Games Are Not Art

An examination of the link between Video Games and Art

Category: Myst

“The Garden Ages” on Heterotopias

I wrote about the way in which the Myst series blends the experience of traversing a landscape with reading a book on Heterotopias.

Myst’s Linking Book

There are two sentimental arguments I use when expressing my dislike for eReaders. The first is pedantically obscure. The second comes from Fahrenheit 451. In that novel, there is a scene where Guy Montag brings a book to the former professor, Faber, who picks it up and, first and foremost, asks if Montag has ever smelled a book. He asks, “Do you know that books smell like nutmeg or a spice from a foreign land?” I don’t doubt that everyone reading, at that point, tilted their head into the pages and found that Faber was right.

II

In one of their best bits of advertisement, the people at Penny Arcade made a comic about Myst which nicely summarizes the thematic thrust of the series: “Myst is a story of betrayal. Sons against Fathers. Fathers against sons. The culmination of dark legacies. Of rebirth, of hope, and of redemption.” Their summary can be distilled even further: Myst is a story. The central conceit of the series is the idea of a story, though we can narrow our definitions to focus on the idea of a storybook, along with all the associated concepts of writing, reading, and, most importantly, understanding. All neatly encapsulated by the image of a worn, olive-green book.

It is difficult to approach the sheer cultural weight that the image of the book holds. They are loci of learning (textbooks, technical manuals), sources of entertainment (graphic novels), an almost-universally accepted translator of different art forms (one can read a play as easily as watch it – though, granted, it then becomes an entirely different experience, as it has been translated into a different language), an engine for empathy (novels), and fragile tombstones for the dead and gone (histories). In the 17th century, a minor poet by the name of Henry Vaughan wrote a poem celebrating Sir Thomas Bodley’s Library, which we now know of as Oxford University’s Bodleian Library. Here’s the first fourteen lines:

Boast not, proud Golgotha, that thou canst show
The ruins of mankind, and let us know
How frail a thing is flesh! though we see there
But empty skulls, the Rabbins still live here.
They are not dead, but full of blood again;
I mean the sense, and ev’ry line a vein.
Triumph not o’er their dust; whoever looks
In here, shall find their brains all in their books.
Nor is’t old Palestine alone survives;
Athens lives here, more than in Plutarch’s Lives.
The stones, which sometimes danc’d unto the strain
Of Orpheus, here do lodge his Muse again.
And you, the Roman spirits, learning has
Made your lives longer than your empire was.

The poem’s conceit – that books are another body through which their authors may live again – is one of the repeated tropes of the renaissance period. In a similar vein, here’s Petrarch’s description of his library:

Meanwhile here, in my library I have established my Rome, my Athens, and my spiritual fatherland. Here I gather all the friends I now have or did have not only those who have proved themselves through intimate contact to have lived with me, but also those who died many centuries ago, known to me only through their writings, wherein I marvel at their accomplishments and their spirits, or at their customs and lives, or at their eloquence and genius. I gather from them every land and every age in this narrow valley, conversing with them more willingly than those who think they are alive because they see the traces of their stale breath in the frosty air.

Machiavelli used similar terms to describe his books:

On the coming of evening I return to my house and enter my study, and at the door I take off the day’s clothing covered with mud and dust, and put on garments regal and courtly. And re-clothed appropriately, I enter the ancient courts of ancient men where I am received by them with affection. I feed on that food which only is mine and which I was born for, for I am not ashamed to speak with them and to ask them the reasons for their actions. And they in their kindness answer me and for four hours of time I do not feel boredom, I forget every trouble, I do not dread poverty, I am not frightened by death. I give myself entirely over to them.

To summarize: books are other people, other minds, and other times. But in Myst, they are entire worlds.

III

Fictive world-building is a phenomenon shared by the many branches of literature. Moby Dick introduces the reader to the world of 19th-century whaling, and in doing so it must create the sea, the ship, the sailors, and the whale; Harry Potter introduces the reader to a hidden side of mundane society, and in doing so it must create Hogwarts, Diagon Alley, and the magical bourgeoisie. Some elements in both are mimetic (they have their basis in reality, in the same way that a photograph’s basis is in reality), while others are invented out of whole cloth (the story of the conflict between Ahab and the albino whale), while most have that awkward position of being combinatory details suspended between these two poles (the pseudo-Latin of Potter’s spells). The trick is to ensure that these details create a sense of immersive realism, so that details, fallacies, and failures don’t knock the reader from their perch. A parallel can be drawn with video games, where immersion can be ruined by details that highlgiht the artificiality, or the gaminess, of the experience. The effect is similar to the typo in that last sentence: it kills the momentum of my sentence, novel, or game.

Patrick Rothfuss’ The Name of the Wind is an excellent example of coherent world-building. There are histories, currencies, idioms, drugs, and etymologies – the word ‘lackey’ (i.e., lack-key) originates as the name of a noble house that turned to sycophancy after its poor fortune – which all create a seamless, realistic, and immersive canvas for the story. Bad world-building is obvious: the mail comes on a Sunday, there are palm trees in Siberia, and the cannonball falls faster than the volleyball. That is not to say that the eternal struggle between Wile E. Coyote and the Roadrunner fail because gravity is a fickle mistress – they have their own context, their own off-kilter world which supports the humour. And that is also not to say that a work must have mimetic realism in order to be considered good. Good world-building simply sets up a coherent context, and when much of our media is predicated on a similarity between the fictional world and our own, we rely on our own context to navigate the fictional one.

When we see failures in world-building, it’s not so much that the details are pure and simply wrong, as they jar with our own experiences and understanding of reality or the reality the work has presented, whether these experiences are technical, personal, or what-have-you. For example, you don’t have to be an astronomer to know that the Enterprise arrives within the moon’s orbit in the third act of the recent Star Trek film, thereby raising the question of just how the hell the military missed a space battle on their front doorstep. This realization arrests the drama’s momentum, in the same way that a die-hard Trekkie might be bothered by the film’s ignorance of some particular bit of in-universe trivia. My point is this: poor world-building can be picked apart by anyone with any kind of knowledge; good world-building must pass cleanly before the audience like a long, straight stretch of smooth highway. While reality is what persists when you start believing otherwise, realism is the careful maintenance of the audience’s focus.

The worlds, or ages, of Myst are spectacular instances of world building. The original island was small, but dense in mystery and puzzles which could be solved with reference to a realistic framework: the Selenitic age was accessed by powering the door to a spaceship – if you gave the ship too much power, you would blow a fuse. Channelwood was opened by lighting a furnace, thereby giving power to an elevator. Riven expanded upon these kinds of puzzles by introducing such details as a numbering system and a hierarchy of animals native to the world. As many have pointed out, part of the genius of the world is that things like the D’ni numerals are taught in an organic fashion: you learn them in a village school, via a child’s toy. These are examples of physical and contextual realism.

But the world building in Myst extends into the narrative dimension as well. In the first game, details like Achenar’s torture chamber in Channelwood and Mechanical serve as proof of his sociopathic cruelty, while Sirrus’ more opulent chambers similarly function as proof of his decadence. These are details that refer to the lived experience on the part of the player, in addition to being contextual set-pieces that make the ages more realistic. They show the player that people have lived here. They show just what kind of people have lived here. Revelations went a step further, in that the puzzles actively reinforced the characterization and changes each of the sons underwent over twenty years. To start with Spire, we have two overarching puzzles: the fuse puzzle, where in order to progress to the opposite island the player must flick the appropriate number of fuses on or off, and the throne puzzle, where the player has to figure out the resonance frequency of four different materials in order to progress into what is revealed to be a bomb factory. The first puzzle is characterization: Sirrus is brilliant. His notes are filled with scientific observations and plans. The second puzzle, however, reveals the way in which this brilliance feeds his ambition. The second diary has the same tone and texture – the same easy understanding of science and its application – as the first, though now the player understands Sirrus’ ruthless ambition, and the sinister turn of his story.

Achenar’s age, however, functions somewhat differently. The major puzzles – the totem puzzle and the monkey puzzle – are representative of his moral redemption. The totems were both an act of penance for his bloodlust and a memorialization of his victims, while his befriending a tribe of monkeys is an act of redemption. Indeed, we can even look at the mechanism of the puzzle as further evidence for Achenar’s moral turnaround: the clues are all sketched images of the different monkeys, and therefore predicated on a familiarity with this little tribe, while the puzzle itself requires that the player mimic Achenar’s rapport with this tribe in order to subdue a predator. In effect, this gives Haven a neat, mirror-like structure: when Achenar enters the world, he is the hunter; when he leaves, he is trying to protect the hunted.

In a minimalist sense, the thematic elaboration of each age is unnecessary: the player is blatantly told the state of each character by their diary entries. And yet this kind of thematic elaboration is absolutely necessary in order to make each character’s arc believable, or realistic. They subtly reinforce what we know of each character, and emphasize the details that mere exposition can only weakly support. It’s one thing to be told that one brother has repented of his actions; it’s another thing entirely to see proof of said repentance. There is that shopworn dictum about how writing must show, not tell. Exposition tells, while experience shows.

IV

Here we’re getting to the core of the aesthetic experience of the Myst games: the way each age is modeled after the experience of a book. A good book, not the sort of thing that is only propelled by narrative momentum and the suspension of both belief and taste (read: anything by Dan Brown). A book that demands understanding of its reader, one that introduces and reinforces a point of view, a mode, a structure that is both foreign and familiar while demanding that its audience come to understand both. The promise of each particular lens is the premise of this blog’s title: it is the individual work, and not a genre or mode, that is inherently artistic.

The Myst series follows a similar pattern of precise subjectivity. In every book is a new world with a different logic – literally so, in many cases. In Exile, the puzzles in Amateria require the same kind of thinking that a sudoku puzzle demands of you, while those in Edenna are, fittingly, much more organic and associatively based. Voltaic, in turn, is procedural – you approach each separate part of the world as an individual gear before piecing together the mechanism. When each personality is coupled with the distinct aesthetic style of each age, it is not inappropriate to say that each age has a character that the player meets, interacts with, and comes to understand via the process of completion. There is always a point to this completion – it furthers the story – but the process of understanding is not dissimilar to the process of understanding that occurs in a novel. The reader engages with the subjectivity of, say, Guy Montag in the same way that they engage with the particular character of Amateria. Part of the brilliance of the Myst series is the transformation of worlds into characters, and the way in which these characters interact with the game’s themes and plot as a whole.

V

This is not to say that the Myst series is without flaws. There are moments when it subducts into cliché, or when it forgets its logic of realism and relies upon a suspension of belief. Serenia in Revelations is one such example, where the player is introduced to an amechanical spirit world, and a puzzle that plays out like a silly flash game, and has absolutely no thematic relevance to what’s happening at that moment. End of Ages turned a series that had, until that point, been about the intensly personal story of one family and the troubles that haunted their past into an inane fantasy jaunt, with all the lazy details of poorer elements of that genre – a vague prophecy, poor characterization, and a story that mistook an ‘epic’ story for profundity. Most damningly, the games’ high points, like Todelmer, with a puzzle that allows the player to literally rearrange the heavens, lack the emotive connection of Channelwood or Haven. End of Ages is a guide book, not a novel.

Not every page in that series was perfect. But when it shone, it did so brilliantly because the creators recognized the need for their worlds to cohere with the narrative. Because each world was built to cohere with a sense of realistic possibility. Because each world was a character, and, in the words of Tolkien, “the earth is a mighty matter of legend.” Because, when they worked, these details reinforced the narrative in order to create a beautiful design. And, lastly, because this design was encapsulated in the potent image of a battered, olive-green book.

There is one important caveat: we must remember that realism is not reality. Real life is messy: accidents happen, plans purposelessly fail, people die meaninglessly, and there appears to be no easily accessible, transcendent meaning that gives these details any sense at all. Art becomes an attempt to create meaning by way of an ordering of these details, by creating a specific world in which events, setting, and ideas cohere to allow a sense of meaning to develop naturally. There is nothing realistic – in the cold, mundane, reductive sense of that word – about a book that takes you to another world. It is when we go beyond the threadbare linearity of the literal that we are able to see the magic in that metaphor, and to fashion it into something greater than mere reality.

The point behind the renaissance comparisons between books and people, countries, times, worlds, was to show the way in which what is inside these books has an innate power to transcend its mere physical limitations in order to bring the reader somewhere else, to transport him somewhere higher or greater than the fields a few miles outside of Medici-controlled Florence. To bring about the poignant smell of old spices where they have no reason to be. Myst makes this sense of transport literal, and not merely with reference to the actual mechanical feature of traversing the age, but in a sense of dedication to a mimetic reproduction of how such a world should exist. But the world-building aspect is not limited to a fanciful interpretation. Rather, it is charged with meaning – every detail has a purposiveness not merely limited to atmosphere, mood, or to the play’s backdrop but to the action, the pathos, and the drama.

The linking books, like their ages, are the central conceit of the series, and they, like our more mundane analogues, are so much more than they appear to be. They reach out to us with a sense beyond the mere material ones we use to comprehend them – they reach out like the withered smell of old spices.