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Myst creators rejoin indie environmental games with Obduction Exclusive

 Myst  creators rejoin indie environmental games with  Obduction
November 7, 2013 | By Leigh Alexander

November 7, 2013 | By Leigh Alexander
More: Console/PC, Indie, Art, Design, Production, Exclusive

A memory of the early island in Cyan's Myst: You descend a path to a woodland, and to your right, a rainbow lens flare from the dappled, distant sun scintillates across your field of view. In a patch of pale light are a smattering of butterflies, hovering in delicate patterns. They feel real.

Did those butterflies really move, or does that image exist only in my memory, details of an old, old game fleshed out through the lens of the effect it had on me at the time? They moved, the game's co-creator Rand Miller tells me. The ability to add small dynamic details gave new depth to the hand-drawn worlds Cyan had previously tried out in games like The Manhole. What will the team create now that it has access to Unreal Engine 4?

"To put a world together that's got the richness that's possible with the current technology is really cool," says Miller. That's part of the opportunity Cyan hopes to explore with Obduction, a project seeking Kickstarter funding so that the team can make a dreamlike exploration puzzle for a new age, 20 years after Myst.

Myst was a singular high point for early adventure games, creating atmosphere, mystery and environmental narrative around puzzle-solving. Although it was hailed as a bold new direction for the form, few other games like it emerged; Myst's sequel, Riven, enjoys a cult fan following, but never superseded its predecessor. Emily Yoshida's recent article in Grantland argued that Myst left no legacy after all.

Miller's thought about this often through the years: "I think it has something to do with the level of commitment and development that goes into making an exploration game that also has challenges, puzzles and story built into the environment," he says. "It's a nontrivial task. It's not like your 'design' is laid out in front of you. With a [first-person shooter], for example, you know what the player is going to do; you decide who the bad guys are, and then you build it in an unbelievable environment."

Yet unlike many new projects from classic games creators that hope to take advantage of the crowdfunding era, Obduction feels particularly on-point. In recent years many prominent games have aimed to revisit a design space where a first-person player unravels a story, solves a mystery. Gone Home and Dear Esther have rattled the expectations of a whole new generation of young gamers; The Stanley Parable is a living design critique of first-person gaming and narrative conventions, and Frictional Games' Amnesia series gleefully throws itself at the challenge of creating frightening challenges for players in environments where combat and destruction aren't possible.

By today's standards, Myst far more resembles a modern indie game than the commercial retail success it was in its day -- which may make it the perfect time for Cyan to return to doing what it loves and does best.

"I think there's a whole new crowd of indie developers who are going there," Miller says. To make games like Myst might have once required expensive time and production values to tackle the design challenge of constantly innovating on non-combat challenge in immersive environments -- "the environment isn't just there as an accoutrement; you've got a lot of design at eveyr level," he says. "That takes a lot of work and a lot of money... now we've got a way to sell these, develop them, and a channel to get them out there."

"From our perspective, there are great cycles in life... this is one of those things we felt was a sign that the cycles are coing around again," he says. "It's not that there's anything wrong with first-person shooters, but people tire of certain things, become aware of other things."

"We strayed away from a Myst sequel [because] the constraints of that storyline, that IP, that canon... in as much as they're great because they help you move forward, they almost were too much of an encumbrance for this project."

The resurgence of interest in environmental games is interesting to Miller and his brother and co-founder Robyn. "If you'd asked me back when we released Myst if 20 years from now there'd be a resurgence in exploration and adventure, I'd wonder what happened in the in-between times," he reflects. "My brother and I both anticipated this would be an alternative avenue in interactive entertainment; there'll be FPS, sports, driving, and -- oh, cool, we've opened another path, and the big publishers will put some big money in that."

Although that never happened, crowdfunding and better access to tools have meant there's another way for these games to re-enter the spotlight. Cyan will be developing Obduction using Unreal Engine 4, a great leap from a time when Cyan had to carefully plot visual tricks into Myst's world to give it a sense of reality: Switches that had several positions had to be drawn up to dozens of times, in every position from every angle from which the player might see it. Dynamic objects make that kind of thinking unnecessary.

And now the team has the opportunity to be part of an entirely new design community; Myst was made in the pre-internet "boondocks" of Spokane, WA. "We didn't have a lot of contact with other people, but we built on what they developed," he says, citing games like Hellcab and The Journeyman Project as contemporaries that helped lead to Myst.

Although it'll be built with state-of-the-art technology, many things about Obduction will aim for the sweet part of Myst's heritage: The feeling of being dropped someplace with no information, only a strange sense of connection impelling you through a mysterious, beautiful world.

"I think that's what people liked about the first season of Lost," Miller suggests. "It's about paying attention, exploring and making connections, and that's really fun."

Obduction will also include both a realtime, gamer-friendly WASD and mouse control scheme and a hybrid interface reminiscent of Myst, where players can click through the world to reach the next spot or point of view. "We think it's important to be inclusive in the interface," he says.

New technology will let the team push things in ways they hadn't been previously able. "We can change things without you having to move," says Miller. "It can get dark, cloudy or foggy, and these things can be part of puzzles that are more time-based. You can come somewhere in the dark to find something... by day, it's a different world, and that's a lot of fun for us."

obduction.jpgBut Obduction doesn't belong to the Myst universe, per se: "We strayed away from a Myst sequel [because] the constraints of that storyline, that IP, that canon... in as much as they're great because they help you move forward, they almost were too much of an encumbrance for this project," says Miller. "We all can breathe a lot easier when we have a blank slate. It's incredibly refreshing."

It'll be set in a fantastical realm influenced by Miller's love of science fiction and fantasy, though the team plans to avoid the "standard sci-fi fare" of spaceships and aliens. And unlike Myst's lonesome sojourn, Obduction's world will be inhabited, but the game won't heavily focus on character interactions.

Avoiding direct contact with characters in first-person games "in some ways makes things more realistic, only because in most games 'interacting' is not a good word for what you do [with characters]," Miller says, pointing to how dialogue trees with glassy-eyed NPCs often highlight, not smooth, the dissonance between game worlds and reality.

"It's one of those constraints... we try to distance you a bit," says Miller. "Of course players suspend disbelief, but we want to try to put as few roadblocks to suspending disbelief as possible. We want it to feel like it's you, in this place. When you turn down the lights and turn up the sound and it's you on that screen, we want you to get lost. Everything has that in the background, driving us."

The team doesn't want to say much more about the player's experience of Obduction's world just yet: "Our story and our design is our [player] reward, in a lot of senses," he says -- people play to be surprised and to see things they've never seen before.

"It's exciting," Miller says, of the chance to make a modern, immersive game about the mystery and challenge of exploration. "The most encouraging thing is that we're still here. By the way, we've managed to make our way through the minefield of companies our size where they've been snatched up, incorporated... and it feels like we're coming out on the other end of this tunnel where the independent space is where the cool stuff is being done, and there's a channel for it."

"All of a sudden, we can stay independent now," Miller says. "[Kickstarter funding] may be rejected, but it's an option, and that's amazing.Wwhat it means is that light at the end of the tunnel, and we can continue to bootstrap ourselves up."

I ask Miller if he really believes there's no legacy for Myst. "I think I see it only because it's easy for human brains to match patterns, whether they're there or not," he reflects. "When I see Dear Esther or Gone Home or Journey, there are little bits and pieces that I'm probably deluding myself, but I am actually wondering if they played Myst, if it had an influence."

"It's kind of interesting even if they hadn't been influenced by it, the fact certain threads picked up again means there's something there," he continues. "People keep coming back to it. When people come back to something over and over again, it means it has value, and it's a valid thing."

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