|Review of Myst Online: Uru Live: Ha, you can only dream about flying.||2007-04-01 00:38:00 GMT
by Kami Harbinger
I'm a fairly serious Myst fan, going back to The Manhole and Myst. The worlds are beautiful, if a little lifeless, and the puzzles are usually good, if hampered by the lack of inventory. They're not nearly as good as Infocom's games; few people can write well enough to make good text-only adventures, so I'm no text-only purist, but Planetfall, The Hitchhiker's Guide to the Galaxy, the Zork series, and the Enchanter trilogy are far beyond anything Cyan has ever done for Myst. But Myst is a solid second-tier adventure game series, and if you care more about beautiful scenery, Myst is the A+ title.
Last week, I downloaded the newly released Myst Online: Uru Live for Mac OS X, and started playing.
I was hoping for a vast world full of puzzles, archeological mysteries, and social interaction in the character of these archeologists. What I got was a rather small Myst game with some minimal multi-player elements.
Before starting play, read the Recommended Info For New Players, watch the video, download and read the manual.
Where to even start? The UI is hideous. For a company that makes such lovely worlds, their user interfaces have usually been pretty bad, but this one is beyond the pale. It looks like something from Windows 3.0, run through a blender stuck on "Uglify". Giant blocky square computer buttons, low-contrast blocky fonts, and random stacks of buttons in a box went out of fashion on Macs and Unix before 1990, and even Windows had mostly caught up by XP in 2000. Second Life's UI is ugly, but at least that looks like a professional, boring computer app, and is easily controlled. The Lounge UI beats the crap out of this, so far that it's not even funny. When I first saw this UI, I was about to just quit playing right then and there, on the basis that the game must suck just as bad. Cyan should fire whomever they put in charge of UI design for Uru Live, it's almost malicious.
The KI (so-called for the ludicrous reason that it has the number 3 in D'ni numerals on the back, which looks like the word "KI"... Now, why is 3 on the back?) is your personal information manager, message device, and camera, just like a cell phone but not as advanced. The photos are small and grainy, and Uru only lets you keep 15 or so, and then you have to delete some to make room for more. It's nice that they can be shared with others or posted on the staticy public image viewers, but it makes note-keeping in the game impossible. In my old Myst games I kept dozens or hundreds of photos, because I snapshot everything and make notes on them, so I can figure stuff out. Now I have to use screenshots, switch out of the full-screen mode, go label them by hand as to where and what they are, and go back. 30+ seconds per photo instead of 5 seconds. Journal entries are also limited, which is insane, with as little space as text consumes, and the massive amounts of notes you need to keep in Myst games; instead, I have to keep it all on paper. [Glyph of Annoyance]
Anyway, YOU MUST HAVE THIS DEVICE TO PLAY. If you don't get your KI, you can't proceed; once you get to the Bevin neighborhood, it's easy enough to find, but making you run around to get your user interface is insane.
The KI also violates one of the most basic commandments of Myst: THOU SHALT HAVE NO INVENTORY. Now, I like inventory, and not just because I'm a gadget-obsessed geek. Inventory massively expands the range of puzzles you can make. As an indie games designer, even in otherwise very low-state adventure games (i.e., no stats, no skills, not even traditional inventory management), I've always made sure there was at least the possibility of setting flags and describing those as inventory items. But okay, that's not how Myst normally works. You fiddle with machines, and that's your only state. You don't carry stuff... Except in Uru Live, where you can't proceed, or communicate, if you don't have your KI, and there's a side-quest based on collecting markers in your KI.
The user interface is hard to use at first; mouse in the left hand, arrow keys under the right, but now you can't type to anyone without moving your right hand back to home position. Hit F4 to open the options panel, click Navigation, then Advanced, then Key Map, and you can set the keys to something sane (I use WASD, Q/E for sidestepping, space to jump, and / to activate chat--your preferences may vary). There's a long list of emote commands somewhere online, which you might want to print out. At the very least, memorize that F1 switches first/third person view, F2 activates your KI, F3 opens your Relto book, F4 opens the options panel. You'll use those a lot.
The KI interface is totally different from the client UI, and while it's complicated and tedious to use, it's attractive enough, sort of in-genre, and almost usable. First thing, hit F2 a couple times until you see a full screen display, then click the gears icon, and change the chat fade duration to maximum. Now your list of nearby people won't vanish on you.
There's a long backstory to the D'ni civilization's rise and fall, which is all in the game in various notebooks you can read, and most of it's pretty well-written and interesting stuff. Despite being a graphical adventure game, Myst has always done its most interesting stuff in text, and this one is no exception. You'd get 90% of the content in a pure text adventure.
As with all Myst games, the world is divided into Ages, pocket universes which are created by and teleported to by linking books. Earth, aka "D'ni" (pronounced "Dunny") is itself an Age. Normally, when you touch a linking book page, you teleport to that Age and the book stays behind.
One unusual element in Uru Live is a teeny-tiny little island Age, Relto, that you have your own private instance of, and you carry the book for it with you even when you teleport through it (unlike any other linking book ever written). This is especially important because you will reach down to your belt and link back to Relto if you're in danger (say, plummeting to your doom in lava pits). You can't ever be hurt in Uru Live. In some ways this is a tragic flaw, because many areas would be quite creepy and exciting if there could be some terrible creatures out there, or deathtraps... But no, one of the other commandments of Myst is THOU SHALT NOT BE HARMED. So instead it's all pretty boring. You can't even be eaten by a Grue!
You will also have private instances of most of the Ages, and there are shared multiple-instance Ages like your Bevin (neighborhood). It is possible to bring other people to your private instances, but mostly you'll be in them alone. Absolutely, terribly, soul-crushingly alone.
The first major quest in Uru Live is "The Journey". Yeesha, the daughter of Atrus and Catherine from Myst and Riven, has left behind clues that lead you through a series of worlds, seeing some of the underbelly of D'ni civilization, with the intention of bringing you into her faction; it's not clear yet what her plans are (she's never met in person, only recorded holograms of her), but they involve the inhuman Bahro and the D'ni "Least" slave caste. Certainly her plans conflict with those of the D'ni Restoration Council (DRC), which seems to want to turn the Ages into a "Dunnyland" theme park...
The Cleft is a very small and simple Age. There's a desert, with the bones of impossibly large animals, a crashed ship, a trailer home with an old man who listens to Peter Gabriel, and a chasm in the ground... Naturally, the adventure is always in a hole in the ground.
Setting the pattern for the following Journey Ages, you'll have to wander around, solving puzzles, in order to reach and touch seven "Journey Cloths" tacked to the walls. When you've touched all seven, you can open a big metal door...
The Cleft was trivial to finish, and most of the seven Journey Cloths were easily located. Basically any large object, go check out all sides of it. "Oh, there's a big landmark object in the desert, I bet there's a cloth on it!"
After finishing the Cleft, you have to subscribe to proceed to anything interesting.
On the bright side, once you pay, you can change your appearance and clothing. While you're customizing yourself, be sure to hit the camera icon to save a better mugshot for the character selection screen.
I'm not going to spoil anything for you, just summarize and review the following Ages. I could insert a bunch of my own screenshots here, but the official screenshots are just as good and don't use my bandwidth. The only caveat is that most of those screenshots show multiple people. You will never see that.
As adventure game quests go, it's okay. I've played better, but I've played worse. By normal Myst standards, it's much too small and easy.
Gahreesen is a continuation of the facility where you first picked up your KI. Now there's another section open, and from there you can get outside and over to a prison facility... Though most of the gadgetry there can't be turned on, which is rather lame. But you can't complete the Age just yet. You'll have to take a break and go on to the next Age.
Teledahn is a big industrial facility in the middle of a mushroom-infested swamp. Once you get the machinery working, and figure out how to access a flooded area, you can finish it off, and you will be able to finish Gahreesen. This is by far my favorite of the Ages. The machinery's satisfying and logical to work with, Sharper's journal is a treasure trove of information about the Age and gossip about the DRC's internal politics (just don't let him catch you reading it!), all of the clues you need are in Teledahn or in Ages linked from it. I've even been able to get a good sighting of the Shroomie sea monster. I wish there was even more here, and more in this style.
Eder Gira is a live volcano, with a fun but very, very easy steam-based puzzle, and lots of plummeting towards lava and panic-linking back to Relto. Then there's the waterfall... With a cave behind it. Has there ever, once, been a waterfall in an adventure game without a cave behind it? That would be a surprising, mysterious location. "Come see the waterfall that just drowns and crushes you! No cliché hidden caves!" The rest of it requires finding a light source... This being Myst, you can't just pick up a torch from the ground, LOOK IT'S RIGHT THERE, go light it on fire in the lava, and come back in. No, that would require the demon inventory. The only solution they implemented involves a very subtle effect in the linked Age, Eder Kemo. Eder Kemo is a lush garden Age, with giant black scorpion-slug things that luckily leave you alone. Nnnnggh. I hate bugs. I REALLY hate big bugs. Other than my desire to hose it down with DDT, Eder Kemo's lovely and has more backstory about the D'ni, but aside from one impossibly hard and un-Myst-like platform-jumping problem, doesn't have any puzzles except your light source problem. There's a giant levitating, rotating stone obelisk, but you can't do anything with it. Who makes a giant levitating, rotating stone obelisk that doesn't do anything? Once you get back to Eder Gira, there's no more puzzles, just go turn on lights and touch Journey Cloths. [Glyph of Boredom] Very lame Age, all things considered.
Kadish sucked. Kadish is almost the archetype of the worst possible puzzle design imaginable. The answers to all of the puzzles are in the temple, so you go copy down all the diagrams, then replicate them in Kadish, with no way to figure them out from local clues or by experimentation, and no feedback to tell you if you're getting close or not until something unlocks. Most of the scenery is gigantic curving bark walls, or oppressive stone chambers. The final piece of backstory at the end is interesting, and clearing the Journey was good, but I want the couple hours of my life that I wasted in Kadish back. This Age is a crime against game design.
And that's it. There's a bit more running around to do, and you can return to the Cleft and pick up a couple of new shirts and some goggles. They're adding more content, but it's very slow growth. As of this writing, there are two smaller Ages with one puzzle each, and two new "pod" Ages, with nothing you can do in them except look out the windows at the wildlife.
The whole Journey took me 3 nights of playing to complete. Maybe 15 hours, including exploring every inch of D'ni Ae'gura. That's not what I consider a complete game. My own goal for "short story" single-player games is 20 hours, a long-form single-player game should take 40-80 hours, and an MMO like this should be able to keep you occupied for several hours a day, every day, for as long as the game is supported.
You can play Final Fantasy XI or World of Warcraft forever, essentially, and never see all of it. Uru Live being released with just this one quest is like if FFXI was released with only Hume Warriors, a level cap of 10, and only Sandoria (the most boring and cliché-fantasy of the cities) and the nearby field.
Actually, there'd be more to do in that mini-FFXI, because at least you could make parties and big combat alliances to fight the tougher monsters, or fish, craft, work the market at the auction house, complete quests for townsfolk, and gamble at player-run casinos (before I quit FFXI, when I had hit the "bored of level-grinding" phase, I used to run a casino in an empty house in Windurst, and was trying to get some chat hookers to set up shop next to me, for better business for both of us). There's no comparison at all to Second Life, which I expect I'll be in (or in its replacement) for the rest of my life, just as I expect I'll be on the Web (or on its replacement) for the rest of my life.
In the closet in your Relto, you get a few sliders for how old or fat you look, and a rather minimal amount of clothing. Men get: 10 hair styles, 8 beard styles, 3 glasses, 14 shirts (4 designs have some variations in material), 5 few pants (3 with variations), 3 gloves, and 4 shoes (no variations, no boots!). Most of the clothes can be color-tinted. Women get: 15 hair styles, 6 kinds of jewelry (why don't guys get bling? UNFAIR!), 10 shirts (3 with variations), 3 gloves and a nail polish color, 6 pants (4 with variations, including pajama bottoms, which is... creepy), and 4 shoes and a toenail polish color (again, no boots, no heels). There's no slider for breast/butt size for women, so everyone is a C-cup.
The hair and skin can be tinted, but only within mere human ranges. I dislike being limited to human skin colors, because I'm not human. In SL, my current skin is a snow crash static pattern. Last month, it was a repeated fractal pattern. Tomorrow, it might be something else. The lack of height and build sliders beyond how fat or thin you are, relative to some generic pudgy academic body, is very limiting. I don't look like that. Most people don't look like that. Even with color-tinting, it's a really depressingly small wardrobe. I have hundreds of t-shirts in SL, and quite a few good suits and nightclub clothes. Why can't I even have a suit? My Real Life persona doesn't wear them, but in SL I like wearing a sharp suit when I'm working and doing business with people, then change to something else for play time. And how are Nekojin or Kitsune or Nosferatu or cyborgs supposed to live in a world that makes them look like Humans, which they so clearly are not? Human supremacist racist oppression is what that is.
On the bright side, you do get some additional clothes as you explore. A hard hat here, a few shirts and goggles there, it adds up a bit. Good explorers can be identified by their clothes, just as in Second Life, you can identify newbies by their newbie outfits and oldbies by their increasingly freakish or realistic appearances. But all Uru avs are pretty much alike, and don't even have nametags floating above their heads; you have to mouse over them to see who they are.
Visiting the city of D'ni Ae'gura is an odd experience. The environment is huge, and beautiful-looking... But most of it is inaccessible, blocked off by traffic barriers until/unless the DRC opens them up (i.e., as Cyan adds more content). So you're really wandering around a dozen streets and buildings, at most. There are typically 10-20 people present, but it's eerily silent.
I've come to realize that Uru Live is populated primarily by massively introverted people. Almost nobody talks, they turn and run away when confronted by the horror of another person. Most people were pretty friendly if you asked for help, but they didn't shout spoilers out. So they're not antisocial, they're just totally withdrawn, and behave as if this was still a single-player game. Shockingly, there are griefers, or at least people being dicks, in D'ni Ae'gura. Who's so pathetic they grief in Myst?
There's occasionally some newbies in the dedicated helper Bevins, but rarely very many helpers; both times I was there, there was no help. The city was much more useful. There's supposedly some regular events, but I can't hold out any hope for them to be better at this point.
There are some forums and podcasts about Uru Live. Sadly, these tend to be pretty dull. A handful of people do some creative writing about the world, which is great; it's tragic that that creative ability can't go into the world as more content, but at least they're creating something, somewhere, rather than being mere consumer sheep like most Uru players. Mostly, though, they obsess about the actions of the DRC, who are the sole source of new stuff in their world. Mentions of user-generated content or Second Life bring out responses of absolute terror and fear: "Nonononono, we're nothing like those Second Life people! We don't want user-generated content, because those people will just make flying penises!" It would be funny, if it wasn't so very sad.
Back in D'ni Ae'gura, you'll see the odd sight of people trying to jump on boxes and up walls, just for something to do. Sometimes this even works; whether by bug or intent, you can get yourself in some weird places. This doesn't help you explore, any, it's just something to do to relieve the unbearable boredom. Witness, for example, the "art" of arranging traffic cones: Conehenge! That's... Great Cthulhu, that is sad. It's horrific that this is just about the most creative and awesome thing you can do in Uru.
Nobody visits my Bevin, except me. Apparently there's 20 people sharing it, and yet the recent visitors list is just Kami Harbinger, over and over as I pass through. I saw someone there once, early on. He immediately linked out, perhaps to avoid talking to me. He's never been back. There's a tabletop game of some kind, Heek, which needs more than 1 player. I may never learn how to play this game. There's a bright inflated beachball down there, too, but playing soccer by yourself isn't much fun.
There's a photo-journal Kiddofspeed - GHOST TOWN - Chernobyl Pictures - Elena's Motorcyle Ride through Chernobyl. The rapidly-decaying, slightly-radioactive city abandoned and empty, reminds me of everything in Myst. It's an unbearably sad, lonely place. Not because nobody's there at all, but because nobody's together, ever.
SL lags to death at 40 people on old sims (2 sims per server), and just over 100 on new sims (4 sims per server). Uru says it supports 40, but really gets painful, seconds of lag between stuttering moves, after 25 or so. They don't tell you exactly what servers you're using, but I would expect that D'ni Ae'gura is on its own server, and they clearly move users between servers as you travel between Ages. I don't think it's scaling very well at all.
As I was writing this article, I wanted to check some facts in Uru... But I couldn't. The system's down. Found this on the forums:
It went down early Sat morning, prime playing time. Here it is late Sat evening, still not fixed, might not be for days. If you ever feel the need to complain about Second Life's occasional database issues which last for a few hours, read that again.
There are many emotes in chat, like /dance, /wave, and /doh. /look tells you the name of the Age, and a silly bit about exits, as if it was a text adventure... And then there's this, the most depressing emote I have ever seen in my life:
... But ... I can fly. Really.
I'm a Second Life avatar. Flight is one of my most basic abilities, like cam-panning and IMing. I can live with limited teleportation, but a world without flight terrifies and depresses me. I don't care how beautiful your world is, if you can't fly, you're a prisoner. I can understand that a game designer might take that ability out to make level design easier, or because mere humans can't fly, but to then mock you for even trying is unspeakably rotten. I can't conceive what kind of sick, twisted mind would write such a thing. I had to go fly around SL for a while to wash that horror out of my brain.
When I compare Uru Live to Second Life, I just feel sad for Cyan, and then go get some beer and visit my favorite dive bar in SL to cheer up. Sure, there's no quest in SL, no overarching vision, and except in a few themed regions, everything's a mess of what people made for themselves mushed up against each other. And that's what's GLORIOUS about it. It's everything wonderful and terrible in the human and transhuman condition, packed together like Neapolitan ice cream, something tasty for everyone. Political offices next door to strip clubs next door to gun shops next door to shops selling tiny Kirby avatars. There's casinos and all-day-all-night dance parties with live DJs. There's an infinite variety of clothing and skins to choose from or create for yourself, or you could buy or make a total replacement avatar like the furries do.
Cyan says that "Uru" means "deep", as in the cavern city, but also "U-R-U" in retarded teenager l33tspeak, as in "You Are You". Linden Lab says "Your World, Your Imagination". Cyan wants you to be stuck in the body you were born with (or for many of us, one that's much dumpier and more boring), and stuck in a world they create and control. I want to choose the body I live in and create the world I inhabit.
Then I exit from the dank, dark, lonely caverns of D'ni, blink at the light from the Linden sun, and truly appreciate my Second Life. There are things I want in SL now, but I want them in SL, not in the crippled solitary confinement of Uru Live.
The greatest consequence of my playing Uru Live is that I'm inspired again. Driven, even. I know we can do better in our world than they can in theirs; we can all create stuff, we all have far more power and better tools than anyone at Cyan does. All their users can do is stack traffic cones. So I'm back at work building puzzle gadgets.
In the days and weeks to come, I'm going to be adding a section to my Shoppe that sells scripted devices and in-SL routers and PHP web services for persisting adventure information. I'm also going to post the background and pencil-and-paper RPG rules for my World of the Eternal Sun science-fantasy setting, which I'll be using as the source for some of my adventure areas, but most of the devices will be reusable in any setting.
If that sounds interesting to you, I suggest that first, you go try out the demo of Myst Online: Uru Live, and play through the Cleft, at least. You don't have to sign up, just try it out and see what an attractive, well-designed puzzle area looks like. If you didn't grow up with Infocom's games, download and play Zork for free, and see what really top-notch adventure design is like. Then start thinking about making stuff of your own. Don't steal anything from Myst, I want us to do better than that.
Robyn Miller has written a few times in his blog about Second Life: Pattern Languages in the Cyberverse and Selenitic Second Life. His claim is that Second Life has potential, but there's nobody dictating anything, so there's no theme, and therefore "it is not an evolutionary design, it is cancerous growth." Yes, he actually compared SL, the SL created by the users, to cancer.
I say instead that our lack of theme, our lack of central control, makes us mighty. It means there's not just one small team of brains creating the world, there are thousands, tens of thousands. We're not cancerous, we're an ecosystem. Evolutionary competition will drive people towards the interesting areas and away from the boring areas, and we'll be able to make suggestions and improve each other.
Copyright © 2007 by Kami Harbinger. All Rights Reserved.
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