metzomagic.com Interview

Myst III: EXILE Interview with Susan Weyer

Interview by Rosemary Young (2001)

The countdown to May 7th, 2001 and the worldwide release of Myst III: Exile has begun. It's the first Myst title that Cyan, the original developer, has placed in the hands of another so Presto Studios is now embracing the challenge. After the phenomenal success of the original game, and its successor, Riven, we are all waiting impatiently for this next installment.

As the interest and anticipation mounts Rosemary has been lucky enough to have the opportunity to put some questions to Susan Weyer, the PR Manager at Presto Studios. Susan has been working at Presto for 5 years and her time spent as Office Manager has given her good rapport with the artists. Susan has watched the game come together from concept to completion and has been PR Manager since stepping in at short notice to present Myst III: Exile at E3 2000. Susan considers herself fortunate and privileged to have Myst III: Exile as her first game to promote.

Rosemary: Tell us a little about Presto Studios' influence in shaping Myst III: Exile. What will players find to be new and what will remain familiar to the fans?

Susan: The addition of the 360-degree panning feature will definitely stand out as a cool new addition to the gameplay. Being able to look all around you from any location, while movies and animations are playing, gives the player a tremendous amount of navigational freedom. More than they've ever had before.

I think we are most proud of the quality and variety of environments that we've accomplished in just under two years. Each Age in the game is completely different from the others; its materials, time of day, construction, etc.

As development of the story and the Ages began, we paid careful attention to certain themes in Myst and Riven that we felt we needed to stay consistent with. I think fans will find the island theme [where the player is discovering islands around different worlds], the high quality graphics and beautiful sounds all too familiar. They will also find the story and the characters familiar, as Rand Miller has reprised his role as Atrus.

Rosemary: Presto Studios is largely known to adventure game players for the Journeyman Project series. In that series you recreated the legendary worlds of Shangri-La and Atlantis. How important was this prior experience in creating the new ages of Myst?

Susan: I'm certain there are many underlying factors from our past projects that have affected our work on EXILE today. A few come directly to mind. Grouping the artists by the Age they're working on has proved to our advantage. When we moved into this studio 4 years ago, it seemed logical to have all animators in one room, all texture artists in another. Precious time was wasted walking between these studios to communicate ideas from one artist to another. For Exile, each studio contained the artists that formed that specific Age's team. For instance, Ron Lemen's team for the Age of Edanna shared a room where animator Mike Brown, modeler Steve Kim and texture artist Kelly Standard were stationed together for quick reviews and comments of their Age as production continued. This proved to be priceless.

There are many aspects of research involved in making any computer game seem realistic. While we consulted historical books for the re-creation of Atlantis, El Dorado and Shangri-La, we had different reference materials for EXILE. Our writer Mary DeMarle, played Myst and Riven again paying close attention to details of the story and written materials in the games. She read the Myst novels again, brushing up on her D'ni history. Loaded with this information she was able to create concepts for continuing the story line with Exile.

For the designers, they simply started drawing "blue sky" worlds, meaning anything goes. Upside down worlds, worlds that flowed from abandoned buildings. They needed to grasp the concept of what an age could be, and then let their imaginations create worlds that were fantasy, yet still contained elements that would seem familiar to fans. Once the five age concepts were set in stone, the designers and texture artists could then reference more specific materials for their ages. Pictured here are some of the source materials used for the age of Edanna.

Rosemary: In your FAQ's we've read about the small group of actors who have joined the Myst III: Exile troupe. Does this mean that there will be less information presented in journals and more presented in conversation? Will the conversation allow for two-way interaction or will the characters simply address the player?

Susan: Characters play a key role in EXILE. They advance the plot, provide subtle clues and back-story information, and continually draw you deeper into the intrigue. We've continued the tradition of relaying information to the player through letters or journals. However, we've tried to deliver more information visually than ever before. As with any Myst story, understanding the characters is essential to solving the game. I think players will feel the presence of the characters more in EXILE than in previous games. However, you are still the main character determining the action and events that take place around you.

Because of the way we've filmed the live-action character sequences, the character interaction should seem more like a real conversation, even though it is a filmed reaction to your actions.

Rosemary: With possibly more character interaction will this signal a move away from the solitary exploration mode that is so familiar from the previous games?

Susan: I'll try and explain the best I can without giving away any actual gameplay. {Small Spoiler Alert} I sat down to test EXILE yesterday. Upon my arrival, Catherine was there to greet me. I was watching a bird flying outside a beautiful picture window when she spoke to me. She explained where Atrus was, that he was expecting me, and that he shouldn't be too terribly long. She invited me to wait in his study. Right away, we've eliminated the "loneliness" factor. Even when I entered the study, I knew Catherine was just outside. And while I could not converse with her directly, she was there tending to her daily duties, and I could watch her from any point in the room.

Additionally, the moving water around me, the animals scurrying about, the sounds of the wind whistling; all of these elements were bringing the game to life around me. There are subtle additions throughout the game that assured me I was not alone in my Exile.

Rosemary: Will the new ages of Myst III: Exile be self-contained? Can they be explored in any order?

Susan: The Ages and the puzzles within each age are self-contained. We found it difficult when playing Riven to solve a puzzle on one side of the island and not see the effects of our actions until traveling to another location. In Exile, you'll be rewarded immediately if you've solved a puzzle correctly. Usually a reward is in the form of a story nugget, something that advances your journey. The Ages are structured around the hub Age of J'nanin, and can be explored in any order. This way, different players with different abilities can go to certain ages, solve the puzzles there, come back and go to a different age, while other players might do the opposite, because their strengths in puzzle-solving might be a little different. This structure allows players to have a difficulty level set just for them.

Rosemary: Now, Myst has a legion of computer game fans and literary fans, can you tell us at what stage the story began to emerge in earnest? Did you begin with visions of different Ages and write a story around them, or was the story already there?

Susan: Mary DeMarle, writer of MYST III: EXILE had five weeks to brush up on her D'ni history and write a proposal to show to the publisher. She had written three different story ideas for the proposal in those five weeks. She wanted Cyan and the publisher to see that Presto could carry the Myst story line in several directions.

We didn't choose any of these as the basis for Exile. Once we got the green light to actually develop the game, we went back to the drawing board. We met with Dan Irish (Executive Producer for the publisher), Tony Fryman (President of Cyan) and Rand (Miller) to discuss which direction the story line OUGHT to take.

The outcome of that meeting convinced Mary DeMarle to come up with a story which would be a true sequel to Myst. It would not only involve Catherine and Atrus - (none of the original three concepts did, since we weren't sure Rand wanted to play Atrus again) - but it would also explore some of the "loose ends" that were only hinted at in Myst.

The great thing about the concept Mary came up with after that initial meeting with Cyan was that it gave our design team a context in which we could develop ages and puzzles independently of story. Meaning, the designers were able to "blue sky" aesthetic ideas for worlds while Mary continued to develop the game's plot line. Eventually, some of those aesthetic ideas helped fuel the story's development, at the same time that the story development helped fuel additional aesthetic ideas. So it all came together simultaneously.

Rosemary: The original Myst has several claims to fame, not only is it one of the most popular computer games ever but it also attracted a lot of new players to computer game playing as well as a high percentage of women. Have you any thoughts on that magical ingredient that makes it so accessible to all?

Susan: Greg Uhler (Producer at Presto Studios) has a very good theory to answer this question:
"Speaking as someone in the industry, but not the creator of MYST, I don't presume to know exactly why MYST was such a phenomenon. But I can identify certain strengths in the product that, when combined with the state of the industry in 1993, seemed to promote mass popularity. First and foremost are the beautiful, safe, surreal worlds. People love to see new places, especially ones that are eerily familiar. MYST took the player to these locales, and let them explore at their own leisure, certainly a departure from most games. Another strength was the challenging puzzles. Puzzle balance is a very difficult task, and hats off to Cyan for creating a variety of intriguing challenges using observation, logic, and even sound. Lastly, I feel the story is the strongest factor in the appeal of MYST. Very simply, it is about family. A struggle between a father and his sons. This story hooked players at the beginning and revealed itself throughout the rest of the adventure. When you combine these strengths with the boom of personal computers in the early nineties, you have the makings of a hit. Once MYST sold a million copies, it became the de facto game for people to buy when they bought their first PC. After that, it became a self-fulfilling prophecy, selling close to 6 million copies to date".

Rosemary: Ok, so we all know that it's one thing designing a game for everyone but telling everyone about it is a different matter. Given that most games magazines are pitched at young males, what strategies have you and the publishers devised to tell everyone else about Myst III:Exile?

Susan: We have relied heavily on the web to keep new information about EXILE at the fingertips of fans around the world. Our official website is mastered by Gordon Currie, one of the founders of RivenGuild, a popular site for Myst/Riven/D'ni fans. Many other fan sites have joined in our effort to keep the most updated information available.

After we announced the title at E3 last May, we began our monthly "Behind the Screens" features taking the fans through every step of production with the team members of Presto. "Inside Looks" were also written and posted at myst3.com for a more in-depth look at what really goes into making a game like EXILE.

Copyright © Rosemary Young 2001. All rights reserved.

We are looking forward to the release of our theatrical movie trailer in May in United Artist theatres across America. The theatrical trailer is being produced right here at Presto Studios. This is a must see for all fans of the series. I can't wait to see it on a hundred foot screen!! It is a work of art in itself, and it reveals the villain for the first time since the words "Myst III" were officially whispered. It will be available for download from the web shortly after it begins its run in theatres. There are many more avenues we'll be taking to promote the title; too many to mention really. Since our system requirements are low, I'd like to think our target audience is anyone with a personal computer. A big "THANK YOU" to Rosemary for helping me reach her audience down under.