Quern came highly recommended by other Myst fans. From what I could see in the trailer and screenshots, I could understand why they would. Quern shares several key traits with the original Myst game–it is set on a remote island, riddled with puzzles, and shrouded in a mysterious story that is mostly told to the player through scattered journals and letters–but it’s similarities with Myst are superficial and cannot save it from its superficial puzzle design and heavy-handed storytelling.
The puzzles in Quern aren’t bad. In and of themselves, they make perfect sense and can be fun to solve but most are not well-integrated into the story and feel tacked on. While this issue does not break the game, the more poorly integrated puzzles add little of value to it and feel more like a chore to solve than a delightful challenge.
When puzzles are well-integrated into a story, they tell us something about the characters and the worlds they inhabit. In Riven: The Sequel to Myst, several of the puzzles directly involve the various machines used to generate power on the islands. These puzzles tell us about how the antagonist, Gehn, has fundamentally transformed Riven by plundering its natural resources and manipulating it native inhabitants to fuel the production of his linking books. These puzzles are not meaningless obstacles for the player to solve but are an integral part of the world and support the moral conflict at the heart of the story. Well-integrated puzzles allows us to interact with a story more meaningful and enhances or experience of the game.
As is they are, the puzzles tell us little about the island or its various inhabitants. Many of the puzzles are explained away as the result of the anthropologist’s well-developed technical skills but this explanation feels flimsy, especially when the anthropologist neglects to label any of the ingredients in his laboratory.
But, of course, to integrate puzzles into a game well you must also have a good story. The story takes place on a mysterious island that exists out of time and grants eternal life to anyone who inhabits it. Throughout the game the player picks up pieces of a journal kept by an anthropologist who inhabited the island previously. In these journals he relates how he spent his unlimited time studying the island, expanding his knowledge of the natural world and mastering his technical skills, until he exhaust everything the island has to teach him and becomes restless.
Near the end of the game, the player learns that other past inhabits suffered the same intellectual fate but with far greater consequences. Instead of being a lone researcher, like the anthropologist, these other inhabits came to the island in search of a means to save their home world from utter destruction but when they eventually return home, solution in hand, they become arrogant and power hungry. Although they save the world from destruction, their feel of intellectual superiority leads to civic unrest and social collapse. It’s a grim story that feels unsettlingly anti-intellectual for a game built around puzzles. I’m not sure if this was intended by the developers but with such a heavy-handed, allegorical story it’s difficult for me to interpret it any other way.
Quern is a decent puzzle-adventure game, offering a variety of challenging puzzles that are consistently fair to the player but occasionally feel tedious due to poor integration to into the game world. The story is, as other reviewers have put it, forgettable and possibly even regrettable considering its anti-intellectual message. I would recommend Quern to anyone with an interest in traditional logic puzzles but I cannot recommend it to anyone looking for a more substantial experience similar to those offered by the Myst series.