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Friday, January 21, 2005

Myst and Mirages

A few days ago, I finished the original 1993 game "Myst" for the first time. If you haven't played it but enjoy puzzles and exploration, I highly recommend it. The ending in particular was spectacular. It was something like this:
"Oh, by the way, thanks for freeing me from the prison in which I would have been stuck for all eternity if not for you."
[continues scribbling in his book casually as if nothing has happened]
"Oh, and I don't have any reward for you."
[more scribbling]
"I'll need your help in the sequel to rescue my wife from another world, after which I'll still have nothing to offer you in return. Bye now."
Okay, so maybe the ending wasn't so great. But the rest of the game was. As with some of my favorite games (most notably the Zelda series), it tries to allow the player complete immersion in the game world. It is often challenging, but the effort you put in is always (excepting the ending) rewarded. There are few experiences as satisfying as solving a puzzle effortlessly precisely because you had the intuition earlier on to make a detailed hint of something which seemed like a clue. That experience is the essence of Myst, as getting to know the environment is the essence of Metroid. And while I'm already mentioning Myst and Metroid in the same context, I might as well point out that both models are carefully crafted to encourage exploration, although in completely different ways. So it's appropriate that I played Myst immediately after Metroid Prime 2: Echoes.

In parallel, I've been working (in the so-called "Real World") on a musical composition I started nearly a year ago. It started out (back then) when my composition teacher, very professional and also a very nice guy, advised me to write a piece based on a dodecaphonic (serial music) theme. If you're not familiar with that style of composition, then a little extra knowledge can't hurt: Arnold Schoenberg, a 20th century composer, invented serial music after having completely done away with the tonal system which music had always been based on. He knew that a new discipline of music was required to give music better structures, so he devised a method of composition, where the musical theme would be composed of all twelve possible notes in a specific order. Okay, that's a little too much- I'm getting bored myself. Anyhow, I quickly came up with a theme which not only follows the laws of serial music strictly, but sounds tonal. I liked that, because I've always liked tonal music more than atonal music anyway. Then I expanded on it into a very short piece of only around half a page in a way that resembled a Bach fugue- the theme weaved in and out of itself in the various voices. I put in the theme's opposite order, and the theme's "opposite" theme, and the opposite order of the opposite theme, having all these weave in and out of each other, and somehow managed to make it sound nice despite its complexity. I was so proud of myself, I could have valiantly declared it a triumph for the spirit of mankind, the symbol of man making beauty of meaningless but complex (in a fun way) systems, etc. Of course my teacher didn't like it. He said, "It's nice, but I feel that this should be the fourth variation!" In other words, it didn't have a satisfying beginning. Undeterred, I set to work on another page to precede it, this time using a more simple harmony to not only provide a nice contrast to my original page, but also to feel more like the beginning of a piece and less like an exciting climax. I now had a nice short piece, with a beginning and an ending, and a nice symmetry because I had designed the new page to be similar in structure to the old one despite being completely different in style. I took it to my composition teacher, who said, "It's nice, but I feel this should be the tenth variation!" I was afraid that if I wrote ten new beginnings I'd find myself on the 957th variation, so I scrapped what I had done and started over on an altogether more ambitious piece.

I later named that piece "Variations on V.O.V.", and that should give you a concept of how complex and precise the structure is. ("V.O.V." stands for "Variations on V.O.V.", in case you didn't figure it out.) Although it frequently makes complete changes in styles and musical disciplines and is constantly (I hope) surprising the listener, it actually follows a rigid path in which the composition is made up of seven variations on the piece itself. To clarify, the structure of each of the seven variations is based carefully on the overall structure of the entire piece, which as I said contains those seven variations. I finished up four or five variations in an early draft (knowing, of course, what the complete structure would be like), and brought it to my composition teacher. I'm sorry, Imaginary Friends, but I don't have a quote of what he said because I don't remember precisely what it was, but the gist was that he thought it could be much better if I just added a little bit here, and removed that part there, and shortened this thing, and lengthened that thing- i.e. destroyed the extremely delicate structure I had set up. Not to insult my teacher- I'm sure he didn't realize how much damage he'd be doing to the piece's integrity. But he clearly didn't see the brilliance of the structure which I had spent weeks working on perfecting, if he saw the structure at all.

Around a week ago, I got back to work because I had found out that I might be able to play an original piece for my piano exam instead of a horrid -no, repulsive piece of junk of some modernist Israeli "composer", and I use the term loosely. I refined some parts that I hadn't felt worked well even when I wrote them, corrected one tiny mistake (it was only one measure) and completed another half a section. I brought it to my piano teacher, who has won many international awards for her playing, who had nothing to say about its structure, because she didn't even notice it. She told me that she is a pianist, not a composer. To which I wanted to yell at her, "And what exactly are you playing on the piano if not music which you are capable of understanding?" But of course I didn't, despite my general lack of manners, because I understood that she genuinely had no idea what effort I had put into it.

Now, you might ask, why am I writing about Myst and Variations on V.O.V. in the same post? To which my answer is, I'm writing this, not you, and who do you think you are to tell me what is connected and what isn't?! I don't need to justify it to you! I can write a post about two unconnected subjects if I want, and I certainly don't need to explain the connection to people who don't see it themselves! Ha!

Getting back to the subject, when I saw how little reward I was getting for my hard effort, I started thinking to myself that if life were released as a $50 videogame, it would be universally abhorred, because it would be quite a lousy game. Let's compare Earth and Myst, shall we?

In Myst, every book you come across is filled with interesting information. Moreover, you always know that that information will come in handy sooner or later.
In the real world, every book that is shoved down your throat in school was written by people with PhD's in Boredom Development. Moreover, you always know that the information contained in it will come in handy on the exam which will be designed only to discover whether you have digested the material so well that it is imprinted on your brain, and you are guaranteed that after that it will never be useful again. Ever.

In Myst, your time is spent walking around, enjoying the scenery, learning about the areas, and being mentally stimulated. This is fun.
In school, your time is spent sitting in one place, staring at your watch, having a "disciplinarian" spout out gibberish you are meant to recite back to them later on (so reducing your mind to the usefulness of a tape recorder is advised), and watching your brain cells melt away. This is boring, which is good because it prepares children for the rest of life, which will be much worse.

In Myst, all effort you put in is rewarded.
In the real world, effort is useless.

In Myst, you have a goal which is attainable but challenging.
In the real world, any long term goals are unattainable, so you must become more flexible and learn to follow the singular boring path the world has prepared.

...And so on. Is it just me, or is Myst more real than the real world?



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