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Monthly Archives: December 2012

His Dark Materials: Holiday Retrospectives, Part 3

Phew, it looked for a while like we were in for another wet, greenish-grey Christmas, but lo, the Arctic winds came through for us at the last minute.

Maybe it was the snow, or the nostalgia, or both, that leads me ultimately to the third and final retrospective on stories that take me back to the good old days and have impacted me ever since: the His Dark Materials Trilogy, by Phillip Pullman.
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His Dark Materials, better known as the Golden Compass Trilogy for its first chapter, is based in what I like to call a ‘little bit to the left’ world, a setting that is similar to our world but drastic differences have arisen in the weave of its history. Compare the world of Nation or the Leviathan Trilogy for other examples.

In the world of the Golden Compass, England is still a true monarchy, there is a single Church that has power over all of society,the Arctic is ruled by witches and armour-clad polar bears, and people have a kind of external soul in the form of an animal-shaped ‘daemon.’    

The Golden Compass features Lyra, a tomboyish orphan living in the care of a distinguished Oxford college, and her daemon, Pantalaimon. Lyra is more at home among street urchins than scholars, and longs to join her uncle, Lord Asriel, on his mysterious expeditions to the north to investigate the Northern Lights.  
She has matters of her own to worry about when children start disappearing. At the same time, Lyra is swept into a new life with a glamorous adventuress, Mrs. Coulter. Before she leaves, the Master of the college gives her an alethiometer. Like a compass, this device points your way, but not North; it points to the truth, for those who can read it.    
Discovering that she has a natural talent at interpreting the alethiometer’s symbolic signals, she runs away and finds allies; the boat-gypsies of Britain’s waterways, a witty balloonist, a beautiful witch queen, and a ferocious armoured bear and joins them to find the missing children and discover the intentions of Lord Asriel and what he knows, and what Mrs. Coulter dreads, about the force known as Dust and the other world behind the Northern Lights.    

The second novel, the Subtle Knife, jumps to our own world to introduce Will Parry, a boy who leaves his mentally ill mother to find his father, missing for many years, to try and find out where he disappeared to, and why men seem to be hunting for his father’s old letters. He finds a strange door into a new world, and meets Lyra, who has also crossed over from hers, and they discover that they are caught between powers that span universes. Will also discovers the Subtle Knife, with which he can cut portals between worlds. With the help of a physicist, they begin to figure out one side and the other, and the nature of Dust.

Finally in the Amber Spyglass, answers start being uncovered as Lyra and Will start to realize they have a key role to play in this new war for Heaven. Dr. Malone, their physicist friend, creates a special glass to observe Dust, while Will and Lyra make their own discoveries about the motives of the different sides of this pan-dimensional war. As they come of age together, their actions and their feelings will determine the fate of all that exists.

  I have praised a lot of stories for their world building, but I have to say that in the realm of fantasy literature, Lyra’s world achieves all the charm, depth and wonder of the classic Middle-Earth type fantasy setting while retaining almost none of its usual trappings. There are a thousand little touches to let you know what the rules and history of the world are; electricity is called anbaric force,a scientist is an experimental theologian, chocolate still answers to its ancient name of chocolatl and, as often seems to be the case with alternate worlds, there are a lot of zeppelins.

Phillip Pullman is on par with Brian Jacques in his skill and describing landscapes and people, and there’s no one to match him with writing dialogue. The characters fairly leap off the page for me, and you can feel all their joy and anguish almost as vividly as your own. Lyra was and remains one of my favourite fictional characters ever. Pullman has a skill, a subtlety and an economy of language in his writing that makes it incredibly fun to read. The story itself gets progressively more epic in scope, and hits strong emotional notes and high action points just often enough to keep you engaged and in suspense, and clever elements of mystery will keep you guessing. The lf story itself can be harrowing at times, especially for young-adult readers, with all victories coming at a cost, sometimes a gut-wrenchingly horrible one.

The trilogy is based around the classic theme of innocence to experience. Both Will and Lyra start out less innocent than some, but discover the heights of goodness and the depths of evil and where they stand throughout the story. It is the most basic heart of the story, and in many respects the main thing we, and Pullman himself, are here for.

There is a passage in the Last Battle, final instalment of the Chronicles of Narnia, where Susan, one of the four children from the Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe is said to be “no longer a friend of Narnia” and interested “in nothing nowadays except nylons and lipstick and invitations.” Pullman, along with Neil Gaiman, J.K. Rowling and others, have interpreted this to mean that Susan is being excluded, damned after a fashion, because she embraced her adulthood and particularly her sexuality. Pullman voiced strong objections to these and related themes in Lewis, and His Dark Materials can be read as the anti-Narnia. Crucially, the process of losing innocence is treated, on balance, as being a positive force.

It’s a brilliant idea, but certain side effects do cause problems. His Dark Materials is that most ornery of beasts, a story that exists to make a point. Lots of famous works have done so, but it’s a difficult line to walk because you risk your tale turning into a tract. It isn’t as apparent in the Golden Compass or in the Subtle Knife, but as the threads get tied together Pullman starts piling on symbolism and exposition to make his point that starts to turn the Amber Spyglass into more of a slog than it could have been. He lays in a lot of references to Adam and Eve, the Rebellion of Lucifer and similar matters. They get explained in-text but it can be very out of left field if you don’t already know something about Christian theology and symbolism. This is part of the reason why I found I could barely remember anything about the third book after I read it when I was 13. However, I can’t be sure if that says more about the book or about me…

And of course the point being made might be one you find distasteful. As I said of Terry Pratchett’s Nation, when a particular philosophy (secular humanism in both cases) informs the story, it can potentially be off-putting if you do not share it, and Pullman is nowhere near as subtle or lighthearted about it as Pratchett is either. Since I happen to share views with both writers, it doesn’t distress me, but it might be a bit glaring for some.

While I can’t really point to anything specific, I sometimes get the feeling that Pullman worked out the thesis but played the story around it by ear. It would certainly explain why it always takes Pullman freaking forever to come out with a new book. Part of this is that as new characters get introduced – Will in Subtle Knife and a whole whack of people in the Amber Spyglass – it can get unfocused after spending the whole first book getting to know Lyra. That said, our heroine seldom leaves our field of view and stays pretty active throughout. And indeed, the other characters are sufficiently engaging that it’s still a pleasure to meet them. Lord Asriel’s plan escalates with almost ridiculous speed, and the plot of the second two books seems at times to meander a little.    

The trilogy is still one of the most memorable reading experiences I’ve ever had, and has affected me a lot ever since. It’s a deep, moving, superb story with a vast amount of imagination and talent behind it. It falters only in that, in its determination to make a statement, it loses the accessibility and clarity of its breakout contemporary, Harry Potter, which is a shame because, artistically, it’s at least the equal of Harry Potter. It’s well worth a try for any young reader.

Happy New Year. Oh, and whatever you do, don’t watch the movie. It’s dreadful….

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Posted by on December 30, 2012 in Book, Holiday Retrospectives

 

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Redwall: Holiday Retrospectives, Part 2

To continue in the Christmastime theme of stories that hearken back to childhood, I want to talk about the one that has probably affected my life more fundamentally than any other. It got to me early on and set in motion my love of fantasy and my desire to be a writer.

And as a fantasy fan, you might reasonably assume, I was first inspired by the Lord of the Rings, the Chronicles of Narnia or something like that, yes?

Well, no. Those things were a part of my life in one way or another, but what tipped the balance was something less well-known: Brian Jacques’ Redwall.

Redwall

Written by a Liverpool truck driver, Redwall was the first full-length novel I ever read. It takes us to the forest of Mossflower and Redwall Abbey, a monastery inhabited by an order of mice.

Yes, mice. The characters are anthropomorphic animals. Humans don’t exist in this world like they do in, say, Wind in the Willows. The world of Redwall is populated solely by creatures of the English countryside; soft-spoken mice, stout hedgehogs, foppish hares, vicious rats, devious weasels, and insidious adders.

The monastic denizens of Redwall are charitable protectors. Founded by the hero of old Martin the Warrior, they provide safe haven and medicine to the forest-dwellers around them, and invite all and sundry to their famous feast days, generally living in peace, material simplicity and natural plenty.

Matthias, a young mouse and novice of the Redwall order, has a longing for the adventure and action of the long-dead Martin’s era, though Redwall has been at peace for many seasons, and Matthias can only experience these things through the record of the abbey’s famous tapestry.

He’s about to get more action than he bargained for; the ravening horde of the rat warlord Cluny is on the road to Redwall, and the peaceful denizens of Mossflower will have to learn to defend themselves. Matthias, helped by the abbey’s aged loremaster, seeks to give Redwall back its fighting spirit by recovering the lost sword of Martin, a quest which will take Matthias into the darkest corners of the abbey and into faraway lands in search of clues and allies.

The story is a riveting quest with airs of the Sword in the Stone or the Hobbit, with the storybook charm of the aforementioned Wind in the Willows or Beatrix Potter woven in as well. Songs and especially riddles form a key part of Brian Jacques’ writing, and you’ll grapple with them along with Matthias as he confronts terrifying villains and confounding mysteries in his efforts to save his home.

This is a kids’ book, of course, so the themes are standard unity in difference, innocence to experience and hero’s journey fare, but they’re presented with an imagination and charm that gives them great zest.

Brian Jacques once described writing as ‘painting pictures with words’ and few can claim to paint pictures so vivid. The characters, the landscape and the medieval aesthetic of the setting leap off the page, especially if history is something you’re into anyway. Any Anglophile will get a kick out of the hare’s aristocratic military dialect, ending sentences with exclamations of ‘what, what!’ or the moles, whose indecipherable Somerset accents are hilarious to read aloud. He also had a great skill at selecting resonant names for characters. The lavish feast days at Redwall will make your mouth water – you can even find Redwall recipes out there. I recommend the Deeper n’ Ever Pie, myself. Despite the fact that the characters live in a monastery, no religious associations are made, so you don’t need to be Christian to get the experience.

Another thing that makes Jacques great as a children’s author is that he didn’t pull too many punches. This was the series that first taught me that good guys die too, and not just in heroic sacrifices or peacefully in bed, but sometimes unexpectedly, pointlessly and tragically. Victory feels real and hard-won as a result.

Redwall ultimately spawned a vast set of sequels. The first were Mattimeo and the Pearls of Lutra, which follow later quests and crises suffered by Matthias’ descendants, some of which are fallout of the events in Redwall. Others deal with characters connected to but outside of Redwall. Of these, Mariel of Redwall and the Bellmaker are the best in my opinion. The books also cross generations, so a character who is a child in one book will sometimes turn up again elderly in the next.

As I got older, though, the effect of the books started to wane. They became very formulaic. You start to wonder why Redwall is ever surprised to find itself under siege. One branch goes back in time to follow ancestral characters like Martin, but I found these characters much more effective as historical ideals than as real people, and it spoiled their mystique somewhat. The divide between someone who is a member of the Redwall order and someone who just seems to live there starts getting fuzzy, and the frequency of great feasts starts to seem a little bizarre (although perhaps not, given how many Saints’ Days there are in real life). Despite the series covering seemingly hundreds of years Mossflower and Redwall are usually pretty much the same, and the world feels weirdly static. Mossflower and the Bellmaker are the only books that seem to defy that trend.

Jacques also wasn’t very good at moral ambiguity. Every now and again a mouse, vole, or other ‘good guy’ would go over to the bad guys, and in the Bellmaker a rat came over to the good guys, but the good/evil divide was so inflexible that it was actually a little offensive, especially in Outcast of Redwall. It’s by far my least favourite instalment and marked the beginning of the end of my passion for the series.

Some later books like the Long Patrol and Marlfox still held up. But for a kid, the formulaic structure is likely to be a plus, and the dividing of characters into recognizable types appeals greatly to a young mind, giving them clear rules to learn. It’s a bit like a fantasy starter before trying to tackle intricate epics like the Lord of the Rings. Unfortunately, it lacks the all-ages accessibility of Harry Potter or the Hobbit. I’ve referred to other stories as probably inaccessible to readers below a certain age. Redwall books, on the other hand, will probably be lost on you if you’re over about thirteen.

For all that, Redwall itself, and Mattimeo and the Pearls of Lutra as well, are terrific. The world is vivid and sumptuous, the stories are classic and the emotional arcs are very intense. This was the series that taught me the power of books to affect your feelings. Jacques’ visual style and his love of children shine through and warm your heart. The feast (in every sense) it provides to the mind’s eye will thrill young readers, especially if they’re budding historians. If you have kids, or are one, then this is a great way to get into reading and offers a young person a great stepping stone into more mature literature.

RIP Mr. Jacques, and Merry Christmas to all.

 
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Posted by on December 24, 2012 in Book, Holiday Retrospectives

 

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The Hobbit: A Long-Expected Pleasure

    Those of us who reside in the realm of fandom can praise nothing higher than the Lord of the Rings film trilogy. The books are the defining modern expression of world building and epic storytelling, and the films represent the most complete, artistically responsible and, above all, mind-blowingly awesome adaptations of books to film in…well, ever. If we have faith in nothing else, we have faith in the name Sir Peter Jackson.

            Getting excited was easy, therefore, when it was announced that Jackson would return to adapt the Lord of the Rings’ predecessor, the original introduction to Middle Earth, and a feature of the childhoods of many of us.

            In a hole in the ground, there lived a Hobbit.
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The Hobbit: An Unexpected Journey is part one of a three-part adaptation of that children’s classic. As always happens when you go into a movie with such excitement and high expectations, every little nitpick can feel like a needle in the eye. Let me be perfectly clear, however, before I begin: it was fantastic!

            In the Shire, a bucolic little slice of Middle Earth, Bilbo Baggins, a respectable gentle-Hobbit, who never has any adventures or does anything unexpected, finds his day thrown askew by the arrival of the famous wizard known as Gandalf, who is looking for someone to share in an adventure. Flustered, Bilbo finds his attempts to rebuff the proposition ignored as a party of dwarves arrive at his door, empty his pantry, and confront him with the quest at hand: to retake the Lonely Mountain from the dragon Smaug, along with the vast treasure of their people and restore their leader, Thorin, to his rightful place as King Under the Mountain. Bilbo finally gives into the deep attraction this has, and finally signs up as the expedition ‘burglar.’ But, if you’ve read the book, you already knew that.

 

            Everything that was great about the Lord of the Rings is still here: the characters both stories share, like Gandalf and Elrond are back, played by the same actors, who get to show us more aspects of these characters than before. The fine-detailing in the sets, costumes and weapons is as great as ever, and Howard Shore’s music – well, I’d call it ‘exceptional’ except that HowardShore is always this good. And New   Zealand continues to favour us with her breathtaking natural beauty.

 

            The movie also expands on the plot. Tolkien had a whole backstory on the quest’s place in Middle Earth’s affairs: a sinister Necromancer has appeared in Mirkwood forest, orcs and trolls are ranging over once-peaceful lands and signs of a link between the mysterious Necromancer and an ancient enemy of Middle Earth cause much anxiety for Gandalf and his colleagues among the Wise.

            There was a lot of anxiety about the ‘bulking out’ of the movies. I think a lot of people just didn’t realize that Tolkien had all this backing material in place, and Jackson and company were just going to make a lot of stuff up. I say Jackson was justified; the Hobbit had to make some effort to blend with the sheer scale and depth of the Lord of the Rings, and there just isn’t enough of the Hobbit on its own to do that. It is a lot more kid-friendly, since that was the Hobbit’s target market. The trolls and goblins are more bumbling, moustache-twirling villainous than their sinister, vicious counterparts in Rings; the humour is more frequent and sillier. The expansion is enough to make it accessible to all ages, though. In general, it’s lighter and fluffier, and that’s really how it should be.

            Having said that, the balancing act between source material, cinematic style and responsible adaptation isn’t carried off with total success. Like the Lord of the Rings, it has a prologue sequence. The Hobbit’s is visually breathtaking and it gives you information you need, but it is excessively wordy, there are lots of details that we really didn’t need to know and indeed, would have worked at least as well if deployed elsewhere. I had this experience with the Golden Compass movie; when I hear the establishing exposition and can immediately think of better ways they could have done it, that’s a bad sign.

            Fifteen main protagonists was always going to be a big challenge, and so far I’m underwhelmed by how it was handled. Bilbo himself frequently gets hard to focus on in the shuffle. We barely hear from half the dwarves and only about four are characterized beyond a single note. Bombur, the gluttonous and overweight dwarf I find particularly annoying, but I’m one of those tiresome politically correct types and just don’t find fat jokes very polite.

            That said, once it got going it was plenty of fun. A lot of nods to the first trilogy and to the book tickled my affections – the Riddles in the Dark sequence was absolutely perfect if you ask me. It takes a while to stop looking at Bilbo and thinking “hey look, it’s Martin Freeman” because he’s already a well-known actor, but nevertheless his performance reflects the character just fine and his skill at playing a perpetual state of ‘what the heck’s going on’ is as funny as ever.

            I was expecting the expanded content, but I was thrown to find they collapsed the timeline. The discovery of the Necromancer, which indirectly triggers the quest for the LonelyMountain, happens before the Hobbit begins in Tolkien’s writings. Here they overlap, which gives rise to a plot hole here and there. It’s understandable though; the novel spends quite a long time having the characters wander through one unconnected peril after another, and the integration of the Necromancer plot gives it a unity that works better on screen.

            A regrettable side effect of this however is something I never thought I’d say about a fantasy adventure movie: there’s too much action. It wasn’t long into the movie before I found myself thinking ‘oh dear, another bloody chase scene.’ Jackson put the occasional high-tension sequence into the Fellowship of the Ring (the broken stairs during the Balrog chase, for instance) but they were just fairly brief punchy moments in a first chapter aimed at building character and atmosphere. In Unexpected Journey, these are strung out into protracted, carnival-ride sequences – there’s one in the Misty Mountains that’s particularly pointless – so often that I found it obnoxious. However, the only truly bad choice in the film (and I’m going to SPOIL a little bit to explain) is, in a word, Azog.

            In the book, Azog was a goblin king Thorin killed many years prior, establishing his cred as a warrior and dwarvish leader. In the movie, Azog was merely mutilated and spends the whole film chasing the company in pursuit of revenge. The idea, I surmise, was to give the villains of the piece a consistent, immediate face, like Lurtz the Uruk-hai in Fellowship of the Ring. But Azog doesn’t appear to answer to the any of the main villains, and distracts from the dragon that Thorin really should be obsessing over right now. There are a lot of flashback sequences in this movie anyway, but we have to take a lot of time out for one to tack him on. He isn’t even slightly compelling. He’s a cliché who doesn’t do anything except issue kill orders, strangle the occasional minion and look scary. In a very deep way, he just doesn’t belong, as if he wandered in from some other movie.

            If the Lord of the Rings films were a house built in a great style, then the Hobbit: An Unexpected Journey is a beautiful cottage in the same style; there are a couple of loose nails, the door doesn’t quite fit and the kitchen floor slants a little, but it’s still flippin’ gorgeous. It’s really good, and I don’t wish to suggest otherwise. Bilbo and Thorin’s character development was great, Gandalf and the other Council members make a really interesting aside, the themes that are being built up are promising and beautiful, and when it gets truly exciting, it’s a real thrill. It’s a lot less serious, which is fair enough. The only downside is that it is, so to speak, flabbier. Jackson’s team made lots of choices to tighten or streamline the plot, most of which are pretty reasonable, but moreso than in LoTR the stitches still show and a lot of stuff is added in the name of flash and sparkle at the expense of originality.

            Even the best creative team would be hard-pressed to make the Lord of the Rings lightning strike twice, and the good stuff is so good that it’s totally worth it. Any sense of something missing or out of joint may, I will also point out, be temporary. Remember that this is the first part of an integrated trilogy, and will be best appreciated as a full set. So stick with it, folks…

            “Home is now behind you, and the world is ahead!”

 
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Posted by on December 19, 2012 in Movie

 

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Myst and Riven: Holiday Retrospectives, Part 1

With the Christmas season at hand, I’ve been debating what to review that would fit the occasion. I’ve never seen It’s a Wonderful Life or Miracle on 34th Street, the old claymation Rudolf the Red-Nosed Reindeer is so bad I wouldn’t know where to start, and much as I love Merry Christmas, Charlie Brown it’s rather insubstantial.

It occurred to me that the key, the true meaning, if you will, of Christmas is childhood joy and family. So I’m going to talk about something that brought my family together and had a profound impact on my childhood.

In the late 90s-early 00s my family, particularly my brother and I, had one fictional work firmly at the centre of our lives: Myst, and its sequel, Riven.

Myst was a trendsetter for computer games in the 1990s. Created by the brothers Rand and Robyn Miller of Cyan, it’s a fantasy adventure game that spawned a franchise of five sequels, two spinoffs, an online multiplayer game, and three novels.

In the first game, Myst, you discover a strange book that describes an island in another world. You lay a hand on a page and find yourself teleported to the island in question, which, funnily enough, is named Myst. The island is littered with strange devices, combination-code locks and more books linking to other worlds (Ages, as they are called) with more puzzles, lost diaries and other clues to a story of betrayal, loss and dark secrets.

In the second game, Riven, you’re sent on a mission to the Age of Riven to stop a tyrant who threatens to unleash his madness on countless helpless Ages. You’re thrown into a new world of puzzles and clues, tracing the history of a fractured family, a lost civilization, and one man’s insane ambition.

There are more sequels, but the heart and soul of the franchise is Myst and Riven. Cyan was still a small company and they have a creativity and craftsmanship about them that reflects that. Later instalments were handled by big companies like Ubisoft and, frankly, developed an increasing air of money-spinning.

Myst and Riven, before they’re fantasy, or adventure, are a mystery – which makes sense, if you think about it. Weirdly, a lot of the game involves reading other people’s diaries. Journals, letters, and secret messages abound, sent by people you seldom see and which you must use to attempt to reconstruct who they are and what happened to them. We spent hours tossing around theories as we tried to discover how various clues fit together. The mystery is punctuated with logic puzzles that open locked doors, turn on power, and open the way to new clues, all the while letting you make deductions about the nature of the world – indeed, worlds – you are in.

And those worlds are remarkable. Douglas Adams described Myst as ‘a beautiful void,’ words that cannot be bettered. It can actually be quite unnerving as you wander the islands, pushing random buttons and discovering an hour later something has changed and you wonder whether you did it and whether, perhaps, you are being watched…

There are drawbacks. Myst has very 90s graphics that the revamped ‘realMyst’ version doesn’t completely overcome. The victory scenario isn’t locked off until you play the rest of the game. The only thing stopping you from going straight to the final mission is not knowing how, so a second playthrough might feel like just going through the motions.

The movement controls are a little old-fashioned. RealMyst added a fluid 360-degree motion system but Riven is still like clicking your way through an incremental slideshow.

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Still, Riven improves on most of the issues; the graphics use photographed textures for a startling degree of realism that has aged incredibly well – it’s definitely the best-looking game in the franchise. Every time you start a new game the lock combination puzzles are re-scrambled so that you still have to find them, and you have get to a certain point in the game before it’s possible to trigger the ending. Some puzzle clues are widely scattered, which in Riven’s much bigger game world gets a little frustrating. To this day there is one puzzle that I can’t solve without the walkthrough.

The sole flaw in the world building is that some locations were clearly meant to be puzzles and nothing else. We’re to understand that people lived on Myst Island, and you can examine personal items like dinnerware and inkstands in some Ages. So it is a little distracting to realize that nobody in the world of Myst appears to require a toilet.

It must be said that the Myst games are awfully mellow. There are no weapons, no explosions, and no monsters; just you and an island. You don’t have a voice or appearance, either; you’re a silent stranger. That does let you imagine yourself there rather than remote-controlling somebody else, though. Apparently the Millers are deeply pacifist, so they wanted to do a game that was challenging and immersive without using violence and gore.

And do you know what? They nailed it. The games grab the imagination with a combination of escapist fantasy and detective work. The setting is one of the most stunning and beautiful I’ve experienced in any medium, a combination of original fantasy landscapes, steampunk aesthetics and some of the most meticulous world-building imaginable. There are lots of little touches, like strange knickknacks on a bedside table, that are just there to create a sense of completeness to the worlds you move through without seeming like fluff, and without telling you too much and spoiling the atmosphere.

The sound design gives the environments so much reality that you can almost smell the pine needles and feel the sea air (the Millers clearly took inspiration from the landscape of their native WashingtonState). Robyn Miller’s imaginative musical tracks help create the emotional motif of each setting. The games get into the imagination so completely that 16 years later, the sight of wood panelling, brass fixtures, leather-bound books or the smell of pine trees on a wet spring day compels me to go play it again.

Indeed, the atmosphere is my favourite part. It’s distilled curiosity. Not only are you driven to solve the puzzles and the main mystery, but the worlds give you lots to grab onto as you try and interpret the characters, environment and civilizations around you. Scrutinizing the in-game cultures played a part in my choosing to study archaeology later in life.

What few characters there are, are played by live actors, not CG-characters, and seem real and important as a result. The pressure of trying to help them or hinder them, depending on which side they’re on, makes accomplishing that mission very satisfying. The story is a subtle one, in a way; a lot of the drama has already happened by the time you show up. But as you learn about it and bring about the resolution, a beautiful theme of redemption and closure emerges. One reason the later games, except maybe Myst III: Exile, lack this impact is that this theme is present but depersonalized.

The rest of the franchise has appeal, especially Exile and the novel the Book of Atrus, but they’re optional at best and spoil the mystique at worst. The core of the experience, and by far the best part, are Myst and Riven themselves. The story they tell is powerful, and the atmosphere makes it that much more gripping. The old-fashioned graphics are more quaint than unpleasant and the world building is second to none. RealMyst and Riven are available on Steam, compatible up to (unofficially) Windows 7. As retro and slow-paced as they may be, get them anyway (they’re cheap as borscht, I might add). It’s like being the main character in the Chronicles of Narnia as written by Agatha Christie, and you will never experience anything like it. It had a defining impact on my life, and it has all the power that effect suggests.

So give it a try. The ending has not yet been written…

 
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Posted by on December 9, 2012 in Holiday Retrospectives, Video Game

 

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