Released in September 1993, Myst captivated players with its intriguing puzzles and captivating story, and became a sleeper hit on its way to becoming the best-selling computer game of the 1990s. At one point, the game was so popular that people purchased CD-ROM drives for their PC just to play it. The game was created by brothers Rand and Robyn Miller for their Spokane, Wa.-based company Cyan Worlds, and it was followed by a best-selling sequel, Riven, in 1997.
Documentary filmmaker Philip Shane is producing a documentary about Myst which he plans to release in time for the 30th anniversary of the game. Shane directed the 2008 History Channel documentary Einstein, and edited and co-directed Constance Marks’ award winning 2011 film Being Elmo: A Puppeteer’s Journey. His Myst documentary will follow the creation of the game, as well as the development of Cyan’s latest project Firmament.
We were supposed to interview Shane at PAX East in February, but The Young Folks canceled our trip to the convention due to concerns with the just-development COVID-19 pandemic. The following interview between Shane and TYF music editor Ryan Gibbs was done via video call.
Ryan Gibbs: Why did you decide to do a documentary on Myst, specifically?
Philip Shane, director, The Myst Documentary: I played Myst when it came out, and that was in 1993. It blew me away. For me, it was for video games what Star Wars was for movies. It was so engrossing and vivid. It was also so pleasant and calm. There were puzzles to do, worlds to explore, and a story to learn.
On one of the five CD-ROMs the game came on, there was a little behind-the-scenes video. I’ve always loved behind the scenes things and seeing how things we made. This video was a little tiny block, but it showed these two guys – Robyn and Rand Miller – and they were sitting on the steps of their house. At one point, the camera panned away from the guys and you saw all these trees. I was like, “Those are the trees in the game! These guys live in the game!” It felt like such a personal project. There was something so intimate about the game. It felt so crafted. And then here were these two guys. I went into film, and the independent film world was coming of age [at that time]. I felt in games, this was a similar thing. I thought these guys were indie artists, and they’re as cool as any indie musician or filmmaker..
When I played the game, I was just graduating undergrad at the University of Maryland and I was going into film and television. 20 years later, I’m living in Brooklyn and I’m a documentary filmmaker. I’m always looking out for new things that I would love to make a documentary about. I saw on Twitter, completely randomly, that there was a video game conference called Kill Screen and that Robyn and Rand Miller would be the keynote speakers. I went, and they were incredible and I got to meet them, and it turned out they had seen some of the movies I had done, including Being Elmo. While I was talking to them, it came into my mind that this is it, I must make this documentary.
When they came to speak, from the very first answer, you could tell they were so humble about the whole thing and they told some great stories. During their speech they mentioned, still to this day, 25 years after Myst came out, fans are still dressing up as characters,there’s an annual convention, and fans send them crafts they had made. There’s a really devoted fan community. Near the end, someone from the audience asked “Is that weird, that fans are making things and sending it to you?” Again, they were so humble. They said that is the most beautiful thing in the world to know that we’ve touched somebody, it doesn’t matter when or where It’s by far the most rewarding aspect of the entire thing and why they do what they do. I thought that was beautiful. After it was over, I went up to them and I asked them if anyone had made a documentary about Myst and their story of coming from nowhere and being the most popular game for years, and they said no. I was completely surprised and I asked “Could I do it?” and they were surprised at that. Instantly, it was greenlit. I’ve never had a project greenlit that fast, and that was that.
They said that they were finishing a game, and that was Obduction, and I was like great, I’m going to come out right away and film you finishing that game. And they [also] said they’re about to start their next project, do I want to follow that and document what they do next. That was something I didn’t even expect. I hit the timing so right. I jumped in and started there.
Gibbs: When did production start?
Shane: Production started immediately after that event in the summer of 2016. Obduction came out in August, we filmed the last few days at Cyan’s offices. That was the beginning.
Gibbs: Where are you now in terms of the production?
Shane: It’s actually still in the early phase, even these years later. As with all projects, things start, then there’s changes, and another thing happens. With documentaries, that’s always the case. To make it clear, what I want to do is I don’t want to just tell the story of the past, which is something you could do. I could have done that right away and been done in a year-ish. If you look at some of the other documentaries I’ve done, I love stories where you can show what’s happening now if someone is still around, and bounce back and forth between now and the past. You learn ten times as more, by seeing what things are different, how things have changed, what has stayed the same.
As a filmmaker, you learn to develop a gut feeling for when you got a really sharp story or framing device. It’s also fascinating to be behind the scenes of artists at a company where ideas get started and things developed; They change or shift. Nothing jumped out at me, so I kept documenting what they were doing and going out there periodically, and meeting with Rand in Spokane at Cyan, and meeting with Robyn and his collaborators in Seattle on the projects he’s doing, and gathering up the stories about the past and documenting what they’re doing now.
All of a sudden in the late summer of last year, Cyan suddenly announced they were doing a Kickstarter for their next game Firmament. As soon as I saw that email, I was like “That’s it, there we go.” What a great story. Whatever their goal was, they raised through it within a few hours on Kickstarter, and they raised $1.4 million. There’s a real beginning, and it involves all the fans. Following the creation of Firmament from its genesis through to its completion, whenever that is, will be a great story. Then we’ll see the game come out. It’s not in the Myst universe and it’s using VR and all this cutting edge technology. The comparison between the two eras, the two worlds and the two places where all the people are in their lives, is pretty awesome.
Gibbs: What will the structure of the film be? How much of the film will focus on the Miller brothers’ creation of Myst, and how much will focus on its release, legacy and Riven?
Shane: It’s not one of those movies that asks “Why was Myst successful?” or “What is the cultural impact?” It’s the stories of the things that happened. The structure of the film is watching the creative ups and downs of making a project, a video game, in this day and age. There’s so many things that are new. It’s Kickstarter and cutting-edge virtual reality, and everything is being done from scratch. It’s the struggle to maintain the integrity of whatever they see as their style and what’s important to them: Storytelling, mood, atmosphere, quality, fan enjoyment, things like that. Then, it’s bouncing back to the gripping story of step-by-step how Myst and Riven got made.
I don’t want it to be encyclopedic. It’s always a thing when you set out to make a documentary, you have to remind yourself that it’s not a book. There’s so many games and so many years. In particular, I know for sure in the later years there will be Uru and Myst Online, which was an incredibly emotional story and experience for Rand and the fans. It was an early Second Life-type game and it was so ahead of its time.
You asked about the structure. I made a documentary about Albert Einstein, and if you read books about Einstein, they make it seem like he was the only one or he was so singular in his achievements and his work that the rest of the scientists of the world don’t make it into the story. I don’t like that. Everything is a group effort and everything is in context. This is a documentary about Myst, and it’s also for me a documentary about the incredible home computer revolution that I lived through that was happening when Myst came out. That’s a huge part of it. Myst was incredible by itself, but it was also part of this unbelievable rise of technology, and it all happened so fast. We all know it was amazing, and look how our world has changed, we’ve had other tectonic shifts like the internet and cell phones. There’s so many of those people, like the Millers, that are still around who were the creators of these things.
It’s not going to be an entirely comprehensive thing about the whole computer revolution by no means, but there are certain people for whom Rand and Robyn are eternally grateful for. Some of whom they’ve never met, some of whom they’ve met but hadn’t seen in a long time, and some who’ve maintained long friendships with. Part of the documentary I’m really excited about is taking the guys to meet some of these people in Silicon Valley, Japan and Europe. We’re still gathering those stories now. My ultimate goal is to personalize the devices everyone uses and wonder about, to show that computers and games are made by people, and to show the creative side of the technology world that we don’t often get to see.
Gibbs: What was the most interesting thing you learned about Myst while making the documentary?
Shane: When I had Rand at the computer history museum [Living Computers Museum + Labs in Seattle, WA], sitting down at an original Mac, the people there were so sweet and excited to meet him. They went into their archives and pulled out an original CD-ROM set and a box and all this kind of stuff, and they set up a computer so we could film Rand playing. I asked him how he felt looking at this game again after so many years. He said “I feel tired, we had to individually paint every one of those trees because they came out too sharp or jagged.”
Gibbs: How would you pitch or sell this film to someone who likes your other films, but isn’t all that familiar with Myst or 1990s computer games?
Shane: When Connie Marks and I made Being Elmo, which she brought me onboard, near the end of her process and the beginning of editing and shaping that, we found that people who love Elmo are in: They’re going to want to see this. I definitely do not take the craft or audience for granted, at all, we are going to make an amazing movie, but as far as interest goes I’m pretty sure they’re in. As a viewer of documentaries, or movies of any kind, I love nothing more than going to a movie that I didn’t know anything about the people at all. Seeing the movie, being sucked in, and when it’s over being like, holy cow, how did I never hear about this person or know these stories? I’ll never look at that thing they did or made the same way again. I feel a personal connection to that. The way you do that, is you tell an incredibly strong, emotional, meaningful narrative, and that is what this will be.
This is just an incredible story. You go to a fiction movie, you go to watch a movie about someone who does not exist perhaps. Here, the people exist and their life story is incredible. We basically ride with them. Imagine if you had a dream you set out and committed to, and became obsessed with it, and you and your colleagues hunkered down and made something incredible just for yourself to explore but hoping other people enjoy it. And then suddenly, it becomes the best-selling game of the 1990s. Imagine if that was you. This is going to give you that visceral experience. You’re living in a trailer, and suddenly you’re on stage with Steve Jobs.
Gibbs: I was a kid when Myst came out, but one of the things I remember was that it was a game that drew people who didn’t normally purchase computer games. Why do you think that audience got drawn to this game?
Shane: Randy Woods, who is a long time friend of mine and a great writer, he has a great expression when he looks at the game: It has no clock, it has no score, you don’t kill anybody. A lot of things that people don’t enjoy about video games, for better or worse. This was the opposite. He was a game for people who just want to experience something, and the reward was exploration and the satisfaction of solving puzzles.
There were certainly games like that before. I know the guys – they used this term often – wanted to make something cinematic. That was especially important for Robyn. Robyn really sees himself as more of a composer or filmmaker than a video game creator, which is one of the reasons that he moved into that world too. It still remains as one of the most cinematic kinds of experiences of that early era: The moods, the music, the sound and peacefulness of it. Nothing was engrossing in that way. It was such a unique vibe and it remains so.
Gibbs: Is the title of the film set as The Myst Documentary and if it is, why did you decide to go with that title?
Shane: Never say never. For now, absolutely that’s the title. I just like it. It’s straight up. You know what it is. I always wanted to make a documentary on Myst and here I am making it.
Gibbs: You’ll be launching a Kickstarter for the movie, what will you be doing for that campaign?
Shane: We will be doing a Kickstarter. I’m not sure when, because we’re not going to do it in the middle of [the coronavirus pandemic]. When the time seems right, and we’re back to normal – hopefully that’s sooner than later. It’s been a long time in the making. When that Firmament Kickstarter was done, and I had a narrative with a clear beginning and end, and a ticking clock, and I was like now we can dive in and do it and start a Kickstarter. Then this terrible thing turned the world inside out, or rather outside in, since we’re all inside.
I can say this: We’re still making the story. They’re all now working at home, individually. We’re doing a lot of creative things to capture the story as it goes on through this time. There’s things in development that are exciting. We’re capturing that.
Gibbs: When are you planning to have the film out by?
Shane: I’m looking for it to come out for the 30th anniversary of Myst in 2023. The official release date is in September, so I’d like to have it come out for that. Not just because that’s a cool thing, but that also allows me time to capture what the whole process of making Firmament will be. Robyn is also working on top secret stuff that I’ve been following, and he’ll be making progress on those things. There’s all kinds of stuff happening. I am an editor at heart, and it allows me time to work on the editing to make this as powerful a story as the people it’s about deserve.