Obdormio.com Unwasted Hours

17 September, 2012

Emergency Post: Some Music

Filed under: Uncategorized — Tags: , , — Obdormio @ 00:00

Sometimes, there’s just no time, and sometimes there’s no inspiration, and on some unhappy days both of those things happen at once.

But I heard, through the walls, someone listening to the theme to Myst III: Exile. I love that theme. I can sing along to parts of this. So, to avoid a blank day altogether, here is a piece of music that I can never get out of my head.

26 April, 2012

Link: The Book of Atrus

Filed under: Uncategorized — Tags: , , , , , , — Obdormio @ 00:00

Not too long ago, I went on a bit of a Myst binge in my posts here. The dominant feedback, both here and elsewhere, was a puzzled “huh?” Not wanting to turn completely into a Myst blog, I decided to hold off on posting this thing, just to give you some breathing space, but now it’s time to bring it out before the iron cools completely.

I came across this because of those previous posts, in a way; having Myst on my brain led me to look up again the old forums and websites I once frequented, and on one of them, I found a link to this. And it is glorious.

The Book of Atrus

The Book of Atrus is the first of the three Myst novels. This is a fan making a comic adaptation of that story. For those of you who don’t know Myst, and don’t yet feel like playing old games or investing time in the novels themselves, this might just be the perfect entry point to the series. The comic started not long ago, so there isn’t a huge archive to read up on yet, meaning you can get in on it now and then follow along as it updates.

Now, this is unofficial fan works – almost fan fiction. The comic has already departed from the novel in some particulars, which is only natural in an adaptation, and will probably make the story its own. I won’t get into the details of Myst’s complex relationship with canonicity, because it would frankly be nonsensical for someone not into the series, but suffice it to say that making changes for the sake of artistic license is well and truly entrenched in the series as a whole, and so the comic joins neatly into the tradition of the official publications.

It’s been a long, long time since I read The Book of Atrus, but reading through this comic – something I did three times in a row when I first found it – made me want to dig it out from the shelves again. Like I said, the comic is still in the early stages – the story of a young boy and his grandmother living alone in the desert – but I remember the general shape of what comes later and I am greatly looking forwards to it. On the basis of both the quality of the comic so far, and of the source material, I have no compunctions about recommending it. If you were at all interested by my previous Myst ravings, go read it.

2 April, 2012

Ramblings on How to Play God

Filed under: Uncategorized — Tags: , , , , , — Obdormio @ 00:00

So, one thing I think the Myst series does very well is world building.

No, don’t go away! I’m not really making this into a Myst blog. This post is about world building in general, I’m just using Myst as a starting point, since that’s where my train of thought started in the first place.

When it comes to fiction, regardless of medium, my preferences tend to run towards what is nicely called speculative fiction, or more commonly science fiction and fantasy, or maybe even more commonly nerd stuff. A pretty common feature for this type of fiction is that it is set in a world which differs from our own. Sometimes it is an entirely different one, like in Narnia or A Song of Ice and Fire, sometimes it’s in a hidden one within our own, like in Harry Potter or The Dresden Files, but in either case it is something new and unknown. Since it is something the audience is unfamiliar with, the manner in which it is explained is important. My own fiction writing has languished lately, but when I do brush the dust of it I will end up writing in the same genre, and so I occasionally spend some time thinking of the best way to build and convey a fantasy world.

In fiction set in our own world, the writer can proceed on the assumption that everyone knows at the very least the basics of it. People will know what China is, and where Canada lies relative to Mexico, and roughly how much a dollar is worth, and how the Cold War caused international tension that still exists. No explanation is necessary, and so the writer can simply mention whatever he choses and move on. I think one of the most interesting approaches in fantasy writing is to proceed in the same way, as if the world was indeed familiar to the reader.

Since I started with Myst as an example, let me continue with that for a moment. As I’ve mentioned before, Myst is all about dropping you into its world and then refusing to explain anything, leaving you to figure it out for yourself. It is the epitome of showing, not telling. Have a look at the intro to Myst itself, it’s only about forty seconds long.

That’s all the context the game gives you. A figure fall through a crack, with a book. The figure disappears, and the book keeps falling through a star field, while a voice narrates that he realised the book would survive, contrary to his expectation. The book lands. That’s it. Next, it opens, the player falls through it, and finds him- or herself on a wooden dock on a weird island, with no clear objective.

But even though nothing is explained, everything has an explanation. This is the key bit, in my opinion. You don’t need to, as a player, understand exactly what happens in this intro. Indeed, Myst gives no explanation of it even at the end; to fully understand what happened in that sequence you must also play through Riven and read The Book of Atrus.  Further light on the event is shed in Uru, but even now it remains one of the central mysteries of the series – and one which will probably never really be explained.

Of course, this is a game series. It is one thing to drop an unexplained ruin in an interactive game, another thing entirely to convey it in prose. In prose, the imagined assumption of shared knowledge can get a bit much at times. If handled poorly, you just get a bunch of names with no reference point and it’s just off-putting. Sometimes it’s worth it to soldier through those dense sections until you do orient yourself – Peter F. Hamilton’s Commonwealth-series of books spring to mind as an example of this – but more often than not I’ll not have the patience.

I think the key is to have a large knowledge of the world you’ve built, and then dole it out very gradually. Not with explanation, but with gradual exposure. I think you could make up a world as you go along, but the coherence and plausibility of it increases when it is all consistent and thought-through. In the work itself, the larger world should be implicit, but behind the scenes it should be explicit. None of this is revolutionary, I think; it is merely my stance in this. Of course, taken too far, you end up with hopeless perfectionism, and an inability to proceed without excessive details. That’s where I tend to end up.

29 March, 2012

Five of a Thing: Myst Ages

Filed under: Uncategorized — Tags: , , , , — Obdormio @ 00:00

Since I wrote Monday’s post, my head’s been stuck in the Myst series, going over the plot and characters once more, remembering when I first played the games and how much story there is to explore in them. Since I am short on time today, and need to crank out another of my emergency lists, I’m going to list my top five favourite Myst Ages. My own Five Classics, as it were. Maybe that’ll shake me out of this track and allow me to move on to other things.

Or not, this might just become a Myst blog.

Anyways, top five Ages. For reasons I’m sure will be obvious, I’ll start the list with the digit one, and leave the top favourite for number five.

1 – Amateria

Myst III: Exile sneaks onto the list with Amateria, which is just such a beautiful age, filled with weird contraptions and cool concepts. It’s puzzles are decent, and it has what is possibly the best exit of any Myst age.


2 – D’ni

Yeah, maybe I’m cheating here. This encompasses both the D’ni caverns, with Ae’gura, K’veer, and the Kadish Library, as well as the Cleft, Tomahna, and anything else I’ve forgotten, but as it is technically all one big age, I think I get away with it. Each of those places are different from the other, and they all have cool aspects to them, so when you put it all together, it makes the list. Plus, it includes this music:


3 – Minkata

Great concept, great visuals, and really fantastic music. The endless windswept desert, where you can run around and get thoroughly lost, houses a really clever puzzle, which also makes total sense in the context of the Age (it was a training grounds for the Guild of Surveyors). While Uru still ran, I would sometimes just go to Minkata and leave it open while I did other stuff, just for the beauty of it.


4 – Myst

Where it all began. Included not just because of what it is, as a section of the game, but for waht it represents, as the heart of the Myst series. This is the place where it all went wrong, where something good became something horrible, and the ghost of Myst Island remains throughout the series, and then all the way through Uru and into Myst 5. This was the gateway into the adventure, into the story, and the first introduction to the twisted family at the heart of it. It is so pretty and innocent and sad, it couldn’t go any lower on the list than this.


5 – Riven

If you looked at the previous post at all, where I declared Riven the best game ever made, I doubt this came as much of a surprise. I think I said what I need to say in that post, so I won’t repeat myself here. To add to what is found in the game, there’s all we learn about Riven in the books, which makes it all the more cooler, and tragic. Leaving Riven in the end isn’t as visually impressive as Amateria, but it means a lot more.

As for honourable mentions, there were quite a few that almost made the list. The 233rd Age would have been on it if it hadn’t been so limited in the game; it reaches honourable mention on the strength of its concept and great look alone. Todelmer could also have defended a place on this list on those grounds, if not on others.

I now hope all my readers go out and play the games and read the books and make their own lists. A week or two should suffice, yes?

26 March, 2012

Musings on the Fifth Age

Filed under: Uncategorized — Tags: , , , , , — Obdormio @ 00:00

The best game ever made is Riven.

Okay, even as I type that, a bunch of qualifiers spring to mind. I am using “games” in a rather narrow sense, excluding board games and, you know, tag. What I’m talking about is what the kids aren’t calling video games, the kind you play on a computer or a console. That’s where Riven is the best.

Yeah, okay, some more qualifiers. Riven is 15 years old now, and it’s showing its age in comparison with more recent releases. The graphics, which were absolutely stunning top-shelf stuff in 1997, now pale in the face of what more computer power can do. The pre-rendered environments are a chapter we’ve left behind, and the point-and-click interface is on the old-fashioned end of what is now an unpopular choice to begin with. In terms of game-play and technology there’s been innovation, is what I’m saying, and Riven‘s been surpassed in that area. Where I don’t think it has been surpassed is in terms of interactive storytelling.

You can have games without any sort of story, like Tetris, where you’re essentially just solving a puzzle, like a Rubik’s Cube, but I can’t get very invested in that. It’s in interactive storytelling games as a medium shine, and Riven tells its story so well it’s mind-boggling. The Myst series in general has an excellent story, and a fantastic way of telling it, but it is Riven which is the pinnacle of achievement. As Riven is the second game in the series, that might sound a bit damning of the following games, but they are still very good games; they just don’t reach as high as the champion. Bronze in the Olympics is still a great achievement.

A Journey Cloth

The hand print glows in the dark! Of course, Uru isn't really a Myst game, but it's set in the same universe, so I think it counts even so. It also has a pretty good story, which makes sense as its intertwined with the main Myst story, though I still prefer that to the more nebulous and back-story focused Uru. Don't even get me started on the so-called "Myst 5", which can hardly be considered part of that original storyline, and you know what, I'll stop typing now.

I should stop at this point and explain where I’m coming from. I am a huge Myst geek. It ranks very high amongst my favourite stories. I’ve played all the games, read all the books, I’ve dabbled in learning the D’ni language, I have a journey cloth hanging on the wall above my desk, I have given deep and serious thought as to the possible identity of the Stranger, and I still number my lecture notes using D’ni numerals. … Hey, I like having glyphs going to 25! Now, is this excessive fanboyism a bias in declaring Riven the best game ever, or does the fanboyism follow from the fact that the Myst games are indeed the most awesome? I lean to the latter, but crazy people others might disagree.

But back to Riven. What makes Riven such an immersive experience? Why do I think it’s a triumph of interactive storytelling? Well, for one thing it’s extremely tight-lipped when it comes to telling you the story. Like all the Myst games, it just sort of drops you into the world with a few cryptic comments for context, and then leaves it up to the player to figure out what is going on, how the world works and the characters fit into it, and what exactly you’re supposed to achieve. You have to snoop around, look at the environment and the clues you find in it, sneak peeks at letters and private journals and recordings, and piece the bigger picture together yourself. This is where Riven in particular excels – nothing in the game is there for no reason. The attention to detail is amazing, even the bolts keeping pipes together are given a particular shape which makes sense in the context. The puzzles continue that theme, there are no rubber ducks to combine with clothes lines, the puzzles all have a function in the world of the game beyond being a puzzle for the player.

This attention to detail contributes to the overall atmosphere of the game, which might be its main strength. I don’t think I’ve ever seen atmosphere conveyed as effectively as in Riven. Where Myst was a very solitary and lonely experience of exploring abandoned worlds, Riven constantly reminds you that you are not alone. Your every move is being watched. You glimpse people in the distance, who sound alarms at your approach. Villagers are hiding in their huts as you pass through. There are periscopes and cameras, and if you turn around quick enough you can catch a glimpse of Gehn observing you in his temple. The whole thing makes what is actually a very leisurely experience feel very tense. I think I actually shouted in terror the first time I unexpectedly came across a little girl in the forest, I was so startled.

There aren’t a great many characters in the game, but there’s one very important one who is excellent. Exploring Riven is very much a dive into the mind of its master, an exploration of Gehn’s madness and megalomania and obsessions, like his fixation on the number 5. The more you see of the world he considers his greatest creation, the more disturbed he appears – and yet without falling into cartoonish villainy, he is too believable an example of a man corrupted by power. When you finally meet him in the flesh, and he greets you by politely apologising for the cage, I get goosebumps.

I started quite bombastically – I obviously haven’t played every game, or any more than the tiniest fraction of the available market, so my opinion is of somewhat limited value when it comes to handing out Lifetime Achievement Awards to game designers. Riven remains my favourite game, though, and I’ve yet to see a game that seems to come close to its level of storytelling.

Okay, so I guess I ended up writing a review of a game that came out in 1997. Way to be topical, me!

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