Graphic Adventure Review:
Myst IV: Revelation (Written with Sam Kabo Ashwell)

First posted in January, 2005

Sam: By this time you should have realised that Jacq and I have a relationship built on a firm foundation of mocking videogames, and that should this deep and profound bond linking us ever be lost we would collapse into a vicious cycle of domestic violence, liquor-store robberies and vocal support for the Republican party. Accordingly, when Jacq came over to the UK for Christmas she made sure to acquire Myst IV: Revelation beforehand, thus ensuring that we wouldn't have to, y'know, have conversations or anything like that.
Jacq: $39.99 is a small price to pay for love, Sam.

The appearance of Myst IV on the shelves was a bit of a surprise to me. I didn't have the broadband connection to support Uru, so as neat as all that sounded, I had pretty much written off Myst as a trilogy and assumed I'd seen the last of it, and somehow I'd miraculously avoided all the pre-release rumors and hype of Revelation. So I was as happy as a mangree in fruit when I came across a review of it by Andrew Plotkin last October. If you want a solid, serious review, I suggest that you either read his review or check out this review by Emily Short.

Then again, if you'd rather have spoiler-filled snarky ranting, please do read on...
Sam: It's twenty years since Atrus imprisoned his naughty sons, and he and the dopey Catherine have produced a third sprog: Yeesha, a chipper little moppet with an unplaceable accent. She uses the word 'cool' a lot, because that's what children everywhere do. Nonetheless, floaty-headed flower-child Catherine has been wringing her hands about her imprisoned sons and persuading Atrus to consider the possibility that they've become reformed.
Despite all initial signs, Yeesha isn't actually
that much of an irritating little brat.
Since the protagonist is essentially blank and never talks, this led to an exchange rather like this:

Atrus:And so, my friend, I need an objective opinion about whether I should release Sirrus and Achenar or not.
Jacq & Sam:(in unison)    NO!
(Atrus goes about the business of releasing Sirrus and Achenar anyway.)
Jacq: Well, he doesn't so much go about releasing them, but rather he decides that we are ill-informed to provide an opinion on the issue just yet and that he wants to show us how the boys are doing in their prison Ages with this nifty, simple little viewer he's created. Despite the fact that he knows damn well how to use it, he insists that it's quicker if the two of us work the (tedious (watch for that word more later) puzzle of a) viewer together.
"You want to shoot me in the head? No, my friend, that's the magazine release; we'll need those bullets inside the gun. Try the trigger... it's the one right in front of the handgrip. No, no, your aim's all off. A little higher... Higher... No, that's too much. Bring it back down a bit. That's it, my fr -"
I swear on a stack of linking books that if this had been my first experience with Myst, I would have quit after this puzzle and tried to recoup my losses on eBay.
Sam: Atrus promptly screws everything up and then puts his feet up and has a daiquiri gets stuck in an electrical storm on another Age, having given us an interminable list of tasks to get on with (restore the emergency power, adjust the antenna on the roof, keep an eye on Yeesha, read journals V, W, X, Y and Z, make sure Yeesha does her homework, fill in my tax returns, and fumigate the banana-plant to prevent mites). Since Atrus has apparently been doing this for roughly twenty years, it's slightly bizarre that he's still calling us 'my friend' instead of 'hoppo' or 'monkey-boy'.
"Dreadful, this electromagnetic storm, really. Now, my friend, to set the dryer's spin cycle, there's a series of chromatic dials under my desk..."
Jacq: Revelation lived up to its predecessors in all the ways you'd expect: gorgeous, imaginative landscapes, well-rendered and well-integrated real life actors which were utilized with confidence (far more than in any preceding installment), and an engaging storyline that fits well with all the relevant backstory - drawing not only from the previous games, but also from the books that were written to supplement the series. (If you enjoyed Myst but haven't read the books, I cannot recommend them highly enough.)

One way in which the continuity was slightly affected - I suspect through no fault of the designers - was that the original actors who played Sirrus and Achenar have been missing since at least Myst III. In Exile, we only saw photographs of these new imposters, but in Revelation we saw lot of acting. The designers made every attempt at preserving continuity, but I still missed the original actors a bit. Achenar's brand of crazy, for instance, has changed from idiotic perky ramblings to rough-edged enraged mountain man. Still crazy, but not in quite the same loveable sort of way, and the new Sirrus possesses only 98% of his former I am so much better that all of you schtick.
Sam: It's pretty immersive in many respects - the cursor has become a little semi-realistic hand that points and grabs and taps on things to make little appropriate noises. Levers and things sometimes have to be thrown about quite vigorously. This not only limited the inevitable hotpoint-searching, but helped to give a good feel of physical connection to the world. Conversely, the protagonist's still silent and can't really interact with other characters to any great degree, except via pulling levers. I'm aware that Myst shouldn't be centred around direct conversational stuff, but the number of other characters in Myst who lecture you without ever getting a response made the protagonist seem virtually mute.
Jacq: Well, the protagonist wasn't entirely silent. As you turn around to look at things behind you, there are these little shuffling sounds. It took me quite awhile to become comfortable with the fact that this was the sound of our own footsteps and not Achenar sneaking up behind us with a blunt object.

At any rate, also like its predecessors, Revelation has puzzles. Lots and lots and lots of puzzles. A few such puzzles were seamless with the setting and plot, but many of the challenges felt like they were merely there to satiate the desires of the puzzle-hungry. Others, such as the aforementioned fiddly Age viewer were simply tedious (there's that word again) and couldn't have possibly served any other purpose except to annoy the hell out of the player (please, if someone reading this actually enjoyed that puzzle all the way through, do leave a comment or drop me an e-mail). The Age viewer and the splinter cell/spider chair puzzle on Spire rank first and second as my least favorite Myst puzzles ever. Admittedly, these are fresh in my memory; there may well have been puzzles equally as annoying in Myst, Riven, and Exile.
Sam: The first Age you have to deal with is Tomahna, the home of Atrus' family; it's probably my favourite Age of the game. Even though it's been expanded significantly from its previous brief appearances, it's relatively small and organised in a way that makes it easy to get a feel for the layout; more or less everywhere can be seen from everywhere else. And it's pretty. I want the kitchen.
Jacq: After ten or fifteen minutes of insisting that the water tap, stove, oven, pots and pans were merely very well implemented scenery and not a pasta-cooking puzzle, I finally had to go do something else and allow him to keep playing with all the stove dials, tapping on the pans, etc. I'm glad that burning your hand on the tea kettle carries no long-lasting ill effects.
Better homes through godlike creative power.
Sam: In due order, sabotage and Yeesha's kidnapping make it abundantly obvious that Atrus has screwed up. In order to advance the plot work out what's going on, you have to investigate the prison Ages that Sirrus and Achenar have been banished to. Scheming, coldly rational Sirrus has been cooling his heels in Spire, a jagged and bleak mountain in perpetual thunderstorm; savage, impetuous Achenar is stuck on Haven, a forested tropical island populated by weird creatures. No prizes for guessing which is the more conducive environment for reform.
Jacq: Not only was Spire bleak and seemingly non-reform-inducing, it was (wait for it...) incredibly tedious. Sirrus' past twenty years have been spent slowly plotting revenge, mastering the Age's available resources, and building an unbelievably complex network of elevators, laboratories, freaky crystalline sculptures, electrotramcars, and scary chair puzzles. I was extremely impressed with the amount of totally implausible infrastructure that what one man can create when he has enough time on his hands.

Your first choice for bleak, insanity-producing
and protracted involuntary holidays.
Sam: There's also a fun buildup involving his constant and intricate quest to reach the ground, only to discover that the entire mountain is levitating. Myst has always been as much about working out character motivations (through gorgeous old journals) as puzzle-fiddling, and working out how the brothers have developed during their imprisonment is fairly enjoyable. You're assisted in this with a new gimmick: Yeesha's amulet, which (in a *cough* brilliantly original touch) allows you to replay memories that have been stored in the scenery.

Generally, the puzzles are of the same style and structure of other Myst games: lots of minipuzzles building up to open new areas and ultimately to contribute to a final puzzle, solving which gives a spectacular ride around the Age, indicating that it's time to go home now. Spire is very reminiscent of Voltaic in this respect: it's all about buggering around with electricity.
Jacq: Achenar, meanwhile, has also been exploring his own Age, Haven, and taking a self-taught crash course in ecology. I felt that the story of his previous twenty years seemed quite a bit more plausible than those of Sirrus. This combined with the fact that it is a more vibrant, aesthetically pleasing, and populated Age, made it my favorite of the game. (At least until we hit Serenia. When we get to Serenia in this review, one of us will bash it to pieces and the other will only mildly mock it, having rather enjoyed the place, but it's worth our time to talk a bit more about Haven before moving on.)
Achenar expresses his sensitive
appreciation for the beauty of nature.
Perhaps unsurprisingly, he also drops
a few pounds through the wonders
of artistic license.
Sam: My major beef with Haven was that (particularly in the forest) it was really difficult to navigate, and sometimes even to find pathways or to tell one location from another. One exit was annoyingly 'hidden' by moving two miniscule fronds of grass out of the way. After a bit you find a crudely scrawled map, but the rule of thumb in this game is that all maps are incomprehensible until you've mapped everything yourself. To be fair, they do give you a convenient overlook to get a general idea of how the savannah, jungle and swamp relate to each other, but it still takes a long time to get oriented. Serenia was equally bad in this respect, although at least you can always see where the path is. Spire, thankfully, had a single central elevator as a frame of reference.
Jacq: As in previous installments, the designers have given us the wonderful luxury of zipping from one location in the Age to another (not necessarily adjacent but presently accessible) location. So once you've figured out where all the paths are actually located, you're not forced to click through every intermediate location. A useful tool, as ever.
Sam: It was deeply appreciated. In any case, despite the ambiguous paths, Haven was a gloriously pretty place, full of leaves that move in the wind, scuttling critters and birds flying about - these also feature in other Ages to a slightly lesser extent. All things that have cropped up in previous games, but used here in a way that seems a lot more natural and confident.
Jacq: Yes. There are even scuttling crabs to play with, frogs to poke off of logs, and herbivorous dinosaurs to frighten!
Sam: Notable are the monkeys, which barely escaped censure for being a Shameless Attempt To Exploit Cute Animated Critters. Partly because Achenar has clearly wreaked bloody massacre upon them in the past.

The Myst team's contribution to the ever-expanding
collection of monkey references in electronic literature.
(Watch for Myst V: Pirates Kidnap Yeesha, due out in 2007)
Jacq: Also, just a quick aside. If you're reading this (rather spoilery review) but haven't actually played the game yet, and you intend to do so, then let me take this opportunity to mention that UBI has made a software patch available that alleviates the time constraint on a couple of puzzles, one of which involves mangrees. This and the splinter cell/spider chair puzzle were deemed to be a bit too difficult given the game's time constraints, and that's been 'fixed' for those slow of mouse. Sam and I weren't made aware of this until after we'd solved them. Not that the patches are entirely necessary, but having the option to ease things up a little might have been nice.
Sam: This is the downside of the nice tactile interface; a lot of the puzzles require rather precise mouse control under time restraints. Others are underclued or outright arbitrary. Out of deep frustration, we bust out hints on quite a few occasions (particularly in Spire); generally these just confirmed what we'd already thought was going on, but pointed out a niggling detail...
This is the Spider Chair.
Remember that name; you'll be screaming it later.
Jacq: Yes. Every time we went for the hints, the opening lines from Andrew Plotkin's review flashed through my mind:
I finished this game without any hints at all.

I shouldn't lead off with that line, because it's not a very important review comment. [...] You don't really care. Oh, you care whether the puzzles are fair, and you care how easy it is to overlook a vital clue. But you don't care whether I am in a sufficiently stubborn mood to batter through all the exploration and experimentation and re-re-searching. It so happens that with Myst 4 I was feeling very, very stubborn. I spent nine evenings solving it, which is more than most adventure games take me. And I solved it all myself.

You may not care about that, but it makes me very smug.
Damn him. Damn him to hell. And, of course, I mean that in the nicest way possible.
Sam: ...indeed. Moving swiftly on, the game reaches its conclusion in the age of Serenia. I had trepidations about this Age from the outset; we slowly built up hints about it. It was designed by Catherine, who's a limp-wristed flower-gardening sissy. The Super Mystic Memory Amulet originates there (which led me to wonder considerably about how Ages work: clearly one can rewrite contingencies of religion or physics within Ages, but these new laws continue to hold with items exported from the Age, like Sirrus' explosive phallic crystals and the aforementioned amulet. I then wandered off even further on a tangent about fictional worlds vs. possible worlds and the metaphysics involved in the Age-writing process, but this was getting worryingly close to drawing schematics of Star Trek warp engines so I gave up the attempt).

Added to that, all the implausible claims about the amazing powers of brightly coloured crystals had me worried that things would be taking a scary New Age turn. Oh, and how right I was. It's populated by a bunch of badly-dressed hippy chicks who tend to a chamber of dreams and offer third-rate horoscopes to anybody gullible enough to take their advice on anything.
Gazing on this amazing natural beauty,
I feel somehow more at peace, and more inclined
to superfluously interject 'wisdom', 'harmony' or
'spirit-guide' into normal conversation.
It is very pretty, though. But not as pretty as Tomahna or Haven, and certainly not pretty enough to compensate for the chanting music.
Jacq: Okay, so he's not bashing it to pieces, but suffice it to say that I enjoyed Serenia quite a bit despite Sam, with raised eyebrows and wide sarcastic eyes, constantly yowling singing along with the chanting and oohing while waving his hands and wiggling his fingers near my face in a fiendish I-am-mocking-the-New-Age-hippies sort of way.
Sam: To be honest, the New Age hippies did most of their own mocking for themselves. Particularly this chick.
"Dude, this is like so not cool. Like, with
the memory chamber not working, how can I
remember where I left my hair dye?"
Jacq: I'd like to make some comment about how you're unaccepting of foreign cultures and how, through my anthropology degree, I have risen above the level of your childish ethnocentricity, but, well, you do sort of have a point.
Sam: It's not a foreign culture! It's a dumb hippy's idea of an idyllic foreign culture.

Case in point: in order to enter the sub-world of Dream, you have to get yourself a spirit-guide, who will be randomly selected for you after a vision quest-like ceremony in the Hall of Spirits. Originally, these are Fire, Air and Water, mainstays of the cack-handed pseudospiritualist. But you need to give an offering to the spirit-guide. Since we turned out to be a child of Wind, this offering was a miniscule piece of fluff from a tree twenty yards away from where the spirit lived. I don't know about you, but if some random person turned up requesting transcendental guidance in exchange for a blade of grass from my own damn front lawn, I would not be impressed.
The wind spirit desires fluff above all things.
Actually, what he desires most is watching you curse
in frustration as the hundredth piece of fluff disintegrates
in your fingers seconds before you reach him.
Jacq: But that's not all you have to do. Once you've appeased the Wind with a fluffy piece of pollen from a (hopefully sacred) poofy pink willow tree, you must meet Zanika in the Memory Chamber, so that she can help you to Dream. Zanika's acting lessons consisted primarily of watching The Matrix over and over and over again.
"Relax, and stare into the all-knowing eyes of the ancestors.
Your spirit guide will meet you on the other side in his true form.
Here, take a cookie. Oh, and don't worry about that vase."
Sam: So, yeah. I overuse the word 'uninspired' horribly, but it's so frequently a propos. Maybe the bulk of the design effort was expended on the fiddly watercourse design and they didn't have time to come up with a decent concept for the final world, but... well, the Myst ages have in the past elegantly avoided the 'sheesh, I could come up with something better than this' syndrome, in concept as well as execution. Maybe there's just an abundance of competent artists clamouring to do this sort of stuff and fewer with new ideas... or maybe they're just doing all they can to pander to the atmospheric-music-lovers. Ahem. Present company excluded, naturally.
Jacq: I admit it. I've been dying to find a confirmed release date for the game's soundtrack.

I must also admit that, while I am perfectly cognizant of just how mockable the whole Serenia/Dream experience, is, I rather enjoyed it. It may have lacked originality in many areas, but Myst isn't just about puzzles and pretty places and plot - it's also about the experience. While I again recognize how easy it is to make fun of the sequence in which you travel to Dream (which, let's be honest, is sort of like a full length Peter Gabriel music video), it gets the job done: it altered my mood a bit, and the puzzles in free floating space were my favorites of the game, despite the laughably mystical instructions given by our spirit guide:
"The ancestors are willing to shape dream for you,
but they need your help. By brushing against each one,
you can impart some of your own energy to it.
This will place each ancestor in closer harmony with
the others. When all are as one, the combined wisdom
will give you the answer you need."
Look, everybody! It's our spirit guide!
(There was a lens flare... and motion blurs!)
Every other quote we've given you so far has been fabricated sarcastic mockery, but the above quote from our Spirit Guide (now in his true form), is an honest to goodness verbatim quote from the game. We had to endure Peter Gabriel's music sequence three times to get it down word for word, but, um, we felt it necessary to do so for some odd reason.
Sam: I wouldn't have objected overly to the dream sequence if it hadn't been for the intro. I mean, it wasn't even a good Peter Gabriel song. And, well, I'm sure Pete was sick of having to keep schtoum for the entirety of the Passion soundtrack, but if you're going to write a song for Myst, it really should be an instrumental one. Or, at the very least, have lyrics pertaining to the game in some way more specific than 'you are going to sleep now.'
And there are bad animators in our dream-sequence.
They keep the production costs down.
But yes, the actual puzzles in the dream-sequence were sensible and logical, not trivial but not unfair, even if I wasn't too keen on the aesthetics of the attune-the-ancestors one. This is frickin' Myst, for crying out loud. If I wanted my puzzles gaudy I'd be playing with a Rubik's Cube.
Jacq: There was one particularly unfair puzzle that I'd like to mention, if only because the unfairness of it all borders on what I would call a bug. If you're not interested in a complete tangential rant, skip to whatever witty and insightful thing Sam says next.

There's a certain door with a color coded lock (that, while fun, is also quite tedious (there's that word again) and time-consuming to open; I do hope, for Sirrus and Achenar's sake, that they never have to get through it very quickly when trying to hide from the Protectors). They give you a clue that you saw an object that contained the code for said door quite awhile back in the game. Well, rather than travel back to that location, which is two Ages away, we just fired up a saved game. Reasonable, right? We thought so. Except that the code for the door is randomized each game. Not at the start of each game, which would make sense, but rather when you first look closely at the code-clue object, which we'd walked right past the first time.

If you're still following me, let me clarify why this is a bad thing: if you use a save game to see the code, then restore your current game, it's not the same code. Your restored game thinks you've never seen the code clue in the first place, and so it doesn't let you through the door. And thus you think you're trying to unlock it wrong. And thus you try several less-logical things. And finally you resort to the hints. And then you see that you did it right to begin with, but it didn't work. So you think you simply overlooked a mistake and you try again, but it still doesn't work, even when following the hints step by step. And so then you put a chair through your very expensive LCD monitor. And that's never, ever good.

Sorry for that rant. I sort of feel better now.

Sort of.
Sam: Nothing witty and insightful to say just yet, but to take up that point: although almost all the visuals had the breathtaking professionalism you'd expect, I did pick up on a few minor graphics bugs - a big gap in the upper reaches of Spire (might have been fixed in the latest patch), and a few instances of water that didn't quite behave properly when shut off in Serenia. Sadly, I think that the costumes worn by the Serenia sisterhood are all too intentional.
Who says it's hard for ethnic minorities
to land serious acting roles? That necklace has
Academy Award written all over it.
Jacq: See? You said something witty after all.

Sigh. This review's going to take almost as long to read as the game took us to solve, so I think I'll start wrapping things up. Overall, I enjoyed Revelation. I've spent a few minutes just now trying to decide which is my favorite in the series, and I can't come up with an answer to that question, but I would definitely say that this one is a contender for the top spot on my list. Its primary strength lies in the story, supported not only by the journals you read and the memories you're shown in this game, but by everything that's transpired before this episode, across both books and games. Really, it's propped up by everything that's come before it, an advantage none of the other games could possibly have to such a degree, but I think that's the primary reason that I enjoyed it so much.
Sam: Dwarf on a giant's shoulders? I'm a little surprised that you're that keen on it now, given that there was a big fallow phase where you stated outright that you really wouldn't care if we abandoned it - I think when we were still totally lost in the Haven jungle and had no idea what to do about Spire.
Jacq: Yes, that's true. And that's why I'm saying the strength lies in the story. I did enjoy some of the puzzles, but mostly puzzles that fell later in the game. Had we not played this together, so that we could take turns solving the odd puzzle that appealed to one of us but not the other, I probably would have abandoned the game at least for a time out of frustration, but I think ultimately the story would have brought me back to play more.
Sam: Hmm... yeah, at that point I think that the most interesting element, Achenar's process of redemption, was yet to appear on the horizon. I was interested as to how that diverged from the basic symmetry of the original - in fact, precisely because of that I was constantly expecting Achenar's journals to be an artful sham that left the brothers still working together, which the Serenia flashbacks obviously encouraged. The body-swapping nonsense I could take or leave, frankly, although that comprised one of the stronger acting moments in the game.

On the one hand it's a bit, well, obvious... the fiery primitivist is able to acknowledge responsibility, the bitter rationalist only gets more tangled up in himself... but the slow reveal was handled adroitly enough that it never came across as being that simplistic. If only they'd managed something similar with the Serenia dreamgroupies.

In closing: seriously recommended, but be ready to overcome quite a lot of irritation. Um, if you're as irritable as I am, anyway.