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Myst and the Art of Creation

Developers are often praised for giving players the tools with which to manipulate their worlds. By giving such power to the user, they open the door to new worlds of both creation (new maps and levels) and destruction (hacks, exploits). Often, those who go into the business of making games full-time get their start with such devices.

Ironically, while Myst was never a series that really gave its players a sandbox to build in, its core concept was one of creation and destruction.

Sure, the best-selling PC adventure game series sports a lot of themes: Revenge, relationships, exploration, and puzzle-solving. But the narrative tissue that held it together always came down to the creative power of writing. In the world of Myst, special books were written in the language of the D’ni and would link to entire new worlds, or Ages.

But all the power in the world couldn’t prevent the downfall of the D’ni civilization. The Art of writing what Myst calls Linking Books can understandably lead to a god complex, which is perhaps most evident in Gehn, the villain of Myst’s sequel, Riven, and father of series main character Atrus. You see glimpses of how highly Gehn thought himself by simply exploring the world of Riven, where there are images akin to what one might expect to find in a church depicting Gehn as the floating god-like figure being worshiped by the world’s inhabitants.

The first novel based on the Myst series, The Book of Atrus, delves further into his thoughts and motivations. Serving as a prequel to Myst (as well as a narrative bridge to Riven), The Book of Atrus tells of when Gehn taught his son about The Art. But he wasn’t primarily concerned with the actual craft of world-building.

“I wanted you to see, with your own eyes, the awe in which we are held in the Ages.”
“Awe, father?”
“Yes, Atrus, awe. And so they should, for are we not gods? Do they not owe their lives, their very breath, to us? Would they not be here had I not written on the whiteness of the page?”
– The Book of Atrus

When first handed the creation tools to a game, whether they be the toolset for Neverwinter Nights or the sandbox that is LittleBigPlanet, I felt like a god: like I could create anything, like I could do anything. I could create a lush, well-realized world that people want to be in while crafting a story that matches anything you’d find in other mediums. I sometimes found myself looking at the original game and saying, “I can do that. Heck, I can do better.”

That thought was fleeting. I realized quickly that I only really knew how to imitate certain forms of gameplay rather than innovate.

“… there were clear flaws in the way the book had been put together, particularly in the structure of the writing. Elegant passages lay side by side on the page, each uniquely beautiful, yet disturbingly unrelated to each other.” – The Book of Atrus

I was capable of copying and pasting – grabbing pre-made elements of a greater creation and trying to make something I would call my own. I didn’t really understand why everything worked the way it did. I didn’t grasp the real ramifications of making one attribute a “1” while leaving another set at “0.”

I’m not a god, even in a virtual space. I’m just a kid with a toy box, putting G.I. Joes and Ninja Turtles together in a story without truly realizing why.

In terms of game design, one must understand why a cover mechanic in a particular third-person shooter might work well before trying to shoehorn it into your own simply because it worked. A collection of the world’s greatest game mechanics does not make the world’s greatest game.

“My father didn’t create this. It was here all along, just waiting for us to link to it.”-The Book of Atrus

Atrus’ greater discovery about The Art was likely the one that made him humble. It was the realization that, contrary to what his father believed, he was not willing entire worlds into existence – creating subjects for the sole purpose of ruling them. He didn’t see the point in linking to countless worlds so he could be worshiped. Rather, he worked on honing The Art to find worlds in which people could thrive.

Atrus had the power to journey to literally any world he could dream of, yet he was wise enough to acknowledge that he wasn’t any more responsible for that world being there than Columbus was responsible for the creation of America. He merely found a way to get there. We never truly “create” any world – we only discover it and build it out of pieces we’ve been given. Nothing is made in a vacuum, after all.

It’s easy to feel powerful when given powerful tools, whether building a 3D world in Unreal Engine or simply controlling when and where your Sims can pee. But where does the toy box end and true creation begin?

In an old interview with Rand Miller, co-creator of Myst, he tells Cornerstone Magazine about the difference between craft and art. “The line between the two is not always clear. But as you get better at what you do, you’re able to communicate truth,” he says. “That’s what I strive for. That’s what a musician strives for: to master their instrument to the point where the notes on the page go away and they’re able to express something through the instrument without technique getting in the way. That’s when you go from craft to art.”

I’ll probably never feel like I’ve mastered any game editing tools. I may never even master writing, which I often feel is the only thing I’m good at. If the creator of one of the world’s best adventure games doesn’t think he’s mastered what he does, how can I? But the best builders never stop improving, because they never feel like they’ve finished learning their craft.

After all, some endings can never truly be written.

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