Beyond comics, hypermedia appears to be the ultimate hybrid medium, able to incorporate all the other mediums. The immersive hypermedia environment of Myst came out in 1994 and was a smashing success in the computer game world. It currently is one of the all-time best-selling CD-ROM games. In addition, many people have noted that it opened up a new type of storytelling. As Jon Carroll states, Myst was the “first interactive artifact to suggest that a new art form may well be plausible, a kind of puzzle box inside a novel inside a painting — only with music. Or something” (”Guerillas,” 1). A fun and frustrating aspect of Myst is that it is the intertwining of a story and a game. To experience the story you have to play the game - the two go hand in hand. For those who want to treat Myst solely as a multimedia novel of sorts, the puzzle traits of the piece may get in the way and keep the reader from reading. And if you want to treat it as a game and only a game, the story can distract the player from the puzzles, keeping the player from zipping through and winning the game. For Myst, I believe both views are valid, but games in general do not necessarily tell a story.
The Myst story grand was originally inspired by Jules Verne’s Mysterious Island. Like the protagonists in Verne’s novel, the reader/player of Myst is stranded on an island that is full of haunting enchantments just waiting to be discovered. Myst does something in a very different and interesting way though. Ideally, while reading Mysterious Island, the reader is swept into this fantastic world of adventure, piggybacking on the shoulders of the protagonists as they discover the wonders of the island. Myst pays homage to the power of books to suck you into their worlds by framing the worlds you explore within books themselves. In fact, the storyline reveals that the worlds you are walking around in have been created by someone through a special form of writing. The act of writing is treated as an act of creation in this story. You place your hand on the book page and you are literally in the world of the book, fully experiencing it.
This homage to another medium also shows a characteristic of Myst. It borrows heavily on the mediums of literature, graphic design and film. The creators of hypermedia are in the process of discovering how to use the medium to its best advantage. As David Miles notes, Myst is in accordance with Marshall McLuhan’s fourth law of media: the initial development of a new medium will retrieve forms from prior mediums (4). So, the creators of Myst are retrieving conventions and forms from literature, film and graphic design, and combining them together within the newer hypermedia on a CD-ROM. Eventually, the medium’s unique nature will be fully realized, but currently we are going to continue seeing media retrievals resonating through hypermedia. Myst emerges from this exciting (and possibly awkward) stage in the development of hypermedia.
This new medium of hypermedia does create new possibilities for storytelling. As George Landow notes, hypertext is composed of words, images and sounds linked by multiple paths in an open-ended perpetually unfinished form (3). The “reader” is allowed to explore the range of possibilities within the narrative of Myst (there are several endings to Myst). I believe this overt multiplicity brings a new aura to a piece of art. The “reader’s” experience has a presence in time and space. It is your reading that opens the meaning of the story. You puzzle it out as quickly or as carefully as you can or wish. While there may be millions of copies of Myst, your reading has a unique sense of time and space to it. You have to puzzle it out your way, which may be by buying a book that gives you clues to the puzzles, or talking to friends about how they are “playing” through the story, or going on-line for hints and cheats, or working it out solely by yourself. Granted this aura is not a fixed one as Benjamin originally intended. Instead, it is a performative one that occurs and resonates with the “reader’s” experience and exploration of the story.
The term, “immersive environment,” is how some people are presently describing the worlds of the CD-ROM medium of Myst (Carroll, “(D)Riven,” 3). These immersive environments are being talked about as being beyond a game and a novel. They are worlds in which a reader can, and is supposed to, get lost. To enter into these worlds, you need a computer with the capabilities to run the color graphics, video and sound of the immersive environment. It is often recommended that you enter these immersive environments in a darkened room (so the graphics are at their best clarity) and to have a set of stereo speakers to take full advantage of the surround sound effects of the piece. So, if you hear a sound from your left speaker, it means there is something over to the left of the screen shot at which you are currently looking.
The experience of exploring these immersive environments can be described in a variety of ways. First, there are the two levels of experience. In meat space, you are more than likely sitting at your desk (in the dark remember) with your computer on. You are looking at the various “places” the three dimensional graphics are representing for you while music and ambient noises are playing from your speakers. You are pointing and clicking with your mouse (which guides a little hand icon about the “scene” you are viewing) to go to adjoining “places”, or to manipulate an object, or to look more closely at something else within the scene. One strategy is to point and click as much as possible all over the screen to see what does and/or does not happen (this is a trick of one who is starting to become frustrated by the lack of progress in the story, or just simply wants to solve the puzzles and win the game).
The above is a fairly accurate description of how you look while you’re “in” this world. To be fair, the other level of the experience needs to be described; succinctly put, you actually feel like you are in the world. Oh sure, you can self-reflexively realize that you are just sitting at your desk, but you definitely respond to what you see and hear in this world. You dissolve from the level of pointing and clicking, looking at your screen and listening to your speakers. You begin to walk through the woods, listening to a gentle breeze rustle through the forest, and the distant sound of water lapping on a not too far off shore. You hear a noise off to your left. Startled, you quickly turn and see a slightly creepy looking brick building with stairs leading down into the dark. Bravely, you start down the stairs. There are a few stark lights above, but you walk from shadow to shadow. The pipes creak and groan around you. Water drips. Just the kind of place that a person might run into something you would rather not. You hastily beat a retreat back up and out into the woods. Freed from the claustrophobic dungeon you bask in the wind and sunshine.
That is what it can feel like in these immersive environments, even though you’ve just been sitting at your desk in the dark. Granted, books whisk you away to the worlds they describe, but in these immersive environments, you are not only the reader, but the protagonist as well. The actions of the story are not just having an effect on the characters, they have an effect on you. You don’t die in Myst, but you can get trapped forever (in a lot of games, you can die in a lot of ways). If you’re a gamer, this just means you’ve lost; you start over from your last saving point (in these environments, there are no pages to place a bookmark, so you save your progress as you go). If you’re into the story, you’re stuck, so the story has had a rather unfortunate ending. You can try again for a more satisfying ending though. And you can get stumped by the puzzles, so that the story/game is no longer progressing. You have to figure the mysterious story out within the world itself (like Sherlock Holmes) or you get a little outside help (from a clue or hint book, or web pages with clues or cheats, or a friend who has already experienced the story of this environment). As in the playground game of tag, in this immersive environment, you are it.
The mysterious experience of the story of Myst illustrates the characteristics of Deleuze’s paradox of pure becoming. The meaning is fixed, but it is open. You get a sense of the potentially “infinite identity of both directions and sense at the same time” (2). The audience gets “two much and not enough”(2). The medium allows for a multitude of possibilities, but it makes it hard to construct a narrative that can evoke responses. Instead, the “readers” develops the story as they go. But the various possibilities can leave some gaps in the narrative since it is hard for a creator to second-guess every possible action that audience may want to take.
So, you fill in the storyline as you figure out the mystery. Hayden White notes that a general characteristic of narrative is to fill in the gaps and discontinuities of events (9). This is a weakness of hypertext - gaps abound, disrupting the story. Even the creators of Myst admit that its story does not make sense at times (Carroll, “(D)Riven,” 2). Another characteristic of narrative is the desire for a conclusion. Myst has several endings, but as Landow points out, hypertext can be “perpetually unfinished” (3). Even so, for readers to follow the story, they are expecting an end point of some sort (110). There are several ways to deal with this. One, it can be left infinitely and rhizomatically open like the hypertextual experience of the web. Two, there can be several endings. Three, the narrative can be multilinear in that your actions from the beginning of interaction with the narrative to the end all have consequences on how the story will end.
The second option is the easy way out. The creators simply have a losing and winning ending to the game. The first option is the most pure realization of a post-structural theory of reading that grows (and regresses) infinitely. The third is the most interesting, and is the one attempted in Myst. With this option, the creator constructs a variety of narrative paths that are braided together, crossing, diverging and influencing all the other paths. Thus, the “reader’s” choices are prescribed, but each choice helps to build the narrative towards a conclusion(s). In this way, the”player” is not hurt by missing a clue. The story still progresses, just in a different path. Through your choices, you can travel on a variety of the paths and puzzle out the story. So, in reality, one reading can be different than another, and you can get to an end without having “read” all of the story.
The potential for many varied “readings” of this hypertextual medium can be seen as performative in that each reading is different from any other. Peggy Phelan notes that a performance cannot be reproduced; it can be repeated, but then it is a different production (Unmarked 146). So, each reading of Myst is not a reproduction of another reading. Instead, it is a re-experiencing of the storyline. The performative nature of this computer-bound medium has led Brenda Laurel to look at computers as theatre. For Laurel, computers have the “capacity to represent action in which humans [can] participate” (1). The “readers” are performers within the hypertextual narrative, shaping the actions and outcomes by the choices they make. You perform the story by participating in the narrative, puzzling and playing through the process. As Johan Huizinga notes in Homo Ludens, playing is one of our most significant functions (1). And it is playful in the Derridean sense that you are performing within a “‘coded’ or iterable” context (that of the creator’s constraints on your choices) (Margins …, 326). So, while you play, and may do something different from one time to the next within the story, it is also within an iterable context.
This context is the immersive environment of Myst. A hypertextual experience in which you point and click at various spots on the screen that may, or may not, take you to another screen shot in which you can point and click your way through onto the next one. What is interesting about the hypertextuality of Myst is the context helps to hide the links and smooth out your experience much more than in a web page. For the most part, when you are on the web you see a page of highlighted words and images and you click, and then you see another page with words and images. It has the feel of sifting through a card catalog; you are seeing a lot of information that is connected by the links.
In Myst, the graphics, music and ambient sound are there to help you suspend your disbelief and go into the world. You don’t “see” the links. Instead, you see a stairway and you point and click on the stairway to start climbing up it. The world of Myst holds together on a literal level, because the creators are trying to offer you the best opportunity to immerse yourself in this world. With hypertext, they could have made each link a visual and aural non sequitur, each click taking you somewhere that has no direct visual or aural relation to the preceding screen shot. This would be quite jarring and confusing, making it much harder to immerse yourself. So, the world of Myst behaves in a physical way: gravity works, you walk around, you do not jump off and fly away, you do not walk through walls, etc.
This illusion is sometimes broken apart by the urge to go somewhere on the screen and have your clicks garner no response. The creators have made a finite world, even with all of their attention to detail in this immersive environment, in which there are invisible walls. You may want to jump into the water, but since the storyline does not progress that way, you aren’t able to do so. Nothing happens. You may want to be able to explore everywhere and everything you see, but there are borders and edges to this world. Obversely, the minute details can sometimes disable the illusion they are meant to uphold. You can look up and see a chandelier hanging from the ceiling, and you want to go up there and you can’t. It really has nothing to do with the story, but it is a detail meant to flesh out the environment. Instead, it can lead you to think of your immersion abstractly. Why does the world have to be so literal? Why can’t you walk through walls, or climb up the hill instead of the stairs? Why can’t you go in any direction and have there be no visible end? Why can’t you click anywhere on the screen and have something happen? The borders and details are what allow you to immerse yourself in this world and also get frustrated by it.
As a “reader” of Myst, you are constantly made aware of the hypertext medium on another level as well. The story does not progress unless you can puzzle through it. Parts of the story do not make sense, and the only way to make full sense of them is to read the books. As Richard Shiff has written, “The meanings of the mediums evolve as a result of their interactions” with other mediums(8). Meaning in Myst comes out of the association and interaction of the three mediums. To experience the story grand of Myst, the audience needs to engage each medium.
The juxtaposition of the mediums (hypertext, novel and comic) through the story grand helps to show the strengths and weaknesses of a hypermedia CD-ROM. In Myst, the creators tried to use narrative to create the illusion of free will for the “reader” (Carroll, “(D)Riven,” 2). But then it was hard to mix the story of the reader and the story of the narrative. In hypertext, it’s hard to tell a story. The non-linearity makes it difficult for the creators to actually build a narrative that can evoke emotional responses (Carroll, “(D)Riven,” 4). Too much of a structuring narrative would limit the possibilities. Instead, the novels serve as a way to structure the narrative that the interactive, hypermedia CD-ROMs do not allow. The strength of the CD-ROM is also its weakness. Having readers be such an integral part of the story makes it hard to dictate their interactions with the piece. So, the story has to be left open and fluid, instead of fixed and directed. It is a new way of “writing” and “reading” to be sure.
Indeed, the hypertextual form of Myst makes manifest a post-structural theory of reading in which the reader is just as active a creator in the meaning of the text as the author. As a reader of hypertext, you get to choose which way you want to go in the narrative, but those choices are constrained and determined by the author. So, it is not limitless interactivity with no structure whatsoever. But it does reposition the point of view of the narration to the reader/player. If not the narrator, the reader/player is the driving force behind the story’s progression.
A fair question to ask of this manifestation of a theory is this: Is it better or worse that we can now do and experience the reading process as described by post-structural theories? Or in other words, what’s the point of realizing a theory? The point is less about whether it is better or worse, and more about how to better utilize the medium of hypermedia. It becomes an issue of the quality of the content. So, while Myst is no great masterpiece of literature or art, it is still one of the best representatives of this new medium. The goal should be to keep exploring how to improve the content of this new medium so that one day we will have a masterpiece of hypermedia comparable to those in literature and art.
It should be noted that this realization of a post-structural theory of reading is not the final nail in the coffin of the author. Instead, the role of the author has been repositioned. The author(s) are now a director, writer, choreographer, cartographer, curator, artist, musician, programmer and designer all together (and often a team of people). On top of the mixing of multiple mediums, the creator has to script for multiple and open possibilities that hypermedia allows so that the reader will have more choices and become more implicated in the narrative and more immersed in the environment.