapist, but the former is the embodiment of escaping *from*, and the latter, escaping *into*.

It was at this time that the brothers created a design document for a more substantive endeavor. This was to be titled THE GRAY SUMMONS, and was pitched in 1990 to Activision. The design document included such particular bullets as first-person perspective; adult audience; nonlinear story; realistic characters; and player decisions of an ethical weight with which a player could only empathize.

This was a time when the most critically-acclaimed titles in the adventure genre were King’s Quest VI: Heir Today, Gone Tomorrow, the textual Zorks, and SCUMM namesake Maniac Mansion. Whatever the myriad charms of these games, the design document for Gray Summons was a catalogue of things which they were not.

The pitch was rejected. The brothers were advised to confine themselves to children’s educational games. The difficulty was, their products were not really for children, they were not really educational, and they were not really games. Moreover, the marketplace was well aware of these contradictions. As a result, Cyan was entire unprofitable.

After three years, the brothers Miller continued to pursue their dream of being game developers out a combination of hope, self-confidence, and stubbornness. This is a soil in which success is wont to take root.

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~ by davekov on 22 July 2013.

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