There's a vast chasm between the 'Myst fan' and the broader public.
In the public's view, the name 'Myst', for anyone even old enough to even recall it, refers to a game from 1993 that had pretty 3d-rendered graphics and a slideshow interface. It was, for the public, the game 'with that island I got confused by and was completely stuck on'. The game where most players got frustrated and bored and, lacking a clear understanding of what to do, just sort of gave up and forgot about it after a while.
So when a person in the Myst fandom expresses being a 'Myst fan' the typical reaction is incredulous.
How can someone be a fan of a game that is 29 years old? A game that, in the eyes of the public generally, was just tedious and infuriating?
The short answer is that Myst fandom was never about just the first game.
For the fan, 'Myst' is a shorthand for a wildly imaginative and beautifully designed series of five singleplayer games, an MMO, and three novels, all of these being windows into a much broader, almost limitlessly open-ended fantasy metaverse. The art direction and sound design of the series has always been outstanding and even now, that still holds up even when the technical and UI aspects of the games have at times aged terribly.
It's also a series with ridiculously rich, deep, and extensive lore, the sort of lore involving thousands of years of fictional history, grammatically consistent fictional languages, a base 5/25 rotating numeric system, fantasy cultures, and lots of room for growth insofar as the backdrop of Myst centers around a retrofuturist/steampunk race - technologically advanced but culturally and aesthetically stagnant - with access to the metaverse (the ability to link to any point in any universe using touch-responsive linking panels embedded in 'linking book' - the book contains written text carefully, thoroughly, and meticulously describing the desired linking destination, and the panel scans the ink used in the text, reads the text and hones in on the best possible interdimensional match for the given description.
Background, as covered primarily in the Myst novels:
As one might expect in this sort of story, this race reached Earth. They - the D'ni - did so while searching for places to evacuate from an imminent asteroid impact on their homeworld of Garternay. One group of them - trying to avoid future disaster from above - chose to link to a planet very carefully described to be completely safe and hospitable to their form of life in every possible way. A point a few miles underground, a cavern bounded by walls of sturdy rock, with water flowing through it and faint illumination by bioluminescent algae. The spot they chose, at least in later Myst canon, was an unexplored (by humans) branch of the cave systems in New Mexico, near Carlsbad Caverns.
There they lived for a few thousand years in parallel with development of human civilization on the surface. Ultimately, a revolt against the entrenched wealth and power of the D'ni establishment ended in the release of toxic chemical weapons in the cavern, a vulnerability the enclosed space was not secure from. A few hundred D'ni survived by either fleeing to the surface or (in most cases) being off in other connected worlds when the incident occurred.
One family in particular, at the core of the single-player Myst series, is a particularly fractured and dysfunctional family.
Atrus and his wife Katran/Catherine, their sons Sirrus and Achenar, and Atrus's father Gehn, all are stuck in a hostile dynamic.
Gehn's attitude is that the linking books don't link to worlds or 'ages', but create them. The distinction matters - Gehn reasons after all, that if he created these ages, then he OWNS them and anything or anyone living in them is his property, and he their God.
Gehn's fifth age is Riven - an inhabited and steadily destabilizing age that is breaking apart. Atrus, aware of Gehn's growing pathology and murderous tendencies, traps Gehn in Riven by taking the only link out (a Myst book) through a dimensional rift (the Starry Expanse) and does so even as Gehn holds his wife hostage to discourage the escape.
Atrus spends some time later raising his sons Sirrus and Achenar as a single father, while also dreaming of a way to free the Rivenese people and his wife, and also trying to lead the surviving D'ni to some sort of new, better homeworld (Releeshahn). His sons, frequently left to themselves, begin to idolize their missing grandfather, start to agree that ages should be theirs to exploit and rule.
And meanwhile, the lost Myst linking book drifts through the starry expanse and eventually materializes on Earth. At this point it is discovered by a person, the Stranger, who inadvertently touches the linking panel and is dumped on Myst Island. This is where the first game actually begins.
(No wonder Myst's players were confused - not just the obtuse puzzles, but the story itself left so much of the background entirely unexplained at the outset!)
The revolution in gaming that was and wasn't:
Myst was revolutionary in its use of prerendered 3d art, in its sense of place and a well-developed set of fantasy worlds that had a degree of credibility and immersion that at its time was unusual for any puzzle game. Myst was in large part a steampunk work, before the genre term was even well-known, it was the top-selling PC title of the 1990s (and by extension, the last millenium) and it is believed to have driven the sale of over 2 million CD-ROM drives, pushing the format into mass production, suddenly improving affordability, and mainstream usage in general. In doing so, Myst also helped lead to the successful advent of DVDs, BluRays... and, interestingly, rapid mass adoption of the internet. (The AOL discs that were shipped out all over the United States were first sent out the same month that Myst launched, September 1993, and AOL might not have succeeded as much in getting millions of people onto the internet for the first time, had Myst not been there to ensure that many Americans had CD drives that could actually read those AOL discs). Myst wasn't just a commercial milestone driving tech adoption, though - it was a creative landmark that shifted the adventure and puzzle genres away from third person pixel art and created its own new branch of adventure gaming... what today is still often called a 'Mystlike'. Myst lended the genre a level of fictional realism and detailing that felt fresh, and was lauded by nearly every game publication at the time, even if many of them eventually regretted identifying Myst as 'Game of the Year' and not Doom, given that Doom, not Myst, in some ways better reflected where the gaming landscape would ultimately head in the future.
Doom, also released in '93, was a fast-paced if extremely low-res looking 3d first-person shooter with online multiplayer, something that had never been done in an FPS. In time, the world would shift to loudly embrace many of Doom's traits (fast pacing, fluidly moving realtime 3d graphics, online multiplayer) while also quietly learning, even if unacknowledged publicly, that much of Myst's strength would be useful to build on too (that is, increasingly detailed, beautiful and intricate visual art and sound design, compelling storytelling and worldbuilding) and that the two styles of design might just be merged in some mix of different ways to various fascinating effects.
Myst was E10 rated, so largely 'family friendly' despite some eerie and arguably disturbing details in places. But it's also a very difficult game, that requires a very adult level of patience. Here adult means sophisticated and mentally challenging, not directly violent or sexual in nature. And while Myst was heralded as revolutionary at its time, as 'a maturation of gaming as an art form', it didn't take long for its success to draw backlash. Many gamers couldn't understand how it kept selling - Myst was the top PC seller of 1993, 1994 and 1995 - and many preferred the rapid pace of other innovative games in that time. Gamers and press quickly dismissed Myst's immense success as if it had never taken place, as if it was an unexplained and inexplicable anomaly... and today point to Doom as the revolutionary historical event of the early '90s.
When Riven - the first Myst sequel - showed up, it too topped sales charts and became the top selling PC title of 1997. But the reception this time was tempered. Riven was more Myst than Myst was, with harder, more complex and sprawling puzzles, but also more immersion, more depth in its world and story, more impressive art and sound design. And by the time additional Myst sequels came out, the public had, to a large degree, lost interest.
Myst sold 6.5 million copies.
Riven sold 3.5 million.
Myst III and IV between 1-1.5 million each.
Myst V and Uru? Only a few hundred thousand.
The Myst series has clearly declined to the point where today the core playerbase and fanbase is way, way down from the millions to the tens of thousands.
The Myst MMO, Uru, cost $12 million to make by the time it first launched in fall 2003, probably more like $20-24 million by the time of its second cancellation in 2008. It reopened as freeware in 2010. It's been that way ever since. No microtransactions, no ads. Free with Uru today actually means entirely free.
And yet, even as freeware, even as sprawling as Uru is, it feels so empty of players most of the time. The freeware Uru has never had more than 20,000 players active at any point in its entire existence. Not when its existence was first revealed and announced and not when fans quietly and creatively started adding more and more player-created worlds to it.
Myst went from pop-culture zeitgeist to nearly total obscurity because the series misjudged and overestimated the typical player. The series seemingly thought players were smarter and more patient than they were. Today, the average gamer has less attention span than a goldfish. Not figuratively, even. I mean cognition in fish has literally been measured by science - a goldfish will typically focus on something for about ten seconds before getting distracted. The average human in the age of the internet and the endlessly scrolling social-media feeds? Eight seconds at most. Sometimes as little as three. So of course most players today cannot progress in a game that requires them to think about a virtual world as if they were there, look and listen and cartefully observe, and not get distracted by other outside things. Myst, and its genre, has a comparatively slow pace and has lost most of its audience as a result.
SO WHY BOTHER PLAYING? IS THIS SERIES DEAD?
But Myst, for any of its design flaws, despite even an aging pacing some might describe as 'glacial', remains surprisingly engaging in its core design even now. The puzzle design in Myst is heterogenous - which is to say, puzzles are not built upon one another with slight complications and additions in each subsequent challenge. They are varied, self-contained. The mechanics used are wildly variable. Before Myst, adventure games were normally third person, fixed mostly on inventory puzzles with massive, sprawling lists of items to be used in various places, and dialogue trees, neither of which Myst chose to use in its minimalist interface.
One of Myst's core design ideas was to make the puzzles 'environmental' and seamlessly - or as seamlessly as possible - a part of the gameworld.
The puzzles, story, and art style all had to fit in ways that didn't detract from one another. This choice of design is a standard of Myst's developers (Cyan) and their art work is routinely beautiful bordering on awe-inspiring. There's a sense in these games that you're not in a video game level only - the immersion of it is such that the worlds feel they have a history, a grandeur and wonder, and sometimes a hint of the ominous. The feeling of a Myst player - past the frustration and confusion of trying to make sense of convoluted puzzles, is a sense of curiosity, exploration and wandering and observing, intrigue, at some points tedium when you've been wandering around and looking at things for a while and just don't know what to do, and occasionally elation when, after clicking aimlessly for a bit and looking at stuff and thinking "I just don't get it", you push through, the disparate pieces click and fit together and an insight is acheived.... usually followed by the unlocking of some new scene, some evocative music... and a new space to add to the list of things to figure out next.
Myst chose extremely detailed, realistic (for its time) graphics in first-person view, all of which was also pretty novel for the early '90s. It felt 'AAA' for its time - polished and cutting-edge technically even if the production actually came from a Spokane suburb and a team of seven young people working out of a mattress store back office and a garage furnished partially with discarded 'unsellable' furniture, including an old, broken yellow chair that the developers somehow go on a lengthy and silly tangent about in a Myst V making-of interview.
Myst was a project that took Cyan two and a half years, and was completed on a budget of under $700,000. Its success allowed Cyan to do two major things afterward, one being the construction of a dedicated office complex, the other was creating Riven - a sequel that required the best then-available 3d software (Softimage, used to animate the dinosaurs in Jurassic Park) and new custom shaders and tools added on top of it, plus a rendering pipeline filled with top-tier SGI workstations at up to $50k each per workstation setup. (The studio now calls them 'doorstops'.) Riven took Cyan four years, a much bigger team, and what at the time was an unprecedented $10 million budget, to complete.
Riven managed to push 1997-era photorealism about as far as it would go, adding realistic shaders and photoreal digital materials to everything, wear and tear and grunge and weathering. Riven felt like a real place, it felt lived in, and it was big and diverse enough to be believable as a fully realized world with its own history and cultures and ecology and geology. Cyan released the Myst novels around the time of Riven's creation - trying to answer all the questions about Myst's worlds and backstory and set up some things that would play out in Riven itself. We might joke about the novels. The third one is rather mediocre, but the first two are actually rather good. They were written as a collaboration between the Myst developers and a Hugo-award-winning fantasy writer (David Wingrove) and each of the three novels sold upwards of 200,000 copies in the first run, selling even more later in a follow-up 2004 compilation (the Myst Reader). There was also a tie-in hardcover artbook, 'From Myst to Riven' and it too sold out fast in its print run, and has similarly become a collector's item with a continually rising price tag on eBay.
Myst III and IV are gorgeous to be sure, but they're not Cyan-developed games, just collaborations between Cyan, Ubisoft, and other dev teams (Presto Studios, Ubisoft Montreal) and despite all their strengths couldn't wow us quite the way the first two games did when they came out. You didn't play them and feel you were seeing the bleeding edge of an emerging revolution in gaming, art, and technology. Nor was the sheer sense of mystery there as the canon already established by that point meant that you had some sense of what to expect going in.
And the launched-in-2003 Uru? 2005's Myst V? They suffered, sadly, by being realtime 3d before realtime 3d gaming could truly look intricately detailed.
I don't blame Cyan for trying there, but the limited computing power of the average player undercut what they probably wished they could do creatively. Worse, the things that were hyped in Uru - realtime 3d, use of physics, a custom-built game engine... often these ended up more liability than strength. The realtime 3d of the early 2000s constrained the last Myst titles and limited their rich visual wow factor. Uru's physics engine and in-house game engine in general? Clunky, janky at times... and now very dated.
But Uru did one thing extremely well, even as it flopped financially. it was forming a focal point for a close knit Myst fan community.
Myst had been a massive hit - over six million copies sold - but publisher Broderbund took 85% of the sales amount, and none of the other subsequent titles in the series even came close to its mainstream success. So when Uru and Myst V actually sold really poorly out of the gate, then-publisher Ubisoft was fine with leaving the series, and the studio, to die. Cyan nearly hit bankruptcy twice in the late 2000s.
Then something odd happened. Cyan, after dismal experiences with numerous traditional games-industry publishers, was revived largely by its niche fanbase, not any conventional publisher. The 20,000-30,000 core fans of the Myst series simply refused to let the studio die, buying every mobile port (Myst and Riven on Android and iOS) and backing Cyan on every single Kickstarter campaign they have launched, resulting in no fewer than three Cyan campaigns exceeding a million dollars each. (The first was for a new Mystlike title called Obduction, the second was on Myst's 25th anniversary and involved acquisition of added rights to the previously split-with-Ubisoft Myst 3/4, getting the entire game series on Steam and all Win10 compatible for the first time, plus a lot of really neat merch and backer reward items, the third was for a game called Firmament which as of now is nearing launch, with release set for May 18, 2023).
Cyan has also lately opted to become a niche publisher itself, offering better terms than usual for other small studios pursuing quirky small projects in VR (Zed, Area Man Lives, The Last Clockwinder...) and other studios have been approaching Cyan with requests to do Myst-related things.
The Myst feature film and TV rights have been circulating for some time now, with Warner Bros, Legendary, and Village Roadshow all attached at various points and hoping to use Myst's rich and artful settings as the basis for a cinematic and/or television adaptation. Hulu and Netflix have both been identified as potential release platforms, but this project's been bouncing from studio to studio for a few years now and it's unclear when it'll actually move forward. The success of Game of Thrones certainly helped launch a fantasy-genre gold rush recently, and many fantasy works are being snapped up for development. The Rings of Power on Amazon Prime is the best indicator of the situation; Amazon has (perhaps very recklessly) gambled a billion dollars on it - $250 million for the rights, plus $150 million for each of five seasons paid for up front, or a total of $750 million actually making the series) - an exorbitant move that shows exactly how badly every network wants to have recognizable fantasy content right now. But with viewership on RoP now clearly tanking, it's also clear that throwing a ridiculous mountain of money at a project isn't enough, you need passionate, smart people at the helm who actually know what they're doing with the project they are given.
Other categories of Myst related licensed tie-ins and content exist too, from a tabletop RPG (Unwritten) to a Myst miniature golf course in VR (Walkabout Minigolf, in a news story that was initially thought by many to be a possible April Fool's joke.)
Myst's fanbase is a supportive, unusually non-toxic online fan community. There's an entire dedicated community of people who love this open-ended setting, complete with social events in multiplayer, fan conventions (Mysterium) and numerous social media groups and fan pages.
Myst fans seem to be patient, determined and persistent, creative, intelligent, compassionate.. and demographically unusual for a gaming community given that roughly 60% of them are women, and many of them elderly. The group includes those who were adults when Myst came out, i.e. 50+ years old now, or were children or teenagers at the time, or were born after the original game first released and were introduced to it by older family members.
The 2021 rerelease of Myst - oddly, 2021's GOTY on the Mac App Store even though it's a remake of a now 30-year-old game - has continued this pattern. Every 7 years (on average) Cyan has overhauled Myst with new gaming tech. The 2021 version was the first with VR support, the version prior to it added detailing, volumetric lighting and nice shaders and water effects, RealMyst before that was the first form of the game in realtime 3d, and the version immediately before that (Myst: Masterpiece Edition) rerendered all the visuals with higher color depth. We could gripe that this game has been remade way too many times, but every new version apparently sells well enough to turn a profit, and grabs at least a small number of younger new players who then filter into the fan community. Players who had heard the game was famous and historically significant in some way, but had never played this classic themselves.
The traits that enabled them to complete these games and not give up early on, tend to have resulted in a small cultivated group - some 25,000 active diehard fans across multiple generations - but a group that, as niche as it is, is able to sustain the MMO and is whittled down to some sort of refined subset of the original Myst playerbase. They have funded other Cyan projects very successfully, since the Myst series ground to a halt. Obduction and Firmament - both modern new IPs by Cyan with VR support, crowdfunded with over $1.3 million raised each. The Myst MMO, Uru, has survived in a leaner, slower-growing form for well over a decade after its cancellation, supported by players, in community activity, donations, and creation of new fan made ages by the fanbase that essentially figured out how the game engine worked, built a Blender toolset to modify it, then built a bunch of ages using that toolset... keeping the MMO active not only on the main official servers but across a list of fan-run servers called shards.
There's even a remake of Riven planned by Cyan now... and still-growing annual fan conventions that have been held since the '90s (Mysterium, not to be confused with the board game or cryptocurrency that later appeared with the same name)
Myst is somehow still relevant 30 years after the fact. It's a title that was one of the first five video games inducted into the Video Game History exhibit in the Smithsonian (along with enduring classics like Super Mario Bros, and Tetris) Various indie games inspired by its design philosophy continue to be released, and are described often as 'Myst-likes'. Popular culture continues to reference Myst over time, whether it's Easter Eggs in television such as 'The Simpsons' (1995 Treehouse of Horror), in many games such as Fez (2010) or The Witness (2014), or even very recent nods in major films such as "Knives Out: Glass Onion" (writer/director Rian Johnson has confirmed that one detail in the opening puzzle box scene is a Myst easter egg)
Other confirmed players that appreciate the Myst series have ranged from Jeff Bridges [the Dude himself] to Neil Patrick Harris [How I met your Mother, and a lot of other roles], John Knoll [Legendary VFX supervisor of many big blockbusters from Terminator 2 to Pirates of the Caribbean, and the original creator of Photoshop], and Adam Conover [Adam Ruins Everything, The G Word]. The core fanbase is small, sure, but it's an awfully smart and creative group. There are many other currently less-famous people within the fanbase who say Myst inspired them in their careers, pushing them towards game design or 3d art or some other creative category they would not otherwise have tried to pursue. Perhaps some of them will yet become notable figures in game design, filmmaking/TV or music over time.
This community of people who love this series is fascinating, and a joy to be involved in. This community is a large part of why I'm still so invested in the series today, the group is full of really very smart, patient, creative people pretty much due to the substantial difficulty curve of the series itself which pretty much appealed to the creatives and rewarded them for their tenacity with unlocking of more and more outstanding aesthetic elements, yet alienated those who were a bit too stupid and/or impatient to get to any of that often-wondrous material. The series itself is beautiful and full of intrigue... and though it's been quite a while since Cyan made an entirely new Myst title, rather than a port/remake of Myst or Riven, or a game unrelated to Myst's canon, I would not be surprised to see them revisit Myst's fantasy metaverse again someday in spectacular fashion.
They're clearly interested in doing so - a recent 2023 Inverse interview article (which was fantastic) suggests that after the imminent release of Myst-like original game 'Firmament' and then their upcoming remake of Riven for realtime 3d VR, they are interested in a new Myst title and a wide rerelease of the Myst novels.
The ending of the phenomenon of Myst truly has not yet been written.