The Garden Ages | Myst series

I think he will carry this island home in his
pocket, and give it his son for an apple.”
–Sebastian, The Tempest

How do the linking books in Myst read? These books are, in-universe, written out in the alphabet and language of a dead civilization. The text details the world that the writer wishes to visit: an island is described, its qualities delineated in some detail, and a linking pane appears on the first page, ready to literally transport the reader to the object described. We never read or hear their language, we simply enter into it. In this, the diegetic presentation of the books makes literal the figurative language we ascribe to the ability of books to transport the reader: the reader opens these books and is taken somewhere new.

Yet these books remain (again, diegetically) written texts, subject to the critique against the written word Plato levelled in his Phaedrus:

“The fact is, Phaedrus, that writing involves a similar disadvantage to painting. The productions of painting look like living beings, but if you ask them a question they maintain a solemn silence. The same holds true for written words; you might suppose that they understand what they are saying, but if you ask them what they mean by anything they simply return the same answer over and over again.”

Turning around and returning the way you came then has the feel of going backwards through the book

What remains compelling about the Myst series—Myst and Riven were created by developer Cyan, and then Exile and Revelations under the aegis of different studios—is the way in which it answers this critique: first and foremost, it is the world that mimics the text and not vice versa. Second, against the static nature of pure mimesis stands the game’s insistence on the power of conflation. For example, the word for these worlds—Age—speaks to the way in which time is mixed with space.

The player experiences these ages horizontally: not in the unidirectional manner through which time normally passes, but more similar to the way we read books. At first the experience is linear: you start at the beginning and click-flip-click through still images, turning each like a successive page; in that vein, there is a direct relationship between the amount of time spent unlocking an age, and the space that is available for exploration.

But this bookish analogy continues: turning around and returning the way you came then has the feel of going backwards through the book. Revelation would permit the player to bookmark a certain location, allowing for immediate transport—as though the reader had simply folded the corner of a page over for easy reference. Moments of epiphany are like quickly flipping through a dense book for a specific page, a specific underlined passage, as the player hurries from one end of the island to another to solve a specific puzzle.

But these Ages are just as much landscapes as they are books. Granted, the illusion in Myst’s case is more tenuous: the slow, frame-by-frame experience means the player doesn’t have a sense of continual, seamless movement to palpate a simulated world: each frame is simply a picture, and behind that one another, and so on. The occasional moments of unbroken movement (Riven’s railcars and submarines, Exile’s roller coasters, or Revelation’s moving thrones) emphasize that stillness by way of contrast. In short, these are not landscapes you sprint through, but worlds where you are forced to walk, to amble down narrow paths and admire the design.

In that sense, these landscapes are, at least by reason of the pace they demand, gardens.

The etymology of the word “garden” carries with it a sense of containment, descended as the word is from a proto-Germanic word meaning “enclosure.” This sense of containment was present from the very beginning: Eden had to have boundaries for Adam and Eve’s exile to mean anything. Gardens, then, are not massive spaces whose contours lie beyond human understanding—they are not like oceans, deserts, or primeval forests.

The garden combines the material value of human labour with the worldliness of a social life

For that reason, gardens do not rely on the limitlessness of the sublime as an aesthetic. In his book on the subject, Edmund Burke writes, “the ocean is an object of no small terror” because of its vastness, and because of both its incomprehensible size and the resulting fear, it is sublime; the same goes for “the gloomy forest, and in the howling wilderness”. But never in the garden, where you can see the walls or hedgerows, where there is a path between the flowerbeds; as Robert Harrison in Gardens puts it, “gardens are first and foremost places where appearances draw attention to themselves, presenting themselves to us as freely given”. Everything in a garden is visible, or at least only lightly hidden.

Lastly, the difference is not merely a matter of scale: the ocean and the forest are wild places, while the garden is purposefully designed. The garden presumes the gardener, who makes choices about flowers, statues, materials, and so on. Further, the garden is the geographic conflation of human desires with nature: Nebuchadnezzar built his Hanging Gardens as an answer to his wife’s homesickness; the Gardens of Versailles are a testament to Louis XIV’s royal envy. Harrison finds in this intersection between human desire and the natural world as indicative of the “correlation between care and gardens,” in that the image of the garden combines the material value of human labour with the worldliness of a social life.

Gardens, in short, are finite worlds. They operate on a human scale.

The Ages of Myst are, with few exceptions, islands—islands seen first through the four corners of a pane embedded in an otherwise blank page, and then islands whose limitations are explored in first person. And they are, again with few exceptions, places burdened by care: the very first island in the very first game may be a fantastic patchwork of dock, forest, and spaceship, but the first bit of writing discovered is a note from the author of these Ages, Atrus, to his wife, Catherine. This note leads to another message that begins, “Catherine, my love”. Later remasters of the original game included a simple gravestone for Atrus’ grandmother Ti’ana. And other Ages in the first game were similarly burdened: Stoneship had its island of lost boys, Mechanical its community of refugees, and Channelwood its village of monkeys.

Fittingly, this point is also made through the other written works in the series. From the burnt out books in Myst’s library to the journals in Revelations, descriptions of and longing for a community permeate the emotional arcs of the games: the journals of Exile’s antagonist, Saavedro, are exclamations of grief over the loss of his family and home. And the journals of Sirrus and Achenar—Atrus’ wayward sons—in Revelations depict, respectively, sheer loneliness and the joy in discovering a social world in the form of a troop of friendly monkeys.

Geared paths opened up, ships rose from the water, and trees grew and shrunk.

Reading the journals works in tandem with reading the Ages because they are essentially the same activity: in the best tradition of “show, don’t tell,” narrative and character are depicted visually just as often as they’re presented explicitly in the pages of a journal. The most transparent example of this point is the first puzzle in Achenar’s Age—Haven—in Revelations: the key to a lock is provided by the various totems planted in honour of the different animal species Achenar has hunted. They seem like only so much conventional windowdressing, until the player realizes that they were created as atonement on the part of a repentant murderer. World then serves as an extension of character.

In this vein, the more iconic element of the Myst series—its puzzles—tend to be landscape-based: the original Myst island featured the regular curation of the actual landscape: geared paths opened up, ships rose from the water, and trees grew and shrunk. Gates are opened when their solutions are discovered embedded somewhere in the physical strata of the Age’s surface: think of Riven’s brass eyes or, again, Haven’s totems. A button pressed on Stoneship drains the water from the tunnels leading deeper into the island, while redirecting water in Edanna opens up elaborate, ramp-like plants. If we maintain the metaphor that every frame in each Age is a page in a book, there is no real distinction between the solutions found in notes and journals and the solutions placed across the island. The answers are written down or hidden somewhere.

This conflation of text and topos speaks to the way in which the Ages of Myst are constructed things. Yes, every game is built from the ground up, but few are more transparently constructed objects as the Ages of Myst. They are always presented as written objects that have come to life, and they never lose that sense of the manmade; like gardens, they are physical spaces designed entirely for man even when they purport to be wholly organic.

The completion of puzzles and opening up of various islands is then not simply an act of exploration—it is a restoration of the Age to its ideal state: fully known, comprehended, read or well-trammelled. Gardens are “places where appearances draw attention to themselves, presenting themselves to us as freely given”, and so the role of clearing out these spaces so they can be clearly seen falls to the player. As noted above, puzzle solving then takes the form of physical curation. Put another way, understanding the puzzles becomes a form of gardening, of making the unknown a comprehended and comprehensible space.

There is no original text in Myst, no ur-book that serves as a fundamental starting point. The books are not like Borges’ famous map the size of the territory itself, where the referent is sacrificed for the sake of the reference. Rather, they are an image of the inescapably constructed nature of our world, how there is no canonical text or metaphysical point of certainty; there is only a regular flow of human spaces—books within books, or, as a geographical metaphor, a series of linked gardens. This bookish universe is not meant as destabilizing: it is a way to present the world as a mysterious place, but one that is nevertheless made for the human experience.

To return, at last, to the opening question—How do the linking books in Myst read?—I imagine the linking books read the same way Walt Whitman’s poetry does:

I too many and many a time cross’d the river of old,
Watched the Twelfth-month sea-gulls, saw them high in the air floating with motionless wings, oscillating their bodies,
Saw how the glistening yellow lit up parts of their bodies and left the rest in strong shadow,
Saw the slow-wheeling circles and the gradual edging toward the south,
Saw the reflection of the summer sky in the water,
Had my eyes dazzled by the shimmering track of beams,
Look’d at the fine centrifugal spokes of light round the shape of my head in the sunlit water,
Look’d on the haze on the hills southward and south-westward,
Look’d on the vapour as it flew in fleeces tinged with violet

“Crossing Brooklyn Ferry” is Whitman’s description of his own visit to his own beloved island, Manhattan, and of his delight in observing the social life of New York. And here too, geography is conflated with the written word: just as crossing the East River is to bring him into communion with the world of New York city—with its labourers, young men and women, and so on—so to is the poem meant to bring him into contact with the reader, no matter where that reader is. “It avails not, time nor place—distance avails not,”—just touch the linking pane.

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