Click. Click. Where's the bang?
I grew up with parents who liked to invite people over and then show slides. Slides from the kinds of places most parents don't get to, like the Himalayas, Nepal, Tibet, Mt. Everest and K2. As a child I had to suffer through these displays repeatedly, struggling to remain awake for the very pretty, but awfully boring show. So when Myst first was released, I immediately noticed that it played like a Macintosh Hyper-Card presentation, I avoided it like the plague despite its stratospheric popularity.
Now that I'm older, I can sit through my parents' slides when I come home and actually be fascinated by them this time. So when the opportunity came to review Myst 3: Exile, I wondered how much I had changed.
When considering any sequel, especially one that fits into one of the most successful franchises in electronic entertainment, you have to look at the larger effects of the series. Exile is not really just Myst, it's where the entire "Myst" genre has arrived. What surfaces in looking at Exile is that what Myst did to regular adventure games has finally happened to Myst itself.
What's that mean? While not really Myst's fault, the flood of sterile, boring, lifeless slideshow adventure games clamoring at its coattails absorbed all other types of adventure games, crested and drowned the genre out, save for a few stalwarts such as Grim Fandango or the newer Monkey Island games. The tide has turned, and now the slideshow adventure games have receded, and Myst 3 is one of the few.
In that situation, Myst's creators are surely hoping that their newest entry will revitalize their favorite genre. And while it's a good try, it just can't do what the original did so many years ago.
To give Myst 3 its due credit, it is a beautiful slideshow. While I wont bother explaining the typically abstract plot, the abstract settings are eerie and evocative and strange and brilliantly rendered. There is plenty of eye candy to be found throughout the game, all of it viewable through a panoramic engine that allows you to view your surroundings in a smooth 360 degrees of vision just by turning the mouse. There are some clever uses of this, such as localized sounds that you must face to begin an event. There is also support for 3D hardware to generate some appealing effects. Sound and music are likewise handled exceptionally well, with great production values all around.
While the universal mark of quality helps make things immersive, and while the graphical talent on display is certainly impressive, there is a mild quandary that prevents a person from truly wanting to simply gaze at the scenery. We look at static artistic images because there is meaning and significance conveyed in them; they have life. In games, artwork isn't really like art in a museum - it exists to set the mood and provide some pretty scenery. So while Myst 3 is gorgeous, there is nothing fulfilling within its graphical lushness and therefore much more of the experience falls on the shoulders of the puzzles that make up gameplay.
And in all fairness, the puzzles are good. Unlike Riven, which was akin to an IQ test from hell, Myst 3 is reasonably approachable. Of course, the puzzles play with the same sort of strange machines and books and levers and knobs and switches and thingamabobs just like usual. However, unlike some of the puzzles in the earlier Myst games, most puzzles in Exile are contained within their own smallish area meaning that there is far less running (clicking?) back and forth between areas, which is a definite plus. The puzzles are still cerebral enough that non-gamers can justify playing the game without feeling guilty and real gamers can be challenged, it all depends if you enjoy fiddling with things.
But everything I've just said could also be applied to Myst itself. So what is different about Exile? Aside from the slightly new setting (it's not the same island), new plot, and new technology, there is very little new in Exile. It feels much like the same experience as its predecessors except that where Myst broke new ground, Myst 3 is strictly by the numbers. If you enjoy the Myst games, then Exile should be plenty fun, but if you never liked them then Myst 3 is not likely to convert you.
Furthermore, Exile is not without its own unique faults. King among these are some extremely annoying bugs. For example, every time you start the game, Exile needs to have the install disc in your CD-ROM drive, but when playing the game, it needs one of the 3 play discs. This means that every time you play Exile there is some really bothersome disc swapping when none should actually be required.
Perhaps this is a strange moment in gaming, a crisis of identity. Gaming has become such a large industry that it is being overcrowded with imitators and strangled by unreasonable bottom-line business demands. Myst was a game that changed gaming - perhaps not for better - but it did change it. Conversely, Exile is just an exercise that lacks the energy to make anyone ebullient. But that isn't to say it's not damn pretty.