Steve Barnes' World of Happiness

A modern make of Myst, and the modern awkwardness of Oculus.

The element of revelation was apparently so important that the product’s title wasn’t allowed in the trailer’s title.

I was stirred the moment I heard Atrus’ voice speaking words I didn’t recognize, and shivered as they carried directly into the most familiar words in the series.

This wouldn’t be the new version released in 2000 with a higher resolution and built-in hints. Not the following new version with fully-explorable 3-D graphics replacing the pre-rendered, HyperCard-style frames, nor the new version from 2014 which remastered all of that. Not the iOS or iPad versions, nor any of the versions released for everything from Nintendo DS to a recent fan remake for the Apple II.

My similarly historied love of Myst, the willingness of my imagination to accept its premise, have always filled the gap between the technology’s capability and an apparent reality. For it to feel real, I never required a version that looked real. Resultingly, I felt somewhat numb floating with the trailer’s camera toward the island rendered as though by a Hollywood graphics veteran.

The trailer’s accompanying description acknowledged, if not emphasized, the recent secrecy around this project. (“We’ve been keeping this one close to the chest for some time…”.) But I was pretty sure I’d seen renders last year on a Cyan employee’s personal page or something – I think on a page of visual wizard Eric Anderson, amid clear disclaimers this wasn’t a game in development. I accepted that warning even while hearing myself think “right.” Such secrecy. Resultingly, what might have been a total surprise here was more a confused confirmation. “Oh, it’s this after all?”

I suppose you could say that threw me off. Even if so, the trailer’s primary success in throwing me off took a different form entirely. That critically withheld title’s presentation didn’t read simply “MYST,” which would have been quite sufficient to satisfy deeply. Instead, it read “MYST,” followed shortly by “coming soon to Oculus Quest.”

Oculus was a shining beacon of the last decade. Kickstarted in 2012, the Oculus Rift was presented as the first truly immersive virtual reality headset for video games, and actually lived up to that. The perceptible excitement rivalled that reserved for technological nostalgia. The company’s leaders spoke of “presence,” a threshold beyond which the virtual experience would “click” in the viewer’s mind, exceeding the sum of its technical parts. Enthusiasts scrambled for dev kits for most of a thousand dollars even if they weren’t devs, making the included proof-of-concept demos (like “Tuscany”) famous on YouTube. Even I, who prefers imaginary to physical travel, found and visited a nearby tech shop friendly enough to let people try their Rift DK2. It was true, I learned first-hand. Sitting in a virtual space, with subtle visual differences, felt like sitting in a real space. Someday I would explore at my leisure as though to a park or a vacation spot, just to absorb, breathe, sit and think. Someday, anyone could.

I’d almost forgotten the light of that beacon. The announcement Facebook had bought the company two years later came as not just a surprise to many, but a sobering blow. That perceptible excitement seemed to choke and dull in a morning. I didn’t share the pessimism I was reading, but in short, I came to empathize, and now I’m impressed at the keener senses of those who feared a company with questionable values would taint that seemingly untaintably bright future. (Who ever thought “Rift” was destined for such a double meaning?)

What’s bittersweet, then, is to think how perfect this announcement – “MYST: coming soon to Oculus” – would have seemed then.

Most of a decade later, virtual reality is coming along. It’s still exciting to watch and learn about the technology, to hear John Carmack and Michael Abrash carry on about the immense challenges involved in bringing it about. Oculus just announced the Quest 2, a standalone headset (no need for a high-powered desktop tethered to your headset like a spinal cord) which has supposedly surpassed the original Rift in every appreciable way while becoming affordable as a modern game console. That’s truly incredible, and this would probably have been where I really dove in. Instead, I replied to Cyan on Twitter:

Now that was a trailer. Wow.

Myst should always have been VR’s killer app.

No intention to dabble with Oculus since Facebook acquired it, as much as I love the technology. If it’s elsewhere someday, I know I’ll regard playing as a life event.

Cyan’s staff are nice folks – they don’t have to interact on Twitter, but they were keen to resolve ambiguity surrounding the trailer for me and others: they chose to time this announcement to the announcement of the Oculus Quest 2, but intend to release the modern remake of Myst on other platforms too. No surprise considering the aforementioned history, but it was nice to discover they’re “wish-listable” in a few other places already. By the end of the day, it looked as though I wasn't the only one thrown off. (Since typing this, Cyan has uploaded a second version of the trailer for "PC and VR" – without the Oculus boilerplate – and updated the videos' titles to distinguish them.)

But the comment about VR’s killer app was sincere. Exciting as these eight years have been to follow, virtual reality has not reached everyday household prevalence like video game consoles or personal devices. I doubt the NES (and game consoles generally) would have reached that prevalence without Super Mario Bros. or The Legend Of Zelda, either.

Myst bore the soul and spirit of virtual reality two decades before the Rift was announced, with the capacity to impart the value of an experience transmitted between imaginations. It deserves to be the title that shows the world the value and potential of virtual reality, even if Facebook doesn’t deserve it back.