Monday, July 19, 2021

Mysterium 2021 report

Another Mysterium has come and gone. It was online again this year. I took lots of notes! But if you want to go directly to the goods, check out the Mysterium Youtube channel.
Some highlights:
Rand Miller doing a live let's-play of Myst. Not all of it, just an hour's worth of running around with off-the-cuff directory's commentary. This was Myst Masterpiece Edition (1999, still slideshow-style but improved resolution). Favorite bit: all the trees on Myst Island were rendered as perfect cones with a foliage texture. But when you look at screenshots, you see that the silhouettes are a little bit fluffy. Why? Because Rand loaded them up in Photoshop and smeared all the edges with the thumb tool. CGI magic!
Of course the big upcoming news is the Mac/PC/VR port, which is due "third quarter" -- which is to say, by the end of September. They did an hour-long State of the Union report on that.
(Panel, Youtube.)
  • No date yet, but they stand by the "third quarter" estimate.
  • Linux is not a current target.
  • Rime will not be included. Hannah Gamiel: "The hope is to bring Rime to this version eventually but it's one step at a time."
  • No option for node-based navigation. Again, they might add it later.
  • Unlike recent RealMyst versions, the Ages will not have day/night cycles.
  • They're being careful about accessibility. They're avoiding red/green palette distinctions. You can turn on subtitles for both dialogue and audio puzzles (which includes background audio cues like water flowing in Channelwood).
  • Unreal 5 features look cool but have not made it into their working pipeline. (Eric Anderson commented that Unreal's nanite geometry is not yet compatible with VR, so they can't use it.)
  • "Why Myst again?" Because there's a generation of gamers who are used to modern graphics. A lot of them aren't interested in old or retro stuff. But they might try an all-updated modern version. Eric Anderson: "Not the way it looked, but the way we remember it looking."
They had to redesign some of the game mechanisms to be VR-compatible. (This version will work on both VR and flatscreen, but it's the same layout in both, so it all has to work.) For example, all doors are sliding doors! You can't swing doors in VR without hitting people in the face. No controls on the ground; everything has to be reachable between waist-height and shoulder-height. (Some VR supports crouching, but not all.)
The upcoming version will look much nicer than the Oculus Quest port that shipped last December. More detail, more foliage, more texture. The Quest is a fairly limited platform; PCs can push way better graphics. Although they don't have to! The artists say they've gotten much better at designing environments that work with a wide variety of graphics settings. (The Steam page lists super-high graphics requirements, but that's only for PC-VR. Flatscreen PCs will have more moderate requirements.)
Interestingly, they say they can now "design high and optimize down". If you look at Cyan interviews after Obduction, they bemoan the mistake of designing for high-end PCs and then trying to trim the models down for VR. When Firmament was announced, they said "VR first!" But at this point they have more optimization experience and better tooling.
I've been somewhat snarky about the fact that Quest shipped first and every other platform has had to wait. Having seen direct comparison screenshots between Quest and PC, I can see why it took extra time. Also, as they pointed out, the Quest version went from a proof of concept in Dec 2019 to shipping in Dec 2020 -- that's really a compressed timeline. They could not focus on multiple platforms for Myst and also keep the Firmament pipeline moving. So that's the story there.

Speaking of Firmament: The status report is "going great". They are extremely enthusiastic about the story. Target date is late next year. End of report.

No mention at all of Starry Expanse, the 3D Riven remake. The people involved in that project are reportedly still at it, but under NDA.

Chuck Carter talked about the reconstructed Selenitic Age that he's working on as a hobby project. No screenshots to show off yet, sadly. This will be released for free; he estimates a year and a half, so early 2023.
He says the Age will be twice as large as the "real" Selenitic Age, with ruins containing hints at more Myst backstory. The atmosphere will be darker, hotter, and more oppressive. This is not intended to be Myst canon; rather, it's concepts that Carter developed as his personal take on Myst lore. (Cyan now has a "Myst expanded universe" label for recognized-but-not-canonical works. This project may wind up under that.)
Tidbit: this is actually Carter's second attempt to reconstruct Selenitic. The first attempt was done in Bryce3D. Sadly, those images are lost.
(By the way, he says "Selenitic" was named after the mineral selenite. I always assumed it was supposed to be "lunar" because of the meteor impacts.)
(Presentation, Youtube.)

Vincent Weaver's Apple 2 demake of Myst is now fully playable. Have I really not blogged about this before? He's presented pieces of it at KansasFest. It's the entirety of Myst on three Apple floppies, using Apple lo-res graphics. That's 40x48 pixels, friends. Of course the game is highly compacted: simplified animations, summarized journals, reduced navigation nodes. Only a few sounds. (The digitized link sound is a significant chunk of the RAM budget!)
Weaver has done some dithers into other Apple 2 graphics modes, so you can see how it would look with fancy-ass hi-res graphics. Unsurprisingly, the hand-pixelated lo-res graphics are the best. (At least until you get up to IIgs modes.)
He wrote an experimental vector graphics library which would be able to display hi-res images without using much more space. But it's really slow and wouldn't support the more intricate graphics needed for puzzles.
(Presentation, Youtube.)

Philip Shane's Myst documentary is still underway. Shane shared a few clips of source material, filmed at Cyan's office and at GeekGirlCon 2018.
They are planning to host a permanent archive of fan memories and stories of playing Myst. They showed a preview of that web page (designed by Elana Bogdan). Naturally, it's an explorable library -- delightfully overengineered.
The archive will go public when the documentary launches, but contributors will be able to see it earlier. Contributing to the library was a Kickstarter reward level, but you can still donate to the project and qualify if you want. (It's the $75 level -- it says "via video recording" but they will also accept written stories.)
(Presentation, Youtube.)

Geez, what else? I know I'm rambling on here. There was a panel of original Myst Online developers followed by a panel of the volunteers who now support the fan contribution efforts. The most interesting details there were about the early history of the Uru project. Most of this is well-known in the fan community, but I had never heard it all laid out.
Cyan launched into their original "DIRT" project right after Riven shipped. This was "D'ni In Real-Time" -- that is, in a fully navigable 3D engine. (Immensely ambitious in 1997!) DIRT was conceived as a single-player game. You would start on the surface, make your way down the Great Shaft, and then explore the D'ni city. The developers mentioned concepts for puzzles like repairing a "scarab" earth-moving machine to unblock a tunnel.
This was the period when Cyan acquired Headspin Technologies for their 3D engine (thence called Plasma). They started modelling the Descent level, followed by Teledahn. (See this post for a link to an early Descent demo. No scarab, I'm afraid.)
However, at some point -- 1999 or 2000 -- Cyan got the idea of making this an MMO. (The panellists recalled Rand Miller standing up to pitch the company on the idea.) The project was now "MUDPIE", for "Multi-User DIRT..." (the rest of the acronym is fuzzy; they just wanted to call it MUDPIE.) At this point they jettisoned the Descent sequence and replaced it with the New Mexico opening and Relto book.
(The cavern area of Descent was later remodelled into the Age of Eder Gira. The Great Shaft was teased in the Uru: Path of the Shell expansion and then unveiled in all its glory as the opening of Myst 5.)
The concensus of the original developers was that, first, it was a dream job and a time of miracles, and then it ended. (I was much reminded of Infocom implementors reminiscing!) And also, they had no idea what they were getting themselves into. Eric Anderson: "I'm so grateful for the fact that we didn't know any better. [...] Those experiences wouldn't have happened if we'd had an ounce of wisdom."
On the fan side, the maintainers promise that "Descent is coming!" To MOUL, that is. No promises about dates, but they're working on it.

I haven't hit everything, but this post is quite long enough. Enjoy!
Next year's con will be in-person in Denver. I'm not sure if I'll get there -- I have a lot of cons to get back to next year -- but I will keep up on the news.

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