Wednesday, August 4, 2010

"The Book would not be destroyed as I had planned..."

I played Myst as soon as I had a computer with a CD-ROM drive: late 1994 into early- and mid-1995.  Over the years, the world of Atrus and the D'ni grew, and I loved it.  Enormously.  In fact, I enjoyed the books and their world even more than the game series, probably because I could follow the books but Riven left me in the dust. 

And thus, we come to the importance of accessible game design.

I actually don't have any quibbles with how Myst was handled.  Sure, there are a few things you could do better now, but the game itself was pretty groundbreaking in both form and content, and the first of a kind is almost never the best example of its kind.  But the Miller brothers had come up with a really extraordinary world.  It was true, as an observer, that sufficiently advanced technology looked like magic, but it wasn't actually, and that mattered.  The world was one of ancient civilizations, politics, human emotion, arrogance, pride... it just worked.  And along came Uru, which promised at long last to show us all that ancient, great, terrible ruined civilization.

And Uru, as it turned out... was a hot mess.  Scuttled by poor design choices, by problematic funding sources, and by a fandom that was so devoted and zealous that it drove away valid criticism and potential new fans, Uru didn't really stand a chance.  The internet is full of post-mortems, impassioned condemnations, and even more impassioned defenses, but I think my favorite quick comment comes from a post on (read the whole thing, it's short): 

Uru is ... a broken game; divorced both from the safety of conventional design and from the massively multiplayer online play that was to be its centerpiece, Uru exists today only as the ruins of a grand, unrealized vision. But what spectacular ruins! You don't so much "play" Uru as wander its massive halls, gaping at the fantastical colors and textures and shapes, and pondering what it must have looked like in its own time... what it might have looked like if history had been different. Uru is beauty tinged with sadness.  ...

To be sure, I don't believe Uru's online side was ever going to or will ever succeed in this form. It was given a fair chance and failed on its own terms. While it's loaded with authenticity and emotional power, it never managed a satisfying storyline, or even totally coherent gameplay. Uru gets something wrong for everything it gets right, and, while I hope it is reborn in the future, it will need to rethink its core design ideas to be reborn successfully. That said, perhaps the best thing about Uru is its design creativity. People often say they'd prefer a game that tries new things and fails than a game that plays it safe, and this is that game. Even when Uru falls flat on its face (a couple puzzles have even risen above the original's maze puzzle in adventure game infamy), it always manages to fail in totally unique and interesting ways - ways that spark conversations about how game design works and what it might be capable of in the future. 
That, right there, is what I would like to have written.  By the time Uru was getting a second wind, game design had advanced far and away beyond the 2004-tech it languished with.  By the time GameTap tried to run with Uru Live in 2007, people were thinking of "MMOG" as synonymous with "World of Warcraft" (or at least "City of Heroes" or "EverQuest (2)") and the clunky, awkward, problematic UI wasn't going to fly.  (An MMO where it's almost impossible to carry on a coherent personal or local conversation?  Not so much.)

Is it impossible to create a massively multiplayer co-operative adventure game?  I really don't know.  I know Uru wasn't it, and although I'm sorry that Cyan failed, ultimately Uru deserved to fail, for the reasons described above and a few more as well.  But yes, I would love to see someone try again.  Games and gamers desperately need failed projects, almost (though not quite) as badly as we need successful ones.  I've argued a hundred times that gaming is finally starting to come into its own thanks to the indie, experimental, and avant-garde scene, and this is still true.  

But will we see such an experimental MMOG again?  Not anytime soon, I suspect.  Servers and development staff are a huge cost and a business is going to need -- and properly so -- to see a return on their investment.

In the meantime, though, the fan community -- at once such a tremendous asset and yet sometimes such a liability to the game -- is doing what fan communities do best.  Myst Online is now an open source, free project accessible to any who want in.  It's amazing what a community can create when they have the time, energy, and resources, so I wish them godspeed and hope to see more D'ni history revealed in my life.

After all... the ending has not yet been written.