How Brothers Behind 'Myst' Reunited to Create Mysterious New VR World

Inside 'Obduction', the game that tries to do for VR what 'Myst' did for multimedia gaming

The Miller brothers, Robyn and Rand, co-created 'Myst' and are once again collaborating, this time on 'Obduction.' Credit: Bram Vanhaeren

For gamers, at least ones with long memories, it may be a reunion as exciting as Nathan Drake reuniting with Sully at the end of Uncharted 3. Rand and Robyn Miller, the brothers behind 1993's mind-blowingly innovative computer game Myst, haven't worked together since Bill Clinton was president. But on July 26th, their company, Cyan, will finally release a new collaboration from the Millers: Obduction, a sci-fi adventure that aims to update the trippy world-building magic of Myst for a new technological era – including support for Oculus, which means players who squinted at Myst's mysterious island world through fuzzy CRT screens can now walk around a fully realized version of one of the Millers' creations. 

To a young Call of Duty obsessive, the spooky, slow-building approach of Obduction might barely register as a game at all, but the Millers see their atmospheric, cerebral creations as "interactive fiction" that aims to evoke emotion above all. "I love the fact that it feels like we make places that you actually go to," says Rand. "I love movies and books and all other mediums, but there's something about interactive that makes your brain feel like you've been taken somewhere. That's magical."

Obduction deposits its players in a surreal landscape where fragments of Earth and other planets seem to coexist. The object is to find out what happened there and find your way back to our planet by exploring this world, step by step. It feels very much like Myst: beautiful, moody, deserted outdoor scenes, populated by an occasional hologram (an upgrade from the videos-in-books from Myst) and environmental puzzles. Barring a few necessary compromises when it comes to graphics, the VR version is nearly identical to the PC version, though players can choose to warp from one spot to another rather than walking – to avoid motion sickness. The game is clearly written for those who loved Myst, and appears to be more of a technological evolution rather than a revolution in the genre.

Rand, who has never left the gaming world, is the technical half of the brothers' team; he started programming games in the Eighties as a junior high student on a massive mainframe computer at the University of New Mexico in Albuquerque, one of the many cities the Millers called home – their dad was a pastor with a highly mobile ministry. "I would steal passwords for the mainframe out of the trash," recalls Rand. Robyn, meanwhile, was a self-described "art and music nerd." "During high school," says Robyn, "I did almost nothing but paint, compose music and practice the piano." The brothers ended up finding common ground via the early Macintosh, with its user-friendly Hypercard development platform (which had an interface that presaged the World Wide Web): By 1988, they were trying to create an interactive children's book that became their first game, The Manhole.

They formed Cyan, then known as Cyan Worlds, in their parents' Spokane, Washington basement in 1987. By 1990, they began work on what would become Myst, aided greatly by new CD-ROM technology that allowed them to incorporate actual live video into their game. The brothers used that tech to create an eerily atmospheric and solitary adventure that boasted stunning, photorealistic visuals, an evocative soundtrack, and mind-bending spatial-reasoning puzzles. And Robyn's musical skills proved essential, as he created one of gaming's truly haunting soundtracks, with spooky ambient synths that evoked Brian Eno, not Super Mario Brothers (one of his compositions was so scary that they had to leave it out of the game – players were afraid to enter the area that featured it).

Myst became a mainstream breakout hit, attracting adult non-gamers, holding a sales record for a full decade and landing the Millers their own Gap ad. It became the basis for one of gaming's great mythologies – spanning nine core games (the first sequel, 1997's Riven, was the most successful) released between 1993 and 2007, along with spinoff novels, soundtracks, and even a parody game, Pyst, in 2006. The brand remains compelling enough that last year, Hulu bought rights to produce a Myst TV series.

After Riven, though, the newly wealthy brothers parted ways. "Two people can't pilot a ship – someone must be in charge," Rand told Wired in 1999. "The parting gave us each a ship." While Rand continued running Cyan, Robyn took a shot at movie directing: His most recent effort was the 2013 indie film The Immortal Augustus Gladstone, a faux-documentary about a man who claims to be a vampire (Variety called it "odd"). Robyn says he was drawn to more traditional entertainment in part because he felt the world wasn't ready for the kind of interactive stories he hoped to someday tell. "Myst was largely an experiment to see if we could tell a nonlinear story," Robyn says. "Honestly, we didn't know how all this would work out. I also felt, for a variety of reasons, it would potentially be decades before nonlinear narratives would be as emotionally provoking as even the simplest of stories." 

In 2013, as Myst celebrated its 20th anniversary, Rand announced his plans for a brand-new game, Obduction, via a Kickstarter campaign with an ambitious $1.1 million goal. "The Obduction project will take what Cyan knows about creating deeply immersive worlds and apply it to an entirely new game with fantastic scenery, incredible architecture, compelling story, and exceptional challenges," he explained. The campaign closed at 1.3 million dollars, not only making the new game possible, but also meeting the stretch goal for VR support. Rand reached out to Robyn to compose some of the music for Obduction, and also cast him as one of the new game's characters.

With Robyn coming in relatively late in the process, Obduction doesn't mark a full return of the Millers' partnership – it's more like Big Boi taking a few verses on an Andre 3000 solo track. But they enjoyed their renewed collaboration so much – and are so intrigued by the possibilities of VR – that they're discussing a true revival of their creative partnership. 

"We work so well together – it's fun," Rand says. "We usually have a good time. We laugh a lot, we challenge each other. It always feels really good." Rand pauses. "Now we'll probably have a huge argument and fight this weekend."

"Pretty much at the end of the day, no matter how bad it gets, you're still brothers," Robyn says. "Being brothers allows you to say to your sibling, 'Hey, that's a dumb idea.' And then your brother says, 'Yeah, OK,' or you can argue over a point without getting your feelings all damaged. Or maybe your feelings are damaged for a little while and you work past that." In the end, he says, "You can't divorce your brother."

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