By Kevin Kelly
When I was in college at the University of Texas at Austin, "Myst" consumed most of my waking hours for a few weeks, driving me crazy with its puzzles and mysteries. I skipped classes, stayed up late, took copious notes, ignored my friends and barely ate while I struggled to complete this wonderfully maddening game. So, when it was announced that Robyn Miller, representing one half of the brothers Rand and Robyn who created the game, was going to speak at GDC, I knew I would be there. Much has been said about "Myst" in the 20 years since it was introduced in 1993 (!), but the chance to hear about it directly from one of the Millers was too good to pass up.
Two decades have passed since the game came out, and Robyn took us back to the start, rolling back the clock back to 1988, four years after the introduction of the original Macintosh. Robyn was living in Washington State at the time, and Rand was in Dallas, and he called Robyn with an idea for an "interactive storybook," and with it came an introduction to HyperCard. He started drawing a manhole cover, eventually with a vine growing out of it, and this became "The Manhole," and the first game from Cyan, the company that the brothers founded. What followed was a series of point and click adventures that were aimed at young audiences.
In 1990, Robyn and Rand pitched a game called "The Gray Summons" to Activision, which offered a nonlinear story for older audiences that had believable characters, ethics, and consequences to it. Activision told them to "Stick to children's games." This was a disheartening moment for for both brothers, who were actually eating government cheese and living on rice and beans at the time. Around the same time, Sunsoft in Japan came fortuitously to the brothers and asked them to create a game for older audiences.
Thus the brother began work on "Myst," which at that point was going to be a hand-drawn game, containing puzzles that they still needed to figure out. They drew inspiration from "Dungeons & Dragons," "Zork," The Chronicles of Narnia, and Jules Verne. They built the game, now compartmentalized into "Ages" around a central location that the player could always return to, similar to the way that Cinderella's Castle acts as a visible beacon to guests at Disneyland, no matter where they are in the park.
Together, the two of them worked out puzzles on paper, worked late hours, and No fans, no demographic, no sales projections, no outside expectations, and no second guessing, they went in and designed a world for themselves. Which Robyn thinks is why the game did so well, because they were just creating something that was fun for them, without trying to please focus groups and marketing teams.
They took what they thought it would cost, doubled it, and added a lot more, and were given 265k to make the game. Play tested via text. More advanced graphics, Robyn took a lot of time drawing, and then panicked, thinking it was going to look terrible. Got a stratovision and started drawing extrusion maps. Shots between two to 14 hours to render on the Stratovision 3D. Quicktime came along halfway through development, and omg, we were thrilled. We needed it. Atrus was added as a father later, making the choice between the brothers more complex.
While Robyn and Rand were held back by technical limitations of the time, like single-speed CD drives which basically meant that they had to lay out the island by hand on the disk, they also didn't have to answer to marketing departments and run the game through endless quality assurance testing. In fact, they initially tested the game with only two people playing and changed things on the fly. In the focus group testing, Group 1 felt "Blah" about the game, while Group 2, felt "Not Blah," without any changes. And from that testing was born the quote, "The surrealistic adventure that will become your world" from Bruce Fredericks.
What was also interesting was that they didn't want to have a soundtrack in the game as they thought it would feel "false" and pull you out of the experience. Robyn recorded music in two weeks just to show them it wouldn't work … and it actually worked. So he had to turn around and score the entire game, and the soundtrack went on to become one of the most identifiable aspects of the series.
So what has Robyn Miller been up to these days? He has a film coming out this summer about a guy who believes he is actually a vampire, and it is filmed in a documentary style. He also has superfans like "Fez" creator Phil Fish, who approached the mic during the Q&A portion of the panel and said "I beat "Riven" without looking it up anywhere, and it took me a year. Will you please sign my copy of the Book of Atrus?" In another universe, when he opened that book, both of them vanishes into another Age, and created an amazing video game. We'll keep hoping it turns up somewhere.