The Journey of Narrative:
The story of Myst across two mediums
Stories are told through a variety of mediums. A narrative does not have to be in one medium, it can be connected and continued between mediums. A good example of a narrative carried across mediums is the CD-ROM game/story Myst by Rand and Robyn Miller. The story starts in the medium of a CD-ROM and is further developed across three subsequent novels and then in another CD-ROM, Riven. I am interested in exploring how the narrative is developed by being told through these two mediums. I find that we can say with ease that it is a different experience when one reads a book as opposed to when one plays a hypertextual, multimedia computer game. What is interesting to me is to look at the differences and similarities of these experiences and how meaning is developed in and through them. If we can better understand how a message is conveyed in different mediums, we may be able to use different mediums in complement with each other to better communicate our messages by taking advantage of these mediums various strengths and weaknesses.
With this paper I want to look at how the narrative of Myst and Riven develops through the mediums of the novel and the CD-ROM. I am going to incorporate Gerard Gennette's 3 classes of determinations (tense, mood and voice) to focus my discussion (31). Tense refers to aspects of the narrative that deal with temporal relations between narrative and story. Mood refers to the aspects that deal with modalities (forms and degrees) of narrative "representation." And voice refers to the aspects that deal with the way in which the narrating itself is implicated in the narrative situation or its instance and its two protagonists: the narrator and his/her audience, real or implied (31).
I want to explore and define what narrative is and how it is constructed in similar and different ways through a novel and a CD-ROM. I will compare and contrast this discussion of the development of the narrative of Myst and Riven with a look at the narrative progression of the War of the Worlds from its novel by H.G. Wells to its radio broadcast by Orson Welles and subsequent re-broadcast of an updated version. Throughout this paper, I will enlist several theorists to help further shape my premise that we could use multiple mediums to better express the various narratives we have to tell.
Narrative allows the reader, or listener, to place information in space and time. In the flow of our lives, it is through, and with, narrative that we construct meaning for ourselves. We use stories in order to contextualize what we are saying so that our audience gets a sense of what time it is, and where we are in the story. In discussing the narratives of Myst and the War of the Worlds, I will utilize Gennette's three aspects of narrative; story, narrative and narrating, along with his determinations of tense, mood and voice (27). Story is the signified, or narrative content. Narrative is the signifier, statement, discourse or narrative text itself. Narrating is the production of the narrative action, the situation in which the action takes place (27).
In both of my examples, the mediums involved are the novel and a new technological medium (hypertext and radio). It is my contention that the experience and meaning of the narrative is changed because the new mediums drastically reposition the audience in relation to them. Both the radio broadcast and the hypertext game make the audience member a part of the narrative, albeit in different ways that I will explore later in this paper.
The Myst Phenomenon
Myst came out in 1994 and was a smashing success in the computer game world. It currently is the all-time best-selling game. As well as being popular, it opened up a new type of storytelling. As Jon Carroll notes, Myst was the "first interactive artifact to suggest that a new art form may well be plausible, a kind of puzzle box inside a novel inside a painting -- only with music. Or something" ("Guerillas," 1). A fun and frustrating aspect of Myst is that it is the intertwining of a story and a game. To read the story you have to solve the game, the two go hand in hand. For those who want to treat Myst as a multimedia novel, the puzzle traits of the piece get in the way and keep the reader from reading. And if you want to treat it as a game, the story can distract the player from the puzzles, keeping the player from zipping through and winning the game.
The narrative then continued beyond the CD-ROM into the three novels, released in 1995, 1996 and 1997. The biggest impetus for reading the novel would be if the reader found the story from the CD-ROM appealing enough. The novels flesh out, and give you a bigger context of, the story from the Myst CD-ROM. After reading the novels, you can then turn to Riven, released late in fall of 1997, and engage the story yet again. The term, "immersive environment," is how some people are presently describing the CD-ROM medium of Myst and Riven (Carroll, "(D)Riven," 3). These immersive environments are being talked about as being beyond a game and a novel. They are worlds in which a reader can get lost.
To enter into these worlds, you need a computer with the capabilities to run the color graphics, video and sound of the immersive environment. You sit down at your computer and explore with your mouse, pointing and clicking your way around the worlds. At the start of Myst, you are see the animation of a man falling down towards you from the lip of a crevasse. The figure dissappears, but a book continues falling down into the darkness. As it falls, a voice says:
I realized the moment I fell into the fissure that the book would not be destroyed as I had planned. It continued falling into that starry expanse, of which I had only a fleeting glimpse. I have tried to speculate where it might have landed, but I must admit that such conjecture is futile. Still, questions about whose hands might one day hold my Myst book are unsettling to me. I know my apprehensions might never b allayed, and so I close, realizing that perhaps the ending has not yet been written.
As the voice-over ends the book lands and you can pick it up. You are the beginning of this new chapter, the Myst book has fallen into your hands. You open the book and see a picture of an island. You point and click with your mouse on the picture and you are linked to the island. Standing on a dock by the waters' edge, the narrative has begun anew.
From this meager introduction the reader/player is left to puzzle through the story aspects of the narrative. Essentially, it is a mystery. You are trying to figure out what happened to Atrus and Catherine, and their two sons, Sirrus and Achenar. As the reader, you are the sleuth in this tale. The narrative aspect of Myst is the multimedia, hypertext discourse itself. You are an active part of the hypertextual links, the action does not progress until you have figured out the next puzzle as you puzzle together the story. The narrating comes from your pointing and clicking your way through the haunting worlds into which you have fallen.
The tense of this narrative is twofold, there is the immediate story of you, the reader/player, trying to solve the game, and there is Atrus' story that occurred in the past and you are presently working your way through it. The mood of the narrative is one of visual and aural introspection. It is a multimedia hypertext with sights and sounds galore. You spend the vast majority of your time walking around empty, haunted worlds. You see and hear atmospheric phenomena, but you spend most of your time alone, trying to "solve" the story. The voice is quite interesting because narrator and audience collapse into one in a way. Or to be more specific, you are the main character of the current discovery of the past story narrated by Atrus and sons. The story does not advance unless you figure things out. Unlike a book, where to get to the end you just keep reading, the "game" of Myst can only progress if you start solving the puzzle. You, the reader, are the impetus behind the narration.
After "winning" the game (there are 3-4 possible endings depending on the player's decisions), the narrative shifts from the hypertextual interactivity of Myst to the linear narrative of the three Myst novels; The book of Atrus, The book of Ti'ana, and The book of D'ni. Each novel is a step back in time in regards to the story of the narrative. So, The book of Atrus, ends at the start of Myst, The book of Ti'ana ends at the start of The book of Atrus and so on. In the novels, two of the narrative aspects shift. The story remains the same. You are now learning more about Atrus' tale and the history behind the game. In fact, the novels serve as a backstory to Myst. The Millers developed the backstory while working on Myst to flesh out the underpinnings of the worlds that the players explored (Carroll, "(D)Riven," 2). The narrative aspect changes and is standard sci-fi/fantasy novel format. You read along to get the story of the characters of the book that tells you more about the stories of the characters of the game (many of the characters appear in both mediums). The biggest change is the narrating aspect. Instead of a hypertextual narrator/player/reader, the narration is told from an limited omniscient narrator who is privy to all the characters thoughts if they are the one on which the specific chapter is focusing. You are now just along for the ride, reading to see what happens next.
The tense of the books is different from the games. The story is unfolding as it is told, there is little foreshadowing and instead there are a lot of cliff hangers and suspense, as both the characters and the reader discover what is happening together. The mood is of textual representation with a smattering of drawings placed here and there throughout the books. The words evoke the images, but the Millers also include pictures to the text to add to the reading experience. The voice is less problematized in the novels. The reader is the implied and assumed audience of the narrator. As a reader, you are being told a tale by the narrator, and you just sit back and listen as you read.
The story of the narrative moves forward again in Riven. The reader is now a player again, a participant in the narrative, puzzling through the story as s/he points and clicks around the new worlds. A new twist to the medium is added though. In Myst, you basically spent your whole time alone, doing a solitary search on what has happened. In Riven, there are characters who you can talk to and ask questions, and they will answer you, some truthfully, some not. Part of the puzzle is even more integrated into the story, you decide whether to believe a character based on your knowledge of the story so far. So, puzzling through the story is even more a part of the experience. Once again, you are an active part in the development of the story. The narrative is waiting for you to figure it out.
The War of the Worlds Phenomenon
H.G. Wells wrote The War of the Worlds in 1898. It was a science fiction novel that dealt with several speculative themes in addressing an otherworldly invasion. First of all, there is Wells belief in mental giantism as seen in the Martians. In other words, the smarter you are, the bigger your head is. Second, he was interested in the psychology of how people would handle the apocalypse. And third, he illustrated his personal problem with institutionalized hierarchies as they collapsed under the stress of attack. The novel was notable for it's imaginative representation of an invasion (Hughes and Geduld, 1-10).
On October 30, 1938, Orson Welles' Mercury Theatre adapted and broadcast a radio version of the story. A radio adaptation of a work of literature is no unique feat, but the public panic that ensued from this adaptation is infamous. Even with commercial breaks during the broadcast that reminded viewers that this was only a piece of theatre, people actually believed that what they were hearing on the radio was really true. A part of the listening audience thought the Martian invasion was happening and took to the streets to flee the danger (Hughes and Geduld, 245).
Since the original book and initial broadcast, the story of the War of the Worlds has been updated on a several occasions. There was a Hollywood version in 1954. The film had little to do with the story of the novel, and more to do with the special effects of showing an invasion (Hughes and Geduld, 247). WKBW, a small radio station in Buffalo, New York, did an updated broadcast on Halloween of 1968. Once again, even with ample warning that the show was a drama, a minor panic ensued (Hart, 171). William Rushton wrote a satiric, farcical part two, entitled, W.G. Grace's Last Case. This book was not really about H.G. Wells story, instead it was inspired by it. And finally (for now), a comic book has come out in 1996 that posits that H.G. Wells' story only covered the first, exploratory invasion. The Martians learned what they need to know to insure victory and are now back to conquer the Earth for good this time.
One thing that needs to be noted about all of the updated versions. Each one, including Orson Welles' version, readjusted the story to the present day and the local region. That way the invasion always occurred near the listening, or viewing, audience. For the purposes of brevity, I am going to limit my discussion of the narrative of The War of the Worlds to H.G. Wells novel and the two radio broadcasts by Orson Welles and WKBW.
The narrative of H.G. Wells' War of the Worlds is similar in aspects to the books of Myst. The story is that of a Martian invasion of Earth. Wells fully fleshes out the scenario of a Martian invasion, taking the reader through the levels of panic and destruction of an alien war. The narrative is formed through the novel. You read along to follow the progression of the story. The narrating aspect is first person with switches to third person omniscient. Wells uses these switches to build the suspense. We catch glimpses of what is occurring in the third person sections, but like the first person narrator, we do not really know what is happening. We slowly discover the story of the invasion along with the narrator.
The tense of the narrative is one in which the story has occurred and the narrator is relating the past events to us from a present. This is the overall framework of the narrative that is then elided into a present tense in which we learn along with the narrator. The mood is that of a suspense novel within a lesson of how the planet Earth is vulnerable to alien invasion. The novel serves as a warning by showing the reader the terror of what could happen. The voice is that of a conversation between the narrator and the reader. He is telling the audience his tale to help us learn how to be better prepared for the potential of another Martian invasion.
Orson Welles then adapted H.G. Wells' story of The War of the Worlds for a radio broadcast. There is less a sense of a narrative progression, like there is in the Myst books and CD-ROMs, but there are changes made to the narrative that help make it fit into the time and place of the broadcast. Welles made the story more contemporary for his listening audience, he brought the story home for them. The novel was set in Europe, the broadcast is set in the United States. The story is updated to 1938 conventions; the language is modernized, and the narration is that of a radio broadcast (Hughes and Geduld, 243).
So while the basic plot is the same, the form is updated. The story is essentially the same one that occurs in the book. The Earth is once again being invaded by Martians. The narrative is a radio broadcast. The listening audience is told through confused and panicked announcements of a scientist that the Earth is under attack. The narrating is from the point of view of the characters as they try to discover what is happening. The listeners are discovering along with the characters.
The radio broadcast increases the suspense of the novel with its reliance on only the present tense. The events are happening now for both the characters in the story and the listening audience. The mood is shaped by the broadcast format. The audience is a part of the characters' terror as they listen. The voice of the piece is the scientist trying to discover the story for the audience. This positions the audience as implicated in the story. The listeners wanted to know from where, and to where, they should evacuate in order to avoid the invaders from Mars.
The WKBW radio broadcast is similar in narrative aspects and determinations to Welles' broadcast, but slightly different in design. So while it may have the same story as both the novel and original broadcast, it once again updates the place, time and form of the narrative. Again the story is modernized, set now in Buffalo, New York in 1968. An interesting feature of the modernization is the use of new radio routines that had been developed since Welles' version (Hart, 171). WKBW used such radio structures as weather announcements, sports breaks and regular music programming, along with fast-breaking newscasts of the events to relate the invasion (174). Instead of being a radio theatre show, like Welles' production, WKBW made the piece a part of their normal broadcasting, once again increasing the suspense of the story. The characters were the stations regular radio disc jockeys, so the listening audience was hearing familiar voices. The story of the invasion was slowly and seamlessly filtered into a normal broadcasting day. The regularly scheduled radio programming was interrupted for an emergency bulletin- the Earth was being invaded. So, the voice of the piece is different form Welles' version, instead of a scientist, you have a radio announcer trying to cover the events, the earth-shattering news, of the day.
Myst and The War of the Worlds
The media phenomena of these two narratives share some similarities and differences. Both share the novel form as part of the overall narrative flow. The War of the Worlds started in the novel and then was adapted to radio. Myst started and is continuing as a CD-ROM, but it had a middle section in the three novels. Both narratives are developed through the novel. And both narratives take advantage of a new and different medium to continue the narrative. Orson Welles and WKBW utilized the immediacy of radio to bring the audience into the drama. The listening audience was a part of the story, listening to "real" events that had consequences. Myst explores the capabilities of multimedia hypertext to allow for a nonlinear, interactive "reading" experience. The audience is a part of the story because the story will not unfold unless the reader/player puzzles through it. The audience is the impetus for the narrative's progress.
A major difference between the two phenomena is the progression of the narratives. The adapted radio versions of The War of the Worlds were the same story as the novel. The difference was in the updating of time and place. Both of the broadcasts brought the story to a local setting and the present time. This took advantage of the immediacy of medium of radio and made the theatrical broadcasts seem to be actual events. So, while the story of a Martian invasion stayed the same, the time and place were changed to make the audience a part of the story in progress. In contrast, the Myst novels further developed the story that the audience puzzled through in the CD-ROM. So, the story was not the same across the mediums, it continued to grow and change. The novels added to the original CD-ROM and will help the audience to better puzzle through Riven. You do not need to read the novels in order to "play" the Riven, but it will help you to better understand the context of the new story through which you have to puzzle.
An interesting similarity between these two phenomena is how the new technologies are used to actively include the audience within the narrative. Welles and WKBW use the immediacy of radio to include the listening audience in the story, they are listening to the reporting of actual events that have real consequences. Thus you have the public panic as people fulfilled their implicated role in the narrative. The listening audience was a part of the story in progress. The CD-ROM parts of the overall Myst narrative rely on the reader/player. The audience needs to become immersed in the environment and carry the story forward with their explorations. You are an inhabitant of this story that will not progress unless you make progress solving the puzzle(s).
Myst as a New Narrative
The hypertextual form of the Myst CD-ROM makes manifest a post structural theory of reading in which the reader is just as active a creator in the meaning of the text as the author. As a reader of hypertext, you get to choose which way you want to go in the narrative, but those choices are constrained and determined by the author. So, it is not limitless interactivity with no structure whatsoever. But it does reposition the voice of the narrative to the reader/player. If not the narrator, the reader/player is the driving force behind the story's progression.
A fair question to ask of this manifestation of a theory is this: Is it better or worse that we can now do and experience what the post structural theory describes as a reading process? Or in other words, what's the point of realizing a theory? The point is less about whether it is better or worse, and more about how to better utilize the medium of hypertext. It becomes an issue of the quality of the content. So, while Myst is no great masterpiece of literature or art, it is one of the best representatives of this new medium. The goal should be to keep exploring how to better the content of this new medium so that one day we will have a masterpiece of hypertext comparable to those in literature and art.
One of the weaknesses of Myst is that it borrows heavily on the mediums of literature and graphic design. The creators have yet to better discover how to use the medium to its best advantage. As David Miles notes, Myst is in accordance with Marshall McLuhan's fourth law of media; the initial development of a new medium will retrieve forms from prior mediums (4). So, the creators of Myst are retrieving conventions and forms from literature, film and graphic design, and combining them together within this new hypertextual multimedia CD-ROM. Eventually, the mediums unique nature will be developed, but for now we are going to see retrievals resonating through the CD-ROMs.
The realization of this post structural theory of reading is not the final nail in the coffin of the author. Instead, the role of the author has been repositioned as well. The author is a director, writer, painter, choreographer, curator, artist, programmer and designer all at once. On top of the mixing of multiple mediums, the creator has to script for multiple and open possibilities that hypertext allows so that the reader will have more choices and become more implicated in the narrative and more immersed in the environment.
In Riven, the creators tried to use narrative to create the illusion of free will for the "reader" (Carroll, "(D)Riven," 2). But then it was hard to mix the story of the reader and the story of the narrative. In hypertext, it's hard to tell a story. The non linearity of the CD-ROM makes it difficult for the creators to actually build a narrative that can evoke emotional responses (Carroll, "(D)Riven," 4). Too much of a structuring narrative would limit the possibilities. Instead, the novels serve as a way to structure the narrative that the interactive, hypertext CD-ROMs do not allow. The strength of the CD-ROM is also its weakness. Having the reader be such an integral part of the story makes it hard to dictate their interactions with the piece. So, the story has to be left open and fluid, instead of fixed and directed. A new way of "writing" and "reading" to be sure.
The medium of a hypertextual multimedia CD-ROM creates new possibilities with narrative. As George Landow notes, hypertext is composed of words, images, sounds linked by multiple paths in an open-ended perpetually unfinished form (3).The "reader" is allowed to explore the range of possibilities within the narrative of Myst (again, there are a couple of endings to both Myst and Riven). I believe this overt multiplicity brings a new aura to a piece. The "reader's" experience has a presence in time and space, it is your reading that opens the meaning of the story. You puzzle it out as quickly or as carefully as you can or wish. While there may be millions of copies of Myst out there, your reading has a unique sense of time and space to it. You have to puzzle it out your way; which may be by buying a book that gives you clues to the puzzles, or talking to friends about how they are "playing" through the story, or by yourself. Granted this aura is not a fixed one as Benjamin meant. Instead, it is a performative one that occurs and resonates with the "reader's" experience and exploration of the narrative.
The performative nature of this computer medium has led Brenda Laurel to look at computers as theatre. For Laurel, computers have the "capacity to represent action in which humans [can] participate" (1). The "reader" is a performer within the hypertextual narrative, shaping the actions and outcomes by the choices s/he makes. You perform the story by participating in the narrative, puzzling through the process. And it is performative in the Derridean sense in that you are performing within a "'coded' or iterable" context (that of the creator's constraints on your choices). So, while you may do something different from one time to the next within the story, it is also within an iterable context.
The hypertextual aspects are an embodiment of Deleuze's paradox of pure becoming. The meaning is fixed, but it is open. You get a sense of the potentially "infinite identity of both directions and sense at the same time" (2). The audience gets "two much and not enough"(2). The medium allows for a multitude of possibilities, but it makes it hard to construct a narrative that can evoke responses. Instead, the "reader" develops that story as s/he goes. But the various possibilities can leave some gaps in the narrative since it is hard for a creator to second guess every possible action that audience may take.
Hayden White notes that a general characteristic of narrative is to fill in the gaps and discontinuities of events (9). This is a weakness of hypertext, gaps abound, disrupting the story. Even the creators of Myst admit that it does not make sense at times (Carroll, "(D)Riven," 2). Another characteristic of narrative is the desire for a conclusion. Myst and Riven have several endings, but as Landow points out, hypertext can be "perpetually unfinished" (3). Even so, for the reader to follow the story, s/he is expecting an end point of some sort (110). There are several ways to deal with this. One, hypertext, as on the web, can be left infinitely, rhysomatically open. Two, there can be several endings. Three, the narrative can be multilinear in that your actions from the beginning of interaction with the story to the end all have consequences on how the story will end.
The second option is the easy way out, add a losing and winning ending to the game. The first is the most pure realization of the post structural theory of reading, but grows (and regresses) infinitely. The third is the most interesting, and is the one used partially in Myst, and more fully in Riven. With this option, the creator constructs a variety of narrative paths that are braided together, crossing, diverging and influencing all the other paths. Thus, the "reader's" choices are prescribed, but each choice helps to build the narrative towards a conclusion(s). In this way, the "player" is not hurt by missing a clue, the story still progresses, just in a different path. Through your choices, you can travel on a variety of the paths and puzzle out the story. So, in reality, one reading can be different than another, and you can get to an end without having "read" all of the story.
The "reader" of Myst is constantly aware of the hypertext medium. The story does not progress unless you can puzzle through it. And parts of the story do not make sense, and the only way to make sense of them is to read the books. As Richard Shiff has written, "the meanings of the mediums evolve as a result of their interactions" (8). Myst may not be a good example of the "realism of low resolution," but the meaning of the story does come out of the association and interaction of the two mediums. The juxtaposition of the mediums (hypertext and novel) through the narrative has shown the strengths and weaknesses of a hypertext, multimedia CD-ROM. To experience the full story of Myst, the audience needs to engage both mediums.
The narrative phenomenon of Myst is a hypertextual one. This phenomenon consists of the immersive environments of the CD-ROMs, and the linear story in the novels. By reading the novels and engaging with the CD-ROMs you get the full story of Myst. What hypertext lacks is made up for in the novels. The narrative is associated between the mediums. A fair critique of this phenomenon is that a quality story should be able to exist on its own in whatever medium. Presently, those working in hypertext and multimedia have not developed a masterpiece comparable to those in literature and art. But, the medium is still in its infancy and is still retrieving from older mediums. Given time, a masterpiece may be developed that fully utilizes the unique capabilities of hypertext and multimedia and does not have to rely on supplementary novels. The question is whether or not people will keep trying in this new medium that realizes the audience's role in creating a story, or will they find that to realize a theory of reading is too self-recursive to be of much use or interest. Time and experience will tell that story.
I still find it useful to look at how a narrative can develop across mediums. The story that is related in Myst could not have occurred in one medium. You would lose unique qualities of one of the mediums, if you used only the other one. The novels give us linear structure for storytelling. The CD-ROMs put us in the story itself, puzzling through the narrative. Combining the narrative across two mediums gives us a story in which we are not only a reader, but a "co-author, theater goer, movie goer, museum visitor and player, all at the same time" (Miles 4).
Benjamin, Walter. Illuminations. Schocken Books, New York, 1968.
*Carroll, Jon. "(D)Riven." http://wwww.wired.com/wired/5.09/riven.html. @22 pages. September, 1997.
*---. "Guerillas in the Myst." http://wwww.wired.com/wired/2.08/features/myst.html. @ 10 pages. 1993.
Deleuze, Gilles. "First Series of Paradoxes of Pure Becoming." ??? 1969.
Derrida, Jacques. Margins of Philosophy. U of Chicago P, 1982.
Gennette, Gerard. Narrative Discourse. Cornell UP, New York, 1980.
Hughes, David Y., and Harry M. Geduld. A Critical Edition of The War of The Worlds. Indiana UP, Indianapolis, 1993.
Landow, George P. Hypertext. John Hopkins UP, Baltimore, 1992.
Laurel, Brenda. Computers as Theatre. Addison-Wesley, New York, 1993.
Miles, David. "The CD-ROM Novel Myst and McLuhan's Fourth Law of Media: Myst and Its 'Retrievals.'" Journal of Communication, 46(2), Spring, 4-17.
Shiff, Richard. "Realism of low resolution." Apollo. 144 (November 1996): 3-8.
White, Hayden. The Content of the Form. Johns Hopkins UP, Baltimore, 1987.
*Note: The two articles by Jon Carroll were written for Wired magazine and compiled on their web site. The included addresses will take you to the web page of the articles, which are basically long scrolls that then print out to be about 22 pages for "(D)Riven" and about 10 pages for "Guerillas in the Myst." Since there is no pagination per se, I have referred to a cite's location in terms of what quarter of the article the cite resides (1,2,3,4).