In the mid 90s, my best friend’s family got a new computer–it was a Compaq, but what I remember most was how often I heard these three numbers: 486. I didn’t know much about computers then, but the way my friend, Sammy, said those numbers told me that there was something magical about this computer. This computer would be able to do things other computers could only hope to accomplish. This computer had something called a CD-ROM–you could play CDs right on your computer! I couldn’t wait to see what this magnificent machine was capable of. And while our parents may have emphasized that the computer was primarily meant to be used for school work and projects, all Sammy and I heard was “Blah blah blah COMPUTER=GAMES!”
There is one game whose very name, to this day, evokes a sense of wonder for me: Myst. What did it mean? In those days, games often came with an little booklet offering players a glimpse into the game world while they waited for installation to complete. I remember reading the insert from my friend’s copy of Myst and being immediately transported.
For a kid who had spent a lot of time reading books on the bus to school, the idea of this brief introduction fascinated me. Books were already a portal for me; they were like windows to other worlds, and here was a game offering the opportunity for us to realize this experience in a whole new way. Myst’s opening cinematic didn’t disappoint, as the book’s centrality became even more clear, while also evoking a keen sense of curiosity. Who was this man, and what led him to lose his book in the first place? Why did he expect the book to be destroyed? And then we landed on the iconic island of Myst.
Unfortunately, Sammy failed Myst. This isn’t to say that he didn’t reach the endgame, because he did. For reasons I never quite understood, Sammy used the Prima Strategy Guide to play Myst, which allowed him to discover that the game’s ending could be reached on the first island, without visiting any of the other ages. He proudly demonstrated how quickly the game could be beaten and concluded that he had “finished” the game. For the next few months, whenever I would visit, I tried to surreptitiously re-install Myst just to get a glimpse of the game where books took you to strange and wonderful worlds. Sammy found my fascination with Myst exasperating; after all, once he had completed the game, why go back?
At the time, I was saddened and frustrated that Sammy didn’t share my enthusiasm for Myst, but now I think that his attitude was understandable. We were raised in an era of video games when, for the most part, the goal was to get to the end. Anything that aided that goal was good, even if it allowed you to skip large portions of the game (like the magic flute in Mario 3). In Sammy’s case, I think this logic contaminated his experience of Myst. But for me, Myst’s significance was about much more than simply completing the final puzzle. Unsurprisingly, the moment that my parents decided to (finally!) buy a computer, I immediately asked Sammy if I could borrow his copy of Myst. Along with the game, he offered me a journal that had come with the game, which remained blank after his speedy completion.When I think back on how a kid who loved video games and books ended up pursuing a graduate degree in English literature, part of the influence certainly came from that journal. Today, I’m often annoyed if a game requires me to pull out pen and paper to write down a code or record a quest detail, but at the time I saw the Myst journal as a creative opportunity. After all, Myst was about writers and writing–with the journal, I could be a part of that community. I filled that journal with details of my explorations, at times writing them out as if I really had traveled to this strange world. All the puzzle solutions and notes were there, meticulously mapped and explained. In the intervening years I lost track of that journal, but I would love to get a chance to read through it again. That lost journal is a part of who I am today. Myst’s influence in the gaming world may have waned, but its significance in my life continues to resonate through the years.