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Saturday, January 10, 2004

Do You Uru?

This is a [long and boring, as it turns out] review of the game Uru, which is one of the sequels to Myst, launched ten years (!) ago. We just finished playing it last night.

First, a recap for the innocent.

Myst was the first game in the series, revolutionary in its day for its beautiful, realistically-rendered graphics. It was also unusual in that it did not involve either killing or dying, and in fact you were never sure, until the very end, exactly what you were doing there. This was my favorite thing about Myst: the object of the game is to discover the object of the game. In that respect, it was more like a novel than a game---a novel in which you had to solve a puzzle in order to get to the next chapter. This was brilliant, but it did have the flaw that, once past the first part, it was more puzzle than novel.

In Myst, you encounter the dysfunctional family of Atrus. Atrus is (almost) the last of the D'ni, a race of people who have learned the art of creating worlds (which they call Ages, confusingly) by writing books called "linking books". You find several of these as you wander around the island of Myst, and use them to travel to the other Ages. Atrus has two sons, Sirrus and Achenar, whom he mistrusts.

At the end of the game (assuming you do it right), you meet Atrus himself. In the second game, Riven, Atrus sends you on an explicit mission: to trick and entrap Atrus's mad father, Gehn, and rescue Atrus's wife, Catherine, whom Gehn has imprisoned. In the third game, Exile, you are visiting Atrus and Catherine when a man appears through a linking book, steals the new book Atrus is working on (creating a new Age for the D'ni to live in) and escapes through another book. You go after him, discovering that he's Saavedro, a man who thinks his world was destroyed by Atrus's sons. He's quite, quite mad, and violent, and he's had 20 years alone to plot revenge. You have to get the book back from him and then do something with him.

Myst had three endings that I remember, two of them losing endings. Riven had several losing endings. Exile has two winning endings and several losing ones, but only one of the winning endings is the "right" one. One of the losing endings has you whacked with a hammer, which was the only real violence in the games. As far as I know,

Now, for Uru. Uru is a vast improvement on the other games as far as looks go. Myst was "just" a slide show, and Riven a more beautiful slide show, in Exile you got to pan from side to side or up and down, as if you were standing in one spot and moving your head. All of these games are in "first person", that is, you see the environment as you would if you were really walking through it.

In Uru, you can create a character for yourself, choosing from a number of different skin and hair colors, hair and clothing styles, and facial features. You then are able to see this character walking around and interacting with the environment via a "third person" view, very much like a movie camera. There's also a first person mode you can switch to if you want to see something up close.

This has good and bad aspects. Firstly, of course, you get a sense of a real three-dimensional environment (in the other games you're trying to look at a 3-D place through a 2-D screen); this adds greatly to the feeling of reality of the world, but of course in reality you don't watch yourself do things, so that detracts from the immersive experience. There's a lot more physical action in this game than in previous ones. You have to navigate narrow walkways and jump from place to place, and it's almost impossible to do that through the first person view, the way they have set it up (you can't see your feet).

But another annoyance of this mode is the way the view changes. Sometimes, when your character turns around, the viewpoint shifts with it; sometimes it doesn't. When it doesn't, you have to go stomping all over the room to see if you can get a glimpse of what you're looking for. But even worse is the fact that sometimes the camera viewpoint shifts rapidly from the back of your character to the front. This can be dizzying, especially if it happens in a spot where you have to fiddle to get your guy in a position to jump (it was bad enough in the other games, fiddling to get the exact pixel you need to click to manipulate something). Then the point of view swirls back and forth, and can be very annoying, especially when your boyfriend is controlling the character and insists on doing it several times in a row.

Another annoyance is the inconsistency in what your character can do. Sometimes he can leap off short cliffs in a single bound, and sometimes he can't even get past a flimsy waist-high barrier. Very annoying.

There is one logical improvement in the game: in the previous games, using a linking book meant it dropped to the floor once you had vanished to the linked Age. This meant that whenever you went somewhere, you'd better carry a linking book back to the Age you came from, if you wanted to return, and then that book of course would be dropped and remain in the other Age when you did. In Uru, you have a "refuge" Age to return to, and the linking book to that Age is always permanently attached to your belt. When you link, you take the book with you. This is what you use when you've stupidly slipped into boiling lava or fallen off a cliff. You avoid dying that way, although getting back to where you were can be kind of tedious, due to loading time (the computer we used is barely adequate to the game; Niles was slightly disappointed he didn't have to buy a new computer to play the game).

The puzzles were also disappointing. When playing Myst, I think we had to consult a "cheat" guide once, and that turned out to be because we couldn't see something in the dark (these games can be very dark). I think we did it once or twice in Riven. But we had to constantly look up solutions in Uru. I'm not sure if this is because the puzzles were harder in Myst, if we're just older and more impatient, or because the puzzles were not very rational.

Puzzles in the Myst series are generally one of two types: those requiring a certain minimum level of mechanical intuition (machines driven by water or steam power are very common in the games), and those whose solution is suggested by something else in the game---a journal entry or a painting or inscription. The latter type of puzzle suggests that the D'ni universe is filled both with elaborate locks, and owners who cannot remember the combination and need to write down cryptic reminders. However, since anyone who comes across the reminders can figure out the combination, it also suggests that the average D'ni wasn't very smart.

Anyway, it's the latter type of puzzle that was most frustrating, since their solutions in Uru were often not at all intuitive. In one puzzle we solved most of it, but the final piece involved doing something we would never have thought of in a million years. We finally had to look at a cheat guide. Another puzzle was nearly as bad in that respect, but was made worse by the fact that the form of the puzzle allowed for so many more fun and logical puzzles!

But the really disappointing thing about Uru is the story. There really isn't one. There is no goal at all to the game. In Myst the object was to figure out the object---in Uru there doesn't seem to be an object. You merely solve a given number of puzzles and you're done. Oh, there's a bit of stage business at the end to suggest that you've actually achieved something, but you haven't.

Part of this is because Uru is only the first part of what is supposed to be an on-line game. Several aspects of the game---some of the Ages you link to, the journals you read, etc---are only really useful (potentially) in the on-line version. But, of course, you don't know for sure which those are, so you have to poke through everything.

An on-line version of the game does not appeal to me at all. When Myst came out, it was criticized for having too little interaction with other characters. I hate that in a game; I don't much like interacting with people in real life. In real life there are things you should not do (like taking something from someone, or wandering around their home uninvited), and yet in some games that's exactly what you're supposed to do. Phooey.

In Uru you come across the detritus of the "D'ni Research Corporation", who have left research notes (scrawled in grade school notebooks, just like I do my scientific work, sure) and orange traffic cones and sawhorses scattered about. I feel like they're trespassing on my turf. I prefer to think of myself wandering through the games as a lone Indiana Jones-type explorer, not as part of a huge corporation with reports to write and budget items to justify (I get enough of that when I'm working).

Then there's Atrus's daughter, Yeesha. Her brothers were crazy, her grandpa was crazy, and she doesn't seem too stable either. Poor Atrus. You get to hear recorded messages from her, wittering on about the big bad D'ni, and how they were very very mean to the non-D'ni, the people living in the Ages they created/found, the "least", as Yeesha calls them. Yeesha also brags vaguely about how she was such a good writer of linking books, a lot better than those stupid old D'ni Guildmasters. At the end of the game, Yeesha says that "now the least will become great". And then they'll find some different "least", and start oppressing them, thus continuing the cycle of life. The design of the game includes a lot of faux-Native American iconography, just to make sure you get it. Sheesh, Yeesha.

We never got our Relto tree to grow, despite the rain. Don't know what we were supposed to do.

In short, Uru was not a very satisfying installment in the (I presume) series, and I don't think much of the idea of the on-line, communal game (for which there will be a monthly fee, natch).

But I already miss playing it.

My favorite game in the series is Riven. I worship Riven. I want to live in Riven (except it was destroyed at the end of the game). The non-mechanical puzzles in Riven seemed organic to the created world. Those puzzles usually involved the religion or culture of the natives, and so did not seem as artificial and contrived as many of the puzzles in the other games.

More than that, the world was beautifully realized. The Riven Age was a series of five sunny desert islands. One island contained a sacred grove with astonishing plants, including some peaceful, glowing mushrooms. It was nice, after wandering around the hot, barren island, to come into that grove. I wanted to stay there forever, and even after completing the game I used to go in sometimes and wander around.

And the more artificial objects---Gehn's workshop things, for example---still have a rough-hewn, primitive look to them, which matches the look of the native areas of the island. I like this look so well that I now judge potential decorative items and furniture by it. "That's Riven," I'll say when looking at furniture. "Well, it's pretty, but I wouldn't want it. Not Riven." If I had a tremendous amount of dough, I'd do a whole house in Riven. For right now, I can't even afford furniture, Riven or not. The best I can do is buy doodads. Recently, I found some Rivenish pottery. Turns out it's a whole style, called raku pottery. Here's an example. Now that's Riven. (Actually, this is Riven, in a slideshow. Don't read the captions! There are spoilers.)

Maybe it's time to go back.