Will a hit CD-ROM's flights of fantasy click in bookstores and theaters?
You might think Myst has a nerve touting itself as the multimedia game that ”will become your world.” But ask the red-eyed acolytes who’ve fallen deepest under its sway, and they’ll tell you that tag line gets it just about right.
Consider Ivan Cockrum. Most players take several weeks to navigate the CD- ROM ”surrealistic adventure” — a series of photorealistic images of landscapes, buildings, and rooms, linked in a way that powerfully suggests the player is actually walking through four fantastical, initially inscrutable ”worlds” or ”ages,” evocative now of Jules Verne, now of René Magritte, now of David Lynch. Cockrum, 26, motored through Myst in just three days, with breaks to eat and sleep. Like so many Myst fans, he talks about the game in the transported tones of a convert.
”It wasn’t just the quality of the artwork,” says Cockrum, a computer graphics designer who started his own online magazine, Mystique, and who runs a Myst fan club on CompuServe. ”It was the totality of the experience. There’s all this architectural detail, the constant sound of wind and water, the moody music. There’s mystery, there are puzzles to solve, there’s repeatability, yet there’s a finite story line.” When he had finished — that is, completed wandering the ages to determine whether two brothers had betrayed their father and begun destroying these alternate realities — Cockrum recalls, ”I felt like I had this void in my life.”
Not every ”Mystie,” as devotees call themselves, develops so vicious a virtual monkey on the back. But there’s no question that Myst has quickly become an 800-pound gorilla in the CD-ROM industry. It sold 450,000 copies in the past year — small potatoes compared with cartridge computer games that hook up to your TV, but right up there with such CD-ROM record setters as LucasArts’ Rebel Assault — and the number of discs sold per month continues to climb.
Yet Myst is poised to conquer more than the computer-game domain. In Rand Miller, 35, and Robyn Miller, 28, the quiet brothers who spent two years devising Myst in a converted Spokane, Wash., garage, some boosters see the 21st century’s leading entertainment gurus. Chief among these is agent Harvey Harrison, retained by the Millers to handle an onslaught of movie offers. ”These guys are the next Walt Disney, the next Steven Spielberg,” Harrison says. ”These guys are bigger than Spielberg. They’re more like D.W. Griffith, or Eisenstein, or Chaplin. After those artists’ movies, audiences came away knowing that film would be an important part of human culture. That’s how you feel after playing Myst, that this medium is now for real.”
Less partisan Myst aficionados like Doug Millison, editor of the trade mag Morph’s Outpost on the Digital Frontier, say that’s oversimplifying the case. ”(The Millers) didn’t invent the syntax,” he says, citing such ”visual environment” CD-ROMs as the spaceship-corridor romp Iron Helix. ”They’re definitely standing on the shoulders of other people.” Millison also questions how big an impact any CD-ROM can make, since it’s still so much dang work to configure home computers to run them.
But Myst‘s empire may extend well beyond CD-ROMs — certainly if book agent Jonathan Lazear has anything to do with it. In late August, Lazear parlayed the Millers’ proposal for a series of Myst novels into a $1 million contract with Disney’s publishing arm, Hyperion (it won out after the William Morrow company revoked a $7 million offer that had not been cleared with its parent company, the Hearst Corporation). Creators Rand and Robyn, says Lazear, have that commodity most sought after in entertainment: the sort of franchisable property that plays in multiple formats. ”The income to be made if Myst becomes a successful movie franchise like Star Wars or Star Trek is practically unfathomable.”
Not that Rand and Robyn seem to spend much time thinking about profits. They’re primarily family men, living with their wives and children, not too far from the home of their itinerant-minister dad. ”These are not guys who went out and bought a Mercedes Benz and a house with a pool and a steam room,” says Lazear. ”They’re not interested in making their profiles known.”
Modesty is indeed what you’ll find at the Millers’ self-made company, Cyan, Inc., which they founded seven years ago and made successful on the strength of several children’s CD-ROMs. Nestled among the real trees they sampled digitally to make the faux forests in their game, the Millers are at work on a Myst CD-ROM sequel, on prequel novels (written with humorist James Lileks) — and on keeping at bay the new pressures that come with so much attention.
Self-described Christians who initially conceived Myst as an exercise in ”virtual morality,” the brothers never dreamed so many people would find their fictional world a religious experience. ”It was real satisfying to learn that maybe we’re not quite as strange as we thought,” says Rand, who’s the more expert at technical programming arcana.
To Robyn, who’s more responsible for the eerie, isolated look of Myst‘s puzzlescapes, the game’s overwhelming reception sometimes feels as alien as any of his own images. ”It’d be real easy to develop a major ego when so many people are telling you your creation is great,” he says. Although they’re grateful for the appreciation, the Millers are leery of people who would make them computer-age deities. Notes Robyn with a laugh, ”As long as there’s nobody claiming to be the leader, there’s no cult. We’re going to keep reminding ourselves of that.”