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Piercing the VR Veil — The Creator of Myst Talks Its Ambitious New Game Firmament

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For gamers of a certain age, the name Cyan Worlds carries with it no small amount of reverence. In 1993, the Washington-based studio upended the industry with the release of the massively popular Myst, and then followed that up with an even more successful sequel: Riven.

In 2016, Cyan successfully Kickstarted a spiritual successor to Myst and Riven, called Obduction, to the tune of USD$1.3 million. We sat down with the venerable Rand Miller, co-creator and co-designer of Myst, to discuss the company’s next project: Firmament.

Like Obduction, Firmament is being funded on Kickstarter. Unlike Obduction, which had a VR mode added post-launch, Firmament is being built from the ground up with VR support in mind.

OnlySP: Your Kickstarter pitch begins with the words “Firmament is the next step in the evolution of Cyan.” Could you elaborate on what this means? What is at the core of the company philosophy, and what is the evolution of Cyan?

Rand Miller: We think that our little niche is building complex, evocative spaces that feel authentic and real (or surreal). We started with simple, hand-drawn, black-and-white worlds, and we’ve evolved along with technology to make our world-space more and more convincing and immersive. So, all that is to say that VR is another step in that technological evolution that we get to embrace.

OnlySP: You’ve been very clear about the fact that Firmament is built from the ground up for VR. How does that manifest in practice, in actual moment-to-moment gameplay?

Miller: Yeah, so disclaimer first—Firmament is still a wonderful “flat screen” experience, too. Building for VR doesn’t mean we leave the flat behind. The interesting thing about designing for VR is that it causes us to rethink the interface. We feel that one of the most advanced and yet simple breakthroughs in VR is giving players hands. That’s because you don’t need instructions to know what to do with hands—you know how they work. That’s exciting to us because in many ways it gets back to our roots of a very intuitive interface that just feels natural. That’s what we want for Firmament.

OnlySP: Obduction was Cyan’s first VR-compatible title, and support was added post-launch. What did you learn about VR from Obduction‘s VR implementation?

Miller: Wow, so much! We learned how much accurate scale matters, how to optimize for VR, the complexity of intuitive hand interfaces, how comfort levels vary between players, what interactive devices are hard to operate… I could go on with more and more specific items. It was an amazing learning experience.

OnlySP: What made you decide to build your next game for VR from the ground up, and not as a post-launch update?

Miller: All of those things I listed in the previous question. Once you’ve learned the hard way, you want to take advantage of everything you learned. And it’s much easier to design for VR and simultaneously adjust for monitors. Post, although sometimes necessary, can make things much more difficult.

OnlySP: Do you think developers have solved most of the basic gameplay questions the industry has grappled with since the VR renaissance (locomotion and motion sickness, preserving agency and consistency of storytelling, etc.)? If not, what do you think are the biggest issues we have yet to tackle?

Miller: VR is exciting to me because of just how many variables there are. There are so many ways to do anything and everything that it’s invigorating—it feels like everybody gets a chance to try a new method or technique. The most confounding and therefore interesting gameplay issue to me still for VR is locomotion. Teleportation is filling the gap, but it seems like there will be better and better ways to move around in these worlds we’re building.

OnlySP: You have highlighted the fact that unlike Myst and Obduction, Firmament isn’t an entirely solitary experience. You’ll be exploring the world with a silent clockwork companion that aids in the solving of puzzles. Is the little fellow intended solely as a tool, or is the goal to nurture a bond between the player and the companion?

Miller: We hope you form a bond—like a shepherding dog is both a marvelous tool and a loved and trusted companion.

OnlySP: Firmament’s Kickstarter page describes the game as “the beginning of an exciting new Cyan universe.” Does this imply that more games set in this universe may be on the horizon in the future?

Miller The Firmament narrative is one of the most interesting that we’ve done. It’s got a wonderful base story, that the player (of course) picks up quickly, and then some… I can’t… I really want to give more details, but… it’ll be so much fun to watch people uncover the story. 😉  

OnlySP: For now, all the focus on Firmament, but Cyan’s place in history is irrevocably tied to Myst. Is Myst entirely in the rear-view mirror at this point? We remember murmurs of a TV show not long ago…

Miller: Myst is definitely not in the rear-view mirror. We feel refreshed from Obduction already. Firmament is so much fun that we wanted to give it a chance to come to life, but beyond Firmament there are some really exciting potential developments on the Myst horizon.


Despite its impressive legacy, or perhaps because of it, Cyan continues to look boldly to the future with Firmament. If that future comes to pass, Cyan promises gamers a deeply immersive narrative adventure that harks back to and is informed by that great legacy.

To learn more about Firmament, be sure to have a look at the game’s Kickstarter page. For updates and continued coverage, be sure to follow OnlySP on Facebook, Twitter, and YouTube. You can also join the discussion in our community Discord server.

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Interview

The Long Return Creates a Beautiful Aesthetic in Each Level — An Interview With Max Nielsen

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Long Return header

The Long Return is a beautiful third-person puzzle adventure game, following the story of an orphaned cub. The player explores hand crafted levels as the cub retraces the steps it once took with his mother. The Long Return’s level design is familiar yet still distinct and refreshing, taking inspiration from both new and old games to create this muted low poly feel.

This gorgeous, debut project is the work of solo developer Max Nielsen. Although he is currently finalising the game ahead of its release later this year, he took the time to talk to OnlySP to reflect and tell us more.


OnlySP: What inspired you to bring The Long Return to life? Was it an idea you were sitting on for a while or did it come on quite suddenly?

Nielsen: Actually, I never planned on releasing this game, or even finishing it. I had just quit my job at Microsoft and wanted to create a quick demo for my portfolio, so that I could apply for jobs in the industry. At the time I was working on a 2D RPG mostly for fun, and I knew I would need to make something in 3D for the bigger studios to give me a chance. So I decided to make a fairly simple demo with around 10 minutes of gameplay. However, while working on it, I got offered a job as an application consultant at a great company, and they said they would let me work on my own games and run my own company on the side, so I accepted the job and since then I have been working on this game as a hobby on my free time.

OnlySP: Each zone in The Long Return has such a pleasing aesthetic, how did you go about level design in a mostly natural world?

Nielsen: I am a huge Nintendo fan, Zelda OoT is still my favorite single player game ever, and I had just played through Zelda BotW, and wanted to create a world with a similar color palette and feel. After trying out a few different things I decided to use the low poly style because that would mean I could actually model some stuff by myself. I think I’ve gone through the level design of each zone in my game at least 10 times since I started, it’s crazy how much you learn just by trial and error (although time-consuming).

OnlySP: Will the game have a stronger focus on gameplay and location or story. Is The Long Return is a mix of the two?

Nielsen: Since the start I really wanted to tell a story without any words or text, and I have kept true to that. Instead I tell the story using memories and visuals. This does set certain limits to how gripping and detailed the story can be, especially when working with animals, but I think the message comes across quite well. The game is, at its core, a puzzle/adventure game, and you spend most of your time solving different puzzles and finding your way past obstacles, accompanied by an amazing original soundtrack that I still cannot believe is for my game.

OnlySP: Being your first big project game, what have you learned during development?

Nielsen: That list is incredibly long, and hopefully I can create a post-mortem detailing most of it. But I would say the main things I will take away from this project is:

– Plan, research and test; When starting out I kind of just created features for the game by trial and error, this leads to some really messy code. Nowadays I always make sure to properly plan, take notes, research best practices and test everything in a dev-environment before putting it in my game.
– Marketing is a necessary evil, even as a hobby developer with very limited time, I still don’t do enough of it, shame!
– It’s okay to take a day off, don’t burn out, it’s supposed to be fun!

OnlySP: Overall, how long has it taken for you to develop The Long Return?

Nielsen: Roughly a year. But I’ve been working on games for 4-5 years before that as a hobby.

OnlySP: Do you have any plans after The Long Return is released?

Nielsen: Big, BIG plans, haha. While I love this game and all I’ve learned, I am so excited to start my next project. It is much more “my type of game” and I have very high hopes for it. I won’t say too much yet, but it will combine my two favorite genres of single player games; RPG and city management.

The Long Return is set to release in August 2019.

For more interviews in the world of single-player gaming, be sure to follow OnlySP on FacebookTwitter, and YouTube. Also, be sure to join the discussion in the community Discord server.

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