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.
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.