When I was six—long before I became Catholic—one of my friends informed me that the half-moon shines in the shape of a cross. After mulling this over, I spent the next month watching the moon and carefully noting, at each phase, what shape the corona took when I squinted. If, somewhere in the world, there was a door locked with a code based on the phases of the moon, I wanted to be able to open it. This motivation for celestial study was, admittedly, illogical, but I find something wholesome in the memory. It’s often lamented that we don’t take enough time to appreciate our surroundings. My hypothesis, strange as it was, gave me a reason to take notice of the world.
The reason I’d developed this hypothesis was because I’d recently been introduced to the puzzle video game Myst. In Myst, the player navigates a series of worlds, solving puzzles to unlock new areas and items. The solutions to the puzzles are hidden within the surrounding environment; in one location, the puzzle is a combination lock of different symbols, including, yes, a plus sign and a half-moon. Most of the puzzles were too advanced for a six-year-old, and I simply watched my mother solve them, but the experience had taught me a lesson: pay attention.
To this day, I credit Myst for giving me an increased sense of wonder and attention to detail, attributes that, perhaps, increased my openness to the divine before I ever encountered Catholicism. In replaying the game and its first two sequels as an adult, I have found that the series is also rich with artistry and intriguing themes. Though not explicitly religious, it has much to offer to the cultured Catholic.
A Wondrous World
As I’ve mentioned, Myst first influenced me through its style of puzzle. Unlike a puzzle game such as, say, Tetris, in which a puzzle is self-contained and exists only for its own sake, Myst incorporates its puzzles and their solutions into the game’s world. Clocks, telescopes, books, and pianos conceal hidden mechanisms or the information needed to understand them. Everyday items acquire significance. To progress, players are forced to look again at what first seemed mundane.
The result is to infuse the world with a sense of wonder. Nothing is meaningless; all points to a pattern beyond itself. The player’s heightened level of attention, too, reveals new beauty in the familiar: Have windchimes always been so ethereal? Is striking a match always so dramatic? It was this worldview that led me to take notes about the moon as a child, certain, even without a religious framework, that there had to be a deeper purpose to what I saw. Even today, I’m occasionally struck by wonder at some ordinary object because Myst reminded me to look closely. “The heavens are telling the glory of God” indeed, and so does the whole world: clocks and telescopes, windchimes and matches, basalt columns and pitcher plants.
Art, Creators, and Providence
One of the primary gameplay mechanics in the Myst series is traveling between different worlds. In the Myst universe, certain people have the ability (simply called “The Art”) to write special books describing a world. Anybody who touches that book will then be instantly teleported to the world therein. Naturally, this premise can be seen as a literalization of the power of books, and of art in general, to captivate and “transport” us. It has a nice resonance with J.R.R Tolkien’s theory of sub-creation, the idea that humans create other “worlds” in stories because we ourselves are children of a Creator.
In Riven: The Sequel to Myst, this theme takes an interesting twist. A conflict arises between two characters as to whether writing a descriptive book truly creates another world. The first character, a humble man, believes that a book’s world already exists and the artist only creates a gateway to it; a reasonable belief, as some of the worlds contain civilizations that have apparently existed longer than the book describing them. The second character argues that artists create the worlds they describe. He is a villainous character, and this stance is meant to demonstrate his pride, but the player may be excused for believing that he, too, has a point. It is shown that editing a book has an effect on the described world, which would be strange if the book merely provided a gateway to it!
This theme is, unfortunately, never fully resolved. However, I believe that by giving both characters fair arguments, Riven communicates something true: good art is both created and discovered. Obviously, art is the product of human artists; yet how often have writers described their own stories taking them in unexpected directions? In his memoir On Writing, author Stephen King writes, “I [believe] stories are found things, like fossils in the ground . . . relics, part of an undiscovered pre-existing world.” As a Catholic, I have no trouble believing that an artist may create with free will yet providentially end up discovering previously unknown truths in the process.
Myst III: Exile expands the creation metaphor. In the game’s backstory, an artist creates a world to educate his children and then leaves the civilization within to its own devices. Years later, unbeknownst to him, his now-grown children return to the world and exploit its resources for their own gain, resulting in the civilization’s collapse. The storyline of Exile is the fallout of these events.
The fact that the artist’s children are responsible for destroying the civilization casts Exile’s dramas into a parental light. The man may be a sympathetic character, but his failure to recognize his children’s destructive behavior is a profound failure of parental responsibility. This is mirrored in his neglect of the world he had spiritually “fathered” by creating. Ultimately, the created civilization collapses when the artist’s adult children perpetuate the cycle of irresponsibility and convince the world’s youth to abandon their duties.
Yet, while Exile lays bare the wages of parental irresponsibility, it also leaves room for hope. The game begins with all seeming lost: the wrongs of the past beyond the artist’s ability to right and a new community under threat by the same cycle of dysfunction. Despite this, Exile shows that grace may still intervene, casting the player as an agent of such grace. His or her protagonist works to protect the community despite not being responsible for its welfare and, although personally blameless, atones for the artist’s negligence in his stead. And while one may still win the game after choosing retribution in a climactic decision—thus preventing mercy from being reduced to pragmatism—in the game’s best ending, the protagonist responds to vengeance with kindness, breaking the vicious cycle at last. Thanks to this act, the artist finally makes peace with his mistakes, and some wounds that seemed unmendable are healed.
For those of us who have been let down by parental figures, Exile is a poignant illustration that we do not have to repeat the mistakes of our mentors. Paying one’s anger about the past forward is tempting but not inevitable; by turning the other cheek, we make the future brighter for our descendants. And for those of us who, like the artist, are tormented by mistakes beyond our power to mend, we may take comfort that no situation is too bleak for grace.
There is a great risk, now that Christianity is a well-known religion, of becoming jaded to its premises. Regardless of whether everybody believes in an omnipotent creator God, the concept is so familiar to our society that even devout Catholics can take it for granted. This is perilous. True reverence for God, even true understanding, requires awe; we do not see God truly if we see him as ordinary.
Yet we first meet God through his creation, and so it is unsurprising that people will have difficulty feeling awe toward God if they’ve never felt awe about anything else. Myst’s wondrous depiction of the world may be a good inoculation against cynicism and a corrective to those who need to rediscover wonder and awe. Its thematic depth, too, gives the analytical player much to grapple with. Though old by video game standards, Myst’s value remains timeless. I would love to see more Catholics embrace it.