So often, it seems, novel ideas are spurned during their time, only to be appreciated later when those innovators move on to do other things. Joe Douglas remembers one such idea – Uru: Ages Beyond Myst.
In 2003, the online MMO scene was still in its infancy. Ultima Online (1997) was the king of the genre, with EverQuest (1999) a close second. Eve Online had just launched to offer something a bit different to fantasy RPG staples, but World of Warcraft was a whole year away. Among all this, a small indie company in Spokane, Washington was readying to release something the world had not yet seen.
Also at this time, I was a young Australian lad completing my final high-school exams. With all the studying and stress that came with such things, I needed somewhere to escape to. That escape was the worlds of Myst.
However, to fully explain the story, I have to go back a little further, to 2001. I’d discovered Myst in a somewhat unlikely place to find a video game – but appropriate, given the franchise.
The novel Myst: The Book of Atrus told the pre-history of the first Myst game. Having been raised on a healthy diet of Tolkien, comic books and Doctor Who, I loved the idea of a city hidden hundreds of feet below the Earth’s surface, and one that housed magical books which could transport you to any number of amazing worlds. My active 16-year-old imagination longed to escape the doldrums of high school and explore these fantastical locations.
When I first picked up The Book of Atrus, I hadn’t known it was based on a game. It was only due to the blurb on the book’s back that I discovered that Myst was, in fact, a highly thought-of game on Mac and PC. Having only ever played consoles and not paying much attention to PC gaming, the whole Myst phenomenon had passed me by. But after enjoying the book and its two sequels, I decided to hunt this game down. When I finally played Myst, I was completely absorbed by it. I quickly looked to see if there were other games in the series. The third in the series – Myst III: Exile – had just been released.
I quickly bought the next two games and devoured them. I plunged myself into the Myst fan community, taking part in message boards (remember those wonderful things?), visiting websites and trying to watch videos about the making of Myst on YouTube with the not-so-great connection suffered by those of us living in rural Australian.
Happily, it was not long until Cyan Worlds, the small development company from Spokane, announced their next Myst project: an ambitious MMO based within the Myst universe. It was to be called Uru: Ages Beyond Myst and would take the franchise in an exciting new direction.
The story of Uru was presented in a novel way in that it mixed the history of the previous games’ events with the real world, treating them as if they had really happened. The game explained that a group of archaeologists discovered the entry to the underground city of D’ni (pronounced “dunny,” something that makes all Australian Myst fans chuckle) in the 1980s, and began to explore it.
Soon, they discover the D’ni people had abandoned their subterranean city hundreds of years ago due to a great disaster but left behind many of their books: amazing tomes that could ‘link’ people to other worlds, known as Ages. After full exploration and a great deal of research was done, the archaeologists formed the D’ni Restoration Council, or DRC, and decided to restore the city to its former glory.
The DRC then contacted a small game development company – Cyan Worlds – to develop games based on the journals of one of the inhabitants of the subterranean city as a means to informing the world at large of the history of these people, and promote their restoration activities. In the then-contemporary 2003, the DRC opened up D’ni and various Ages to the public. You, like hundreds of others inspired by the Myst games and the information the DRC had released thus far, had come to explore this ancient city and unlock its secrets.
Unlike previous Myst titles that were played from a first-person perspective, Uru was third person. The reason for this was so that you can customise your avatar for other players in the game to recognise you. Cyan felt the traditional first-person approach wouldn’t really work with their planned MMO.
While the perspective might have shifted, the pillars of what made a Myst game had not. The focus of Uru was still on exploration and puzzle solving. Unlike other MMOs of the time (and since), players would not compete against each other, but rather actively work together to solve the game’s puzzles and discover more of the world. There also wasn’t any combat, inventory or levelling mechanics, at least not in the traditional sense. A player gained “experience” – real-world, “this-is-the-logic-of-the-game” experience – by solving the game’s puzzles, either by themselves or with friends, which would open up new areas of the game world.
These, when explored, would provide a greater understanding of the game’s overall story. The idea was that players would discover the truth behind the city of D’ni together, either by pooling resources to overcome obstacles, or by being guided by more experienced players who may have already solved those puzzles. Uru was to be the world’s first MMO cooperative game.
Unfortunately, the MMO portion of Uru hit a snag. Publisher Ubisoft asked Cyan to release a single-player version of the game that hit stores in November 2003, while the MMO portion, now called Uru Live, was refined.
At this time, however, 18-year-old me was ignorant of the MMO’s failure. Again, due to a poor internet connection, I was only saddled with the one-player portion of the game, but I was enamoured. Having saved up for months ahead of the game’s release, I immersed myself in this new, modern world of the Myst universe.
A central location within the books that introduced me to Myst was The Cleft, a crack in the rock floor of the desert under which the D’ni city was situated. At the start of Uru, players found themselves in that same desert and, after a little bit of exploration, came across The Cleft itself.
While I’d played games previously based on films and comics I loved, they’d mostly been separate from the source material. Sure, I could play Ghostbusters on my Master System, but it wasn’t a true representation of what it was like to strap on a proton pack. But here, with Uru, I could go into The Cleft. I could explore it, examine the artefacts there, and see where the characters I read about had lived.
It was exactly as I imagined. It wasn’t a surprise, as the people who created Uru also wrote The Book of Atrus. It was my first experience of being truly, completely, immersed within a world I was a fan of; I felt like I was part of this amazing place I’d only read about.
While the base game provided you with the desert and Cleft areas, alongside a small Age hub and five full Ages to explore, my true obsession with Uru didn’t come about until the release of the expansion packs. Sadly, by 2004, the planned Uru Live MMO had been cancelled. However, the content that had already been created for it was released in a free expansion called To D’ni. As the name suggests, it allowed players to explore the ancient subterranean city of the D’ni. If I’d been excited about exploring the small area of The Cleft, being able to explore the whole city completely blew my mind!
Throughout the previous entries in the Myst canon, fans had only been given the smallest of glances at the D’ni city; most of those appeared in the second novel, Book of Ti’ana, which recounts the city’s fall. We were told it was grand and proud, rich in history but shrouded in sorrow. Finally, I could step foot in this city and learn about it first hand. As a fan completely invested in the lore of Myst, it felt like an archaeological expedition.
Not long after To D’ni, another expansion, Path of the Shell, was released, providing two more Ages and another hub area to explore, while also greatly expanded on the mythos of the series and the fictional history of the D’ni. It was a fanboy’s dream!
For all its grand ideas and story, actually playing Uru: Ages Beyond Myst was a somewhat unbalanced affair. While the environments of the D’ni city, the desert and the various Ages you explored were unquestionably beautiful – and remain so to this day – the player avatar was ugly. There also weren’t many customisation options for it, particularly clothing and hairstyle.
While Uru arguably provided more freedom to explore than any Myst game before it (with the exception of realMyst, a remake of the original game in real-time 3D that allowed the same freedom of movement as an FPS game), control was cumbersome at best and downright frustrating at worst. For some unknown reason, Cyan had tied the avatar’s directional movement to the arrow keys rather than the more traditional WASD. There was also the option to hold down the left mouse button to make your avatar walk, or both buttons to run, while moving the mouse to look, but it didn’t make things any easier.
Jump was tied to the traditional spacebar, but this caused problems no matter which movement control you used. For the game’s few platforming sections, you had to line up your view so you could see where you had to jump from and to, before moving your hands from mouse to keyboard in order to jump. This was further exacerbated by the fact your avatar would jump a second after the spacebar was pressed, ruining your timing. Thankfully, for the most part, the camera was solid. While none of these issues were game-breaking, they led to some frustrated gamers who found it a bit much that they had to deal with the idiosyncrasies of the game’s control while solving intricate puzzles at the same time.
It was also pretty clear that the solo campaign was an afterthought. Cyan always envisioned Uru as an MMO and so didn’t plan for it to be played solo. However, Ubisoft felt it needed a solo experience to entice fans of previous Myst games, especially as they may have been wary of the then-unproven MMO experience. Cyan took what it had already developed and moulded it into a single-player campaign.
Unfortunately, what players received was not much more than a glorified fetch-quest. While puzzles were still intriguing and the storyline was interesting, the need to find and activate six Journey Cloths in each Age could be tedious busywork. The culmination of all this felt somewhat anticlimactic, as while you uncovered a dark secret about the D’ni, nothing was really solved by the game’s ending and it felt very much like there should’ve been more to the story.
Of course, those threads should have been wrapped up in Uru Live, the idea being that after finishing the solo campaign, players could continue the game online. But, of course, it was cancelled and so it was left to Myst 5: End of Ages to tie everything up in 2005.
The legacy of Uru
Uru: Ages Beyond Myst represents many things: a publisher trying to turn a game into something it was never supposed to be; a game unfinished, but released anyway; and, most importantly, a developer with an idea before its time that the gaming world wasn’t ready for.
It’s full of that quality that so many games lack, but fans wish they contained more of: love. It might be cheesy to say, but the dedication, passion and love for Myst and the world(s) created within the franchise dripped off every pixel in the game. Uru is not only another entry in a video game series; it’s the total embrace of everything that came before, both digital and written.
During the development of the second game in the Myst franchise, Riven, Cyan created an original language for the D’ni but provided only hints of it. It was expanded slightly in the novel series but truly came into its own with Uru. People started to learn to speak D’ni. Depictions of The Cleft and the city of D’ni were exactly like they had been described in the novels and previous games. Characters who’d only briefly been mentioned in the past, such as Ri’neref, the First King of D’ni, were explored in great detail. Then there was all the lore – more than any fan could have asked for. Including the two expansions, Uru contained over 50 in-game notebooks for players to read through to immerse themselves in the fictional culture of the D’ni. But that was just what you could read; you discovered even more by exploring and observing the world.
The phrase “believable world” is thrown around too much in gaming, but with Uru, it was absolutely true. The sheer amount of content in the game, not necessarily in regards to gameplay (although there certainly is that), but rather information on this mysterious civilisation and its people, was breathtaking. Perhaps more than any other Myst game, it truly felt that just exploring and observing your surroundings uncovered something new and rich about these people and their history.
Perhaps the ending has not yet been written…
The appeal of the Myst series has always been hard to quantify, but it proves even more so with Uru. It was a game that should have been an intriguing curiosity but has now, for many – including me – become as important as the hugely popular MMOs it was once up against, or followed it. To this day, hardcore fans still visit the city of D’ni through the now free-to-play Myst Online: Uru Live.
In 2010, Cyan released the source code for Uru Live to fans and now there are fan-hosted offerings that work to not only improve the base game, but also add new Ages to explore. There are blogs and Twitter accounts of fans, known within the community as Explorers, who recount their adventures through the worlds of Uru.
And that, I think, shows why Uru is still so fondly remembered – and played – to this day: it fulfills our desire to explore and to discover things anew. Uru was unfinished when Cyan had to let it go. There were many hints about what was to come; many story threads and questions left unanswered. Like real-world archaeologists, fans of Uru continue to travel to those cavernous depths in the hope of unearthing something new, to gain a greater understanding of the precious thing they lost. And even if, in all the years since we first stepped foot into the Cavern, we haven’t found anything new? Well, isn’t it really all about the adventure?
- Beautiful, intriguing worlds that are a joy to explore
- Rich world-building and story
- Some of the most amazing music you’ll hear in a game
- Easy to pick up and play
- Leisurely pace means you can take your time examining every nook and cranny
- Still supported by community (and, to an extent, Cyan itself)
- Fiddly controls
- Avatar creation lacks options and almost always looks ugly
- Some puzzles, particularly in the DLC releases, can be frustrating
- Not for those who prefer a more typical first-person Myst experience
- Nothing much to come back to upon completion, unless you really enjoy the world and lore
Uru: Ages Beyond Myst is an interesting case in video gaming: an idea that was before its time, falling away before it was truly realised, only to be resurrected by passionate fans years later. It’s a strange, elusive title that some will find to be an okay puzzler, while many just won’t get it. Others, like me, will simply adore it. Like any piece of art, you really need to experience it for yourself to know what you think of it.