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Uru Live: Myst Online returns to the gaming community

Screenshots from Uru Live

Screenshots from Uru Live

Myst, developed by Cyan Worlds and distributed by Brøderbund Software, was the most successful interactive computer game of its age (1993 – 2003), selling over 12 million copies, remaining on top until it was toppled by the Sim City series in 2002.

Myst and its brethren possess a number of unique qualities, not the least of which it is a smart game. It’s influence lasted for many years, transcending the popular arcade quality games of its time and bridging the gap between MMORPGs and first person shooters. Refusing to follow the shooter formula, and transcending the MUDs and RPGs outright, Myst instead adopted a more “puzzle solving” premise as a game device. In other words, to “win” the game, one had to finish a sequence of puzzles which typically led to a grand finale of epic “world saving” proportions.

These types of games were called Graphic Adventure Games, and they offer a truly unique experience. For instance, the GUI (or HUD) is minimal and elegant, with a point and click interface and nothing to obstruct the visuals, as this is an observer/explorer game without any serious rote gaming mechanics to speak of. The game is both linear and non-linear, which is part of its charm. Basically, you could roam and tinker with whatever you wished without fear of deviating or upsetting the storyline, but you never had to retread your steps for fear of missing something, or not completing a task properly beforehand. This was a giant step forward in conventional video game play, a strength that clearly is difficult to emulate.

All this is spoken as if Myst started it all. It pretty much did, with the help of 7th Guest and Under A Killing Moon … each of which are classic CD-ROM games in their own right, and each almost singlehandedly ushering the popularity of CD-ROMs as multimedia devices.

The story is loosely based on Jules Verne’s The Mysterious Island,  and for the most part your “mission” is to restore the land, and subsequent quasi-parallel worlds (called Ages) to their former “working splendor”. Some systems are broken, some need adjusting… for the most part the essence of the Age needs restoration on some level.

Of course, there were some genuine Old Testament caliber events (a cataclysm) set off by two zealous engineers (sons of the chief architect of the Ages) who have been set loose. Indeed your help is needed here as well.

The environment is appropriately fantastic, rather a cross between Steam Punk and 1950s Alien Worlds… these nested worlds were engineered through the use of a forgotten “technology” that allows the architect to scribe an entire world/history through books. One enters each Age by simply opening the book. One can imagine the level of exploration this offers the player.

There have been a great number of spinoffs and rip-offs to the Myst franchise (all four sequels are first rate: Riven, Exile, Revelation and End of Ages with Uru: Ages Beyond Myst the red-haired step child of the bunch… see below) but there were a great number of clones as well, some hits and a fair number of misses (Amber, The Dark Eye and nowadays The Whispered World is getting some press). To some extent Monkey Island, Leisure Suit Larry and even more so King’s Quest serve as prototypes to the Myst experience.

A word of caution: some of the puzzles are downright HARD. And addictive. This is a very narrative game as well, despite the distinctive lack of spoken dialog, and for the most part you must uncover the backdrop of the game’s setting on your own. The game is, after all, designed to be a very lonely experience; solving puzzles is a rather cerebral endeavor, whereas hacking and slashing in a modern RPG (tabletop or video) promotes a sense of camaraderie that a solo adventure does not provoke.

But what if somehow it could?

More sample screenshots that illustrate the stunning environments

Here’s where Uru comes in to play. It is a “Mysty”  experience (canonical, but more a spinoff than a sequel) that is effectively immersed in an online environment. Many of the trappings that come with the typical MMOG are here (chat, fast travel, inventory), but no fighting or killing. In fact, as the lead character you cannot die. This makes gameplay less aggravating but no less immersive or engrossing. The return of Uru to online gameplay is actually a story in itself; be grateful it has beaten the odds and resurfaced at once. You can download the game for free at MystOnline.

Uru was canceled as an online experience, although it was released in 2003 as Uru: Ages Beyond Mist as a single-player experience. Lack of funding and subscribers contributed to its ultimate cancelation, but due to its innovative approach and stellar graphics it has garnered a great following. Fans of the series found new and inventive ways to promote its relevance, while the developers were steadfast in continuing its development under the radar. After switching publishers, it has returned to Cyan as an open source project, with many fans and subscribers contributing to its continuity and continued development as Myst Online: Uru Lives Again (hallmarked as the initialism MOULA). The Myst Online Restoration Experiment (MORE) promises to deliver new material with the aid of  development tools that are being provisioned for programmers as an open source endeavor.

The real magic is how such a game, years later no less, can be so engaging and rise to such popularity as back in the day. The answer to this is is simple: Myst offers a truly innovative gaming experience with the highest quality standards, and although it may not be for everyone, if you have never played the Myst games you owe it to yourselves to check Uru out. It has aged well and is very much deserving of a second chance.