Mysterium 2022: The Cyan-adjacent news

Monday, August 15, 2022

Tagged: huru, mysterium, myst documentary, story vault, myst online, uru, ages, archiving, cyan, myst

(Continuing my Mysterium report; see part 1...)

Not all the presentations were from Cyan folks! The fans working on community Myst Online support gave talks on their work.

On the software side, the H'uru group has a fork of the official (open-source) Myst Online client with a whole stack of improvements. (64-bit Intel and ARM support; native Mac and Linux support in progress.) The chart they showed gave a mid-2023 estimate for integrating these improvements into the official client.

You can read the slides on the H'uru talk here. There's also a video captured from the current Mac build.

As for content: new fan Ages continue to pop up on the Myst Online server. (Tiam in December; Elonin in April. The Gahreesen climbing wall was also reactivated in April.) The next release is expected to be a garden Age called Eder Naybree on September 9th.

There were also presentations from the creators of Area Man Lives, The Last Clockwinder, and Walkabout Mini Golf. Again, I'm not a VR fan so I don't have much to say about these.

Oh, in case you missed it: the guy who did Myst for the Apple 2 is now showing off Myst for the Atari 2600. In case you thought there was nowhere to go with that.

The Myst documentary continues apace. Philip Shane says that they're working hard to have it done for next year's Mysterium. If it's not finished by then it should be in the final editing stages, at least.

(It only now occurs to me that we've been calling it "the Myst documentary" all this time. Does it have a title? It's funny that nobody's ever asked... The press page says "THE MYST DOCUMENTARY" so I guess that's the title.)

The movie will be released on the usual streaming services. If you have a local theater that shows documentaries, it could show up there too. And maybe game conventions? I didn't ask about this, but Get Lamp showed at PAX and some other cons, so who knows.

Philip showed an outline of the documentary. Details were blurred out (awww) but the movie will cover the creation of Myst, Riven, and Uru, the near-collapse of Cyan in 2005, the resurrection of Cyan and Uru in 2006-7, and then the "new era" of Obduction and Firmament. With side trips to Rand and Robyn Miller's childhood and formative computer experiences.

Shane describes Rand and Robyn's story as the "spine" of the movie, but it will also deal with everyone else whose life impacted or was impacted by Myst. That includes other Cyan creators like Chuck Carter, Richard Vander Wende, Richard Watson, and so on; and also the fan community in all its glory.

The second half of the presentation was about the Community Vault of Myst stories. This was a high-level backer reward: get your personal Myst memories into a public archive which will accompany the documentary.

The Vault is now live! They started accepting stories three days ago. As of Shane's talk, they've gotten 56 contributors with 126 pages of text, photos, video, and audio. These numbers will certainly shoot up in the next few weeks. It looks like about 700 people backed the documentary at the Vault level. If you didn't, donations are still open at Fangamer, so you can still get in if you want.

(Disclosure: I did not back at that level. But I'm considering it now.)

As you saw when you insta-clicked, the Vault site is presented as an interactive library environment. No Myst without libraries! The creator, Elana Bogdan, cites the US National Archives and the Stockholm Public Library as inspirations. Open the gates, click on the shelves, browse the books. If you've got a backer code to add material, the center desk provides an in-browser editing interface for your book.

This is extremely cool, and absolutely lovely, and also somewhat awkward. (Warning: I start getting opinionated here. Lecture and suggestion follows.)

The idea of creating a Myst-style immersive environment on a web site is very nearly as old as the Web itself. I've always loved it. You can browse my library that way! However, for an archive... I worry that the concept is getting in the way of the information.

During the Q&A session, a few questions came up about the interface. Is there a card catalog? Is it searchable? Can you browse by date to find new material? Have you tested the site for visual accessibility? (I asked that last.)

The answers were, basically, "We want this to be like Myst". The Vault is supposed to be a sensory, tactile experience. You have to poke around the shelves. You have to pick up books and leaf through them, one book and one page at a time.

I get that. It's a great design and people will have a lot of fun playing around in the site. But to force people to use this site interface isn't fun; it's precious and exclusionary and inaccessible. The result was that the Vault presentation had a running backdrop of apologies.

  • The site does not work on a phone, sorry. It requires a large browser window. (It was functional on my iPad but the edges of everything were cut off.)
  • No, it does not support screen readers. There's an option for "accessible fonts" which changes the handwriting to typewriter -- full credit there -- but true visual accessibility is not supported. (They hope to work on that after launch.)
  • No, you can't search. You can't find recently-updated books. You can't link to content. Sorry, that would break the immersion.
  • No, you can't page through a book quickly. The 1.2-second crossfade is unskippable.
  • What if someone in the community dies and I want to search through every memory for mention of their name? Or even browse as quickly as possible? Sorry.

There's also the question of future support. What will this site look like in five years? Ten years? As the Myst community knows very well, web sites go down. SQL servers choke. Domains expire. People leave the fandom or disappear or die. A lot of what we thought of as crucial fan sites in 2003 or 2007 are long gone to dust. Only the Wayback Machine remembers... but the Community Vault site is completely inaccessible to crawlers! The Wayback Machine can't see it. If the server falls over, all that contributed material is gone.

This is not doing right by the memories that have been entrusted to you.

But, I think all of these problems can be addressed with a single update! My suggestion:

  • Put a link on the front page which says "browse in plain mode". That should link to a simple HTML list of contributors. No jQuery, no shelves, no book jpegs, no infinite scrolling. Just a plain <ul> list of links in alphabetical order. Each entry is a name, the page count of how much content has been added, and the date of last edit.
  • If you want to get fancy, add a second index page (different URL) which lists the same links in chronological order, most recent update first.
  • When you click on a link, you go to a web page showing all that person's content. That's all. Plain HTML with all their text and images. Links to the audio and video. Stable URL -- everything is permalinks. (Keep the "accessible fonts" menu option; that's solid.)
  • Make sure the plain-mode index and all the contributor pages are visible to web crawlers, including the search engines and Wayback Machine.

That's all. That gets you mobile support and visual accessibility and page-search and Google search and a fallback for when the site goes down. And citeability, for when someone's writing their PhD thesis on Uru and wants to link to a specific person's entry.

When you start to think "But that breaks the experience..." No. Let that go. You can't force people to have an experience. If someone uses the plain interface, they need the plain interface. If someone finds a text through Google and clicks through, they're reading the text. Success! That's what an archive is for.

I'm not saying add this feature right now! I realize that the site just went up last week and you're still hammering out the first wave of bugs. The contributions are still rolling in. I love the site and I'm happy to see it working.

But when you get back to thinking about accessibility, please consider this idea. And please don't stay stuck on the "force people to play a Myst game" idea. It's too narrow for what you want to accomplish.

(There's other ways you could accomplish these goals, of course. You could package up all the contributed data in a big zip file every three months, hand it over to the Guild of Archivists, and say "Here! Archive this!" I think that would be more work though.)

Mysterium 2023 will be in Spokane. See you all next year, I very much hope.

A footnote: My regular readers know who I am. But if you got here through Mysterium links, you might not understand where I'm coming from or why I care about accessibility.

Hi! I'm Andrew Plotkin, or Zarf, or Belford. I'm a big fan of Myst. I'm also a big fan of old-school (Zork-style) text adventures. I do volunteer work for the Interactive Fiction Technology Foundation, a nonprofit dedicated to supporting, preserving, and advancing IF tools and services.

IFTF runs a bunch of community services including the IF Archive, the IF Database, and the IFWiki. Some of these services go back 25 years or more. We have games, articles, and community content saved from the early 1990s. Seriously.

Part of our job is to go around to IF services -- whether we run them or not -- and ask, "What's your backup plan? Is your service accessible? Is there data export? Do you need a safe place to drop database dumps? What happens if the site developer gets bored or gets another job? Just checking that you've thought about this stuff."

This is why, for example, you can go to this archive page and download quarterly SQL dumps of the IFDB database. (The public parts of it, that is.) It's an ugly format and nobody would browse it for fun. But if people ever want to do research on IF history -- it's right there.

I hope I will be around 25 years from now. I know the community will be. They will look back at 2022 and say "Someone saved that stuff and we still have it." That's important.