What Second Life should learn from Myst

What Second Life should learn from Myst

Summary: A lot of people ask me what I think about Second Life. I'm not going to pull any punches.

TOPICS: Hardware

A lot of people ask me what I think about Second Life.

I'm not going to pull any punches. It's boring.


[Here comes the hate mail] 

The reason it is so boring is that I believe it owes a lot about what it means to be immersive from the original CD-ROM game Myst, without learning any of the lessons Myst taught us. Now I'm sure a lot of gen-xboxers will think that I'm crazy comparing some boring old game where there are no guns and you can't blow anything up to this new "live" environment where there are no rules and everything can be whatever you want it to be. But then again, you probably have forgotten how much computer technology has changed since it first debuted 14 years ago (yes that's right...it didn't originally come out in 2003). What hasn't changed in that time is the one thing that makes all virtual worlds worth exploring...a great story (Halo anyone?).

In 1993 I popped the first version of Myst into the CD-ROM drive of my Macintosh IIvx, turned out the lights, put on some headphones, and...


I had never been so completely immersed in anything...not books, not music, not film. For the first time I was brought into something where I controlled the narrative...I was not just an observer...I was the story.

Just to give you some context to how different things were then, here's some excerpts from a 1994 Wired article by Jon Carroll:

"Myst is a phenomenon like no other in the world of CD-ROM. That's not a remarkable statement; CD-ROM is too new to have already had many phenomena. Mostly it's had complaints and dire predictions -- it's too slow, it's too expensive, it's too clunky. Junk has been hurled onto the market; every fast-buck artist with a pressing machine and access to fancy graphics has been throwing stuff against the wall and hoping some of it turns into money. As of the end of 1993, there were only about 3.5 million CD-ROM drives in private hands, according to InfoTech, a market research firm in Woodstock, Vermont. The Lifestyles of the Rich & Famous Cookbook is just not the computer application America is interested in..."
"...The reason for all the success was stunning in its simplicity: Myst was good. Myst was better than anything anyone had ever seen. Myst was beautiful, complicated, emotional, dark, intelligent, absorbing. It was the only thing like itself; it had invented its own category..."

"...The textures in Myst are important: light reflecting off dull metal; door handles and wall hangings; the grain of the wood; the deep shadows in narrow passageways. There is lots of animation, but mostly it does not dazzle; it is like careful writing, always furthering the plot or the mood. There are no dialog boxes, no reminders of the hand of the creators. There is only the creation..."

"...People do not die in Myst, nor are they killed; yet it is sometimes a very scary game. There is no way to get trapped in Myst; yet it can induce uneasy feelings of panic in the unwary. It's as harmless as a walk in the woods, which is to say, not harmless at all..."

What made Myst revolutionary is that it brought an exploration of space, with an emotional attachment. Who was I? Why was I here? It presented me with a mystery that only I could solve. It had purpose. At times, it was able to fill you with a sense of dread...without showing the monster in the darkness. Like all great scary movies...the scariest part...is what lies within your own mind.

And while we have the power to explore and discover in Second Life...Second Life has no narrative. It has no soul. It is an unruly chaos without any mythology...without a real story that I can wrap myself around in. With all of its residents...and all that they've built...it feels very empty and leaves me feeling cold and detached.

And the thing is...I really want to like Second Life. Alternate reality is something I've dreamt of since I read my first Philip K. Dick book when I was a teenager. But it currently lacks an emotional quality, and that keeps me disconnected from it.


Myst changed the way we thought of interaction and what it meant to be immersive. It changed the way we thought about design, narrative, sound, and video. It inspired my life, and I'm sure countless other programmers, designers, and illustrators. It wasn't just how it looked...it was that it made you "feel."  Like the mashups we create today, Myst was a mashup of the technologies available at the time. There were no tools built to accomplish what they set out to do...yet they created a realistic virtual world from whatever they could piece together at the time (I hear it was bailing twine and spit).

But beyond the technical aspects of what they accomplished, it was the artistic aspect of Myst that I still feel influences a lot of what we see today. Myst taught us that interaction had to have emotional depth...and this is the problem with Second Life.

While there are no "rules" and the world is largely capable of anything the users wish it to be or do...it is that lack of structure that makes me not care. It simply isn't enough to buy a piece of virtual land and put something on it. Without story, without mythology, without a living and progressing narrative...without goals and dreams...what's the point?

Buying a giant virtual penis for your avatar is not the same as a narrative that removes us from who we are and explores who we might be... through mystery, a quest, or a challenge.

I owe a lot of my career to Rand and Robyn Miller (the creators of Myst). We've never met, I've never spoken to them...but they changed my life in a profound way and set me on a path that I follow to this day. And what I learned from that experience has stuck with everything I've done for the past 14 years. So it makes me wonder...how did Linden Labs miss this?

And maybe in time this will all be moot...maybe the Lindens will change that world...will work together to build something I can care about, but for right now...it just feels like an emotionally void space in need of a good narrator to tie it together and give it all meaning. Where are the Bradbury's of Second Life?

I think Jon Carroll may have said it best in that 1994 Wired piece when he wrote:

"Moral co-evolution; that's one thing that's happening. Like others before them (Dante, Milton, Blake), the Millers encountered their dark sides even while searching for the light. They discovered the fascination of danger and disgrace. The universe of Myst may be miraculous, but it is not benign. The tale embedded in the game of Myst has several endings; the official "right ending" represents the triumph of The Good Father, but it is ultimately not very interesting. The "wrong" ending is much more fun and much more cathartic. Soon there will be another world to create, and the lesson of Dante will still apply: Paradise can get tiresome; Inferno is where the action is. Was there art in Eden before the apple was eaten? Maybe not."

Topic: Hardware

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  • Excellent observations.

    Somehow I've found myself immune to the supposed allure of such things as Second Life. I spent probably 10 minutes in it and left yawning. But I know [i]exactly[/i] what you're talking about with regard to Myst. It provided that full immersion experience that leveraged multimedia (particularly sound!) to bring that emotional attachment. I, too, turned off the lights when I popped in the CD... then I played it three days straight until I finished it. No point in working.

    One of the factors I think is essential for virtual [i]anything[/i] is that it be better than real life. Myst provided that with a surreal fantasy world that was nonetheless credible.

    In the late 90s I was shown a virtual world that a colleague of mine was working on. It was a virtual art museum. Huge galleries with paintings on the walls, etc. My criticism at the time that it didn't improve on a real art gallery; in fact it was measurably worse. If you're dealing with 2D art, then a 3D environment adds nothing. There's no advantage to having to walk in real time down a long virtual hallway over scrolling a list of thumbnails or popping directly to a webpage as a result of a search. Even with sculpture, having to walk around a piece isn't better. I have to do that in a real museum. To improve on reality, I'd be allowed to pick the item up and examine it while an arbitrary number of other people do the same thing. No waiting. So a 3D Quicktime scan is just the ticket. I'm not sure my colleague really appreciated the criticism, but he did at least put in hyperlinks for "teleportation". (I note that the URL is still in use with a more traditional web design.)

    For similar reasons I seriously don't see how Second Life improves on reality. Merely substituting for reality isn't enough by half. I can think of countless more abstract but better ways to handle personal interactions, moving products, or playing games.

    Can they fix that? As long as they attempt to model another world instead of a better one, I'd say no.
  • Misleading Assumptions about Second Life

    I think you are missing the point on what Second Life really is. Second Life is not a
    game. It's a platform.

    Linden Lab is building the backend of a network. Just like the internet was built.
    If Second Life is boring to you, it's not any different to say that an operating
    system is boring without applications.

    Second Life is not about creating narratives, it's about creating the core of a main
    stream metaverse infrastructure open to developers to build on. It is yet a
    primitive stage for a fully elaborate game to be created within SL but you could
    very well see an entire Myst World within Second Life by the end of the decade.
    Just don't expect Linden Lab to create it, it's not the company's mission.
    • He didn't miss the point at all

      SL has about as much soul as current RL; which is to say, little to none.

      That's not to say that it might not evolve a soul. But if it's used just as a venue for advertising or politicing, well, thanks, but it will be yesterday's news tomorrow.
  • What Alan Graham Should Learn About Storytelling

    Alan makes some interesting observations but has missed the basic understanding of what Second Life is. Second Life isn't a game to be compared to Myst or any other game wherein a story is told, or rather an interactive story is told that the reader can participate in.
    Second Life is the blank page on which people write their own stories. The alphabet of Second Life is the program that Linden Lab provides (singular lab by the way Alan). The language is the fabric of reality that residents created prior to your arrival in world. It's up to you to write the story or to simply interface with the language provided and "play" as you did as a child.
    In my case I turned my attention to creating and running a successful sub-continent of sims where those SLers who love sailing and golf can come and play out their dreams and exercise their skills to play golf and race sail boats.
    They say a good story has character arc. Believe me, my character has been developing an arch of successes and failures for two years now that keep him coming back for more. They say a good game should provide a goal that is attainable but only with great effort. Will my Holly Kai Golf Courses succeed to become one of the truly profitable businesses in Second Life that doesn't involve land sales or sex? I don't know. But I can tell you that I sure as hell am not bored as I watch this facinating story unfold before my eyes on a daily basis.
    Like Alan I was blown away when I first played Myst in a beta release in 1992. Subsequently I have listed Myst as one of those games that changed computer gaming. It was a watershed. However to compare a blank page to a watershed story is to miss the mark. Alan, bring your avatar to Holly Kai. Meet some of the people. Play some golf. Get involved in someone else's life. Find other incredible stories being written on this 21st Century electronic tabula rasa. This isn't about mining gold or looking for McGuffins, it's about life, your SECOND life. I can't wait to see where mine takes me next.
  • Friction in narrative

    Interesting post! It got me thinking about the role of "friction" in satisfying narratives.

    Narrative is a tool with which we construct our identity through time, in relation to the world around us. People have traditionally constructed those narratives within a world that imposes very material limitations upon them; yet it is in the often arduous process of transcending those limitations that we find wisdom, authenticity and fulfillment.

    So for me, it is as much the lack of narrative friction as the lack of a ready-made "?ber narrative" per se that makes Second Life seem so empty, despite all of its surface complexity and invention.
  • Depends on the virtual world

    There's one virtual world with over 8 million subscribers and counting and that's real money, not people trying out 2nd life for a day.

    The reason World of Warcraft offers all that Second Life doesn't is due to it being more interesting than mundane real life - not a vapid low-res clone. The highpoint of second life is that some people are making money out of selling virtual real estate - exciting isn't it?

    WoW on the other hand offers an immersive, interesting, varied and very beautiful virtual world that offers multiple motivations (and multiple games) for playing. It's so good people are worrying about it being addictive. Unlike the real world, it depends solely on your skills and intelligence and it's designed and updated by very creative people with a monthly revenue that must be around $100 million.

    So if you really want a virtual world, try WoW - fantasy is always a little more interesting than reality.

      There is one immersive virtual world with over 5 billion players - each of whom is constantly on-line and constantly playing the game. The physical and communication interfaces are integrated and completely natural. The physics-based animation is 3-D, real-time, and consequential. The game rules are stiff and unforgiving - you get only one "life" to play the game; you die - the game is finished. The style of the game is a combination of every role-playing game ever created or ever to be created or can never be created. Interactions between avatars can have a wide variety of consequences for the actors and bystanders - concrete, subtle, intellectual, emotional, spiritual, inspirational, depressing, heroic, cowardly, deadly, life-giving, or in any combination.

      The problem with Second Life is that it is such a pale imitation of and an inadequate substitute for First Life. Second Life is not worth the effort required to give it content, ambience, and richness. Second Life offers nothing more than the induced delusions portrayed in Matrix.

      Myst - for all its artistic and entertaining achievements - was never intended to be more than a temporary diversion (albeit, an engaging one).

      This is not a flippant "Get a life!" It is a soulful petition to take the time, energy, and creativity poured into Second Life and put it into First Life - which is, truly, the only Life.
      • Therapeutic value of Second Life?

        I have just returned from a conference held by OCTIA (Online counselling and therapy association) where Second Life was discussed. Some of the delegates are big fans argueing that Second Life can offer therapists and clients an interactive space to work. Clients can play with identity via the creation of avatars; therapists can create 'safe'and I have to admit, very beautiful spaces in which to carry out the work. There are some ethical issues - for example confidentiality and the lack of encryption in the chat spaces, but netherless some are very excited. Some have begun to buy real estate in order to sell/rent to other counsellors. Others have set up virtual training spaces.
        I have yet to be convinced. It certainly wouldnt work with most of the people we support (mainly children and adolescents for whom second life is a real no go area...safeguarding alerts abound) and unless you are a seasoned gamer I dont think it would work for many counsellors either. There is also the issue of verification too; how can clients be sure that their therapist is qualified?
        But there are positive lessons we can draw from the platform too. I have some ideas of my own. But I am interested to know what others think....do you think that SL is or could be a perfect place to carry out therapy and counselling?
  • Totally Agree....

    I tried Second Life and I found BORING!. After I got there, my question was: Now what do I do?

    Myst was, and still is, one of my all time favorite games. Second Life may get interesting later, but when? A post above says in a decade or so, but who wants to wait that long?

    Unless Second Life does get a life of it's own, it will remain an impressive, but boring world to not play in.
    linux for me
  • Why Second Life Is Boring, one reason

    Part of the reason Second Life is so boring is that the virtual world might be because it is being invented by boring people.

    I spent a few hours in Second Life on a few occasions. I found it tedious and boring. In my experience, your typical techno-gaming geek is not a particularly creative nor deep person but tends to fall in love with anything new for the sake of it being new and techno-geeky.

    I think the people who seek a Second Life may well be inept at their first life and so hope to fill that gap by creating a second life for themselves.

    The thing is, if one is weak at living one's first life, cannot find anything creative and intense about real life and seeks refuge in an imaginary world, it is not all that likely that their Second Life will be any more profound or interesting than their first life.... the one they seek to escape virtually.

    I doubt that Second Life will amount to much but a novelty for geeks to mess with unless it become real easy to use.. and so compelling that some truly creative and "deep" people take up residence.

    As it stands now, it is boring.
  • What is Second Life

    Second life is not a game nor does it have a pre set story line. Second life to me is like the movie the Never Ending Story, It is a place to create your dreams and live out your adventure. You might like Myst and that is fine but with Second Life you make your own adventure and create your own world to go with the story that you wish to play. Second Life is not about playing it?s about creating.
    There are some who goto Second Life to play and get disappointed very fast but many more go to create something and they love what they can do. If you?re the type of person who just want?s to visit a place and expect to have fun then Second Life may not be for you but if your looking for adventure Second Life might be what you are looking for, there is so much to do and see you just have to find the right places to visit which makes the adventure all that much more fun.
  • Second Life is not a game

    However there are games within the virtual world, SL as a whole is not a game, but rather a vast virtual space for residents/users to create the content that exists within this space. SL along with other virtual worlds that allow users &/or developers to fully create content will be the next evolutionary step of the internet as the technology allows developers to create and host their own simulations. Second Life is only as interesting as "you" make it. So being bored within Sl is very telling of an individuals lack of creativity.
  • I am new to Second Life, and...

    so far, it has been pretty boring. I haven't spent the time to learn the navigation yet, and I haven't figured out the chat commands, so I can't go anywhere or do anything.

    Naturally I find it boring. Anyone would. Once I learn to interact with others, I expect my interest will spike.

    As it is, I feel a little bit like I have regressed to childhood, specifically in a "Mom, I'm bored, there's nothing to do!" sort of way. If I knew anyone who played that could walk me through the early stages, I suspect it would make it much more likely that I would spend more time at it.

    The concept of a user created world is very exciting to me, actually.

    Myst, by contrast, was very very boring, though pretty to look at, to me.
  • Second Life Sucks!

    I am waiting for the non-comericial version. The one that is not owned by a big company selling add space to everyone. I would also prefer to have "rules" this "no-rules" version is not safe. We need to have the same code of conduct jacked in as when we are not jacked in.
  • Myst was an adventure

    Myst was a compelling adventure... a relly cool island that was fun to
    explore. Second Life is more like my nightmares, at the same time
    boring... I won't be going back.
    Robert Graham
  • Myst was an adventure

    Myst was a compelling adventure... a really cool island that was fun to
    explore. Second Life is more like my nightmares, at the same time
    boring... I won't be going back.
    Robert Graham
  • SL is the MEDIUM, not the CONTENT

    Yeah, that's swell...so what you are saying is that Linden Labs should have spent years and years and tons of dollars creating CONTENT? The idea is that the Lindens created the "Player"...and that the participants create the content. You, by saying what you say, are akin to someone who complains about the content of a PDF file by saying that Adobe didn't create Acrobat to be entertaining enough.
    ReadWryt (error)
  • You provide the story

    In any roleplaying environment, the point is not to get through a predetermined plot spoon-fed to you by the game's creators, but to devise one of your own. That said, boring and unimaginative fellow players can ruin a good roleplay on any platform, and by all accounts there are plenty of those in Second Life. Maybe you just need to find the right people to play with.
  • Myst Online: Uru Live: Ha, you can only dream about flying.

    Quoting people who liked older Myst games doesn't make the current version of
    Myst any better; it just shows that you're stuck in the past.

    I've been reviewing Myst Online: Uru Live for the last week. It's a disgrace.


    Second Life scares the weak and the unimaginative. You can do anything, create
    anything, and your success or failure is always public. But it's not a closed-minded
    world. It's not a dictatorship like Myst. It's not a sterile, lifeless, void like Myst. In
    Second Life, you can actually do something other than the trivial one programmed
    course forward.

    That makes it all worthwhile.
  • What Myst needs to learn from Second Life, There, and Activeworlds.

    I loved Myst. I loved Riven. But I just tried out the latest incarnation of the system. Uru Online. This is supposed to bring together Myst and the online world. I guess you'll be able to cooperate on solving puzzles or something.

    It's fully 3d, like modern MMORPGs, but your movement is restricted just as much as in Myst... you can't climb a waist-high wall, or jump it, you have to solve a puzzle to get past it... but you still have to navigate as if you were in a genuinely 3d environment.

    The graphics quality is good, but it's not blowaway beautiful as it was in the original Myst... it can't be, they still can't do real-time ray-tracing. Even the simple puzzles are harder, because you have to maneuver around using a user interface designed for a completely different game.

    And even though you're "online", you can't interact with anyone except bots without buying a subscription.

    The point of an online game is to be online. Without being able to interact with humans, you simply can't tell if the game's going to be good or bad. A trial period that puts you into an environment that's less attractive than the original Myst? I spent three hours downloading and waiting for stuff to load and wandering around the desert... and my impression? They owe me those three hours back.