The Science of Myst

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Myst is a ground breaking video game released in 1990. Created by a couple of programmers in their garage nobody could have predicted its success. When a game sells over a million copies upon release you don’t leave it as it is, so what started as a standalone expanded quickly to a series. Today Myst exists as six PC games, an online multi-player game, three published novels, and a fandom so large it warrants its own convention.

The premise of Myst is that an ancient race, living in caverns beneath our own civilization, developed a strange and magical art of Writing. Their words, when composed correctly, formed links to other worlds. Their books were portals into ages beyond our imagination. Through the series the player discovers and then explores these ages, now abandoned, unlocking their secrets and discovering their hidden past.

Myst PlantWhile Myst appears at first glance to be purely fantastical in nature, the reality is actually very grounded in science. The ages, while wildly different than our own, are based on the idea that worlds can exist outside of our own. Myst asks the question: what if different kinds of biology where possible? and answers it with plant ages like Edanna and Haven. What if there were worlds that were not as conducive to life, but provided the ideal environment for scientific study? So there are observational ages like Amateria and Rime. There is no hand-waving or magic in the Myst franchise. (With the exception of the Age of Serenia, and some of the more mystical elements introduced in Myst V: End of Ages and Uru.) Instead there is solid world-building and research-grounded science.

Myst AtrusAtrus, the main character, is more than just a Writer of Ages. He is a scientist and a naturalist, always bringing home new samples from the Ages he visits, studying them to understand more about how they exist and carefully documenting his findings in an endless series of journals. His love of astronomy and electricity is reflected in the devices and vehicles he creates on the various ages. The world is his workshop, and he makes the best of it.

Aside from the actual Art, there is very little in the Myst worlds that cannot be created in the real world. Rotating towers aren’t something you see every day, but doors that seal when their power supply is cut off definitely are. Steampowered elevators are common in the Myst ages, as are locks formed by weighted levers and carefully configured gears. This trend carries over to Riven: the Sequel to Myst. Most of the puzzles you solve in Riven are the result of malfunctioning, run-down technology. The player is forced to scavenge parts, fix broken pipes, crawl through ventilation spaces and turn on switches in order to get the gates to lift, the bridge to lower, and the maglevs to function.

Science is taken to a whole new level, however, in Myst III: Exile. The central Age, J’nanin, was created specifically as a training age for Atrus’ sons to learn about the Art, and how different worlds can serve different functions. It links to four seperate Ages that each teach a different lesson. Edanna teaches about nature, and the player learns about things like photosynthesis, electric fish, and the world’s largest Venus flytrap. The “Age of Amateria” includes real life infuriating math problems. Lightning flashes in the background as your wrestle with problems like four-to-one weight balances, spacial puzzles, and floating rocks. Voltaic is the most steampunk age of all and includes a variety of steampowered problems, an actual airship, and a waterwheel, with a stunning electro-magnetic finale.

Astronomy also features heavily in Myst, from the planetarium that can show constellations of any latitude and longitude from the beginning of time to the impossibly distant future, to the freezing “Age of Rime” specifically developed for observing the interesting electrical lights in the sky. (Although it was also the source of some exceedingly useful crystals that, unfortunately only worked in the freezing environment of their home world, leading to the set-up for the entire game in Myst IV.)

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The “Age of Spire” features incredible resonating crystals that are used to make sonic bombs. It also includes a mountain sized instrument eerily similar to the earth-harp designed by William Close.The final puzzle in the Stoneship age requires the player to locate and identify an exact point on the 360 degree compass.

Perhaps the most scientific thing of all is the worldview. While some Writers were hubristic enough to believe that the Ages they wrote of were there own creation, the most humble and philosophical of them realized they were simply writing bridges to world’s that already existed. Atrus realized early in his education that if you made too drastic of a change to an inhabited world you might find yourself in a new place entirely; eerily similar, but devoid of the people you knew. He compared it to the tree of possibilities–if you go backwards along a branch you might never find your way back onto the exact same twig you once occupied. This allies closely with String Theory, the possibility of alternate universes infinite in number, and infinitely different from our own.

agesofmystEnter into the Ages of Myst–where anything you imagine is possible, where science fiction becomes science reality, where the aesthetic of steampunk is illustrated in stunning color, where mind-bending puzzles are as educational as they are entertaining–a place where science and art cease to be two warring factions but blend together into one beautiful whole.

Myst–the ending has not yet been written.

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