The exploration of static pre-rendered backgrounds forms the crux of exploration in Myst, one which not just evokes an eerie sense of detachment that you’d get from flicking through a series of postcards but also exemplifies its core essence of using the mystery of the unknown to leave gaps for the player to figure out as they explore its strange worlds.
Blank slates are often utilized as ideal introductions to games so as to allow a player to familiarize with the world possibly with tutorials but Myst uses that to amplify its unique strengths by tapping into that unknown territory which the player explores and perpetuating a deep sense of mystery that dwells within its strange, almost surreal islands. As the player progresses through these beautifully striking pre-rendered backgrounds, their static nature almost lends to the opacity of the purpose. “Why are these boards just lined up around the well?” a first-time player of Myst might casually wonder.
It’s important to point out that a great deal of the game’s mystery is drawn not from the story but from the world, essentially making Myst one of the earliest, more refined examples of environmental storytelling. Players stumbled upon hints in form of oddities leading them to ask questions like “Why is that note left there?” or “Why do these boards have the same shape as in books?” In essence, the world connects not just the puzzles but also shapes the experience of the mystery contained within its core.
Throughout Myst you never meet a non-player character directly but instead these NPCs are part of the environment itself. Amid the alienation the game evokes within the isolated player, there is also a sense of a lived-in space in the islands of Myst. Every place has a small hint in a chopped log or a half-written burnt note which shows signs of people who used to be here. It creates an indirect but fittingly eerie sense of communion that you share with these people that you only hear from through elegantly-written notes or surreal “video notes”.
Backtracking is a common criticism levelled against Myst and for a good reason. It involves travelling through a lot of repetitive space as you solve puzzle A in order to access puzzle B and so on and so forth. That said, for its time, exploring this sort of spatial environment was truly unique and as someone playing Myst in the 90s, the repetition of backtracking paled in comparison to the thrill of seeing your actions having a perceivable, dynamic effect on a 3D world. This made exploring through the same space seem less of a chore as you could always see the fleeting sight of a door you’d unlocked by solving a puzzle a few minutes back and smile with a pride of achievement and accomplishment.
Few game worlds have as cohesively tied their mechanics and core mystery as Myst does and it achieves so by not just effectively utilizing the blank state of the player to instil a deep sense of wonder and mystery but also using the “gaps” in travelling between pre-rendered backgrounds as an effective corollary to what your mind often does while playing Myst — fill the small gaps and try making sense of this beautiful but incredibly strange world.