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Spokane, Washington  Est. May 19, 1883

‘Myst’ creators surprise with announcement of new, virtual-reality based game

FILE - Rand Miller, seen here in a November 2016 photo, is CEO and cofounder of Cyan Worlds. (Dan Pelle / The Spokesman-Review)

The Spokane area’s little independent video game-developer-that-could is seeking help bringing virtual reality to the mainstream.

Cyan Worlds, creators of the wildly popular 1990s “Myst” computer game franchise, released an unexpected teaser Thursday morning for a new game, called “Firmament,” whose future remains up in the air.

“Honestly, it’s a really cool project,” said Rand Miller, chief executive officer and co-founder of the company. “Hopefully we’ll get to the point where we can make it happen.”

The team has developed what Miller called a working “experience,” similar to a demo, that will be shown later this month at the Game Developers Conference in San Francisco in an attempt to garner interest and financial backing. It features the Mead-based company’s signature puzzle-solving gameplay, he said, in a world built from the ground up to be experienced through a virtual reality headset.

A cinematic video promoting the title, clocking in at just under 2 1/2 minutes, features a voice-over from a mysterious, ethereal woman that tells the player she’s speaking from beyond the grave. Miller was coy about the woman’s identity, saying the team debated whether they should include an appearance from her at all for fear of giving too much away.

“It’s very mysterious what she is,” Miller said. “What kind of apparition is this? Is she dead, is she not dead, what are you seeing?”

A strange glowing device hovers above an ice-covered planet, an apparent key to unlocking strange devices in the game world.

The aesthetic, inspired by science fiction and fantasy stories that imagine futuristic technology adopting the 19th century’s fascination with steam energy, is more than just window dressing, Miller said, again alluding to the game’s mysterious plot.

“The steampunk aesthetic is kind of a throwback, but we’re embracing that in this really interesting storyline that will hopefully get a chance to unfold,” he said.

The end of the trailer features an ominous Latin phrase that loosely translates to “Preserving life requires firmament.”

“That phrase is meant to be a little vague,” Miller said. “It’s meant to induce some thought, for people who kind of want to dig in a little bit.”

Cyan Worlds is no stranger to mysterious, minimalist storytelling in its games. The massive early 1990s hit “Myst” told a story mostly through sparse, full-motion video cut scenes that revealed more of the plot as players completed challenges. The end result was a kind of visual storybook, praised at the time for its hyper-realistic graphics and selling not only millions of copies of software, but also CD-ROM drives.

The company returned to its roots with the 2016 release of “Obduction,” with development funded by a crowdsourcing Kickstarter campaign. The clamoring among the fan base for more “Myst”-like adventures led to the small, independent team raising more than $1 million.

Cyan isn’t using Kickstarter for “Firmament,” Miller said, but rather appealing to backers directly with its package of gameplay that they hope to be able to complete with financial assistance.

“We put all of our ‘Obduction’ money back into that, but ‘Obduction’ hardly pays the bills,” Miller said. “We’re using up our bank money as well, and we’ve gotten to the point where we’re out at this point.”

A port of “Obduction” for virtual reality devices was released in November 2016, and a console version for the PlayStation 4 was released last year. Reviews praised the game for its retro callbacks to the style of puzzle-solving gameplay that was in vogue in the heyday of “Myst,” while some reviewers criticized its technical performance and the game’s story, particularly its unsatisfying ending.

The team has been testing the game on the HTC Vive headset, backed by the industry giant Valve Corp., and the Oculus Rift, a device developed by Facebook. The goal is to develop a distinctly “Myst”-like experience, of solving puzzles and exploring worlds, with the typical trappings of the gaming experience falling away, Miller said.

“It feels like you have your own hands in this world,” he said. “Instead of mapping things to the controller, we want you to feel like you have hands in this world. And what you’re playing with are your hands.”

Miller didn’t provide a release date, or price point for the title, saying the company needs to figure out how much financial support it can muster for the project.