Onward … into the dark heart of my secret obsession. Not so secret, huh, you say? Now that I'm sharing it at this blog? Well you can judge for yourself. I believe it will remain a secret even after I say what it is.
In a word, it's a game. A game that I play now and then, on the computer, along with millions of other dedicated players (though I play only the single-player version, not the online multi-player type). It's one of the MYST series of games though the current one isn't in the direct line of descent, but a sort of branch-line, called URU. About three days ago, I finished playing URU, thinking that I could relax and take a break from what is, for me, like an extremely potent drug. I dread the immersion in it almost as much as I enjoy it, because I know it blots out all other realities until I am through with it. But a day later, I realized I could buy myself an "extension-pack" … and I did … and now I realize that I am in deep, deep trouble. Not only is the extension pack two CDs' worth of MYST-type adventure, but just next week, I will have access to the fourth game in the main-line MYST series, called MYST REVELATIONS.
Ahh. It is SO hard to discuss this! I am aware that very few – okay, NONE – of my friends is in sympathy with my situation. I don't know anyone who has really got quite as hooked on MYST as I did. To some extent it's a time-issue – most people have much more use for their spare time than to want to waste it on playing a mere game. But it's also a puzzle issue – I don't seem to have friends who really enjoy puzzles. Maybe the reason for that is that puzzle-players are fundamentally solitary, and therefore we don't exactly make an effort to socialize?
Anyway, it all starts with MYST. The first I heard of it was from someone I met casually, in Berkeley, to whom I mentioned my immersion in a particular kind of computer game – a very simple, DOS based game called The Hitch-Hiker's Guide to the Galaxy. Yes, it's based on Douglas Adams' classic book of that name and was designed by him in collaboration with others interested in creating amusements entirely in DOS-text. H2G2 (as Hitch-Hiker's is informally known) is pure mind-candy, no graphics, and totally wacky. But deadly addictive. I played out the final sequence of it in a 5-hour blitz of mind-numbingly boring trial-and-error exercises. When I reached the end of the 'game', the only prize was the final message from its creators: 'You have reached the surface of the planet Magrathea. Yow!'
How can I explain why this was neither a turn-off nor a disappointment? It may have something to do with the immersive nature of such game-play – it's very similar to working with such intensity on a story or a painting, that the world and all its cares/concerns are completely switched off. Anyway, like I said, I was describing this game to someone and he said in that case, I would probably be an ideal candidate for playing something he'd only seen a demo-version of. Something called MYST. I was intrigued at once. Then I read a PCGAMES magazine article about it, with screen-shots … In the article, the reviewer (the game had not yet been released to the market) talked about becoming helplessly seduced in this OtherWorld, this curiously realistic dimension of pictures and music in which certain objects become portals into yet more worlds … He talked about walking on a city street in the real world, with MYST's haunting visuals still active in his imagination, so that some part of his mind was still wondering where to click next … on that manhole cover perhaps? On the handle of that parked car in the distance? Or maybe that traffic light?
It's very hard to describe.
By the time I first played MYST, I was in a fever of anticipation and for once, something that I looked forward to delivered its full payload of reward. The original game is now a dinosaur in computer-game terms. It used stills and restricted movements, with only a few thrilling moments of audio-video action and no living characters. Many computer games claim a strong story line but most of them are only sketchy armatures onto which are loaded a number of puzzles and challenges. MYST is different. It's a story as much as it's a collection of linked puzzles, like a maze with complex doorways embedded all along its course. Part of its fascination is that it deals with books: books are the main portals through which journeys across different layers of the story take place and as one plays the game, one recognizes that in real life, real books DO function as portals into other worlds! They DO colour and alter one's perception of reality as one reads them.
MYST was followed by RIVEN and EXILE. Typically, these games take about two weeks to complete. For me, RIVEN was the ultimate game: it was very rich visually, it had great audio, and its puzzles were intriguing without being annoying. As for the story … there's a feature that occurs right at the end which is as poignant as anything I've encountered in books or movies. I was quite amazed: I didn't expect a 'mere game' to go in that direction. EXILE was a bit disappointing. Even though it used the talents of a Hollywood actor (I forget his name) for its central villain, it felt much more like an ordinary game – in my view, the sign that a game is 'just a game' is when the smooth line of narrative is paused just so that a puzzle can be completed. Still, it was created in the MYST realm of games, where the player does not see him/herself, but connects with the world of the game from a first-person perspective.
URU breaks with that tradition and allows the player the choice of first-person and third-person perspective. At the outset of the game, the player sets up an 'Avatar' – a character who represents the player – and the rest of the game is played via that persona. I played most of the game via the persona of Magnolia, a fifty-something woman with short hair and glasses. I found the game a great deal less attractive than the previous MYST games because the creators have included (no doubt because of industry-pressures to follow current trends) physical actions on the part of the avatar are amongst the activities required to complete the game.
I found this extremely annoying because it meant that poor old Magnolia took a lot longer to get across a particular feature of the game merely because I use keyboard controls that are too clunky to perform the (for instance) running-jump required in some places. Eventually, the irritation of struggling with purely physical limitations drove me to do something I've not done before – i.e., go on-line to the URU web-site to get walkthroughs for the final third of the game. If not for the walkthroughs I would still be stuck in some dungeon of inner-space, unbathed, unfed, unexercised and my wrists numb, as I desperately attempt to cross the finish-line of the game and return to real life.
Still, it was visually stunning and by the time I came to the end, I stopped resenting the fact that I'd been robbed of the pleasure I get from completing a puzzle WITHOUT recourse to hints and walkthroughs. I realize now that perhaps games like these can only be played at a certain time of life and that for me that time is now over: I cannot afford to give up monster chunks of time trying to figure out how to pass through a make-believe wall in a non-existant world and maybe it's okay to confront that truth. I finished URU in just under a week, with only very occasional moments of frustrating key-frenzy.
What is it that these games provide me and others like me? I believe it's the basic travel/adventure excitement, but played out within safe confines of my own room. It is unfortunate but true that I far prefer spending time in Myst-worlds than I do in real world tourist locations. Myst-worlds provide much of the thrill of travelling(because the major enticement in all the games is the fantastic environments that open up with each new twist in the plot), with none of the expense, physical discomfort and communicable diseases of real travel.
It is of course disquieting to realize that I have yet more worlds explore now that I have the URU expansion packs, with REVELATIONS due on the market just next week. I may spend the rest of the year wearing a glazed expression whenever I'm not actually close to my computer. The worst feature of these games is that I have no way of sharing them with anyone because they are fundamentally solitary. There's an online version that requires broadband and that is played with dozens of others in tow, but I would find that as nasty as I DO find package tours – like reading a book as a community enterprise or showering in public – yuck! Not for this trappist monk.
That's the other thing: playing these games seems to activate, for me, the same pleasure areas that reading a truly immersive book. Just as I don't want to speak to anyone or shift a toe away from my favoured reading-couch when I am deep into a novel, I want to be left completely undisturbed when I am playing one of these games. All appeals to friendship, commonsense, good citizenship, ordinary civility, hygiene, sanity – all are kept in suspension until the period of fascination is over!
So yes, it's a drug, it's a dirty habit, it's antisocial, it's perverse, it's unhealthy and no doubt I will repent my folly in time to come. But for now - excuse me! I've just got to get back to those tri-nocular crabs scuttling about a bone-white atoll in an unknown ocean, to see if I can't swim across to that odd-shaped building in the distance …