CD-ROM demystified



The full version of this review can be found in 'CD-ROM demystified' Object 2/95 (1995) pp.5-7

n selecting a prime example of new multimedia for review, it has been difficult to go past the CD-ROM titled Myst. Myst has received the most abundant accolades, including the inaugural grand prize in this year’s Milia awards for electronic publishing. This critical success is matched by extraordinary sales: more than a quarter of a million units in USA and 20,000 copies so far in Australia. These numbers may not seem great compared to the mass markets for Disney videos, but they occur in spite of three factors: Myst costs around $130, takes up to forty hours to complete and operates in the relatively rare medium of CD-ROM.

I first heard of Myst through word of mouth. An acquaintance took me aside and--eyes gleaming--bore witness to the sublime experience of playing Myst. It wasn’t until several months later, when I finally came across another convert’s copy, that I had the opportunity to discover the source of her enthusiasm. I expected to find a high resolution world of dreamy images and evocative music, but there was much more than that.

The story begins on an island called `Myst'. On this island are five buildings: a planetarium, a library, a clock tower, a log cabin, and a spaceship. A holographic message found on arrival alerts us to the story plight: two brothers have been locked in a violent conflict over ownership of their father’s fantastic empire. We soon encounter these two brothers trapped inside books contained in the library. Sirrus, a disdainful aesthete, is imprisoned inside a red book, while his more primitive and sadistic brother, Achenar, is caught between the pages of a blue book.

Our task in Myst is to feed these brothers with more pages for their books. We find these pages by travelling via secretly located books to the four other islands: Channelwood, Stoneship Age, Mechanical Age, and Selenitic Age (not necessarily in that order). Though the narrative plight of sibling rivalry provides a background context for the game, it rarely intrudes during the main action. During most of Myst we are exploring abandoned islands simply in order to discern the particular logic that will further our progress.

Unlike most interactive games, there are no traps laid for us by evil characters lurking just out of screen. Those that once lived on their islands of Myst have abandoned their worlds. In place of any human presence is a strangely familiar collection of machines--`strangely familiar’ because they belong to our own lost age of mechanical devices. For example, in Channelwood there are devices similar to the switches that change railroad points; these have to be adjusted so that water can flow to power the elevators that take us up to treehouses.

But where are the lasers? Where, indeed, are the computers? Anyone familiar with the fantastic scenarios of science fiction will be surprised by the anachronistic interface between player and game. The machines in Myst celebrate the very low-tech virtues of manual manipulation that the computer age promised to transcend. Even a morphing hologram in the Stoneship Age is operated by a crudely riveted steel lever. In place of space-shattering moves into hyperspace are more refined pleasures: the brothers’ rooms, founded in each of the islands, are decked in highly detailed ornaments, baubles, tapestries and paintings.

My guess is that the phenomenal success of Myst is not due to the cleverness of its narrative, nor the `stunning graphics', but something more allusive, something we might refer to loosely as its feel. Though what we have immediately at hand is the computer mouse and pixilated screen, the program comes close to evoking a virtual workshop of tools and equipment. We pull a lever and hear the sound of groaning wires. We change a rusty switch and listen to the gurgling pipes. We rotate a stiff stopcock and hear the pressure build in the boiler. The synthesis of animation and sound creates a kind of abstracted garage where our actions are rewarded by a defeated whirr, a wayward thud, and finally a triumphant click.

What does this say about our times? Myst shares with the late Augustan age a love of relics from past eras. A poet of the `graveyard school’, Oliver Goldsmith, rues the passing of rural innocence in his elegy, The Deserted Village (1770): `Imagination fondly stoops to trace/The parlour splendours of that festive place’. Closer to our own time, Myst shares with the work of English sculptor Ian Hamilton-Finley a re-mythologisation of devices normally given a purely instrumental function. His series titled Heroic Emblems (1977) juxtaposes presocratic fragments with images of tanks, aircraft carriers and radar screens. And closer to home, Myst shares with the products of furniture maker Andrew Osborne a pleasure in mechanical sounds. Osborne has a line of draws and cabinets which incorporate pulleys and chains to exaggerate their mechanical functions. Myst continues a modern fascination with the substance of a technological era retreating beyond our grasp.

But wait a minute. It seems fair enough to identify Myst with a school of mechanical age nostalgia, but what does this say in particular about the medium of CD-ROM in which it lives. The digital medium of CD-ROM seems a complete antithesis of the mechanical world which Myst sustains. What can we make of this?

Compared to the vinyl record, the function of a compact disc is completely untouchable. In our previous `mechanical age’, we could align the rubber band on the turntable, replace the stylus and adjust the pick up. But who today would dare interfere with the work of a compact disc player--much less a CD-ROM drive? It would not be too far fetched to assume that the hours spent today on multimedia games like Myst have been stolen from the time previously spent tinkering in the workshop or garage. The introduction of microchips has meant that the operative insides of household goods have disappeared into black boxes. Homo faber is in exile. According to this picture, it is not at all surprising that a phenomenon like Myst should occur as a consolation for lost haptic pleasures. The nuts and bolts of daily life have been abstracted and recovered in a computer game. Clearly, members of the information age still need some contact with the `real world’.

But there is another critical element of Myst which seems to stand outside this explanation. The worlds in Myst are islands--we have to negotiate gangways and duckboards, turn taps on and off, and listen to the recurring sound of lapping, gurgling, burbling and sloshing. Water is everywhere, but not a drop to drink. The discrete problems of engineering are set against the infinite bodies of water that surround them.

The ever-presence of water alludes to a deep unconscious layer in Myst. Liquid and solid are the contrasting properties of emotion and intellect: the male position takes refuge from the dangerous waters of emotion in the practical world of instrumental action. From a psychoanalytic point of view, the water in Myst represents the potentially untameable flows of instinct that are contained by the symbolic functions of language. In Powers of Horror (1980), Julia Kristeva identifies this fluid `semiotic’ sphere with the underlying maternal basis for language: `If language, like culture, sets up a separation and, starting with discrete elements, concatenates an order, it does so precisely by repressing maternal authority and the corporeal mapping that abuts against them.’ (p. 72). The waters of Myst bring into play a flow of desire which gives mechanical problems an emotional as well as a practical meaning. According to this point of view, Myst represents a victory of meaning over chaos, intellect over passion, ego over id and child over infant. The sensuousness of mechanical agency survives in Myst as a ritual for constructing identity.

The antithesis of Myst is the new operating system created by IBM as a rival to Microsoft Windows. The latest version of OS/2, titled Warp, is aimed at the computer bucks who make up a large proportion of the market. Warp gets its title from Star Trek: the various animation and whooshing sounds that characterise is interface are designed in imitation of the hi-tech starship machinery. It's quite extraordinary for an operating system which aims to be taken seriously by the global market that it should model itself on a science fiction fantasy. This is the kind of market that have prompted Pepsi to widen the neck of their cola bottle and give it the title, `Terminator’. Given IBM’s attempt to provide sensory stimulation in their operating system, it would not be too far-fetched to envisage an alternative desktop `feel’ evocative of the craft workshop. Already, the Microsoft computer packages for children, like Creative Writer, provide literal sound equivalents to word-processing actions such as cutting and pasting.

Sibling rivalry features strongly in contemporary consumerism. IBM versus Microsoft, Pepsi versus Coke, and in Myst two brothers argue for inheritance of their father’s empire. It is ironic that Myst itself resulted from their collaboration of two brothers--Rand and Robyn Miller--who themselves act out the roles of Sirrus and Achenar in the CD-ROM. Under the company name Cyan, they had previously created a series of very engaging children’s CD-ROMs. Manhole and Cosmo Osmo both share with Myst a fascination with elevators, boats, ladders and any other means of devious movement. Myst is not only their first product designed for adults, but it also operates as a testimony to their background. The Miller brothers are church-going sons of a bible preacher in Washington state. It is perhaps no coincidence therefore that the principle means of transport through the father’s empire is `the book’.

As a first vintage of the multimedia age, Myst calls us `back to fundamentals’. If this heralds a future beyond virtual technologies, then those concerned to pursue the interests of craft may decide to head progress off at the bend rather than chase multimedia by the tail. And those who consider the lives of individuals as reflected in their care for things might be rescued from their despair at the liteness of being in contemporary world. Forward to the past.