“The idea that someone may be linking into my study, reading all of my books, disturbs me.”
I can’t even remember the exact circumstances. Growing up, we used to have a family friend stay with us for a few weeks at a time, maybe a month or more. I remember being in primary school; I remember being told we’d have a friend stay with us for a little while. I think they were in my brother’s year.
I never really found out why the family was going on holiday without their son, or why we were taking them in for a period. But Mum was like that: if a kid was in need, she put any complaints aside to make sure they were looked after.
After a few years of holidays that typically involved late nights, pass-and-play gaming, the frustrations with too many kids in too small a space and an increasingly pissed off mother who kept losing sleep to the sounds of old mechanical keyboards and mice clicking at hours way too late for small children, the family friend stopped by again to stay for another few weeks.
This time was a little different: they bought a gift. It was for my mother; it was a copy of Myst 3: Exile.
My brother and I were of that age when computers — Macs mostly, but computers more generally — started to find their way into classrooms. We weren’t fortunate enough to live in an especially affluent diocese or a suburb where schools were bequeathed with generous donations. So when our primary school got a computer, that was it: they literally got one solitary computer, despite the fact that literally nobody on staff seemed to know how to operate it.
(Or, as I suspect is the case, the staff that did know were smart enough to not put their hand up. Even in the ’90s, dealing with kids in school is exhausting enough without adding “unpaid IT support” to their neverending list of unofficial, thankless duties.)
It was one of the pre-iMac, boxy-era Macintosh computers. Possibly a Centris 610 with CD-ROM support, although I don’t remember the exact model. It was located in what we generously called a school library — about three rows of hand-me-down books cobbled together with what I imagine was the most shoestring of budgets. The Mac itself probably cost more than whatever was allocated to the entirety of knowledge inside.
But it was also priceless. I remember watching a teacher fire up Myst, not really knowing what it was exactly, and struggling to work out what to do on the opening screen. Resigned, she gave up and turned to one of the students instead. Maybe they’d know how to make this work.
Myst wasn’t the first game to dabble as edutainment. Savvier schools had played around with Carmen Sandiego, a series beloved to this day. Those with access to deeper IT budgets trialled early coding programs, powered by Apple Logo.
But Myst was on another level entirely. It relied upon pre-rendered vistas that really demonstrated the power of the CD-ROM over the previous era. Critics, gamers, passing observers all thought they were looking into a photorealistic future. Just firing up Myst on a screen blew people away; mainstream newspapers like the New York Times heralded Myst as the birth of a new artistic medium.
That universal validation, perhaps, was why Myst found itself into so many schools. But without any supporting infrastructure, the teachers and executive couldn’t make use of it. I imagine they didn’t mind, though: the bigger battle was winning the fight to get the budget in the first place.
But with that done, it wasn’t enough to have a hulky, beige box hanging around doing nothing. So the school principal turned to the only resource available — which happened to be someone in Year 3, a child fortunate enough to have been taught assembly language from the age of 6.
The principal needed help learning how to use word documents and, I imagine, assistance producing anything that might justify the investment. That assistance often involved pulling my brother out of classes — and occasionally myself — for literal infant tech support. Not known for being a shrinking violet, my Mum made her displeasure known. Often directly, irrespective of whatever phone call or meeting the principal might have happened to have at the time.
If teachers couldn’t get Word to work or past the first level of Myst, that was a problem they could solve on their own time. Not her children’s.
My Dad had a second job as a medical database programmer — all in assembly code, of course. But given the family’s circumstances, we weren’t blessed with the latest technology. But when he was on shore leave from his role as an engineer on oil tankers and other cargo ships for BHP, he’d try and collect the cast-off bits of tech that local businesses, banks and organisations didn’t want or didn’t know how to use.
He collected a lot of old 286 PCs that way. And that effort gave the family something to occupy ourselves that wasn’t endless reruns of free-to-air television. It’s how my brother and I ended up familiarising ourselves with the golden era of MicroProse simulators, or classics like Heaven & Earth.
If you’re unfamiliar, Heaven & Earth is basically a whole bunch of puzzles jumbled into a single game. You can play three of those puzzles individually — a card-type game where you’re connecting seasons, months and weather types into combos for the highest score; a pendulum game where you basically mash the mouse or keyboard to hover over gems in a pond; and a Pandora’s Box collection of ‘illusions’ that included maze-type affairs, the reassembly of 3D objects with no ability to change the perspective, and hundreds more.
Heaven & Earth has a special mode, however, called the Pilgrimage. It’s basically a collection of the hardest puzzles in the game, broken up with some spiritually infused, almost meditative poems and scribes along the way. Because of this, the game became a ritual for Mum and I. We’d sometimes try to tackle one of the more challenging puzzles together; sometimes she’d play through one or two while I was at school.
And then sometimes she’d just universally declare, “This puzzle’s shit.” We’d agree that the pendulum puzzles sucked and moved onto a fresh save.
Games became a way for her to connect with her children in an age where things were rapidly changing. It wasn’t for a few years later that we’d get our first CD-ROM — it cost a few hundred dollars, from memory. By that stage, just about the whole family had one or both feet in gaming. One of the first things my brother ever bought with his pocket money was a copy of Command & Conquer: Red Alert (great choice) and Wing Commander Academy (not so much). My Dad went to the effort of moving one of the PCs into the kitchen table for a day so we could play a demo of Virtua Pool together.
Mum? Well, it was the mid ’90s — a perfect era for point-and-click puzzles.
Many games struggled to make good use of the space CD-ROMs offered. Many early CD-ROM games leant into full-motion video on the mistaken belief that they could incorporate movies into their video games. But the ones that did this well — and there weren’t many — weren’t successful because of their Hollywood actors and actresses, or the realism of the (often interlaced, barely watchable) FMV segments. Games like Myst were good because they were good games first and foremost, built around ideas that worked with or without FMV.
Myst went on to sell 6.3 million copies worldwide by the end of 2000, so it’s no surprise investors were happy to throw buckets of money at Riven, the game’s eventual sequel. The game launched on 5 CDs; Broderbund spent $US10 million on a marketing campaign.
But the way we found out about Riven was through, surprisingly, another teacher. They lived a few doors up the road from us, and for whatever reason, they were just as much of a gamer as their household was. I wasn’t given the specifics, but apparently the topic of puzzle games came up.
What I do remember was the unlikely challenge that emerged. This friendly neighbour spoke about how difficult Riven was, how it had a whole second language and how they’d become stuck on some puzzle late in the game. Mum, intrigued, mentioned that she was a fan of puzzles, had beaten Myst and would love to have a go.
Dismissively, the neighbour remarked that Riven might be out of her league. After having the discs on hand, I remember hearing the words “fucking bullshit” — never muttered, of course, because that wasn’t her style.
She went on to finish Riven in two weeks.
The relationship with the neighbour wasn’t all bad — he introduced my brother and I to the wonder that was Razor 1911 installer music — but it certainly provided tons of entertainment for our family and those adjacent over the coming years. A bit of dumpster diving at Harvey Norman — remember those massive tables and bins with genuine CD-ROM bargains — recouped Age of Empires, a historical Myst puzzler set in Ancient Rome and Motorcross Madness. Another friend of Mum’s, knowing the family was keen on these sorts of adventures, bought Gabriel Knight 3 for the household.
We responded in kind by cranking the speakers on the main menu screen while doing the dishes.
Another family friend had gotten a copy of Zork Nemesis Inquisitor, the Tim Curry-led comical puzzler. We already had discs for Zork Nemesis, which was a true family effort to complete: some of the puzzles in Nemesis took place within a small metal tube, small enough to trigger my Mum’s claustrophobia.
Other sections were scary or too complicated for me to knock out, but we eventually worked through it together. And when we did, the families simply swapped games.
Myst III: Exile didn’t launch until 2001. By that time, our family friend had seen us all binge (and participate in) late-night sessions of Heroes of Might and Magic, Gazillionaire, and countless other adventures that I can’t remember now. They knew that Mum loved Myst, and loved puzzles, and they wanted to say thank you in a way that really meant something.
It was a perfect gift. Mum told me once it was one of the most special gifts she’d ever received: it was a gift for her, not a gift given to her as the matriarch of a household, or a gift to make maintaining a household easier. It was something she loved, something she wanted, and something that was a complete surprise.
My friend played through early sections of Exile with her, and when they left after the holidays, Mum and I would later finish the game together. We kept that tradition up until the end, or for as long as she was able to comfortably look at screens. Cancer unfortunately brought an end to our ritual — brain tumours make it hard to continually stare at a computer screen, even an iPad.
I can’t ask Mum anymore what she thought of Myst. I suspect that’s irrelevant though: what was important was that we both had something we could share, something to stave off the loneliness of Dad being thousands of kilometres away in some random ocean.
Myst made her happy; Myst III: Exile made her happy. It brought us together. And considering that’s something that will never happen again, I’m all the more grateful for those trips through the Ages.