What Second Life should learn from Myst

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

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."