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Of Myst, mice, and men

This is one of a series of articles I wrote for The Coalition of Awesomeness blog some time ago. The blog has since gone to an unfortunate (but very awesome) grave so I thought I’d share it here. I’ll share the other postings from time to time.

Myst, when it came out in 1993, was a ground-breaking (and record setting) game. No one had seen such a visually stunning, photo-realistic immersive experience in a video game before. There weren’t even any instructions! You just started the game and walked around, trying to figure out what you were supposed to do and why you were supposed to do it. And eventually you realized you were piecing together the parts of this great story. But that was the key – you had to find all the parts of the story. Those parts were scattered all around the game, hidden behind puzzles that were themselves scattered all around the beautiful island on which you found yourself. Each of the puzzles, and the worlds hidden behind them, had a theme – one was built around music and sound, another around mechanics, and so on. The puzzles that provided access to these worlds were somewhat challenging, though not impossibly difficult. But they were fun.

Well, most of them were. That clock puzzle… grrr…

But let me back up a minute.

When Myst came out I had recently graduated college. It should surprise no one that most of my friends were geeks of one shade or another – and some of them were multi-disciplinary geeks. All of us had some music-geek and a huge helping of pop-culture-geek in us. We had a couple of science-geeks in the group, and a few computer/tech-geeks. Though we were all into it to some degree, I and one other guy were the heavy computer game-geeks. So when I found Myst and showed it to him (or maybe he showed it to me), we decided to get four of us together to tackle this new wondrous game.

By this point we all lived in different parts of the state, and this was before the internet made screen sharing and online collaboration so easy. (In fact, it was before the world had ever heard the term World Wide Web.) We all decided to meet at one house and spend the entire weekend focused on playing this game. We had to finish the game before the weekend was up because our schedules wouldn’t allow us to get together again for a long time.

We all took turns “driving” the mouse while the others gathered around and kept an eye on the screen for things to click on, and to help solve the puzzles that arose. Paul drew a map as we progressed through the game, so we wouldn’t get lost. Paul’s a detail guy. You need a detail guy for these kinds of games.

So we went around and eventually located all the puzzles on the island, and solved most of them with the combined geek power of the group, which led to entire new worlds with more puzzles and more parts of the story. But the main island (Myst island) was the hub. And eventually we had to contend with the clock puzzle.

Throughout the day on Saturday we tried to solve that one from time to time, but got frustrated and moved on to the other puzzles. We never left the house. We were focused. We had food delivered. Greasy stuff that was the staple for four bachelors just out of college. Fried chicken. Pizza. Cheese steaks. And chips. Lots of chips. That was our fuel. But the night began to wear on. We pressed through all the other puzzles and worlds, completing them around 10pm. Eventually we had to face the clock puzzle.

The puzzle itself looked simple. There was a vertical pole in the room that held three parallel horizontal gears. On the points of the gears were numbers. Weighted chains were attached to two levers, one on either side of the gears. Pull and release one lever and the top and middle gears would rotate so the next number was in front. Pull and release the other lever and middle and bottom gears would rotate in the same way. When the weights on the chains reached the floor, you had to reset the whole puzzle and start again. The goal was to get the numbers in front to read vertically “1-3-1″ (that may not be the actual code, but it sticks in my memory).

The problem is that two gears turn no matter which lever you pull, so you’re always overshooting the 3 once you get the 1s lined up. This became a maddening feature. But we were young geeks full of greasy food… we were up for the challenge. One of us tried pulling the levers almost randomly, counting the number of possible attempts before a reset, just hoping to get lucky. Another stared at the screen looking to see if there were parts of the puzzle that we were missing. Then Paul, the detail guy, started factoring.

I don’t know if they still teach factoring in schools, but it’s a way of diagramming a multiplication problem. It ends up looking like a family tree, with every point branching into two other points. I can’t remember how many pulls on the lever we got, but Paul methodically diagrammed every single possibility of pulls and number alignments. And then he did it again, to make sure he didn’t make any mistakes, because we didn’t believe him. It was 4am when we finally accepted the inevitability of the math: it was impossible to make the numbers line up. It simply couldn’t be done. We had no less than 30 individual pieces of paper filled with factor charts to prove it.

Disgusted and defeated, and barely awake anyway, the others fell asleep. Not me. I was mad and stubborn. I went over every single inch of that puzzle screen and the entire island, looking for something we’d missed. Eventually I went back to that damn clock puzzle. I burned with pent-up frustration. I put the cursor on one lever and slammed my hand onto the mouse, pushing it down so hard that I imagined it would flatten against the desk. I heard the familiar click of the gears advancing, taunting me. But then an amazing thing happened. As I held down the mouse with the full force of my anger, the gears continued to click around. But after the first click, the top gear stayed still!

I was so surprised I physically recoiled from the desk. I stared at the screen. Then I lightly pressed the mouse button down again, and held it – something no-one had done in the previous 24 hours. The top and middle gears clicked one position forward, and then the middle gear continued to rotate alone!

The “holy crap!” I let loose woke everyone else up momentarily. I told them how simple the answer was and how stupid we all were. We all got up to watch the puzzle get solved in less than 30 seconds, granting us access to the final world, and the final pieces of the story we needed to collect. But we left the exploration of that world and the end of the game to later. First, we slept.

Despite the frustration, I still remember all the fun we had working through the game and even how the “impossibility” of that puzzle banded us together trying to break the code – bouncing ideas around, trying this and that, and brainstorming any way we could think of to figure it out. And I certainly remember the feel of shock and wonder when the solution presented itself. I remember that moment much more keenly than even the success of completing the entire game (and we went through every possible ending). That weekend is cemented as one of my favorite gaming experiences ever.

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