The past few days I’ve been playing the iPhone port of Myst as previously mentioned and have a few thoughts to review.
Scope of this Review
I think it’s important to realize that this is a culturally significant title on a platform never dreamed or intended to be on. There is much said on the game itself in the past sixteen years and I don’t think I have much to uniquely contribute from reviewing the iPhone version. What I intend to focus on is that nature of porting the title onto the iPhone and review the choices made. This review is about how this title works on the iPhone and less about the content.
As someone who claims himself as the resident Myst nerd, there isn’t much Cyan Worlds needed to do in order to buy the title. I own the Myst board game, so I can be counted as part of the base audience. My goals with this project is how this title can attract a new audience to the title. Stated different, how can the new platform revive the franchise. As I stated before, you can earn a one-to-one relationship between the desktop computer experience with a portable device. Success then is how closely the title can communicate the essence of the original experience.
The interface starts off naturally and as expected for an iPhone game. Touch the section of the screen in which to interact with or to move forward. The cinematography of the frame is the interface. Turning around in a node is done mostly with moving the finger across the screen. This is borrowing directly from the iPhone’s photo slideshow behavior.
What makes the iPhone different from other platforms is the lack of cursor. On the PC, your cursor changed based on the context of the area. If the cursor hand was pointing to the left, is showed you could turn left when clicking. With a direct finger input, a cursor would be too much UI and therefor not included. The problem that comes with this decision is communication to the user on what possible actions may be taken. Myst doesn’t allow you to look in every possible place as it’s not a 360 view point. When using a mouse, the cursor did a good job hiding the lack of viewing options. With the touch interface, not being able to go to the left may be either an action not allow, or the user did the behavior wrong. Or in some cases, the user doesn’t know they can look above or below them.
Myst was a unique example of the day by having a very limited inventory system with only pages of books and temporary limited inventory items. For example, the match in the shed.
While I won’t spoil much of what you need to do here and why, it took me 3 minutes to figure out how to obtain a match and then light it. All of which came around the hit areas of this match box. I had to hit the right side of the box to get a match, then strike it. Two minutes was spent on trying to obtain the #@*% match. In this case due to the size of the active area, dumbing down the actions may help with the interface. Let the whole match box be the area of action.
While it’s very clear that Myst shouldn’t be played in portrait mode (Home button on the bottom), you are fixed to play the game with the Home button to your right and headphones on the left. It would be nice to pick which way the game would play and swap between the home button on left or the right. I can understand issues with accidentally flipping over the orientation on accident. Still, would a preference setting be that hard to implement?
The Auto save system is spot-on with the iPhone. While doing anything on the iPhone, the application must be ready to close at a moment’s notice for an incoming call. For a title that has a save progress, it’s extremely important that the application pick up right where it left off. I’m happy to report that iPhone Myst does this very successfully without missing a beat. What I haven’t figured out is what happens when you’re in the middle of a Live-Action video sequence. In all, I don’t worry about losing my progress all of the sudden.
You are also allowed up to four additional saves or ‘Bookmarks’ as the application calls them. I’ll go more into the specific UI aspects later in this post, but the limits of 4 save slots (in addition to the auto save) is a little frustrating for me, if only so I can make a save for each age. For the average user though, you get what you need from saving. Can’t go wrong with that!
Myst made use of a lot of pre-rendered video due to technical limitations of 3D rendered graphics, rather than a purely artistic goal. While the use of actors for video is obvious, video was used more for animation of objects from switches to stairs appearing to lighting changes. While you will only see human actors in the Red/Blue/D’ni books and when meeting Atrus in person, the rest of the game used video for any animated sequence. Elevator movement, doors, paths/steps rising from water. Computers back then could only play video mixed with still images. Now it’s harder to make a game of all video than to pre-render. Yet with iPhone Myst, there doesn’t seem to be a concern to make these difficulties transparent for the player.
In the 1993 offering, the video appeared seamlessly with no loss of picture.
In the iPhone app, this is the common steps of display:
- Activate event for movie clip.
- The ‘loading’ circle appears in the middle of the screen.
- Black screen for 1.5 to 2 seconds.
- Play video at full screen, regardless of the effected area.
- [Optional] Black screen for 1.5 to 2 seconds.
- [Optional] ‘loading’ circle.
- Resume rest state and resume interactivity.
This is hugely distracting! The viewer is pulled out of the narrative and reminded of the technology, not the narrative. I’d be concerned about the loading circle, but the black screens are completely uncalled for. I can’t imagine there isn’t a way to send a still image buffer to prevent a solid black screen. This isn’t limited to video that requires the full screen display. All the video in iPhone Myst is fullscreen video. The 1993 title compartmentalized video to only the parts that move. Apparently the iPhone can only do fullscreen video. This may be why the game is larger than the 1993 title; All the video is fullscreen.
I don’t know the background on making these technical decisions, but is there really no other way? This aspect alone makes the iPhone port go beyond being different due to the platform. This aspect ruins the essence of the title.
The settings panel for the game which is always accessible in the lower-right of the screen during gameplay. While you’ll see the ‘i’ icon in the lower-right, you can turn it off with the ‘Options Icon’ setting, which I recommend you do. It’s not distracting, but once you know it’s there it’s good to turn off.
This is ugly. A mix of custom UI elements with the de-facto iPhone UI elements. I’m not saying the one or the other is a wrong choice, but the mix is a mess. The settings screen is apart of the title as it’s within the title. While you don’t get any part of the story from the settings, it must fit the mood of the piece so that transitioning to and from the actual content is a smooth delivery. Instead, this settings panel says: OH HAI! YOUR ON AN IPHONE PORT! I’d rather it say “You’re in Myst.”
Heaven help you if you hold down the info button too long. Otherwise that ‘Hints…’ button will trigger… into Safari. While the auto save system is top notch, you have to reload the game from the top once you get out of Safari. Same for ‘Help/Info…’ What gets me is with a game already a huge size, why not use an embedded hint/help/info messaging system? Or the in-app web browser API? This information doesn’t need to be dynamically changed, so there’s no fear of imbedded information. Instead the least path of resistance for developers was place; Call Safari.
What really gets to me about this panel is my overall impressions with the iPhone port of Myst. Enough effort was put in to make the game function, but not for a quality experience. I don’t want to say they didn’t care, but I get the feeling that development resigned on so many aspects that efforts to improve the experience fell by the wayside.
I focused on the UI design and technical implementations of this title, but I want to make it clear that I love Myst for what it is. This title was significant for the period and did a lot of amazing things both technically for the time and for the art form. It’s why you have a optical disc drive in your computers. It showed that removing dependence on explicit UI elements can make for a more engrossing experience. I would even go far to say that the iPhone itself has to give acknowledgment to the 1993 Myst. The idea that interacting with the object in a natural manor is the key to UI design.
What I find with the iPhone experience is a lack of that acknowledgement. I’m left with the feeling that the experience is attached with too many apologies for the work. I don’t regret the purchase on my iPhone, but I would hesitate giving the iPhone version to someone who hasn’t experienced Myst before in fear they will leave with the wrong impression.