Structural Problems in Myst V

This essay developed as a supplement to my Myst V Review, and was written about a week later (on 29 September 2005). If I’d written it at the same time as the main text, it would undoubtedly have come out differently, as it would have needed to be integrated into the overall structure. Anyway, I decided to post it as a separate essay—an after-word of sorts—rather than attempting to integrate it into the original review, threatening the integrity of a piece of writing that I’m currently quite happy with. It’s over 2,000 words long, bringing the total length of the review to around 9,500 words.

As I have already mentioned in 4.1. Tahgira, Myst V: End of Ages includes what seems to be an introductory Age—Tahgira, and also an Age which ought to be played last—Laki’ahn. This is not such an obvious a problem until we consider the place of these Ages in the overall structure of exploration and narrative in the game, and the anomalies that it creates.

It should first of all be pointed out that Myst games often share the same basic structure. There is a ‘starting’ Age: this may simply be somewhere that you learn of your the quest, such as in Riven: The Sequel To Myst, or it may also form the ‘hub’ Age, as in Myst IV: Revelation. In the list below, I haven’t given Myst a ‘start’ Age, as you have no idea what you’re doing there when you arrive! Then there is the ‘hub’ Age, which must be explored, and its puzzles solved, in order to to access the next set of Ages. The important thing is that it is only from this ‘hub’ Age that you are able to visit the other Ages. After that there are the ‘free exploration’ Ages: having solved the relevant puzzles in the ‘hub’ age, these Ages can be explored in any order; and the only exit from these Ages is back to the ‘hub’ Age (getting back is indeed often the short-term goal). Finally come the ‘conditional exploration’ Ages: Ages which can only be explored on the condition that many (often all) of the ‘free exploration’ ages have been explored. Serenia is an interesting example of this: you can first visit the Age when either Haven or Spire have been completed, but it is impossible to complete the Age until both have been completed. Bearing these terms in mind, here is a simple breakdown of the structure of the five Myst games to date:

Myst / realMyst
  1. Hub: Myst Island
  2. Free Exploration: Channelwood, Mechanical Age, Selenetic, Stoneship
  3. Conditional Exploration: K’veer (kind of), Rime (realMyst)
Riven: The Sequel To Myst
  1. Start: K’veer (in the Age of D’ni)
  2. Free Exploration: The Islands of Riven
  3. Conditional Exploration: Age 233, Tay; Catherine’s Prison Island
Myst III: Exile
  1. Start: Tomahna
  2. Hub: J’nanin
  3. Free Exploration: Amateria, Edanna, Voltaic
  4. Conditional Exploration: Narayan
Myst IV: Revelation
  1. Start: Tomahna
  2. Hub: Tomahna
  3. Free Exploration: Haven, Spire
  4. Conditional Exploration: Serenia
Myst V: End of Ages
  1. Start: K’veer (in the Age of D’ni)
  2. Hub: the Great Shaft, Direbo
  3. Free Exploration: Laki’ahn, Noloben, Tahgira, Todelmer
  4. Conditional Exploration: Myst Island, Releeshahn (kind of)
In relation to my criticism of Direbo in 2.1: Direbo, its problems mostly stem from it being little more than an auxiliary ‘hub’ age: it offers nothing that the Great Shaft does not also offer, and indeed can only be reached when the various puzzles at each stage of the Great Shaft have been solved. Hence, the Age, in its superfluity, contributes to the overall structural problems of Myst V: End of Ages.

Anyway, back to Tahgira. The principal difficulty with it being an introductory Age is that it is one of the ‘free exploration’ Ages. It is more than possible that a player will attempt to complete the whole of the ‘hub’ Age,—the Great Shaft, in this case—before choosing which Age to visit next. Certainly, I have proceeded in this manner in all of the games which have ‘hub’ Ages except Myst. Reaching the bottom of the Great Shaft is not even overly difficult. And once you have reached the bottom, returning to the very top is tedious (which is what Direbo is for, I suppose). So it is even likely that the first ‘free exploration’ Age a player will visit will not actually be Tahgira. An introductory Age should be one that you are obliged to visit first—by the stage in the game where you have the option of visiting an Age, or visiting another—or another, or another—then an introductory Age risks being visited too late and feeling out of place. And that is the case with Tahgira.

Laki’ahn suffers from a similar problem. The Age allows Esher to express—somewhat too blatantly for my taste—the darkest side which we see of him in the game before having to decide whether to give him the Tablet. It actually serves, in terms of narrative, to confirm the doubts we may have acquired in Noloben. The problem is that seeing him like this, if Laki’ahn is the first Age (or second) visited, will destroy any consistent sense of development which his character has. Also, when we subsequently visit Ages in which he is calmer—Tahgira or Todelmer—his calmness will now appear more than a little odd after his decidedly unhinged state in Laki’ahn.

Indeed, Esher’s development over the course of the game—becoming steadily more unstable as you progress through the Great Shaft (and the Ages accessible at each level)—is actually at odds with the whole idea of ‘free exploration’. In Myst V: End of Ages the player is supposed to follow the structure I have used in my Myst V Walkthrough:
  1. start at the top of the Great Shaft;
  2. complete Tahgira;
  3. return to the Great Shaft;
  4. complete Todelmer;
  5. return to the Great Shaft;
  6. complete Noloben;
  7. return to the Great Shaft;
  8. complete Laki’ahn.
Any deviation from this will result in narrative anomalies, such as Esher berating us for not trusting him at the end of Noloben, even if it is the first Age we have visited.

To be sure, Cyan have attempted to limit the discrepancies in the narrative by splitting Esher’s opening and closing speeches into two or three parts, at least one of which is Age-independent. This means that if Tahgira is the third Age you visit, for example, at the end of it you will hear Esher’s speech for Tahgira as well as the speech he is due to give when you complete your third Age—whichever that is. This is definitely a nice touch, and a credit to the animation that it works fluidly. However, not even this can adequately balance the narrative inconsistencies produced by visiting the Ages in the wrong order.

Further support for the argument that we are supposed to proceed through Myst V: End of Ages in a specific manner comes from Yeesha’s journals and imagers. All of them occur within the Great Shaft; following the anticipated structure of the game would mean that we encounter these journals when travelling between the four main Ages, at an average rate of three journals per every level of the Great Shaft. However, should we decide to complete the Great Shaft before visiting the other Ages—perhaps only visiting Direbo in order to open all the bridge gates—then at the start of the game we are presented with an enormous amount of information about Yeesha, all of which needs to be processed and committed to memory, and in an incredibly short space of time. It is almost impossible to sense any development in her character when we are given so much in so little time. And then we will hear nothing from her for the entire length of four Ages.

The difficulties of both these elements—character development and scattered journals—are highlighted in comparison with the devices used in Myst III: Exile. In the third of the Myst games, Saavedro also leaves pages of his diary around for us to discover, but they are to be found in every Age which we visit, rather than in just the ‘hub’. They are also scattered in a non-chronological order (unlike Yeesha’s journals), so that pages 1, 2 and 3 may be found in entirely different Ages, enabling the player to gradually piece together Saavedro’s story, motivation and goals. This means, practically speaking, that the player does not become overburdened with information. And aside from the diary entries, there are also three paintings, three imagers in the Ages, and three messages on the central imager in J’nanin. The message which the imager replays is entirely independent of the Age the imager is in, following a set order. The same is true of Saavedro’s corruption of Atrus’s messages to his sons, which play after each Age has been completed. Again, the result of this is that the player’s insights into Saavedro’s character are well-spaced throughout the game. It is also possible to explore the Ages in a non-specific pattern, whilst still developing the character in a linear manner.

Of course, all of Saavedro’s messages are pre-recorded, whereas Esher is an interactive character, and he has to comment on his environment. Clearly this allows for much less freedom in positioning his speeches, and a certain awkwardness is inevitable. Yeesha’s journals, however, could easily have been better spread throughout the Ages, and with no loss of credibility.

On top of these general structural problems, Myst V: End of Ages also contains the biggest (arguably the only) continuity errors in any of the Myst games. When we first meet Esher at the entrance to the Great Shaft, he is wearing goggles. Then we enter the the Great Shaft, and the first tunnel leads us to a junction. Right leads to the first rest area, the first linking book to Direbo, and Tahgira. As we link into Direbo, Esher appears—no longer wearing goggles—and tells us more about our quest. After completing Tahgira—during which Esher consistently wears goggles—we will return to Direbo, and then to the first rest area of the Great Shaft; at which point we will naturally enough take go left at the junction, which leads to the second rest area, the second linking book to Direbo, and Todelmer. On the way, however, we twice meet Esher—who, again, is not wearing goggles. However, he now apologises for having worn goggles, but he had to do so because his eyes are not used ‘to the sun in this Age’. As I have just described, however, if we completed Tahgira first, then we have seen him in two other Ages since we last met him in the Great Shaft, so his apology is out of sync with our last five encounters with him. Still worse, when we meet him a few moments later at the rim of the shaft, he tells us that at the next level of the Great Shaft we will find a rest area with a linking book to Direbo—but also that he will meet us there. He doesn’t; Esher only meets us in Direbo once, on the first occasion that we link there. Hence, when we meet him at the rim of the shaft and he tells us this, he may well be referring to an encounter which occurred seven meetings previously.

Obviously, these two speeches were originally meant to take place before we visit any other age, be it Direbo or Tahgira. My personal guess is that there was supposed to be at still deeper level of the Great Shaft, and that the first resting place was indeed to be the one which Esher referred to. For whatever reason, that is no longer the case; but the end result is this: there is no perfect way to play through Myst V: End of Ages. Either we head right at the junction and complete the introductory Tahgira first, putting up with the inconsistencies of Esher’s next two speeches in the Great Shaft; or we head left at the junction, Esher’s speeches are in the correct sequence, but then we end up going to Todelmer first, and the introductory Tahgira is then later out of place. Actually, there is a way of making everything fit together in Myst V: End of Ages, but it really doesn’t bear thinking about. The overall impression which all this gave me was one of a slightly rushed job—not quite getting all the parts to sit together comfortably.

Myst V: End of Ages is unfortunately riddled with structural weaknesses which undermine the freedom of exploration usually associated with Myst games, and which was even its own stated goal. It wants to offer the player as many Ages to explore as possible—and there are more than in any previous game—but on the other hand, it only really works on a narrative level if the player progresses through its Ages in a very specific manner. And even then the player will (almost inevitably) be faced with Esher’s narrative inconsistencies. I’m actually inclined to think that it would have been a better game if the supposed ‘free exploration’ of Tahgira, Todelmer, Noloben and Laki’ahn had been sacrificed for a strictly linear structure, so that, for example, some information in Tahgira was required before you could progress to the next level of the Great Shaft. At least then, the narrative and character development would work.

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Structural Issues