Of all the people who've played Jonathan Blow's The Witness, a puzzle game inspired by the '90s hit Myst that dominated headlines in the games press last January, you'd think Myst creator Rand Miller would have been among the first. But nope! Miller tells me he's skimmed though a few videos, watched some friends play it, and that's it, even though he really wants to play it.
"I kind of like puzzles and that sort of thing," he says.
So he does. It's puzzling enough that he's so calm just a handful of days ahead of the release of his latest game Obduction, a crowdfunded "spiritual successor" to Myst that grabbed more than $1,300,000 when Miller and Cyan announced it on Kickstarter in 2013. (It's out now on Steam.) Two days earlier his P.R. contact shot me a code for the game itself, and I sheepishly respond that I "haven't got that far" when he asks where I am. Truth is, in another window I'm still running around the opening town pulling levers and pushing buttons that do nothing. I'm wondering if I'm just dumb or if some of these things could be bugged. Rand Miller himself, a deity of design, is offering me hints or outright solutions, and I turn him down because I'm too deep in the game's genesis to make good use of his revelations.
The epiphany comes after the call. I pull the right lever, and water rushes out. I've poked around enough to know where it's going, so I follow the flow and handle some other environmental puzzle I'd spoil if I explained. I start to see where the pieces of Miller's puzzle, seemingly unrelated, start to fit together. It's not long before I'm chatting with some dude in an airtight tank through his window, and I laugh with satisfaction at how I see him as an actor filmed in real life rather than a 3D model, just as in proper classic Myst. And to think, all this takes place in a strange world where what looks like a '50s suburban home, an 1880s mining town, and a seeming copy-paste of the southern Arizona desert reside in a dome on a clearly alien planet with purple, bulbous rocks and planets looming overhead. That very bizarreness invites exploration, and Miller tells me that's been the point all along.
"We hope all of it pushes you forward a little bit," he says, adding that for him and his team, the setting has always come before the puzzles. "It's so odd, it's so strange, and we're hoping it motivates you to figure out the mystery and learn a little bit more about how this all came to be."
It's all so weird that it's Myst in all but name, and it makes me realize I've missed Myst. I don't think it's too much of a stretch to claim the dormant puzzler series probably saved my life, as 2004's Myst IV (which Miller had nothing to do with) was a bridge between me and one of my professors when I was at a low point in my graduate studies at the University of Chicago. Figuring out the puzzles alongside figuring out a direction for my studies, I gained a new confidence in my ability to think. Her enthusiasm made me realize, seemingly for the first time, that I didn't have to give up games to keep my mind honed for research.
But that was 2004. It's less true now. For almost the entire '90s Myst and Miller's sequel, Riven, dominated PC game sales, but today those charts stay dominated by the likes of Minecraft, Overwatch, and The Sims. Minecraft encourages creativity, Overwatch encourages some sense of strategy, but nothing else on the list really demands the same depth of analytical thought. It's no accident that the official trailer (above) ends with the imperative pun "Think, again."
So what happened? Miller says the bigger studios don't want games like this; that "they have specific genres that do well for them and I think they now consider this kind of thing a niche." He's thus thankful that crowdfunding allows for such projects to thrive. Yet Miller thinks their decline might also lie in that very depth of thought, and not just from a consumer standpoint. Turns out, it's just as draining to make this stuff as solve it.
"These games are freakin' hard to make," he says. "You know, we don't get the advantage of having gameplay mechanics that are kind of just known, like a shooter where I can kill a bad guy and I get stuff."
He tells me puzzle games like Myst require a constant "reinvention of the wheel." It's not hard to grasp why. Myst and Obduction aren't really like The Witness, which for all its power and sense of place still comes off like a collection of pencil-friendly mazes or sudoku you might find in the back of a really colorful newspaper. You'll get some of that in Obduction, but for the most part its puzzles are the brain-teasers of the mundane. They're about figuring how to flip a bridge around so I can check out an easel on the other side of a creek, or getting a generator running using only the scattered crap on an alien world. They're about remembering to prime that generator before you turn it on. The kind of stuff that'd make my Dad proud.
"We can't use the puzzles from Myst but just skin them differently or have just a little bit of a story there," he says. "All this has to be woven together in a rather intricate manner, and I think it limits the number of people who really want to vest themselves in doing this kind of thing."
That's a shame. Obduction may be a puzzler, but like Myst, it's also memorable for how it uses those puzzles to craft a memorable story stuffed with great characters and settings and meaningful small details. Most games serve up their stories like pre-prepared multicourse meals, offering this or that choice of a side. But Obduction's narrative pleasures are those familiar to the researcher: the pulling together of invisible lines connecting myriad parts. The moment when those lines become clear without hints or heavy prodding, how briefly, is empowering and euphoric. It's why I loved Myst so much as an academic. I felt a bit of it when I pulled that first "correct" lever in Obduction, and in that moment I knew Miller had been on the right track all along.
These days, it must be hard to shrug off the temptation to look up videos showing how to solve these things after a few minutes of inaction. You could find walkthroughs for Myst and Riven online even while Seinfeld was still on the air, but in this age of Twitch streaming and "let's play" videos on YouTube, Obduction suffers the risk of having its challenges spoiled through its very fandom. There may still be some satisfaction from playing it if you play Obduction after seeing someone else play parts of it first, but Miller believes it'd be greatly diminished.
"You know, I hate that. I think it misses the point," he says. "It's like beaming yourself down into the Grand Canyon. If you're at the top and you beam yourself to the bottom, you kind of missed a really amazing journey that you would've had otherwise."
And the journey is amazing this time around, even if it's a little technically demanding. Miller and his friends at Cyan give us a beautiful, realistic world in Obduction, but my PC with 16GB of RAM and an Nvidia GeForce GTX 980 graphics card sometimes struggled to keep up with rapid shifts in perspective. That's almost always been a hallmark of the series, though. Myst IV, which I found so life-changing, caused a bit of a stir in 2004 on account of its then-boggling installation size of 7GB.
This doesn't seem to bother Miller. He's practically planned it, in fact, in part because of the ability to play Obduction in virtual reality on the Oculus Rift.
"Frankly, we want to use the technology to make this world seem real, which is all we've ever wanted to do," Miller says. "We want this place to become your world. If people said that about Myst, I hope they say it about Obduction on the desktop and I think in VR it feels even more so."
That world has been Miller's for years now, and now it's ours. Framerate drops aside, it's a worthy successor. But what about Miller? What does he plan on doing with all this newfound time?
"Well, actually, I can't wait to be done with this so I can jump in and give The Witness a shot," Miller says. "It's been frustrating not being able to do that."