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In Defense of Ghen's Creationist Model of the Art

#1 User is offline   Rashkavar 

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Posted 21 February 2016 - 02:58 PM

Something I've noticed replaying the games in quick succession this last month or so. Please note that these musings are built without any input from Uru or Myst 5. I found those games to be entirely nonsensical and unenjoyable. However, my argument is less that Ghen is right and more that Atrus is wrong. Thus, when I refer to the games as a whole, I mean Myst, Riven, Exile and Revelation, but not Uru or End of Ages. These are the games I remember well enough to use as sources for this discussion. I also seem to have misplaced my copy of the Book of D'ni, but as I recall, that book is more about the D'ni culture than the Art. On with the essay:

I find it interesting that, throughout the Myst series, both in the books and the games, that every source of information aside from Ghen insists that the Art forges a link to a pre-existing world rather than creating a new one, given the amount of evidence to the contrary.

As I recall, in the Book of Atrus, Atrus concludes that the Art links to a pre-existing world using two primary pieces of evidence. Ages have a history that extends back through time – civilizations on these worlds often have oral or written traditions indicating this, and any student of geology would be quick to tell you that many of the features in the Ages we see require vast periods of time to produce. And that incident with Ghen's Age 37, where every trace of D'ni impact on their society is erased by Ghen's erasure of a handful of symbols.

Looking deeper, however, there are several facts about the Art that seem like they would be entirely inconsistent with this belief. The mere existence of unstable worlds like Riven and the rest of Ghen's Ages, for example, should not be possible. An Age with contradictions, if it already existed, would have already experienced whatever decay was going to happen. And the nature of that decay is so fundamentally unnatural that it seems irrational to assume it could exist naturally.

In the Book of Atrus, the decay being noted in Age 37 is entirely unexplained. When Atrus asks where islands that have been subjected to the decay have gone, Ghen's answer is merely “gone.” While Ghen is impatient, he's also intelligent enough to formulate a more satisfying answer if he has one. It's Riven, however, that has the most striking example of decay. While some symptoms, like the island splitting into 5 parts between the book and the game, may be attributed to natural causes, such as plate tectonics (having plate tectonics move that quickly doesn't happen on Earth, but it may be possible in the right circumstances). However, the Star Fissure is not so easy to explain. It's a portal to a starry expanse, that turns out to exit directly at the point where the D'ni tunnel to the surface reaches the surface. It sucks in the air from Riven, yet has a breathable atmosphere within it (as determined by Ghen's experimentation using the natives of Riven as test subjects). Opening it in the game creates so much instability that Atrus is able to detect it despite the poor quality of the Linking Book's window. It's opening appears to have an entirely apocalyptic effect on the Age.

That said, the ending of the Book of Atrus makes the nature of this instability unclear. We learn that Cathrine and Ti'ana both make a number of alterations to Riven to produce a temporary cataclysm in order to give Atrus the advantage in the climax of the novel; it is entirely possible that the Star Fissure was explicitly created as part of that process. However, this brings about another key piece of evidence in favor of creationism: the ability to edit Books.

While deleting entries in Age 37 appears to have linked to another similar Age, making additions to the books is common in the series. Before making those deletions in Age 37, Ghen makes a number of alterations by adding text to the book; their effects are seen in the world linked to, but the people present still remember Atrus and Ghen exactly as before, indicating that the world has been altered rather than the link changed to a different but similar world. Later in the same book, Atrus makes several alterations to Riven in order to improve its stability. Catherine makes further changes. And, indeed, decades later, Atrus is making yet more changes to Riven in the first two games, to combat the instability as it progresses in order to protect Catherine, who is imprisoned there at the time. In Myst 3, there is a letter on Atrus's desk that refers to his inability to repair the burned books from the first game in order to find out if the inabitants have survived. This seems to suggest the mere act of burning a book could cause ruin in the Age itself. (Alternatively, it could merely be Atrus's recognition that his sons may well have looted the Ages prior to burning the books, but Myst 4's handling of that issue seems to indicate Atrus has a poor understanding of just how mad his sons were, given his willingness to consider forgiving one or both of his sons if they have reformed – one doesn't forgive multiple acts genocide lightly.) Furthermore, in Myst 4, the linking chambers are written into both Haven and Spire, while Achenar and Sirrus are actually present. (One of Sirrus's journals has a direct reference to the chamber appearing overnight, crafted of a stone that is impervious to any tools.)

While much less substantial proof, it's also interesting that every Age that supports an intelligent population is populated by beings that are essentially human (or rather, essentially D'ni, as Earth itself is a written Age rather than the original world). Considering Atrus's accounts of the 4 ages in the original game, it's also noteworthy that the inhabitants speak a language that is intelligible to Atrus, which means either English or D'ni, most likely. His account of the Stoneship age tells of Emmit, Branch and Will, all of whom greet Atrus without difficulty upon his arrival. The description of Channelwood features some linguistic problems at first, until the tree dwellers show him the last surviving Channelwood human, who is entirely fluent in Atrus's language and able to perform as an interpreter right up to when he commits suicide (an odd and unusually gruesome detail). The Mechanical Age citizens similarly face a remarkable lack of linguistic challenges. And in Myst 3, Saavedro speaks English as his native tongue. (Notice that what he mutters to himself, and the contents of his journal (which I don't think were ever actually intended for Atrus to read) are all English as well; one tends to lapse to one's native tongue in such cases.) The only examples I can think of in the Myst books or games of a human intelligence not speaking the proper language are when Ti'ana first encounters the D'ni, and two of Ghen's Ages (Riven and 37). I wonder if Atrus is in the habit of explicitly programming the inhabitants of his Ages to speak a language he understands, or if the fact that Ghen's creations (add quotes to that if you must) do not speak a more complex language as a result of his poor writing. Either way, the existence of English or D'ni as a native language in Ages that feature much more primitive societies is an indication of some sort of interference. Languages form to serve a purpose and adapt to the needs of their people; having an overly developed language like English in a hunter gatherer society is extremely odd.

I could delve deeper, but this is already getting quite long. Between the Age editing and the instability inherent in poorly formulated ages like Ghen's, I think the conclusion that Books are links to pre-existing worlds rather than creating new worlds as Ghen taught is quite wrong.
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#2 User is offline   Lesley 

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Posted 21 February 2016 - 06:35 PM

Quote

Looking deeper, however, there are several facts about the Art that seem like they would be entirely inconsistent with this belief. The mere existence of unstable worlds like Riven and the rest of Ghen's Ages, for example, should not be possible. An Age with contradictions, if it already existed, would have already experienced whatever decay was going to happen. And the nature of that decay is so fundamentally unnatural that it seems irrational to assume it could exist naturally.


I've pondered this issue myself before, but I still believe it to be internally consistent with the logic of creating a bridge to preexisting worlds.

It's entirely possible that Gehn himself isn't directly responsible for the destruction in the ages such as Riven and 37, but due to being an unskilled writer he has a tendency to create links to worlds that ultimately would have fallen apart anyways. As for why the decay hasn't already happened, you have to take into account that time is not a factor when writing ages; you could theoretically 'arrive' at any given point in a world's history, be it before, after, or during the destruction. Worlds that are unstable by nature and on a collision course with death could theoretically exist everywhere and at any point in time and ecosystems in nature are constantly shifting, even in real life.

The reason that most D'ni writers don't write about and link to worlds on the verge of dying is because they know how to avoid it and only create comfortable/safe environments unless they have a good reason not too. Remember that Gehn literally has NO formal training in writing; at most he knows how to make the ink for his books because Book of Ti'ana sort of kind of implies he was training to become a member of the Guild of Ink Makers. It's possible that Anna taught him some things, but he doesn't seem particularly inclined to listen to what she says; he's literally wandering around with only the vaguest understanding of the Art and just throwing things at the wall to see what sticks. The fact that he's experimenting like that could very well result in ages that are outliers to the normal output of D'ni writers and build up a surplus of apocalyptic ages.

To go back to the rules of age writing, given the assumption that Riven was doomed by default, you can still give a justification for Atrus being able to 'save' it; understanding multiverse theory is a big aspect of understanding Myst's internal logic; every action we make spins off into a slightly different thread of reality, making for endless variables on virtually identical universes. I see the Art as taking advantage of these threads in a way that creates the illusion of 'tweaking' the same reality, when in truth you're actually changing things to a new reality that's only slightly different then the original as to be almost unnoticeable. Yet if you make enough changes, the difference between the two universes becomes obvious and the illusion is broken, such as what appears to be the case with Age 37. After witnessing the results of Gehn's rewrite, Atrus describes this same phenomenon using the D'ni metaphor of the Great Tree of Possibilities, which seems to be a simplified, 'primitive peoples' way of explaining it.

The fact that everyone seems to speak either English or D'ni does bother me somewhat, but I've attributed it to Willing Suspension of Disbelief because creating languages for all these different worlds and writing around them would be needlessly complicated. Although, it might also be important to consider this- the D'ni can't imagine worlds that are outside their scope of knowledge, and neither can anyone else. In this sense it seems more reasonable that they only discover ages with people who speak languages they're familiar with.

Incidentally, this is also my explanation for why they only ever encounter inhabitable ages with people that are similar to or more primitive then they are; just like fiction writers, the D'ni can only write what they know.
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#3 User is offline   Talashar 

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Posted 22 February 2016 - 06:59 AM

The Book of Atrus indeed makes an ambiguous case against Gehn's model of the Art. Amusingly, Gehn can only be blamed for writing unstable Ages if he's right about the Art! I think I once contemplated writing a story in which Atrus drew the exact opposite conclusion from his experience with Age 37: that they were gods, it's only that Gehn failed to live up to his responsibilities. It's hard for obvious reasons to prove that an Age actually exists before you observe it, though there is some evidence for the pre-existing Age model in the crystal viewer in Rime, where you can see a multitude of different variants on an Age that doesn't have a Link yet.

With regard to language, the people of Averone spoke a language that Atrus and Catherine didn't understand. The books are good about giving different people different languages (well, except for the Terahnee), but the games are inconsistent. In the Myst journals, Atrus is surprised to find that the man on Channelwood shares his language, but seems to take it for granted on other Ages. We can probably blame this on the early, less constrained background for the game, much like communicating through a linking panel, or, for that matter, Atrus calling Stoneship "newly created!"

My theory for Saavedro's journals is that the Narayani symbols were too cumbersome to use for actual writing, and so he used the English that he learned from Atrus instead. Or possibly D'ni: the Stranger may have learned D'ni by this time, and it's simpler than English, so easier to imagine Atrus teaching it to communicate with the people of different Ages.
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#4 User is offline   Rashkavar 

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Posted 07 March 2016 - 02:53 AM

Lesley:
Not to dismiss your point's about Ghen's lack of training, but a lot of Atrus's earlier projects are also accomplished without formal training (aside from that provided by Ghen...a case of the blind leading the blind). It's entirely possible that Anna gave Atrus and Cathrine some fairly exhaustive training after the Book of Atrus but before her death, but his initial repairs to Riven and his first age (the one Ghen defaces) are before he even knew Anna was doing anything other than sitting in the cleft minding her own business. (Catherine may have provided tips here or there, but it's likely the book would have mentioned her superior knowledge of Writing without apparent reason - most of her experience was also from Ghen, and Atrus didn't know she'd gotten anything from Anna yet, so it would be surprising and thus noteworthy)

As for the changes to an age being an example of multiverse theory, I have a couple of problems with that. There's numerous examples of Age alterations happening with people present to watch them happen. Age 37 has several alterations made without any effect on the impact Ghen has had on the world. The locals still know and fear him, the linking book, his temple and lab hut are both still present, etc. This is a problem because these are entirely external forces on the world. No part of the book indicates any D'ni interference in their culture. So even a slight change should delete those memories every time an alteration is made, not just when an entry is deleted. So either we have a case of altering everything within the world, or one of transplanting everyone on the planet and everything artificially made (the village, boats, the linking book, etc) over to a similar dimension that incorporates those changes. Honestly, I think the latter is actually a more impressive feat than altering the function of a solar system. (Hell, we're in the process of making the oceans warmer as we speak; it's right up there with war as a political issue.)

Also, in that example, many of the changes being made are probably not all that subtle. Ghen's Writing technique is pretty hamfisted, and several of those changes are his.

Riven and Revelation both contain examples of alterations being made to an Age with non-indigenous residents. Throughout Riven, Atrus is continuing his attempts to stabilize the world; that's why he sends you to save Cathrine in the first place. (Damn good thing, too - Ghen would have just shot Atrus in that cage on 233.) And in Revelation, One of Sirrus's journals contains a rant about Atrus making the visitation chamber at the top of his spire overnight (well, essentially), talking about how it mocks everything he's done in Spire by so casually making such a significant change. Ignoring Sirrus's claims of Age alteration being possible because, well, if you trust anything Sirrus says anywhere...hell, one of his research notes confirms an incorrect answer to the harmonic resonance puzzle...we still have an example of an inhabitant and his rather extensive alterations to the Age being undisturbed by changes to the book.

One thing to note is that Ghen seems to think all ages have an expiration date. Otherwise he'd attempt to reclaim at least some of the D'ni worlds (a Harvest world at least), so he doesn't necessarily see his Ages' decay as an unusual thing. And I think you're right about his training being in with the Ink Maker's Guild. In Riven, we see how much effort he puts into cobbling together Blank Books, and we see that they're nowhere near as good as the original, hence the need for powering or one of Cathrine's magic stabilizer panels, but we see little to no indication of him having any difficulty making the required ink. (At least that I've found; the book making proof isn't exactly subtle, so I'm guessing it's not there.

Talashar:
What evidence do we have of the Crystal Viewer technology showing unwritten Ages? I'll freely admit I don't have much experience with that thing, but I don't recall Atrus trying to use it to see anything other than existing Ages. (Riven, Spire, Haven, Rime, and Serenia.) If it did connect to unwritten Ages, it'd probably have an image for every combination, too, though I'm happy to grant that including that much detail is a bit much to expect for any game, even Myst - after all, there's, what, 40 or 50 different crystal color/shapes available, and 6 slots to fill? Yeah, that's probably over a DVD worth of assets in still images right there. :p

Both:
As for the linguistic thing, I'd agree in the case of Serenia's Protectors and Saavedro, but there's no reason to make other people, like the Channelwood survivor, the Mechanical Age inhabitants, etc speak another language. We never actually meet any of them, or even read anything they've written - all of the documents in Myst and Riven are written by Atrus and his family. I think there's one point in Riven where we actually hear a Rivenese local talking, and it's just gibberish. And there's plenty of prior contact with both Saavedro and the Protectors (with Atrus' family) that it's entirely possible they would speak English or D'ni. (And given how long after Riven Exile and Revelation are based, it's entirely possible that Atrus' unnamed friend has learned D'ni, particularly if they had any involvement with Atrus' explorations of the City (before, during or after the Book of D'ni.) Point is, the fact that the natives of the various Ages in Myst is kinda odd considering it's just as viable for Atrus to comment that he's using a D'ni translation device or something of that nature. That gives us 3 possible explanations: lazy writing in Myst (which the general quality of the game would suggest otherwise), Writers impose a language on their creations - either Ghen lacks the skill to do this (or scrambles it with his patchwork writing style), or the language being imposed reflects the opinion of the Writer on Age-dwellers (Ghen sees them as primatives, so they speak caveman languages; Atrus sees them as equals, so they speak a language equal (that is, the same) as his own, or they're linking to pre-existing worlds that are preselected for the language according to the rules outlined in the previous possibility. My problem with 3 is that, from what I know of linguistics (which, granted, isn't much), it should be literally impossible for a simplistic culture to develop either modern English or D'ni. Many of the core concepts of languages spoken by advanced civilizations are based on principles that hunter gatherer and even early agriculture societies just wouldn't have. So even with multiverse theory working for you, I don't see them developing that complex a language (even if it is missing half the vocabulary since they describe things that society doesn't have) unless they actually have that civilization. (But, like I said: I'm not a linguist. I could be entirely wrong with this assertion.)

Also, one thing I'd argue is that the ability to create worlds, even a whole universe, doesn't make one a god. Or at least, not one worthy of worship. Raw power demands a certain degree of wary respect, granted, but it's other virtues that inspire worship. There's a reason the Norse revered beings like Freyr and Tyr as gods while they feared Surtr (leader of the Jotuns, or Giants) and Fenrir (a giant wolf demon thing), who would eventually destroy them at Ragnarok. Point is, godhood isn't about power, it's about what you do with it. So the D'ni aren't gods even if they do create the worlds rather than just the link to them, they're just an extremely powerful civilization.
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#5 User is offline   Talashar 

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Posted 07 March 2016 - 07:46 AM

View PostLesley, on 21 February 2016 - 06:35 PM, said:

]Remember that Gehn literally has NO formal training in writing; at most he knows how to make the ink for his books because Book of Ti'ana sort of kind of implies he was training to become a member of the Guild of Ink Makers.


I don't have the book on me to make sure, but I think he's explicitly stated to have been in the Guild of Books.

View PostRashkavar, on 07 March 2016 - 02:53 AM, said:


As for the changes to an age being an example of multiverse theory, I have a couple of problems with that. There's numerous examples of Age alterations happening with people present to watch them happen. Age 37 has several alterations made without any effect on the impact Ghen has had on the world. The locals still know and fear him, the linking book, his temple and lab hut are both still present, etc. This is a problem because these are entirely external forces on the world. No part of the book indicates any D'ni interference in their culture. So even a slight change should delete those memories every time an alteration is made, not just when an entry is deleted. So either we have a case of altering everything within the world, or one of transplanting everyone on the planet and everything artificially made (the village, boats, the linking book, etc) over to a similar dimension that incorporates those changes.


As I understand it, the idea is that there's a very small probability of these changes spontaneously happening. When Gehn makes the alterations to the descriptive book, the link goes to one of the few possible "evolutions" of the Age that are described by the new text. Presumably his later corrections cause the link to shift to an entirely different version of the Age because there is in fact zero probability of the Age changing in the way he wanted (though it may be that he could have succeeded with more subtle writing).

If I've described the mechanism correctly, then there are some unfortunate implications: what happened, for example, to the vast majority of Atruses on Riven where no giant daggers appeared?

View PostRashkavar, on 07 March 2016 - 02:53 AM, said:

What evidence do we have of the Crystal Viewer technology showing unwritten Ages? I'll freely admit I don't have much experience with that thing, but I don't recall Atrus trying to use it to see anything other than existing Ages. (Riven, Spire, Haven, Rime, and Serenia.) If it did connect to unwritten Ages, it'd probably have an image for every combination, too, though I'm happy to grant that including that much detail is a bit much to expect for any game, even Myst - after all, there's, what, 40 or 50 different crystal color/shapes available, and 6 slots to fill? Yeah, that's probably over a DVD worth of assets in still images right there. :p


The "Puzzle Age" visible in the original RealMyst (though unfortunately it doesn't seem to work in Masterpiece Edition).

View PostRashkavar, on 07 March 2016 - 02:53 AM, said:

I think there's one point in Riven where we actually hear a Rivenese local talking, and it's just gibberish.

A language of New Guinea was actually used to represent the Rivenese language in the game.

View PostRashkavar, on 07 March 2016 - 02:53 AM, said:

That gives us 3 possible explanations: lazy writing in Myst (which the general quality of the game would suggest otherwise), Writers impose a language on their creations - either Ghen lacks the skill to do this (or scrambles it with his patchwork writing style), or the language being imposed reflects the opinion of the Writer on Age-dwellers (Ghen sees them as primatives, so they speak caveman languages; Atrus sees them as equals, so they speak a language equal (that is, the same) as his own, or they're linking to pre-existing worlds that are preselected for the language according to the rules outlined in the previous possibility. My problem with 3 is that, from what I know of linguistics (which, granted, isn't much), it should be literally impossible for a simplistic culture to develop either modern English or D'ni. Many of the core concepts of languages spoken by advanced civilizations are based on principles that hunter gatherer and even early agriculture societies just wouldn't have. So even with multiverse theory working for you, I don't see them developing that complex a language (even if it is missing half the vocabulary since they describe things that society doesn't have) unless they actually have that civilization. (But, like I said: I'm not a linguist. I could be entirely wrong with this assertion.)


I don't think the writing in Myst is lazy, more that the background of the games hadn't been fully developed yet and realism wasn't as much of a concern.

What kind of core concepts are you referring to that only show up in languages of complex societies? I do know of studies suggesting correlations between greater population size and less complexity for certain measures of grammatical complexity, the idea being that it's easier for a smaller tightly-knit group of people to maintain absurdly baroque systems.

Complex systems of honorifics based on relative status (as in Thai) is one feature that might only appear in complex societies, but neither English or D'ni have anything like that.
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#6 User is offline   Lesley 

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Posted 07 March 2016 - 02:40 PM

Quote

I don't have the book on me to make sure, but I think he's explicitly stated to have been in the Guild of Books.


I'd always assumed the Guild of Books was a general primary school for D'ni children (or at least the children of guild members) not connected to any specific profession.

Gehn does express interest in becoming an ink maker at one point due to a particular Guildmaster he looked up to, and in the rest of the series he seems to show a greater knowledge of how the ink for writing ages works compared to the rest of his skill level as a writer. It's one of the very first things he demonstrates to Atrus in BoA, and he gets pretty excited about it, albeit while throwing out misinformation that only D'ni can make it work for them (a lot of this is admittedly subtextual though, you can take it any way you want, but it's something I've noticed.)

@Rashkavar

(I'll get to your stuff later if you see this before I do, I just got up and I'm too groggy to make a competent argument)
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#7 User is offline   Talashar 

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Posted 04 April 2016 - 05:03 PM

I've been thinking about this lately and I've changed my mind. While Writers don't create Ages, once the Link has been established they do have what are essentially godlike powers over the Age. Consider Catherine in K'veer and Atrus in Riven, with linking panels set up so that both can observe what the other is doing. Catherine resolves to make certain changes in Riven: stone daggers, earthquakes, and so forth.

We have the following possible scenarios.

1) Catherine does not edit the book. She runs out of ink or suddenly falls dead :( before she gets the chance. No daggers appear. Probability: small.
2) Catherine does not edit the book, but daggers appear in Riven anyway. Probability: ridiculously small.
3) Catherine edits the book, but nothing happens in Riven. Probability: uncertain, maybe zero.
4) Catherine edits the book and daggers appear in Riven. Probability: large.

If the relevant states of Earth and Riven were independent, we would expect the following instead.

1) Catherine does not edit the book and no daggers appear. Probability: small.
2) Catherine does not edit the book, but daggers appear in Riven anyway. Probability: ridiculously small.
3) Catherine edits the book, but nothing happens in Riven. Probability: large (but it isn't!)
4) Catherine edits the book and daggers appear in Riven. Probability: ridiculously small (but it isn't!)

This is the way I was thinking intuitively about the Art before, but I was never able to make it fit with my understanding of Terokh Jeruth. Now I can: once the Link has been created, it's an error to think of the two branches as totally separate worlds. More than a tiny fraction of Atruses held captive on Rivens were rescued by Catherines, contrary to what I suggested above.
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