Green Tea - sounds interesting
- Date: Fri, 18 Aug 2000 16:03:55 -0700
Mystery Man: He invented a new gaming genre. Now Robyn Miller is exploring
By Steve Silberman
Robyn Miller is back in the basement where he put the finishing touches on
Myst, dreaming of another world. His next venture has no title yet, but it
has a code name: Project Green Tea. It's not a game this time. It's a
Worlds ago in 1993, Miller bought a small house for his family amid the
apple orchards and rolling wheat fields of Mead, Washington, and set up a
couple of Macintoshes downstairs. Back then, he was a designer of
children's software working with his older brother Rand on their first
project for adults. Myst, released that year, was the kind of left-field
success that invigorates an entire industry. It has sold more copies -- by
now, nearly 6 million -- than any other computer game in history.
Myst made addicts of people who had never clicked a mouse, and unlikely
pop celebrities of the Miller brothers. There were no marauding aliens or
laser rifles in Myst, no roster of disposable incarnations. Its haunting
island world was quiet and oddly literary: Urgent messages turned up in
calligraphy, and antique tomes called "linking books" served the function
of the transporters on Star Trek. Its lavishly rendered sequel, Riven, has
sold 2 million copies.
Now, on his own without Rand -- who's still running Myst's parent company,
Cyan -- Robyn Miller is leveraging his modest fortune in an unexpected
fashion. He's operating outside standard film-industry channels, using a
production style that he's making up as he goes. His work-in-progress is
pushing into territory few Hollywood marketers would care to enter.
Folkloric and spiritual, it will be inspired by Miller's very personal
brand of Christianity and a story from the Old Testament. Instead of
shopping a treatment of a script -- hoping to develop it once the money
rolls in -- Miller's using his freedom to stay out of the spotlight,
forget about gaming for a while, and make exactly the film he wants to
A director needs three things to pursue a vision as independently as this:
imagination, money, and technology. Robyn obviously has the first two --
Myst and Riven were conceptual masterworks, and by some accounts he and
his brother each took in $7 million in developer fees from the games. He's
also got great timing, starting his filmmaking quest at a time when
digital video cameras and desktop software are making it easier than ever
to shoot films -- even feature films -- with an unmatched degree of
While Miller still hasn't decided how he wants to shoot his movie -- the
final product could be all digital, all film, or some combination -- the
new technologies are giving him maximum flexibility during a long,
collaborative, organic process of plotting out precisely what Green Tea
will be like.
He has an ambitious vision of where he's going and the tools to get there,
but he's got a long way to go yet. He's busy doing what Riven design
alumnus Robert Grace calls "pushing against emptiness" -- growing the
imaginary universe of his film from the ground up.
For the last year and a half, Miller and his team -- his wife, Beth,
Robert Grace, and Erika Carney, who runs the office while collaborating on
the script -- have schooled themselves in enough background material to
fill a library of comparative mythology. They have improvised dialogue,
cranked out pencil sketches, and Photoshopped set designs. Plundering the
memory banks of dozens of civilizations -- chronicles of Polynesian
religious practices, records of preindustrial Arab technologies, tales of
Zulu battle strategies, time lines of the Mongolian empire -- they've
built an elaborate encyclopedia of backstory they call the Green Tea
Bible. Using this document as a blueprint, Miller hopes to craft a fable
as resonant and timeless as those created by the storytellers he loved
when he was a kid: J.R.R. Tolkien, C.S. Lewis, and George Lucas.
A year from now, Miller's team will begin making a low-resolution
prototype of the film using animatics, a blanket term for a range of tools
-- scans, digital storyboarding, and so on -- that are making
previsualization a more affordable, do-it-yourself proposition. Filmmakers
have long used hand-drawn storyboards to create mock-ups of their shooting
scripts. Now animatics are revolutionizing moviemaking by making it
possible to map out and visualize a feature film on a personal computer.
Once all the major components of Green Tea are in place -- the animatics,
the script, the set design, and a text outline of the action in every
scene -- Miller will be ready to start shooting the actual film.
Mead sits 10 miles northeast of Spokane in rolling, unobstructed farmland
-- a good place to push against emptiness. Here, in his house at the end
of a winding road overlooking a ridge called Green Bluff, Miller greets me
on a sun-soaked summer afternoon. Tall and still gawky at 33, he has a
guilelessness coupled with a casual authority: the confidence of a prodigy
whose inspirations have been rewarded. Pieces of the world of Green Tea
are scattered across his desk. There's a sketch of a two-toed beast of
burden with a mastodon's body, reptilian eyes, wrinkled skin, and the lips
of a rhinoceros. (It's called a lalak, Miller says.) There's a drawing of
an ornately carved gateway straddling two trees -- something that would be
at home in The Lord of the Rings. Beside it, there's a bright green
articulated twig that looks like one of the weirdest inhabitants of Eden,
the insect known as the walkingstick.
"That one's not much of a departure from the original, because not much of
a departure is needed," he says. "A walkingstick is one odd creature." The
twig doesn't have a name yet, but there's a niche for it in Miller's
world: a region that looks nearly dead but will teem with life-forms that
make themselves virtually invisible by staying quiet and still. Near the
desk sits a model of a hut that could have existed in Riven's Rebel Age --
a shaggy pyramid built of bark, with poles jutting out of the roof. Miller
unearthed it in a local antique store. Other sources of inspiration fill
shelves around the room, books that will link the visual lexicon of Green
Tea to other human worlds: Japanese Homes and Their Surroundings, Bali
Style, Moroccan Interiors, Hungarian Folk Art, Pirates, The Code of the
For Miller, one luxury of working at his own pace is that he can let the
parameters of the script stay fluid for a long time, as he fills in
details and begins to court investors in the entertainment and software
industries. He and his team plan to spend another year on this
slow-brewing phase of Green Tea, and he hasn't ruled out any possibilities
for the film's production and distribution, including the idea of
partnering with a major studio. His notion is to lock down control of the
creative process at the earliest stage, so that when outsiders become
involved in producing Green Tea, the look and feel of the film, and its
plot and characters, will already be fully realized.
Though he made his name in gaming, Miller is not pitching his first
feature as a cutting-edge CG animation showcase. At this point, he says,
he doesn't "care if it's CG or not," adding that if he could make the
entire movie using real actors and sets, he would. In the age of
forgettable blockbusters driven by jaw-dropping f/x, he vows he won't let
technique overshadow the raison d'jtre of Green Tea: the tale he wants to
"If you have an incredible story," he says, "and the visuals don't match
up to it, you're fine."
Miller has a guilelessness coupled with casual authority: the
confidence of a prodigy whose inspirations have been rewarded.
It was Miller's fascination with storytelling that nudged him in the
direction of film. Halfway through the making of Riven, he began to envy
an asset every kung-fu flick and airport potboiler has over interactive
games: the ability to reveal the turns of a narrative in set sequence,
with no multiple-choice fates or clickable cul-de-sacs. Riven had more
backstory than most contemporary novels, but Miller got tired of trying to
cram narrative elements into structures designed to be nonnarrative. He
craved the directness of the action tales that caught his imagination in
his youth, created by masters of the trade like Jules Verne, Alexandre
Dumas, and Sir Arthur Conan Doyle.
In an age when it's getting harder and harder to tell the difference
between movies and the videogames marketed in their wake, Miller hungered
for linearity. "The one interactive story that works is our lives," he
told me. "And the story of our lives is a linear thing."
Richard Vander Wende, the Riven designer who came to work for Cyan as a
refugee from the assembly lines at Disney and Industrial Light & Magic,
takes credit for "infecting" Miller with the notion that making a film
would be the best way to tell a story. With his experience as the
production designer for Aladdin, Vander Wende encouraged Miller to think
of settings and artifacts in Riven as characters themselves. In Miller's
original design for the game, the throne room of Gehn, the villain who
lords over Riven's inhabitants, was a cramped storage closet housing jars
of marbles that taught players color correspondences required to solve a
puzzle later in the game. Vander Wende transformed the closet into a
spectacular display of Gehn's thirst for power: a cavernous underwater
chamber, with a towering seat from which the old man summoned tusked sea
beasts called wahrks that he used to intimidate the locals.
"After Richard created the Wahrk Room," Miller told Richard Kadrey, author
of From Myst to Riven, "I suddenly became much more interested in this
cinematic and meaning-driven approach to creating an interactive world."
Vander Wende ended up crafting half of Riven's most striking visual
elements, from Gehn's exquisitely appointed Victorian office and
magnetic-levitation car to the stark sun of Riven itself -- the fantasy of
a virtual cinematographer homesick for California skies under Spokane's
brooding grays. One of the illustrious visitors to Riven's development
offices was Douglas Trumbull, the f/x visionary who worked with Stanley
Kubrick on 2001: A Space Odyssey. Trumbull said that what the Millers had
on their desktops was as beautiful as anything in Hollywood.
Vander Wende recalls: "I kept saying to Robyn, 'We should make a movie.
This is as difficult as making a movie. Why aren't we making a movie?'"
One day during the making of Riven, Miller went to see Dead Man Walking,
the Sean Penn film about a killer on death row in Louisiana. He returned
to Cyan and told Vander Wende, "I'm going to make a movie." Miller recalls
that Green Tea was already taking shape in his mind when he saw the film,
but its message of redemption hit him like a revelation. He told everyone
he knew to go see it.
When he watched it again a year later, however, he was disappointed. "It's
a beautiful story of someone acknowledging who he really is," he says,
"but after that moment, there was really no proof of a change in Sean
Penn's character. There should be proof -- some willing sacrifice. It
shouldn't be just words. That's not the kind of redemption I'm interested
Miller found what he was looking for in The Brothers Karamazov. He saw a
reflection of himself in the character of Dmitri, the impulsive, romantic
brother who acts without thinking. What he learned from Dostoyevski,
Miller says, is that "if we can recognize the ugliness in ourselves, as
Dmitri does, and confess it to ourselves, to God, and to the world, we are
less in danger of being swallowed up by it."
If Miller succeeds in making his film the way he wants to, it will be the
second time he's called his own shots as an outsider in an established
industry. From the earliest days of Myst's fame, Robyn and Rand
personified an unusually contemplative brand of geek ingenuity. They were
good-looking -- Rand, the bearish, technically minded older brother;
Robyn, the sweet-faced dreamer with his sketchpads -- but they were also
articulate and seemingly distant from the hype that flashed up around
them. Best of all, they weren't twitchy cynics from New York or Los
Angeles. They were from Spokane -- a forgotten whistle-stop out of some
Kerouac litany. And they were brothers who didn't want to kill each other.
Their bodily ease in each other's presence was palpable even in Newsweek
There was something else too: their faith in Christ, which was not exactly
fashionable in code-jamming circles.
The first imaginary landscapes the Millers explored were built by their
father, Ronald, an itinerant pastor who founded his own independent
Christian church. Before enrolling in seminary back in the '60s, he'd
worked as a manager in a container factory. Cutting up old refrigerator
boxes, he built secret hideaways for his sons: forts, spaceships, caves
with cardboard stalactites dangling down. As the Miller boys grew up, they
followed their dad from Dallas to Albuquerque to Hawaii to Haiti and,
finally, to Spokane. (Their father has already pushed on again, porting
his traveling ministry to Budapest.) They inherited his knack for cobbling
together fantasy playgrounds from materials at hand, making Myst with
off-the-shelf Macintosh software.
The game that turned the Millers into poster boys for the Gap is now
published by Mattel, having migrated up the corporate food chain from
Cyan. Inside Cyan these days, there's a hive of top-secret industry called
Project Mud Pie. Mud Pie is a set of shared environments for a delivery
system that doesn't exist yet: broadband, high-speed Internet for the
masses. Not a sequel to Myst or Riven, Mud Pie is years away from its
online debut. Rand will oversee its production while Robyn works on Green
I ask Rand why he and his brother have decided to part ways for a while.
"Two people can't pilot a ship -- someone must be in charge," Rand says.
"The parting gave us each a ship."
For Miller, precision in a work of art is a tribute to the author of
authors, whose trademark is the .sig file of all things.
He adds, "I'm interested in pushing interactive further to accomplish one
of two things: to find ways to affect people in an interactive world, or
to convince myself that an interactive medium is not suitable for
Gaming pundits scoured Riven for the thumbprints of Christian symbolism,
which have proven as elusive as the secret of the maze in Myst -- turning
up everywhere and nowhere.
The scriptural passage that provides the backbone for the central conflict
of Green Tea is the story of David and Saul from the first Book of Samuel,
a complex parable of compassion winning out over a bloodlust for revenge.
Miller isn't shy or evasive about the importance in his life of what C.S.
Lewis called "mere" Christianity: belief in Christ and faith in
redemption, rather than obedience to the dogma of an established church.
"The Christ story is a myth I believe is true, and is incredibly
compelling," Miller says. "It's become dulled in our imaginations, but if
we could listen to it for the first time - a god who has a son who becomes
a man, who makes the supreme sacrifice - it's still very alive."
Green Tea will chronicle a confrontation between two characters who are in
positions of great power and are jealous of each other. Though the film's
milieu will be preindustrial -- practically medieval -- the central
characters will have access to some kind of technology so advanced by the
standards of their culture, says Miller, that "every decision they make
affects things on a grand scale." (Technology doesn't necessarily mean
machines: Miller considers books, spears, and the spoken word to be forms
of technology.) For now, the idea is to have all the roles in the film be
played by nonhumans -- like the lalaks -- though all the characters will
think of themselves as people.
There will be five primary characters in the film (plus thousands of
smaller roles), and four major settings or environments, including a
bustling capital city built on an island called Japh. The great conflict
occurs at a time when Japh and its surrounding empire are in a heady
period of expansion. There's a lot of new construction on the island,
immigrants are pouring into the city from outlying areas, and the entire
culture is undergoing a renaissance.
The home of the twiglike beings will be the most "mystical" and dreamlike
of the imaginary terrains of Green Tea, Miller says. Some of the film's
crucial scenes will occur in a settlement of characters camped out on the
waters of a huge lake.
Though Miller was originally inspired by Star Wars to draw alien
landscapes in his notebooks, he says he learned more from A Bug's Life
than he did from The Phantom Menace. He did, however, cherish the break in
the action when Qui-Gon Jinn sat down to meditate as a force field sprang
up between him and Darth Maul. "That had some of the old magic," he says.
A selection from the index of the Green Tea Bible suggests that even if
the idea for the conflict was planted with a seed from Samuel, Green Tea
has roots in the mythological layer underlying all civilizations:
Â Â Adulthood, entering
Death and the deceased
Great Rooster, the
Insanity and infirmity
Kingdoms and minor empires
Meditative mass prayers
Paradise, Heaven, Afterlife-pagan
Vial, Rite of primal atonement
For Miller, precision in a work of art is more than a reward unto itself
-- it's a tribute to the author of authors, whose trademark is the .sig
file of all things. "Whether you're making cabinets, designing software,
or writing an article, I believe that God would have us make things well,
and act creatively in every scenario, because that's what He does and
we're made in His image."
Miller told me that the first thing he did when he moved his office back
into the basement was sweep out all the old stuff. "The last thing I need
to be thinking about right now is Myst and Riven anything," he says. "I
want to divorce myself from everything and sink into this new world."
For Miller, what his new world promises, far more than gaming, is the
possibility of transforming the audience. The most powerful narratives are
charged by a commonplace mystery -- by watching characters go through
changes, we ourselves are changed. "Story molds us," he says. "There's
hardly anything we change our minds about because we're convinced of it by
a logical argument. Story makes us who we are."
His faith in storytelling is part of a larger conviction: that the real
world itself is a narrative, in which each detail is saturated with
meaning. The stories in films and books, he believes, are one way that we
come to read that narrative.
"Finally," he says, "I wanted that power. I wanted the power just to tell
Contributing editor Steve Silberman (digaman@...) wrote about Nokia
in Wired 7.09.