Myst: The Book of Atrus

As Howard Cosell titled his autobiography, “I never played the game.” I don’t even have a CD-ROM drive yet. But I would have had to have been living in a fissure in the earth to be totally clueless about MYST, the phenomenally popular CD-ROM game that has become multimedia’s first bestseller and first classic. From people who have played it, I know that MYST is more than a game, it is an experience–an immersion into another world, where things are strange and wonderful. The game works, they say, because it is as rich in its complex storyline as it is in its state-of-the-art graphics.

MYST is more than a game in another respect as well now, with the publication of Myst: The Book of Atrus written by the game’s authors, Rand and Robyn Miller, in collaboration with David Wingrove (author of the Chung Kuo series of science fiction novels). A novel based on the game was inevitable, given the rich source material. The fact that the Millers chose to write the book themselves rather than sharecrop it to a third party showed an extreme level of hubris. Doubtless the y realized this, and approached Wingrove as an expert novelist, to help them accomplish a seamless transition from computer game to novel.

Myst: The Book of Atrus is a story that details the background behind the story of the CD-ROM, much like J.R.R. Tolkien’s The Silmarillion is the background behind The Lord of the Rings. The comparison is particularly apt–the brothers Miller, like Tolkien, are meticulous craftsmen and took the time to build the myths and legends of their world, creating a much more complex and involving tale in the process. Atrus, the protagonist of this novel, is the father of the two brothers upon which the story of the CD-ROM is based. The story itself is not that unusual for fantasy–a young boy is orphaned by the death of his mother and the disappearance of his father. Raised by his grandmother, he comes to value her teaching but longs for more than the simple life that she has made for herself. Then the father returns, demanding his son to follow him to help reestablish their noble race, the D’Ni.

But as any reader knows, it is not the simple plot that defines a book, but the details that embellish a novel, and the Millers and Wingrove have provided not only the embellishment, but the exhilaration of wonder necessary for a genre novel. The conflict between authoritarian parents and inquisitive children, between goals and means, are the basic building blocks of any good work of fiction, and the authors do not neglect it. But it is in the description and workings of The Art, the “science” behind the world creation of the D’Ni, that brings to the book its driving interest and captivation. I am sure it is no accident that The Art, with its emphasis on the power of the written word, of the proper placement of description, also describes the process of novel creation itself; in academic circles, this self-reflection is called metafiction, and the authors here carry it off with panache if not subtlety. What is interesting is that this description of The Art can be broadened to include any act of creation, with a special nod to the creation of an artificial world such as those portrayed in novels, movies, and multimedia computer games.

I thought it would be interesting to read Myst: The Book of Atrus and see if it was a self-contained piece of fiction that could be enjoyed by those of use who remain CD-ROM challenged. Does Myst: The Story of Atrus stand alone? Yes, and surprisingly well. I have no doubt that this would have been well received without the phenomena of the game behind it. And, unlike Tolkien’s The Silmarillion, this was a book that the authors had the opportunity to polish and prepare for their audience. Tolkien’s masterpiece spawned the modern fantasy industry, of which some novels barely masked their inspiration. Myst has already inspired several productions similar in nature–as well as a couple of parodies, the next sincerest form of flattery. The publication of this pre-history will only further cement its seminal nature on the burgeoning multimedia industry.

[Finished 2 August 1996]

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