In 1993, struggling game developers Rand and Robyn Miller released their most ambitious project to date. Lushly drawn, and designed to take full advantage of the then-nascent CD-ROM, Myst was a far cry from the brothers’ previous work on whimsical children’s games like The Manhole or Cosmic Osmo. Instead, Myst was quiet, thoughtful, and packed full of devious puzzles, grounded in any number of inexplicable and mysterious machines.
Twenty-three years later, Myst is one of the best-selling computer games of all time, spawning multiple sequels, dozens upon dozens of imitators, and more than its fair share of sleepless nights and frustrated cries of puzzle-thwarted shame. Developer Cyan recently released a spiritual successor, Obduction, introducing a whole new generation of players to the pleasures of tinkering with convoluted control panels and toying with alien devices. We had a chance to talk with Rand Miller a week before the game’s release, to discuss the perils of Kickstarter, the puzzle Myst fans are wrong to hate, and the time Disney almost hired him to make a real-world version of Myst Island in an isolated Florida locale.
The A.V. Club: What’s the key principle you start from when you design a puzzle?
Rand Miller: Oh, man. The puzzles are tough, because there’s so much tugging on it, you know? If we didn’t have to worry about integrating them into the environment or making them part of the story, it would be just sweet. We could just do full-fledged puzzles and not have to mess with making them feel like they’re here for a reason.
Now, that said, we still take some artistic license. I mean, there’s a giant, rotating stone ball on a table in Hunrath [the game’s opening area]. We’re playing a little bit fast and loose with the story and environment, but nevertheless, we do our best to try to integrate them. We can come up with some great puzzle elements, and then we’re like, “Okay, but there’s no way that would be in this world. There’s just no way.” Most of the battle is that all three of those legs—those crazy legs—are things we try to balance well: the puzzle, the story, and the environment. That’s how we design the game, and that’s how we try to tune it later on. “Is everything supporting everything else in a nicely balanced way?”
Now, I’ve got to say I don’t think all games have to do that. If you look at The Witness, Jonathan Blow loves the puzzle side of things, so he tilts the meter toward it, which is cool. I think a lot of people love that. Any number of indie games, the meter is tilted toward the environment or toward the storyline. Firewatch is tilted more toward the story. Good old Dear Esther was certainly tilted toward the environment. So, everybody has their different take on it. I think our take is, we try to balance them. That’s the puzzle—we fight with the other two legs on that tripod to try to make them feel right.
AVC: Have you ever considered working on a game that was more like Gone Home? A game that’s just environment and story, no puzzles, that cuts off one of those legs?
RM: I think we’ve had various talks about going down that path, or leaving off one of the legs in other games, but any attempts we do along that line… I guess it comes down to doing what you do well. And it feels like we like balancing our games, and we may as well just keep doing that. Otherwise, we run the risk of trampling on what other people do well, and not doing it as well ourselves. Maybe someday, we’ll be challenged to try that, but it’s been really enjoyable, kind of going down the same path for Obduction in a whole new storyline. I feel like we’ve learned a few things over the years about how to balance all three of those legs.
AVC: Speaking of Firewatch and The Witness, what kind of games do you play in your spare time?
RM: [Laughs.] I haven’t been playing many games lately. I’m dying to play The Witness, because I haven’t had time. I’ve looked at it and gone through just the very beginning, but I’ve been so busy with [Obduction] for the last few years that I just don’t play. Frankly, when I get a minute to check my brain at the door, I play some Angry Birds on my phone, but it’s rare these days. I admit it: I play Angry Birds. I’m sorry. I would love to be digging into games, and I think The Witness is first on my list.
AVC: Are there any puzzles in other games that have made you think, “That’s really elegant,” or “I wish I had made that?”
RM: Wow, that’s a good question. I’ll have to think on it. There’s a lot of games that aren’t necessarily all about the puzzles—that’s not what they’re trying to do. Oh, but I just thought of one: I loved Monument Valley. It’s short and sweet, but I thought the puzzles were very elegant in the way they were done, and intriguing in the way they progressed. It’s not a huge thing, but I remember saying to my wife, “This is really interesting, the way they’ve done these puzzles.”
AVC: Talking about your own games, is there any puzzle you think of and say, “Okay, this is the ideal. This is what we’re aiming for every time?”
RM: My philosophy is, once the player finds the solution, if they blame us, then we haven’t done a good job. But if they blame themselves, then we have. In other words, if we build a connection so that at the end of the puzzle they go, “Oh, yes. I should have gotten that,” then I think we’ve done our job well. Those are my favorite puzzles.
Now, I have a controversial one that I like, that a lot of people hate. I think the implementation was slightly flawed, but I love it, and it’s the crazy Maze Runner from Myst. I know that was a hated part of Myst but, frankly, I loved it. There was a certain elegance to that puzzle that I think people don’t understand. I love the fact that people play through an entire world that has everything to do with sound. And then they go down to this vehicle at the bottom of the world, and they forget about it. And we’re still giving them sound clues for what to do.
Now, I think the sound cues could have been louder, and I think that’s what we didn’t do well. I think they could have been a little more prevalent. But I love it. The maze is actually laid out along with the sounds, so that it elegantly reveals itself. There’s no chance of confusion: If you’re listening to the sounds from the very beginning, you will learn the maze. That’s one of my evil, passionate puzzles, because I really thought that one was done well, and the people who hate it are just plain wrong.
AVC: Is there a puzzle where you go back and think, “Wow, we could have done that better?”
RM: Oh, yeah. With so many of our puzzles, I think that. It’s just a lack of resources and time. There’s a lot of them that, when I see what people do, it’s like, “Oh, they’re connecting things in a different way.” We try to shore it up, because it’s often a little late in the game, and it definitely improves it. But I think to myself, “If we were starting from scratch again, I probably would have done this differently.”
There are even puzzles, or ideas for puzzles, that we’d love to put in, but that don’t fit well with the environment. We’ve got a great one that will make it into one of our games someday, that involves a huge wall full of holes and an elevator that goes up and down. It just didn’t fit into Obduction anywhere, but at some point it’ll make it in.
But yeah, definitely we look at the puzzles and think, “That one could have been built a little better.”
AVC: When you talk about shoring it up, what goes into that process?
RM: It truly is about the connection. Or, I can say it this way: It’s about the blame. I want to put something in the game, so that if people are frustrated, they can at least go and look at it again and go, “Oh my gosh, well, right there on the desk is the clue that tells me where that is. I should have seen that.” When we watch people play, and there isn’t a way for them to make that connection, or it was too obtuse, or they honestly were kind of flummoxed a little too often by not seeing the connection, then we try to shore that up. We try to put—and we try to do it subtly at first—we’ll put a small nudge in there. We don’t want it to be too heavy-handed.
But frankly, even in Hunrath, there was some real tweaking with that. Right at the start, one of the characters tells you, “I want power. I’ve got some power, but I need more. You’ve got to get those power lines humming.” Originally, the power lines weren’t as clear, but when you step out of his hut and you look at it, you realize, “Oh my gosh, there’s a power line going right to the hut I just talked to that guy in. I wonder where they go?” And it leads you right to the next thing you have to do.
We made it a little too subtle to begin with, and people weren’t getting it. So we made it just blatant. We needed to take the power lines right to his house to make that work. And then, on top of that, if you notice, when you first walk up there, one of the beetle creatures flies out of his roof and right down the line of power lines to kind of, again, make sure that you look in that direction to tie things together. It’s tiny little tweaks like that that I really enjoy doing, and I think we’ve managed to get most of those in the game. But it’s hard. We tested with a few people here and beta testers, but we’re releasing it to the masses, and the masses have a lot of different ways of thinking. So, hopefully it’ll all fall into place.
AVC: Games like Portal—which is a very different kind of puzzle game from the ones you make—focus on the principle of “teach, then test.” Is that something you try to hold onto during development?
RM: We try to. Because the puzzles are so varied—there’s so many different environments and so many different mechanisms—there’s a lot of teaching and a lot of testing that has to be done. But yes, we definitely like that mechanic.
I’ll give you an example: In Maray, which is kind of the swampy-looking world, we started out with a much more extreme version of teach-and-test. The control panel that you use, and the numbering system that comes up there—it was much more sophisticated, and much more complicated. It was, I think, way too tough for certain groups of people. I think some people, those who have a math inclination, or who are wired in a certain way, probably would have gotten it, but it just became cumbersome to a certain extent. But I loved it.
It was hard for me, because I really loved letting them do small things at first. Small things, small things, then bigger things. More complex things with control panels until we gave them the mother of all control panels.
It was just too much. That was stuff that was kind of toned down, but we still kept that same kind of flavor, of little bits at a time, until we give you a larger thing at the end.
AVC: What is it about designing puzzles that appeals to you?
RM: I love human psychology. I love reading pop psychology books and seeing how people react, and how they can be moved in certain directions, and seeing how they respond, and being surprised by how they respond, and how they’re frustrated with certain things. How we can shape that and use that. All that is just… [Makes satisfied noise.] So, here at the company, we have different people who are kind of the head of different parts of the triangle, and I love the puzzle stuff. We’ve got another guy who kind of manages the story stuff and the continuity stuff, and another guy, the art director, who does the environment stuff. We all work together, and love the other guys’ stuff, too, but each of us is sort of a champion of those things, and I love bringing the puzzle in and saying, “No, that’s going to be frustrating. This has to be fixed. That has to have more connection.” I just love the complexity of the human mind.
AVC: It’s almost like telepathy, because you’re going for that moment where the player and the designer are thinking the same thing.
RM: Yeah. No, that’s a really cool way to put it. It’s like virtual telepathy. You’re trying to get in our heads without even knowing it, and we’re trying to get in your heads without knowing it. At some point, you get a mind meld, and you do what you’re supposed to do, and it gives the player a really cool feeling, and it gives the creator a really cool feeling, too. Those are my favorite parts of doing this.
AVC: One of the things Myst does really well is generate these strong emotions, this melancholy in people. In your mind, what’s the emotional palette of Obduction?
RM: Boy, melancholy fits, I think, as much as anything. Even the music. You walk into this place, and you feel like, okay, there’s a goofy, clown-like guy announcing “Welcome to Hunrath,” and every single one of these statements he makes seems like it’s completely off base. “It’s a flourishing community.” No, nobody is here. “Welcome, you’ll see other people.” Nope, I don’t. Then you go to the waterfall. “It supplies everything we need.” It’s not even flowing. “And our garden grows,” but the garden is dead. Everything is wrong in this place.
There’s some pretty deep stuff that the game’s characters are struggling with in some places. These are real things that happen every day in life, that’s kind of weird to put in a game, but yeah. It was kind of interesting to layer that all in there.
AVC: Why do you think so many of your games have that kind of melancholy tone?
RM: I think some of it has to do with the lack of people… Oh, by the way, I should say this. Obduction has gone through a lot of iterations over the years. We’ve had this on the back burner over the years, and one of our designs was a comedic version.
AVC: Oh, weird.
RM: Like a crazy comedic version of it. The early design, or one of the early designs—we’ve gone through a lot, and this was kind of an extreme fringe one—was that you’re abducted in a pretty stereotypical way. You go through the motions, there’s aliens, you do all this stuff, and at the very end, you realize the whole thing has been staged, and you’re part of an alien reality TV show at the end of it. Basically, you’re on a stage, and there’s a bunch of aliens cheering for you. You’re like, “What in the world just went on?”
Anyway, that’s very different from what we’ve done, but I think, in the end, the melancholy feeling is good because mysteries all seem to work better, at least for us, when there’s not a lot of people. It doesn’t break the spell, and it makes it feel lonely, and loneliness kind of lends itself toward melancholy.
AVC: The game uses live-action acting, like in Myst. At this point, is that just the Cyan style, or is there a technical consideration behind that?
RM: We considered going the other way. Honestly, we felt like we had an option, because of our legacy, which is nice. We felt like, “Boy, let’s do what works the best here.” Early on, as we were doing the design, we decided that no, we should do the live-action. It’s a great nod to the legacy of what we’ve done, and we think we can design things so that it’s part of the world. We can constrain it in ways so that it doesn’t feel like we should be able to look around and see the other side of people. And we just felt like it was the easiest way to accomplish what we needed to. For another project, it doesn’t mean we won’t do CG characters, because they’re exciting and kind of cool in a different way—they open up all different kinds of possibilities.
AVC: Obduction was funded at least partially through Kickstarter. How did that change what it felt like to be working on it?
RM: It was great. It was incredible. Up until this point, we had a couple of options. We could go to a publisher to get them to fund it, or we could fund it ourselves. That’s the only two ways we had worked up until this point. We’d either boot-strapped ourselves by using previous projects to fund them, or we’d gone to a publisher if we didn’t have enough. So, when Kickstarter came about, it seemed natural for a little indie studio in the middle of nowhere to keep an eye on it.
It’s not something you do frivolously, though. It would have been easy just to go, “Oh, Kickstarter, cool. We should just do it. We should just do this.” But, honestly, we wanted to contemplate what we were going to do and present it well and make sure we had a good idea of the team that was going to be involved. So it took time, even years, while we were putting that together.
Now, all that said, it could have turned out to be a freaking nightmare. You go with a publisher, and it’s like you’ve added a dozen bosses to your production. So we could have added 24,000 bosses to our production. But it honestly doesn’t feel like that at all. It feels like we’ve got 24,000 people who are just going, “Ra, ra, ra, go! Get it. We love you, this is awesome.” I mean, we disappointed them a couple of times by slipping schedule. Most of these people have no problem. They’re like, “No, do it right.” It’s better to polish a few things here than rush it out. It’s been awesome to have that support kind of behind the scenes. It’s very encouraging.
AVC: The Kickstarter more or less hit its funding goal exactly. Did you have any big stretch goals planned? And what do you think of that Kickstarter mindset that seems to say, “Give us more money, and we’ll give you more game”?
RM: Yeah. I don’t see anything wrong with it, but it’s hard for our particular design. We can’t really just add levels easily. It takes a lot of effort to build these games—it’s not like adding a level here or there.
The Kickstarter thing was risky because we knew that it was going to take more money than what we had asked for. But you don’t want to ask for too much, or you appear to be greedy. We honestly were hoping that we’d get a lot more. We were hoping we would be one of those projects that multiplies its initial goal. I think we thought that our budget, based on past projects, was going to be $2 and half million, or something like that. The management here, we basically looked at that and told the guys, “Okay, the worst possible case is if we just get barely over the million.”
And, of course, that’s what happened. Anyway, what it did allow for is exactly what the name says: Kickstarter. When we can plunge right in, build enough of the game, where we can show it off and people see the potential. And then it’s just a matter of presenting it to the right group, that kind of helps fund the rest of it and get you over the hump.
AVC: If someone came up to you and said, “You can have an infinite budget to make your dream project,” what would that be?
RM: [Laughs.] Oh my gosh. At this point, it would definitely be a VR project. What I really like doing is building these places that just feel like real places. I just love doing that, and VR is as close to feeling yourself be in a space as you can get. You’ve been in the game and seen how that works. Like, we’re still on the edge of that, and it’s hard to justify huge budgets for it. I don’t know who’s going to buy it, because it’s so expensive right now. It’s going to take some years to flow in, but if I had an infinite budget, I would sit down and start designing something completely new that took advance of only VR, and work on it for a long time, so that it would be ready just in time for the huge VR explosion that will occur at some point in the future.
AVC: In a way, the rise of escape rooms has gone a long way toward creating Myst-like spaces in the real world. Have you done one?
RM: No. The guys here at the office have. We’ve got one that’s not far from our office, and they’ve gone in and done it. I would love to. I’d like to make one—I guess that’s part of my makeup. Here at our office, we’ve got a chunk of land in the woods close by, and I keep thinking, “Oh my gosh, of course we need a cool escape-the-room associated with Myst that we could do some sweet stuff with.” I start thinking of all the crazy, cool stuff, like, “We’ll do projection mapping and we’ll bring in automated stuff. We’ll have smart controls, and it’ll be awesome.” I don’t know when that’ll happen, but yes, that whole concept excites me. I’m into this stuff. [Laughs.] The only thing better than VR at this point, as far as immersing yourself in something that feels like real-world experience, I guess, is the real world. So, it would be really cool if you could do it well. I guess that’s the tricky part.
AVC: Is it true that you and Disney were working together at one point to make a sort of real-world version of Myst Island?
RM: That was absolutely true. At some point, there were some really cool plans to do some stuff with Disney. We were looking at it as the ultimate incarnation of our world. Basically, there was a place down in Florida—it’s one of the island areas that they had that wasn’t used very much. But it had some walkways among trees, and an island area, and we went down and looked at it and walked around it, and it was incredibly Myst-like. It was perfect for Myst. So we were all excited. Their imagineering team was excited about embracing that and building some stuff into it and tying it into the rest of the park, where you could explore and have this real-world experience. But, the way Disney works, and the way it had to fit in with their bigger scheme of things, and the way we didn’t understand pieces of it, I think it fell apart from their point of view. That was a very exciting time. It was cool to try to pull that off.
AVC: Speaking of branching out like that, is the Myst TV show still a thing that’s being worked on?
RM: Yeah, it definitely is, as much as, you know, I can predict Hollywood. I can’t, but we’re farther along now than we’ve been in a long time. Hopefully, at some point in the future, things start to snowball as things are connected and attached and stories develop a little more. It’s an exciting thing. It’s hard to get your hopes up, because I don’t know the intricacies of Hollywood, but it’s fun to look forward to.
AVC: If you could go back 23, 24 years, and tell yourself one thing while you were making Myst, what would it be?
RM: Oh my gosh. Okay, honestly—this is some deep stuff—but I’m older now, and a lot of what happened with Myst, I now realize a lot of it, a majority of it, had to do with luck. And I think that’s how the world works. I think a lot of people work very hard, and they don’t get lucky. I think I would have told myself, “Don’t confuse luck with any sort of elevated view of yourself. You were in the right place at the right time and did a lot of hard work, but a lot of people do hard work. It worked for you, be grateful, and don’t think too much of yourself.”
AVC: Myst has had a lot of influence on gaming since. Is there anything you’re particularly proud of introducing into the lexicon?
RM: You know, frankly, I think we’re seeing more things that I would love to think were influenced by Myst now than we have in a long time. I’d like to think—and I don’t know that it’s true—that a lot of the indie titles that I’ve enjoyed watching somehow have a little snippet of a seed in somebody playing Myst at some point. There’s a lot of variations on that theme, and it’s kind of interesting. It’s more encouraging for me now than ever, and I’d like to think that some people were encouraged by Myst to do this, the same way we were encouraged by people writing books and doing movies.
One of the things that I wish was literally part of the lexicon was more of a descriptive way of describing what it is we build. I mean, I don’t even know what to call everything. Adventure-puzzler, or an exploration game, or a walking simulator. I don’t have a clue what to call it. I need to come up with a term that describes it in a way that’s satisfying for me. So, that’s one still on the list to do.
AVC: When I was younger, everyone just called them Myst-likes.
RM: [Laughs.] Okay, I’ll take that. Everybody knows what you talked about when you say “Myst-like.” Man oh man, that’s such an honor. Who has that in life where people know that? That’s really, really cool.