Utne Reader visionary [Originally published as Rand and Robyn Miller in the January-February 1995 issue of Utne Reader]
When you land on Myst Island, you are confronted by enigmas: A wind blowing and blowing. A planetarium. A strange Jules Verneish spaceship. Something has happened, and it is up to you to figure out what. There are still, silent objects to interrogate; deep shadows; shafts of light; and a pervasive sense of forlorn, fathomless mystery.
You are in the world of Myst, the first CD-ROM hit, and quite possibly the first CD-ROM classic, an interactive experience so majestic, layered, and enigmatic that it might also be the prototype of a new art form. Its creators are a couple of good-natured regular guys, preacher’s kids living in Spokane, Washington, who simply wanted to make a more grown-up computer game.
After Rand Miller, 36, and his brother Robyn, 28, won a Software Publishers Association award in 1988 for a kids’ game called The Manhole, they set up shop as Cyan Inc. in a garage-like “world headquarters” out on a rural route. They knew that they wanted to go on to make a game that would fascinate a grown-up, and they figured that it needed to be different in a couple of major ways from the run-through-the-maze-and-bang-you’re-dead games that kids are addicted to.
“We needed to give more,” Robyn says. “More story, more implied background.” And Rand adds: “Kids have all the time in the world to play, and they love the repetitious structure of ‘dying’ and beginning again. But adults are busy; they need a payoff from the beginning, and they get frustrated by ‘dying’ in a game. So that was out.”
And in just such a trial and error manner was a classic born. As they worked, the brothers realized that in crafting a complex story and creating Myst’s dense, dark, and truly beautiful graphics (which owe a great deal to Victorian book illustration) they were actually attaining a new digital aesthetic in which stillness and richness, not hyperkinetic action or tech-head tricks, do the hypnotizing. Rand says: “We took away everything—dialog boxes, whatever—that could break the spell.”
The spell is working in the marketplace. A novelization of the game is being written, Myst II is in development, and there are reports of separation anxiety and sadness as devoted players complete Myst I.
The key to the Millers’ success isn’t aesthetic boldness or electronic-frontier visionary intensity; it’s a calm and tradition-minded sense of craft. “We try to keep a level of integrity in everything we do,” says Rand. “In the music, the visuals, the sound. It also means that we treat everybody we deal with in business honestly.
“And the other thing is,” he continues, “we believe in a Creator who is responsible for the world we live in. It was an awesome experience to create a world of our own, with all the care and integrity we could muster, and yet see how thin and sketchy and insignificant it is compared to the one he made.”