Escape Room Narrative: What the Myst Series Taught Me About Narrative
The holy grail of escape room narrative is having a seamless integration of puzzles and story. This is difficult to say the least. The very presence of puzzles in a narrative already is somewhat unnatural. Ideally, the puzzles at minimum tie loosely with the theme. The rest is a suspension of disbelief on the player’s part.
This is fine, but there is always room to evolve. Attempts to make puzzles more natural usually involve making them simpler and more task based. It makes sense to do it this way. For a natural narrative, puzzles that could actually be found in the natural world is the way to go.
But what about difficult puzzles? Those “aha” puzzles that involve finding patterns in constellations to find a passcode for a computer? Surely there is no way to make narrative and puzzles seem like one when they involve so many illogical steps.
Okay, let’s talk about Myst.
If you do not know what Myst is…here…if you are too lazy to click the link, all you need to know is it was one of the best selling PC games of all time. For those that do not know me, I am a bit of a Myst….fanatic…(see my terrible evidence below)
From the day my twelve year self sat in front of my friend’s slick Windows 95 computer and clicked the linking book, I have been obsessed with all things Myst. It was the game that taught me world building could be so complex an entire out of game novel could be devoted to explaining the backstory.
“But Manda,” some of you who know the game might be saying, “Myst is far from a perfect game. It is the definition of puzzles barely connecting with the narrative.”
Why yes, skeptical reader, you would be correct.
Thing is, I am not here to talk about Myst. I am going to talk about its sequel, Riven.
Myst was revolutionary in a lot of ways. It was a technological marvel. It was proof that games did not have to have guns to be entertaining. It had an intriguing plot that did not…always tie to the activities you were doing. It was exactly like the first escape rooms: full of passion, excitement, and a few rough design edges.
Where Myst revolutionized though, Riven aimed to perfect. The creators learned their lessons from the first game. They recognized the potential of the story they had introduced in the first game, and the problems with plunking disconnected puzzles in a rich world.
As a result, the story in Riven is tighter, more cohesive, and better paced. Every inch of it is dripping in lovingly crafted detail. The characters you encounter are fully fleshed out, whether you meet them in person or are privy to their journal. Even if you do not read one of the many journals in detail, you can pick up the story from the environment itself.
It is also an incredibly difficult game.
Fourteen year old Manda spent many an hour with her friends obsessing over hastily written notes and diagrams. When we got to a point where we had to swap out a disc for the first time it was a moment of jubilation followed by another six hours of brow furrowing. Why keep going? Because we were invested in what was happening in the story.
Riven takes place on a series of islands. The basic plot: Atrus (the character from the first game you are looking for) has the power to create worlds simply by describing them in books. He has a tyrannical father who rules over the villagers of this world as though he were a god. He has also kidnapped Atrus’ wife. Your job: go to the island world, get Atrus’ wife back, stop Atrus’ father from being a jerk. There is a lot more to it than that, of course, but those are the basics.
Riven remains one of my favourite games of all time. As obsessed as I am though, it was not until recently that it dawned on me: almost every single puzzle in Riven ties deeply to the story. No matter how ridiculous the puzzle, there is a narrative reason for it to be there.
Where can you learn about the complex numbering system of the world? Why, the schoolhouse, of course.
Why is it so difficult to get from island to island? Because jerk father wants to control the population and heavily polices who can go from island to island.
Why do you have to take a sub to get to the school?! Because the island is fracturing. It is slowly sinking and a sub had to be built to get to basic parts of the village.
Why on earth would the solution to a puzzle involve finding the shapes of animals embedded in every day objects? Because there are a group of rebels who needed a secret way to find the code to their hideout.
Why the hell are those spinning domes necessary and WHY does it eventually link to some weird marble puzzle? Because not only is Gehn paranoid about villagers finding their way to his own layer, but he also needs to power those domes and cannot make it easy for the villagers to do so.
Okay, that last one was a bit of a stretch. But still. The attention to design and detail is a marvel. The puzzles and the narrative are so intricately linked that I did not even think to think about them separately until now.
Even if you are not fully aware of why a puzzle still fits into the world, the designers are. The information is all there for us. We do not have to read it all or take it all in, but we do benefit from the hard work put into the narrative and puzzle design.
Are these lessons that can be directly applied to escape rooms? Not entirely. Escape rooms are still a different beast and involve different design limitations (*cough*time limit* cough). This is not an exact formula for how we should develop escape rooms.
But it can serve as an inspiration: a puzzle can still make sense to the narrative and be difficult and complex at the same time. It shows we don’t have to rely on the same designs just because they were exciting the first time around. We can learn and evolve. Escape rooms are just getting past the Myst level of narrative: new, exciting, but only just experimenting with the possibilities of the narrative potential.
Let’s help escape rooms get to the Riven stage, where all the elements, puzzle, story, tech, and environment, work together to create a seamless whole. Okay, almost seamless…man, that marble puzzle…