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Myst, Doom and false dichotomies

22 February 2020 — No Time To Play

Much virtual ink has been spilled on comparisons between Myst and Doom, two of the three mega-hits of 1993, arguably the single best year in the history of computer games so far. The latest to chime in is Jimmy Maher, a.k.a. The Digital Antiquarian, in a write-up titled The Drawbacks to Success. In his usual manner, it's long, detailed, exquisitely documented... and trying way too hard to be neutral. But then, that's why Jimmy's a reputed scholar while I'm just a punk.

Here's the deal: for one thing, I am one of those crazy people who played both Doom and Myst and loved them both. The difference is, I can consistently finish Episode 1 of the former without dying, admittedly on a lower difficulty; whereas in the latter I only ever managed to visit (and complete) one of the other Ages, not nearly enough to win the game. Coming from a cerebral kind of guy with terrible reflexes, that should speak volumes.

Second, the widespread idea that Myst somehow failed to influence videogames is completely wrong: the game spawned not one, but two genres: the walking simulator, and the escape room game, which later spilled over into the real world. How's that for a success? That neither genre much resembles its original inspiration testifies of the creativity involved in both. Contrast with first person shooters, which are often indistinguishable from each other. And note how many of them tell their story through video or audio logs. Sounds familiar?

Speaking of genres: gee, you mean back at the time a lot of people would have been drawn to a game that looked different for a change? Most other adventures were the interactive cartoons of Sierra and LucasArts, that put you in the shoes of a loser solving nonsensical puzzles in an absurd world. Is it any wonder that most people would rather play a brave knight or space marine mowing down monsters?

And by the way: I'm sick and tired of snobs insisting that the faceless, nameless protagonist of early videogames is somehow inferior. All the people who remember Zork but none of the many text adventures that followed beg to disagree. So do the millions who bought Myst and, wait for it, Doom. Being able to imagine yourself as the protagonist is a huge part of what makes stories great. Weren't you doing that with each and every book you used to read as a kid?

Even games not usually considered first-person, such as Master of Orion, have plenty of moments where they are. And those are what you'll usually see in screenshots: the experience of actually being there. The game proper, who cares.

Tags: game-design, philosophy

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