Myst Online: Uru Live
The most utterly baffling
thing that's ever graced the
face of gaming...
And it is awesome.
I stand in front of the machine, book after book whizzing by in an endlessly spinning wall that leaves me a bit disoriented. It's fine, though, because I've done this before. Many times.
The machine ejects a holographic screen, listing off the many, many public areas and their population counts. I quickly sort them by population in a couple taps.
The Guild of Greeters have lured one in. Lucky bastards. I scan the rest of the list. There seems to be a big crowd in one of the local neighborhoods, another public event I'm missing. That's fine, I don't like crowds.
And there, in the newest Bevin. One solitary person, ripe for the picking.
I tap the screen. The rotary cog in front of me begins to spin in time with the rest of the wall, faster and faster, until it suddenly slams to a stop with a loud clang, and a book falls from the slot. It falls open on the mechanical arm that holds it.
I press my hand down as blackness swallows me.
Then, I am there. The Bevin holds no secrets to me as I slowly prowl towards the bridge, approaching the re-purposed house beyond it.
I grin as I open the door. The lone figure stands just inside, staring with confusion at the sets of papers on a desk. He jolts as the door closes and I walk into the room.
"Hello? Who's there?"
I step closer to him. "Hello. I'm a newbie hunter."
"Oh God. What... what are you planning to do?" he asks, as his hand begins to hover near the satchel on his hip.
"I, along with a few others, spend our in-game time hunting down newbies and explaining to them exactly what the heck is going on."
Well, that was entirely unexpected, wasn't it?
Such is my life in Myst Online: Uru Live.
Uru Live is a thing that should not be. Its existence is an affront to logic, reason, sanity, and every cynical statement ever made about gaming. It is a third-person adventure-puzzler MMO. Allow me to repeat that: It is a third-person adventure-puzzler MMO.
There are no added guns. There are no baddies. There is no conflict. There is nothing that's obviously appealing to any particular demographic. Adventure purists will be turned off by the controls and navigation. Single-player fans will be turned off by the existence of other players in-game, MMO enthusiasts will be turned off by the bizarre structure and reduced importance of other players. Old players won't like the needed precision, young players won't like the patience required. Action gamers will be turned off by absolutely everything about it.
And yet... somehow, through a touch of magic and pure bull-headedness of the developers, the game remains one of the best things that gaming has put out if you insist on sitting down and giving it an honest try.
If you're not familiar with the Myst setting, it doesn't matter too much. All you need to know is that, in the Myst universe, books act as gateways between worlds. If you touch the moving image panel in certain books that have been written in a specific style, you can literally fall into the book and the world that it describes.
Given such a premise, you'd imagine that the game would have you moving from world to world, each more beautiful and more fascinating than the last.
And you would be entirely correct.
When you start the game, you create an explorer. The options are a bit limited, but still serviceable. Then, you enter the game, and are promptly plunked down on an island in the sky, with clouds drifting by below you, a hut nearby, and a smattering of plant life. It's a barren little spot, but it's your homebase. As you explore, you'll find upgrades for it, adding plants, a smattering of smaller islands poking through the clouds, a fireplace, etc.
Explaining anything about the game mechanics is spoiling it a bit, to be honest, as everything is a mystery or puzzle to be solved as you play. Unlocking the many secrets behind even the simple things, such as "How does the bookshelf in my hut work?" or "Where the hell is everybody?" are small joys in themselves. Regardless, I want to talk about the multiplayer aspect. Put simply, this game manages to take an insane concept (massively multiplayer puzzle adventure game) and makes it work in the only conceivable way: Everyone has their own set of worlds ("Ages"), and only people they invite can enter them. There are completely public spaces, where everyone can interact with each other, and groups of players can be seen hanging out. Somehow, this unorthodox (maybe even plain old wrong) approach to multiplayer works, as it allows you to have your own space, but lets people in if you want them to be there, while giving access to a strong and robust (if miniscule) community to socialize with.
When you're plopped down in the middle of it all, baffled and disoriented, the game then folds its arms and starts watching you fumble around. It's all unfamiliar territory, it's non-intuitive at first, and it's confusing and inexplicable as hell. It's like falling into a dream that you have no control over. And this is where the community shines through: After you stumble through the first part of the game, where you get a special device that becomes the HUD, you can stumble into the main cavern, flick through the public ages to see if anyone is patrolling the Guild of Greeters, or stand around in the cavern that you have immediate access to and pray that the newbie-hunters see you. All three of these options will draw people to you who take great delight in demystifying the game for you. They'll explain how things work, give you hints for puzzles, talk about the lore, and generally offer a helping hand to getting a handle on things if you want it.
It's a very friendly community with a very low concentration of trolls, is what I'm saying.
Graphically, the game is quite good. If you remember that the game was developed in 2003 and has been resurrected multiple times, the graphics become mind-blowing. The game has day and night cycles, ambient effects, weather, excellent texture-work, and a great imagination when it comes to location design. Graphical glitches are non-existent.
Sound is excellent as well. The atmosphere of each world is accentuated by wonderfully sparse music, realistic ambiance, satisfying mechanical grindings, desk-shakingly loud moments, and context-sensitive footsteps. Bahro roar at you from distant locations, plants sigh, thunder rumbles, birds scream. It's quite an experience.
World and puzzle design is top-notch... most of the time. The majority of the puzzles are excellent, even brilliant (the entire world of Ahnonay is the current benchmark for world and puzzle design, as far as I'm concerned). Number systems are learned, clues are reversed, gaps are jumped over, and beautiful scenery is gawped at. The puzzles are hard, even brutal, but most can be solved by experimenting, thinking laterally, or going somewhere else for a while. A few of the puzzles require multiple people to solve, but are easy to pull off once you have everyone together. The worlds are seeded with wow-moments, like the moment when you find out why the walls move in Gahreesehn, or how the Eders are linked, or the entire mind-screw that is the final few minutes of Ahnonay.
I'm not a fan of Minkata, however. Not only is it the most boring level to look at (a desert with thousands of potholes), it has by far the most obtuse puzzle. It literally requires graph paper, some ballsy assumptions, about an hour and a half and a lot of crossed fingers. The reward is pretty significant for it, though.
Mechanically, the game is a bit meh. The controls, while not exactly "clunky", are a bit stiff and take some getting used to. You'll be most successful with a keyboard-and-mouse configuration, although you can set up gamepad-and-mouse or just a straight mouse. You move tank-style around the world, interacting with things by clicking on them. It's not very graceful, but thankfully, jumping puzzles are non-existent, with only one area needing a timed jump in the game. I didn't find that the controls were unmanageable, and the game is so immersive through other methods that you'll likely forget about them as you play.
Unlike other MMOs, this one has an end with no real endgame beyond socializing. Depending on how good you are at puzzles, the game should take you anywhere from ten to thirty hours to beat.
On the whole, the game is utterly fascinating and totally worth a try if you like puzzle games in any capacity.
"Fine," you say. "I'll give it a shot, but... how much will it cost?"
Completely and totally free.
No micro-transactions, no paywalls, no entrance fee. Nothing. Just free. The current iteration of the game runs on a donation model. You have no reason not to give this baffling, marvelous game a shot, just to see what the heck it is.
You can find it here: http://mystonline.com/en/
Please try it, there's no other experience in the gaming world quite like this one. And hey, that's what we've been wanting, isn't it?