Video: How Mysts designers stuffed an entire universe onto a single CD-ROM

 arstechnica.com  01/28/2020 16:05:10   Lee Hutchinson
Video shot and directed by Justin Wolfson. Edited by Aulistar Mark. Click here for transcript.

Although the passage of time serves to make the past seem sweeter in recollection than it might have been in the moment, it's impossible to deny that there was something special about the gaming landscape of the 1990s. Every year in that decade brought a torrent of titles that were destined to become classicsincluding the often-imitated-but-ultimately-inimitible Myst.

Myst came to market in 1993, which was a banner year in PC gaming1993 also brought us X-Wing, Doom, Syndicate, and Day of the Tentacle, among others. It's fascinating that Myst happened the same year that Doom launched, tooboth games attempted to simulate reality, but with vastly different approaches. Doom was a hard and fast shotgun blast to the face, visceral and intense, aiming to capture the feeling of hunting (and being hunted by) demons in close sci-fi corridors; Myst was a love letter to mystery and exploration at its purest.

A few months back, Ars caught up with Myst developer Rand Miller (who co-created the game with his brother Robyn Miller) at the Cyan offices in Washington state to ask about the process of bringing the haunting island world to life. Myst's visuals lived at the cutting edge of what interactive CD-ROM technology could deliver at the beginning of the multimedia age, and, perhaps unsurprisingly, fitting the breadth of the Millers' vision onto CD-ROM didn't happen without some challenges.

  • The front desk, just inside the entrance to the Cyan offices.
  • This prop door is mounted on the wall in the reception area.
  • Detail of the door's paneling.
  • Awards, costumes, and props decorate the hallways in the Cyan office.
  • Original Gehn costume in its display case.
  • Catherine's costume from Riven in a display case.
  • Detail image on Catherine's costume.
  • This lever prop from Riven sits next to the costume.
  • Opposite Catherine's costume is this Gehn Guard costume.
  • Detail of the guard costume.
  • In the lower level of the Cyan offices is a beautiful real-world reconstruction of the planetarium ceiling. Apologies for the quality of the imageit was dark and my phone wasn't cooperating.
  • Trying again, unsuccessfully, to snap a good picture. This image really doesn't do it justicethe stars pulse and glow and twinkle and it looks amazing.
  • Original design sketches line the hallways.
  • "Looks like normal cinder cone from outside" indeed!
  • More framed design sketches.
  • In many ways, the Washington-based Cyan office and its surrounds are the world of Myst.
  • This small clearing and pergola are occasionally used for weddings.
  • Looking out the Cyan office windows at the "back yard" behind the building.
  • Standing outside behind the Cyan building. This could be a scene from an adventure game.

Beyond the Manhole

The Millers' first foray into interactive gaming experiences was The Manhole in 1988, a project that grew out of illustrator Robyn Miller's Macpaint scribblings. Robyn's brother Rand had become enamored with a bit of classic Mac technology called HyperCard, an application that allowed a user to create and link together "cards" to form a "stack." HyperCard's simple premise held within it a staggering amount of deptha sufficiently motivated would-be developer could use linked HyperCards to create if-then loops and other programming structures, allowing someone with a basic understanding of programming concepts to build complex applications without requiring them to master an actual programming language like C. (HyperCard was created by Bill Atkinson, who also wrote most of the original Macintosh's graphics library and routines.)

The Manhole went on to become a commercial hit, spawning several re-releases and follow-up titles. Its success put the Millers in an enviable positionpublishing houses began to ask them about their next big idea. Rand and Robyn wanted to leave behind the world of children-oriented titles and use their design talents to create a world with the visual richness of The Manhole but with a complex, grown-up storya story that spanned multiple ages and dimensions.

Enter Mystperhaps the most famous HyperCard game ever created.

  • Behind the scenes at the shootthis is what the interview looked like from my chair. In green at center is Ars video producer Justin Wolfson doing the director thing.
  • Another behind the scenes shot as Justin directs Rand.
  • A familiar sight to many old-skool Myst fans.
  • A physical Linking Book from the Myst 25th anniversary Kickstarter a couple of years ago.
  • The book has an 800x480 LCD screen inside of that shows videos of the island.
  • The Linking Book also has a couple of drawers for hiding, I don't know, spare pages or something. Here's one.
  • Apologies to Cyan for posting an image of one of their closets, but a treasure lurks high on a hidden shelf.

Problems and solutions

I won't spoil the video any further, except to say that the problems faced by the Millers in making Myst share some similarities with the problems faced a few years later by Westwood with Command and Conquer and its sequelsCDs were huge, but the CD-ROM drives available in the early '90s were slow. What good is having 600MB of space to play with when your IO speed to and from the drive maxes out at 150KB per second?

Fortunately, there were tricks that could be employedincluding paying careful attention to the physical location of Myst's data files on the CD-ROM itself. The optimizations employed by the Millers to scrape together spare kilobytes here and there seem nuts by the standards of today, where games typically mass in the dozens of gigabytes and arrive installed on our computers and consoles via fast broadband connections rather than physical media.

But, hey, it was the 90s. If we wanted to explore brave new computer-generated worlds, these were the tools we had to work with.

We hope you enjoy this edition of "War Stories." There are several additional videos in the series heading toward completion, so stay tuned for more!

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