CD-ROM PERSUASION: THE COMPUTER ENTERTAINMENT MYST
For the last half decade participants in creative writing seminars from Iowa to Lyon have been experimenting with the notion of the end of the printed page and the ascendance of electronic writing--Hypertext or, more specifically, Hyperfiction.1 Basically this means that one reads an author's "novel" on the computer screen in a non-linear fashion, following anfractuous paths of narrative and, perhaps, watching QuickTime movies, viewing graphics or adding one's own contributions to the story-line. Meanwhile, in the art world, there has been an electronic equivalent of American old-west homesteading, a rush by every artist with a modem to stake claim on some small plot of pixels in cyberspace. The motives behind this digital land grab are as varied--from utopian to careerist--as any core sample of the art world would yield. Artists with more severe cases of demiurge are busy creating virtual worlds in which their vision is the world. So far, the results of all this haven't been terribly interesting beyond the fact that the art (text and/or visual) is viewed in a different venue or was transmitted over phone line--but that will change.
This brings me to a work of art that came out of left field (Spokane, Washington to be more exact) and has captured the imagination of the public (over 1,000,000 copies sold since its release late in 1993--making it the #1 best selling CD-ROM) and possibly found a form that is, to date, much closer to a ground-breaking work of art than all the Hyperfictions, Web Sites and artist generated virtual realities combined--the CD-ROM Myst. For those unfamiliar with the CD-ROM, this is a disk much like a music CD only it plays images and animations, as well as music, on one's computer.
At this point the reader may be assuming that all of this will digress into a celebration of "low" art. On this subject I defer to writer/critic Dave Hickey. In a recent interview he says, "I find vernacular culture to be a more subtle, delicate, adaptable and resourceful practice than that of high culture, which is burdened with a received vocabulary of scholastic terminologies. So I believe in vernacular culture; I think it works." 2 Hickey also makes the point that exciting works of art rarely come from the institutions or academies (and, in this case, software companies) formed supposedly to nurture their creation. Hickey's argument is neither populist nor an exercise in intellectual slumming--he merely suggests we look everywhere to see what is exciting. He also makes the point that art can, and maybe should be, entertaining. If nothing else, Myst is entertaining.
The Player/Reader/Viewer (hereafter, PRV) enters Myst through an image of an antique book on the computer monitor and is whisked to a deserted island of strangely realistic landscapes and wackily mismatched buildings, from log cabin to high-tech planetarium. There are lonely sounds, water lapping against a dock, wind whistling through the trees and portentous cinematic music emanating from the various architectures. Slowly the PRV adapts to moving like a robot camera probe (first-person point of view) and is exploring the island, reading books in the library and clicking the computer's mouse on every tree, lever, button and switch in sight, all in an attempt to solve secondary puzzles that lead to the big puzzle--What happened here?
Myst is the creation of brothers Rand and Robyn Miller, computer programmer and computer artist respectively. The Millers were (and probably remain) as outside the institutions of art and literature as they were outside the computer entertainment industry when two years ago they developed Myst and co-founded (with Chris Brandkamp, sound effects and business manager) their company, Cyan. In the mid-eighties, Rand quit his job programming a bank's computers and Robyn dropped out of college with the scheme to create children's computer games. They were successful enough that the Miller's gambled on creating Cyan to develop an adult game.3 It is more than possible that their naiveté--their outsider status--allowed them to create something that wouldn't have merited development from a large media-savvy company. Like Hollywood, universities, and museums, large companies usually imagine only along lines that have already been imagined.
Myst resembles a game because it involves the solution of puzzles, a novel because it contains story-line and literal images of books which one reads, and it is visual art--one of its greatest pleasures is the sophisticated and detailed 3D rendering of the over 2500 views of its imaginary worlds. All three of its forms (game/novel/visual art) will appeal to different PRVs, at different times and with varying degrees of interest. The PRV can't alter the story line (it's a "read-only" CD), but each PRV will progress through the worlds of Myst differently and there are several possible endings; both factors which qualify Myst to be labeled "interactive."
How is it as a puzzle? Myst is marketed as a "Surrealist Adventure." The solutions to the puzzles the PRV must solve to gain access to the "adventure" are logical, not anti-logical, just the sort of mind-set that the Surrealists vigorously sought to undermine. The puzzles themselves can't be of too high an order or quite a few of the million PRVs (myself included) would still be stranded in the Selenetic Age's subterranean maze. That having been said, I volunteer that I was sufficiently challenged to feel I richly deserved the reward that solving the puzzles offered--new worlds and clues to the larger narrative-puzzle. That the puzzles are themed to resonate within the worlds they reveal is just one of the earmarks of how well crafted this game is.
The "book" as metaphor is central to Myst's story line. One enters the game, transports to the alternate islands and finally solves the puzzles all through books. Forget the fact that for decades media prophets have pronounced the book dead; it was this unctuous homage to the printed page, renderings of books which the PRV "reads" in the old-fashioned way, that made me realize the book has croaked--even though it will spin in its grave for centuries. The story/mystery of Myst is fairly straightforward: which of two wayward sons (Achenar and Sirrus) betrayed their father's (Atrus) trust, succumbed to every weakness of the flesh that power invites, and (possibly) committed patricide. There are enough false leads and planted evidence to qualify as a mystery, but Raymond Chandler it is not. It is, in part, a fantastic novel, but it has none of the complexities of Arno Schmidt, Italo Calvino or the Brothers Grimm for that matter. What it does have is a compelling device--an almost parental reward system (with the computer being the parent)--solve a puzzle and a magnificently strange new world is offered with its own subset of puzzles and rewards. In this I was reminded of the concentrically themed puzzles in American writer John Barth's novels, and of his dictum that "the key to the treasure is the treasure." 4
Were they alive, Max Ernst would no doubt admire Myst's peculiar landscapes and Magritte would sympathize with the "just enough" quality of the imaging and visual word-play; but, as with literature, Myst is Surrealist only in the most superficial kind of look (surrealism really has come to mean "weird" fantasy). More than Surrealist, Myst's fantastical look is a version of the neo-Gothicism of Thomas Cole and sumptuous Victorianisms of Alma-Tadema. There are certainly many contemporary works--Matt Mullican's VR city, Oliver Wasow's Photoshop landscape hybrids and Mark Dion's 19th century laboratories--that reverberate within Myst's sets, but I'm fairly certain that the Millers don't thumb through magazines like the one in your hands. What is more interesting is the curious convergence, at this point in time, of the "look" of certain cinematic sets and computer rendering--while Hollywood directors like Tim Burton pursue the thinner-than-life appearance of comic books, 3D computer artists strain to make their bits and bytes life-like. With Hollywood actively diversifying into computer entertainments and computer games being translated into films, this blending what constitutes representation of the "real" will become progressively dense.5 Disturbingly, as in the real world, artworks in Myst are depicted as plunder, trophies and holographic tchotchkes; and, as with the depiction of the book, this encapsulation of the visual artifact is a sure sign that something has changed.
The morality of Myst is strictly Old Testament. The story is a warning against filial recalcitrance, one of the possible endings demonstrates some serious repercussions in pissing-off Pop. The vanity of knowledge is contrasted with faith in the Good Father, traps are laid and, ultimately, there is a Faustian bargain in which the PRV is offered more insight at the possible expense of losing everything--but its only a game (I lost). It seems almost too simple an explanation that Rand and Robyn Miller's father is a preacher in an independent Bible Church and they are practicing Christians. We simply aren't used to artists holding these beliefs.
Myst is a fairy tale and fairy tales are diluted versions of myth and religion as well as being convenient vehicles for embedded cultural information.6 Like organized religion Myst involves ritual, and like myth it is a quest. The deserted islands are like the broken machines they contain--fix the machine and the island delivers meaning. It is the act of fixing the machine, usually requiring tortuous repetitive actions, like the counting of prayers on a rosary or, perhaps more appropriately, self-flagellation of the Shiite's Sineh Zané, that involves ritual. In religion "participatory" rituals, the symbolic reenactment of actions, reinforce belief in the original story. On the computer "interactive" rituals reinforce the credibility of the present story. In a mythic quest, the hero finds self-knowledge and rights the imbalance in the universe by following a cycle of departure, journey and return, sometimes in pursuit of something as stupid as a fleece. The PRV in Myst follows a similiar cycle and, by becoming a more adept logician, avoiding hubris and having faith in the Good Father, the world is righted.7
The Victorian Age has been of interest to the last two generations of Science Fiction writers, so the Victorian look and traditional morality of Myst may also have something to do with its popular appeal. InThe Difference Engine,8 co-writers William Gibson and Bruce Sterling explore the profound effects of technology on society, history and consciousness by imagining a 19th century alternate realty in which the Information Age develops simultaneously with the Industrial Revolution. Going back to a time when most of us could have understood how the techology works is useful as an allegorical device in The Difference Engine and a comforting one for a Myst PRV with little understanding of the workings of the machine upon which the game is played. The rock-n-roll "hacker" mentality glorified by dystopic cyberpunks9 extolls familiar subversive stategies; so, very curious is the treatment of Victorian Age by post-cyberpunk writer, Neal Stephenson. His new novel The Diamond Age10 concerns (along with almost everything) a reactionary 21 century neo-Victorian society in the age of nanotechnology. His Victorians have adopted an extremely rigid and repressed set of manners and ethics in response to the profligacy fueled by the abundance provided by nanotechnology. The point here is that in the face of dramatic technological change, people want, need and will insist on rules. Stephenson doesn't vilify his neo-Victorians, he merely shows that ultimately their rigidity can't stand up to the flow of change--in the short-run their reaction is understandable and necessary. It is no coincidence that a game with machines we understand, unyielding protocol, structure and a throw-back morality is popular; or, for that matter, wrong. . . "We are used to the idea that rebels can find the cracks in the new systems; we are not used to the idea that rebellion doesn't matter anymore. It's pure imagination now, unfettered by trend or anti-trend; it can happen anywhere the hardware lives." 11
Good art will continue to be subversive, as well as imaginative, but we may not recognize the nature of that subversion--it will be more subtle than that. I recently attended a seminar on the possibilities of art-making in cyberspace.12 The panelists were roughly divided between the young who were concerned with speed, power and access, and the old, who discussed wresting power from the big bad corporations. In this sampling, it was the young who were actually offering competitive alternatives to corporate control while the old seemed mired in 19th century dialectics. The visual and written language that we associate with subversion is tired and the politics that didn't alter the marketplace in the 1970's are not going to change the mediasphere of the late 1990's. Subversive art and language will manifest itself in a new improved package of persuasion.
Given the acceleration of computer technologies, Myst has already been eclipsed, although not yet outsold, by things in release (Myst II is in the works). Myst is a puzzle of middling difficulty, second-rate literature, and, in terms of representation and visual detail, not yet up to comparison with pigment and cloth products made before the discovery of electricity. Its message is a little scary and its politics suspicious. OK, so there are a lot of things Myst is not--a great work of art among them--so why am I writing about it? Because it is a model for ordering compelling narratives in cyberspace and individual ingredients are not what makes for a good recipe. Because it is pretty, engaging (I spent 40 hours living in it), it is persuasive rather than didactic and it came from an unlikely place and from people I wouldn't have called artists--I believe in the notion that art is a vehicle for communicating the artist's consciousness and I've now walked a mile within the Rand brothers' sculls. And, finally, because it altered the way I perceived the world. After my one week stay in Myst, I experienced a phenomena common with other PRVs--mentally clicking on objects in the real world. What had happened was that the empericism I apply to the "real" world had been significantly interrupted. Doors looked less real, walls less solid, the magic function of a light switch was amplified. It reminded me of physicist Edward Fredkin's theory that the universe is nothing but a huge computer and everything we experience a complex set of a simple binary system, matter and energy are mere subsets of information.13 I don't need to understand Fredkin's numbers to have my sensorium expanded by his theory, and the Millers don't have to know Fredkin's theory to effectively mess with my brain. I like it when art does these things.
1 Robert Coover, "Hyperfiction: Novels for the Computer," The New York Times Book Review, Aug. 29, 1993, p. 1.
2 Dave Hickey interviewed by Saul Ostrow, Bomb, Spring 1995, No. 51, p.51.
3 Much of my information and inspiration for this article comes from: Jon Carroll, "Guerrllas in the Myst," Wired, Aug. 1994, pp. 69-73.
4 John Barth, "Chimera," New York, Random House, 1972, p. 56.
5 See Ron Martinez's interview with Mike Backes, "Shape Shifter," Wired, April 1995, p. 88-98.
6 See William Irwin Thompson's, "Imaginary Landscape," New York, St. Martin's Press, 1989.
7 See Joseph Campbell's "The Hero with a Thousand Faces," New York, Pantheon Books, 1949.
8 William Gibson and Bruce Sterling, "The Difference Engine," New York, Bantam Books, 1991.
9 Although quite evident in their work of the eighties, this attitude is not prevalant in "The Difference Engine" where Gibson and Sterling seem to make an effort to escape the punk nuances they helped introduce to the genre.
10 Neal Stephenson, "The Diamond Age," New York, Bantam Books, 1995.
11 Carroll, p. 73.
12 "Art on the Internet," for the course Photography and Related Media, S.V.A., NYC, 1994.
13 Robert Wright, "Three Scientists and Their Gods," New York, Harper Row, 1988.