Quern: the closest you’ll get to Myst

Myst is one of my favourite classic adventure games. It’s beginning may be simple but I think it’s one of the best: I love the sense of confusion and amazement it inspires in the player, drawing on the same feelings experienced by the protagonist.

Despite some criticism, Cyan’s game caught the imagination of so many people when it was originally released in 1995 thanks to its ability to immerse them in its world. It won a number of awards and was the best-selling PC title ever until The Sims exceeded its sales in 2002. This success led to several ports, remakes and sequels, a series of novels that filled in characters’ backstories and now a virtual reality (VR) version – along with thousands of fans who still seek out Myst-like gaming experiences to this day.

After getting to know him while streaming Shivers back in October, I happened to be watching Darkshoxx on Twitch one day when he started up Quern – Undying Thoughts by Zadbox Entertainment. This was a title I’d added to my wishlist in December 2016 and then forgotten about so I was curious to see what it would be like. An hour later, and I’d purchased the game for myself because it reminded me so much of Myst; but after 20 hours of gameplay, I was also reminded of Beautiful Desolation for a reason I’ll explain shortly.

It begins when you wake up on a mysterious island, the strange portal behind you seeming to be closed and broken (sounds rather familiar). A letter from Professor William Maythorn on a wooden bench explains that he has brought you here to share his knowledge and he will eventually require your assistance in a critical manner. You must solve the puzzles he has left for you to uncover what’s going on, but there are two sides to every story and another presence on the island may have a different opinion.

Quern will most certainly appeal to you if you liked the challenges found in Myst. Think strange symbols painted on walls that must be deciphered, mechanical contraptions that need to be figured out and started up, and potions that must be concocted from glowing plants and sparkling powders. Several people who joined us in chat while we streamed the game on Twitch commented on how ‘grey’ the visuals looked, but this had the benefit of making anything in colour (and therefore important) stand out.

I’d say that this game felt like the harder of the two for me personally because of the way it’s laid out. The immediate objective in Myst is always known: link to a new location, find the pages, take them back to the library on the original island. But it’s not always obvious in Quern where you need to go or what you need to do next because there are so many places to visit and doors to unlock. It’s also necessary to backtrack quite frequently and we often found ourselves wandering around in search of the next puzzle.

Quern, Undying Thoughts, video game, rocks, sea, deck, sky, clouds

Thankfully, the in-game map kept track of where we were on the island and some awesome people in chat – Kristabzz, Darkshoxx and Attagoat – gave us little nudges in the right direction when we needed them. While I’m grateful for their help, I do wonder what Quern would have been like if we’d played it off-stream. I don’t think we’d have resorted to using similar advice from a walkthrough so quickly if there wasn’t the pressure of people watching us and perhaps it would have felt like experiencing Myst for the first time all over again.

I’ll never know now unfortunately, but what I did experience was a release that adventure-lovers and fans of puzzles that require the use of a pad and pen to solve will enjoy. Both Pete and I a great time in a world which felt so influenced by Cyan despite what seemed like an occasional lack of objective. We did find it difficult and the number of buttons, levers and symbols was a little overwhelming at times, but the game gives the player the logic and tools they need through their journey and then cleverly combines all of them in the final third.

In fact, the only real issue I had with Quern was its ending – and this is where that comparison to Beautiful Desolation at the start of this post comes in. I was asked to make the kind of decisions that meant the prosperity of one race and complete annihilation of another when I played The Brotherhood’s project in May last year, but I didn’t feel prepared for them in any way. The emotional impact was missing because I wasn’t given enough information to really care about the choices.

It was the same with Quern. The decision you’re presented with at the end of the title has consequences which are far reaching but, because you’ve not spent much time with either of the characters you’re asked to side with, we didn’t feel particularly bothered about either of them. And although the letters left around the island by Professor Maythorn reveal some of what has happened, there are no other means of sharing backstory and so it’s hard to truly care about the world you’re in.

The ending itself is short and you don’t get to see anything other than the immediate result of your choice (but this does give the benefit of being able to see both outcomes without too much hassle). The discussion we had with friends in Twitch chat after completing the game revealed that many of them like conclusions which leave something to the imagination; but personally, I do like a story that ties most of the threads together rather than leaves you wondering.

Maybe Quern – Undying Thoughts is one of those releases where it’s better to enjoy the journey itself, and what a journey it was. And if this is the sort of game recommendations I get from Darkshoxx then I look forward to more of his suggestions.

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17 thoughts on “Quern: the closest you’ll get to Myst

    • I think I recall you mentioning backtracking when we talked about Quern before… and yes, there’s an awful lot of backtracking in this game. And a huge part of it is through necessity than mistakes or forgetfulness from the player. I liked it though, despite how little the world and characters were fleshed out.

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  1. One of those games I’ll never in a million years play for myself, but really enjoyed watching you play! I just don’t have the logic for this kind of puzzle solving. If punching isn’t a solution, I am lost 😆

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    • Different strokes for different folks, I guess. There’s no way I’d do be able to do what you’re doing with the VR missions in Metal Gear Solid – I’d have punched the game before I got to the end of them! ha ha

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  2. I really enjoyed watching this 🙂 There’s something enticing about a mysterious portal and I do feel that <spoiler>… 😛😅

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    • I totally understand why a lot of people like open-ended stories… but I guess I’m just impatient and want all the answers ha ha! I prefer it when most of the questions have been answered, and there’s just one or two things left unexplained so you can mull them over in your own time and join the dots. Perhaps Quern’s ending would have sat better with me if I’d been able to learn more about its characters and world. 🤔

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  3. Lol, the “vegetarian alternative” Quorn XD That’s pretty funny, I thought the same thing when I first read the title!

    I picked this up a few years back on a sale and it absolutely kicked my ass. I used to think I was generally pretty clever when it came to figuring out puzzles, but just like Myst did so many years ago, Quern put me back in my place. Very humbling experience to say the least. I think I got about an hour into it before I ended up running in circles, no idea what to try next.

    The toughest parts to games like this are learning the “rules”, in that, just how much interation is “expected” of you, and how much of “what am I supposed to do next?” will be obvious, you know? Like, should I be spam-clicking everything? Or checking behind barrels and all that? Or are the clues more upfront? Are there physics involved with the puzzles? It’s hard to explain but just like with Myst I could never figure anything out.

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    • We were very lucky to have had a few people join us in the stream chat who had already played the game, and they gave us little hints whenever they were needed so it meant we didn’t have to turn to a walkthrough. It felt pretty difficult to know what we were supposed to do next sometimes – so even just having them say ‘you now need to go here’ was a big help.

      I totally agree that the hardest part of releases like this is the learning curve! That first hour or so is the make-or-break period, if you can persevere through that and get your head around the rules then you’re on a good path. I think I preferred Myst for that reason because the story helped drive everything forward. It felt as though there was more of an objective to aim for so I spent less time feeling lost. 😉

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  4. I really enjoyed Quern, as you say it felt like a return to one of the ages of Myst, very nostalgic.

    Sadly I believe I have developed a much shorter attention span over the years. In the end I found myself getting frustrated with the more difficult puzzles and turning to the answers online. A far cry from 90s me scribbling a thousand notes in a book, stuck on a puzzle for weeks!

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    • I know what you mean! We were lucky to have some friends join us while we were playing, several of whom had already completed Quern, so they gave us a lot of hints when we became stuck. I think the hardest part was figuring out where to go sometimes because it wasn’t always clear what the objective was. Still, it was nice to ‘return to Myst’ though – I need to find some more games like this. 🙂

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