“The reader is entertained by the journey of another, but the writer is the changer of worlds.”
– D’ni Proverb
Deep in the New Mexico desert is a dormant volcano with a tiny cleft carved into its side. Underneath that volcano lies a massive cavern and the cracked, decaying ruins of a once-great empire that spanned thousands of worlds and even more years. It was the home of the D’ni, and it has lain still for hundreds of years. It was only in the late ’80s that it was discovered by the surface world, and since then the D’ni Restoration Council, a privately funded archaeological organization, has attempted to excavate the cavern and restore the empire to its former glory.
In the early ’90s, the archaeologists in charge of the expedition wanted to increase exposure for the project. They approached a small development studio, Cyan, with exclusive exposure to D’ni culture and history and asked them to create a game that would teach the world about a forgotten people. That game, based on historical documents dating back to the early 1800s, told the story of a quarter-D’ni named Atrus and became the vanguard title of the CD-ROM era, Myst.
Released in 1993, Myst quickly became the best-selling game of its time. Its vividly detailed graphics and (no pun intended) mysterious atmosphere made it a showcase for the power of the CD-ROM. Cyan was allowed more access to D’ni materials and history, even to the cavern, soon after Myst‘s release, which led to Riven, known for its even more difficult puzzles and fantastic attention to detail. Around the same time, the DRC was officially formed.
Of course, D’ni, the DRC and the volcano in New Mexico don’t actually exist, but for the players of Myst Online: Uru Live, Cyan’s contribution to the MMOG boom, that history is reality. They are the explorers that have been called to the D’ni cavern to witness and assist the restoration of the empire. It’s a fiction they take very seriously.
The Myst universe is a far cry from the cut-and-paste fantasy and science fiction worlds in most games. There are no elves, no sorcerers, no orcs. Instead, the aptly named Cyan Worlds has crafted an entire society with a fleshed-out history and culture. The D’ni were a patient, contemplative people that were masters of the rock that surrounded them. They were also proficient in “the Art,” both the central aspect of D’ni existence and the central conceit of the Myst series. The Art was the ability to craft descriptive books that would in turn “link” to the worlds described therein. If you could describe it, you could link to it. In addition, they had their own numerals, language, alphabet, religion, guild system and economy – all with no concrete relation to surface cultures.
The consistency and plausibility of Cyan’s creation is astounding. For example, explorers realized that the D’ni alphabet was actually a “cursive” version of the numeral system; it feels like something that developed over thousands of years. This verisimilitude is the work of official Cyan “D’ni Historian” Richard A. Watson, whose fancies end up as D’ni canon. In true Myst fashion, he is extremely tight-lipped. Most everything the community knows they have gleaned themselves by poring over the games and novels for more than a decade. Groups dedicated to the linguistics of the D’ni language must, for example, deduce the language’s structure and rules from less than 100 full D’ni sentences released by Cyan.
At their core, every MMOG is about community. Yet Myst is associated with solitary exploration. Cyan went to great lengths to instill in the player a sense of isolation. How could that possibly translate into a massively-multiplayer experience?
When Cyan dropped the project in 2004 due to financial woes, the game stayed alive through unofficial “shard” servers. The community remained in the cavern, creating their own stories. Only recently has Cyan returned to support its players, but the players never lost their resolve. Why? What makes Uru special?
Roleplaying in other online games rarely extends beyond greeting people with “Hail.” The “roleplaying” aspects of the game are essentially level-grinding and stat-manipulation. The depth of someone’s character exists only in his loot’s cool factor. Without that loot, the game’s appeal disappears in an instant. Uru‘s appeal comes not from leveling and growing stronger but from exploration and taking part in the game’s evolving storyline.
To say Uru has reached a point where players are actually involved in the story would be stretching, but the building blocks are in place, and the potential is staggering. As it stands, the storyline, generally revolving around strange “Bahro” creatures who have suddenly appeared en masse in the cavern, plays out in real-time, with “actors” at Cyan playing important characters that interact with explorers: giving speeches, answering questions, even making jokes.
The game hasn’t yet reached its full potential. The DRC has plans to eventually reinstate the D’ni Guild system. These guilds are not like other MMOG guilds; each guild has a specialized purpose, and its members have special duties. The Guild of Greeters will help new explorers get their footing, the Guild of Messengers will be the heart of in-cavern communications and the Guild of Writers will be tasked with “writing” new Ages – that is, level creation. Already, the community is forming charters, ranking systems, web resources and content creation tools that will eventually coalesce with official guild support into something that gives the player unprecedented power in the world.
But perhaps the greatest example of the player base’s creativity is on the individual level. Some explorers have taken it upon themselves to create avatars that blur the line between player and “official” character, with fascinating results. Take Echo McKenzie, the “seer,” known to have visions of the past strike her. As she walked through Kirel, the guild neighborhood, she spoke in great detail of the birthday party of one of the oldest living D’ni women that had taken place in that very spot hundreds of years earlier. Her vivid descriptions entranced the crowd of followers, most of whom were unsure if they were listening to canonic material or a bored player.
Uru has led a quiet storytelling revolution in online gaming. No longer will stories be conveyed through scripted NPCs and paragraph-long books on shelves but instead through living characters, rich interaction and the work of a community that contributes as well as consumes. As Atrus once said in Myst‘s introduction: “The ending has not yet been written.”