Tomahna is one of those undiscovered places that you might read about in National Geographic, those places that it takes three days on foot and canoe and yak to reach. Set on cliffs amid flowing streams and crashing waterfalls, the house at Tomahna is made up of circular pavilions linked by outdoor walkways that pass over sun-dappled water. Birds, butterflies and dragonflies flutter about.
Tomahna isn't real, but as you watch the leaves sway in the breeze and the clouds drift across the sky, it's easy to forget that. It's one of several interconnected virtual worlds that players explore in the new computer game Myst IV: Revelation, due out Sept. 28 from Ubisoft.
As video games go, Myst is like the weird, arty kid in a family of jocks. Launched in 1993, the same year as Doom, the original Myst involved clicking through a fantasy world and solving puzzles in order to unravel a conflict between a father and his two sons. It became one of the best-selling computer games of all time. And its nonviolent story line helped make it one of the first to attract many female players: about 30% were women, says Ubisoft, vs. 10% for most games.
Although several sequels have come out since, excitement about Myst has dwindled. The past two installments, Myst III: Exile and Uru: Ages Beyond Myst, have sold only about 450,000 copies combined. Criticized for being too slow paced and for having puzzles that were too hard, the franchise lost out to the heart-pumping action and 3D graphics served up by competitors. "Myst is no longer as relevant to gamers as it used to be," says Greg Kasavin, executive editor of GameSpot, a video-game website. "It represents an antiquated style of gaming."
The creators of Myst IV hope to change that with a faster-paced, more immersive game. "The whole idea is about living an adventure, not solving a particular puzzle," says Patrick Fortier, the game's lead designer. If you can't figure out how to restart a broken power generator in Tomahna, for example, you can refer to a help guide. And there's more than an hour of live-action video in which characters offer cryptic clues on how to proceed.
Most impressive is that every scene looks like a moving photograph of a magical, mysterious place. In the jungle-like Haven, the swampy water ripples when touched, and surreal-looking animals dart across the screen. In Serenia, another world, stone pathways cut through calm, Caribbean-blue water laced with lily pads.
But will breathtaking scenery and an ongoing family saga sell to today's twitch-happy gamers? Genevieve Lord, producer of Myst IV, thinks gamers will like the change of pace. "In libraries and video stores, you have variety, so why not in video games?" she asks. Whereas Doom is like an action movie, Myst is more of a drama. The appeal is subtler, but that doesn't mean it should be doomed. --By Anita Hamilton