Friday, July 23, 2004

Coming up for air

I've finally completed the current and possibly final expansion pack to "URU: Ages beyond MYST," and feel the same sort of melancholy that fills me when I come to the end of a good book, knowing that the story is over - at least for now.

For me, the main attraction to the MYST series has always been exploration and discovery, as though I've stumbled upon an ancient and technologically advanced civilization in which the inhabitants have suddenly disappeared. Left behind are the artifacts, libraries and mechanical wonderments that will tell the story of their lives, if only I can determine how to operate them.

Usually, as in most games of this genre, a player gets some sort of instant gratification when the correct sequence of switches, levers or other variables are in place. In this iteration of the URU saga, there were three puzzles that required waiting ... waiting! ... for confirmation of the correct input. Granted, in real life, glue doesn't dry instantly or bread bake completely the moment it is put into an oven, either, but this is fantasy. Along with the usual suspension of disbelief comes an expectation of suspension of the more mundane physics of everyday life. I suppose the game developers thought that it would further build a sense of reality into an already-immersive experience, but speaking solely for myself, I found the waiting to be real kill-joy. During those moments of waiting, the duration of which was approximately 15 minutes per, I found myself babysitting the game rather than playing it. Only one of those three puzzles mercifully provided you with an obvious countdown, giving the player a visual clue as to the time remaining before the next event would occur. Other puzzles relied on a measure of faith on the part of the player that he or she had read the clues correctly. These, and all the other puzzles or tasks are so seamlessly integrated into the game, that they don't seem so much like puzzles as they do a challenge to breathe new life into the sleeping worlds- and they can be maddeningly complex or deceptively simple.

I have the patience of a five-year-old on Christmas Eve, so I couldn't have solved those puzzles without the assistance of URU Obsession, a repository of MYST-related knowledge and speculation.

As with all the games in the MYST canon, the visual detail is gorgeous and provides a feast for the eyes that is limited only by the capabilities of the player's video card. Similarly, the music and ambient audio in the game is rich and surrounds the player (quite literally, if the hardware supports it properly) with a sense of actually being in the amazing and diverse environments for which Cyan Worlds is famous. Prepare to push the limits of your hardware. Cyan is notorious for making your current setup obsolete with their constant pursuit of complete environmental immersion.

It is this truly immersive quality that so greatly attracts me to the games, and leaves me feeling almost homesick between installments.

I hope I get to go back someday.


Blogger Blubrik said...

[This reply may ramble...]

Isn't or wasn't URU supposed to be like the Myst MMO? If so, puzzles like that wouldn't surprise me -- their called time-sinks in other MMO games. Basically, a repetitive road-block in the game you cannot avoid but must pass, which requires no thought or effort on your part to pass, but simply charges you time. Since time=money in an MMO, the equation works out in favor of the game company.

Players don't like time-sinks, though, and more and more players are becoming vocal about it. Game companies, in response, are trying to make their time-sinks less obvious (getting rid of them altogether apparently is not an option).

In City of Heroes, for example, the traditional time-sinks of rest and crafting are so short to hardly count as a time-sink or do not exist at all. This makes the play of the game feel very fast and satisfying. However, the time-sinks do exist, but are hidden in plain view in the form of travel. Get a mission in Brickstown, and you have to make your way across the city to Skyway City. Even advanced characters with superpowers to alleviate this travel time still spend a great deal of time zooming/leaping/teleporting/flying across the city-scape. This is why "power-gamers" at high-levels simply abandon the story-based mission structure and return to "old-fashionerd" camping of bad-guys in Founder's Falls or Brickstown -- simply to reduce the time-sink of travel.

Putting a puzzle in a game that requires 15 minutes from step-to-step is not only a time-sink, but bad game design. I would have gladly stopped playing the game the moment I encountered it. However, since I suck at all Myst games since the first one -- which I played and loved, but I strongly disliked the sequel (despite the presence of Brad Dourif) and the third one was simply pointlessly frustrating -- I count myself lucky that I never had to encounter that choice.

July 23, 2004  
Blogger HeadCheese said...

Sounds like you played Exile (with Brad Douriff) after Myst. The sequel to the original Myst was Riven, which I thought was most excellent. Exile marked the first game that Cyan "farmed out" to another company to create/produce, and was different in feel, so you may very well have not like it.

URU is a Cyan product, funded and published by Ubisoft. For all intents and purposes, Ubi pulled the plug on the funding for URU, so Cyan was forced to "repurpose" the game into a single-player experience. Those of us who got to play the game online during the free "prologue" are the ones who most miss the ability to interact with others in the game. I would have gladly paid the fee to play.

July 24, 2004  
Blogger Blubrik said...

Weird...I could have sworn Mr. Dourif was in Riven, but now that you mention it, yes, it was Exile. I guess I was remembering that odd person at the beginning of Riven, and got them confused.

I played Riven until I got to dumb-waiter puzzle, then I got bored and just gave up.

I played Exile long enough to make my way to one age, then I got bored and gave up.

I think it has something to do with playing lots of first-person shooters in the intervening years. Immersive games like No One Lives Forever, Deus Ex, and Half-Life filled the Myst-craving well-enough with liberal doses of the old ultra-violence to spice things up. Nothing like fist-fighting evil lady ninjas in a tornado-lofted house to breath life into a evening.

July 26, 2004  

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