6: The Expendable Plot

Maybe I’m being a little uncharitable when I accuse Myst V: End of Ages of having an expendable plot. After all, the stated aim is to bring the saga to a conclusion; life has to move on, and the past should be left behind. This sentiment is nicely captured by the return to Myst island: you only actually do this if you fail in the story, and you find the island a desolate, broken place. It is time to move on. Needless to say, that isn’t my problem with the plot.

The problem is the basic dynamic of ‘who do you trust?’ That same idea has been used in all of the Myst saga except for Riven: The Sequel To Myst: in that game, we know who the good guys are (Atrus, Catherine and the Moiety) and who the bad guys are (Gehn and his servants), but what we don’t know is how to bring the bad guys to justice and the good guys to victory. All of the other games have been more ambiguous, and Myst V: End of Ages is no exception. The problem is that it doesn’t work very well. Let’s look at the other games one by one in order to put this criticism into perspective.

In Myst and realMyst, we are introduced to the brothers Sirrus and Achenar for the first time, locked in their Prison Ages, and visible only through a great deal of static. They both spin us a story about being wrongfully imprisoned, about the other murdering their father, and so on. Although Sirrus is cold, and Achenar manic, their stories are essentially the same. The question is: ‘who do you trust?’ and by the end of the game, the answer should be: neither of them. There must be a third way. And there is: their father Atrus is still alive, and he knows what to do.

In Myst III: Exile, the good guy / bad guy distinction is very clear at the start, but becomes less clear over the course of the game. Saavedro, who steals Atrus’s new book for the D’ni, Releeshahn, has been gravely wronged by the two brothers, as well as by Atrus’s negligence, and by the end of the game comes across as a much more sympathetic, if disturbed, figure. In contrast, the more we learn about Atrus, the dimmer our view of him becomes. He is (or was) full of bombast, pride, and naivety. So the answer to the question ‘who do you trust?’, though clear at the start, become much less clear as the game progresses, and the best solution to the game is to find a way to retrieve the stolen book, without persecuting Saavedro still more.

In Myst IV: Revelation, we are again confronted with the two brothers, and so start off by not trusting either. Yeesha, their sister, has been kidnapped, and the question is, which of the brothers is responsible—or are they both? As we explore their Prison Ages and learn about how they spent their time when imprisoned, we should reach the conclusion that Sirrus has become consumed by the desire for revenge, while Achenar has learned to adapt to his environment and live in harmony with it, even taking on the role of a game-keeper to minimise the effects of his earlier destructive interference (and his diaries are, quite frankly, the only bearable reading in the whole saga, because, as my girlfriend pointed out, he has interesting observations). At the beginning, you trust neither, and by the end, you should trust Achenar.

Finally, to Myst V: End of Ages. Here we are presented with a choice between an older and scared Yeesha, and Esher, a D’ni scholar. The structure is much the same as the original game: we start from (almost) nothing—an encounter with a strange and condescending Yeesha, and then an ironically cynical Esher, who both agree upon one thing: do not give the Bahro Tablet to Yeesha. Esher’s aim is to make you unsure of Yeesha’s motives—that she has succumbed to the same kind of pride as her brothers—while convincing you of his own. At the end you are seemingly presented with a dilemma: who you give the Tablet to? Yeesha or Esher? Who do you trust?

Like the original game, there has to be a third way—don’t give the Tablet to either. I tried to drop it off a balcony to destroy it, but ended up just putting it on the floor, and bringing about the correct solution. But the problem is that although Esher is an interestingly complex character, and I found his appearances throughout the game to be highlights, we were never going to trust him in the end. Will we trust Yeesha, who we rescued from the clutches of Sirrus and who is the main family character in Uru: Ages beyond Myst (I believe: no Windows), or some newcomer who becomes increasingly weird as the game progresses? Yeesha, obviously. But she doesn’t want the Tablet—so what do I do with it? And that is the point at which the story fails. It was always inevitable, according to the rules of conventional narrative, that you would not trust Esher—and given the rather blatant (for my taste) hints in Laki’ahn, only a fool would do so at the end—but both Esher and Yeesha agree that you cannot give the Tablet to Yeesha. You are pushed in the direction of finding another solution from very early on in the game, because it is clear which way it is going. Compare that with the indecision of Myst: A or B, A or B, A or B, I don’t know, what did A say again, no, that’s not enough evidence, A or B, no wait: could there be a C?

I mean to say that both Myst and Myst V: End of Ages follow the same dynamic of ‘trust neither: find another way’, but with Myst that realisation must come late in the game, whereas in Myst V: End of Ages it is almost presupposed from the outset. I remember the press release, talking about having to choose between Yeesha and the previously unknown Esher, and how someone would have to die: well, no-one dies in the game, and the moment I read the press-release, I had a fair idea of who I would be choosing. Now if Esher had been right, and Yeesha had indeed become as power-crazed as her brothers, that would have been interesting conclusion to the saga!

And it has to be said that I didn’t have enough invested in either Yeesha, Esher or the Bahro. Yeesha we only meet at the start, and through twelve diaries scattered throughout the Great Shaft—which, though not as bad as Atrus’s normal rambles (I was quite pleased to read Rand Miller say that, basically, Atrus was meant to be that way), were hardly stirring. Esher is quite fun, and increasingly unstable, but as I said, we were never going to sympathise with him very much. And as for the Bahro: well, I’m not convinced. They look kind of clumsy, not up to the standards of the animation of Yeesha, Esher or Atrus (who appears briefly in the finale), and at the end one of them sprouts wings; as I say, I’m not convinced.

By the way, speaking of Atrus, when he appears at the end he says something like ‘thank you, old friend’—the same terms he has been using since, oh, Myst III: Exile at least. This is odd, as Yeesha had no idea who you were, and if you were the same ‘old friend’—the Stranger—who rescued her when she was ten in Myst IV: Revelation—and who she knew well at that point—she would surely remember you in Myst V: End of Ages. This seeming inconsistency is explained away in the official Myst V guide with the observation that, well, poor Atrus, he’s getting old. Whatever. But I’d like that in the game, thank you very much, not in the guide which I may or may not have bought. But I digress ;-) .

As I said earlier, I’m perhaps being a little unfair when I talk of ‘The Expendable Plot’—but it seemed like a good title! My point is rather that, of the five games in the saga, the story is perhaps the least effective of them all, because of the dynamics of the mystery to be solved, and is by far the most predictable of the series. At the end of Myst IV: Revelation, in contrast, my hand wavered for just a moment too long, because I still wasn’t quite sure, and I lost the game through my indecision.

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6: Expendable Plot