Retrospective: Riven

Welcome to Puzzle Island

Well-known top dog adventure game designer Cyan is working on a new game, Obduction (no, it’s not just “Abduction” with a creative spelling, as I first thought: obduction is a real thing.) Obduction looks really good so far, and I plan to get it as soon as it’s released. So what better time to talk about Riven, one of Cyan’s biggest and best games?

In 1993, no game looked as good as Myst. It was displayed in what today seems like a tiny resolution, but the graphics were clear and incredibly detailed. Moreover, their environments somehow looked real – the various worlds of Myst were obviously computer-generated, but at the same time they felt like real places, unlike other 90s efforts to create detailed 3d worlds, which often came off as bizarre or unreal. This was all the more impressive considering the fantastic nature of some of the game’s worlds. Finally, Myst wasn’t just a bunch of pretty pictures: it told a story, and quite a deep one, although the real depth of the story wouldn’t be revealed for a few years.

The same can be said for Myst‘s 1997 sequel, Riven, only that game looked even better. Sure, both were composed entirely of still shots with some Quicktime movies imposed on top to create animations, but this all worked for the sorts of games that Myst and Riven were: point-and-click adventures with a heavy emphasis on exploration and puzzle-solving.

A scene from Riven.

A scene from Riven.

Myst was an undeniable hit. The fact that a puzzle game did so well shouldn’t be such a surprise, either, when you consider that it was released at a time when a lot of people had just bought their first PCs with CD-ROM drives. Myst was also designed (perhaps purposely designed) to appeal to parents who might have been wary of buying violent PC games like Doom for their kids. (As it turned out, though, the story of Myst and its following games had plenty of implied violence in them!)

Which brings me to Riven. I was 11 years old when this game was released. Like a lot of kids, I’d played through Myst, and while my 7 year-old self wasn’t all that great at putting the pieces together as far as the game’s puzzles went, I somehow managed to get to the good ending without much help thanks to trial and error and frequent saves. Riven was a different story, however. Sometime between 1993 and whenever they started working on Myst‘s sequel, developer Cyan apparently decided that Myst‘s puzzles were just too damn easy. So they ratcheted up the difficulty. Really, really ratcheted it up. Riven quite literally drops you into an alien world with very little information as to how you’re supposed to achieve your goal. Thankfully, there is a clear goal to Riven from the very beginning, which wasn’t the case in Myst, but getting there requires you to tie together three or four different sets of puzzle clues scattered across the game world. There are number puzzles, color puzzles, sound puzzles and shape puzzles. There are clues laying around that seem totally irrelevant to your object until you have the context to put them into. There’s even a puzzle that requires you to learn a new system of counting (hint: it’s not base-10. Have fun figuring it out.)

Riven, aka Puzzle Island(s)

They really enjoy solid gold spinny domes in Riven.

All of the above considered, it’s no wonder that the series’ popularity fell off after Riven came out. Myst was fairly easy as far as its puzzles went, but Riven was unforgiving. While Myst could pretty much be solved through a lot of trial-and-error screwing around, Riven required the player to draw lots of inferences from journals, symbols, and even from the islands’ environments and use them in ways that don’t seem that obvious, even in hindsight. It’s like going from doing your local paper’s word jumble straight to the New York Times Sunday crossword. Four more games came out after Riven, including an MMO sort of thing, but from Riven on, this was a fans-only deal. At least, that’s what I assume, because although according to Cyan themselves it was very successful, I don’t remember Riven being nearly as much of a thing as Myst. Damn near everyone played Myst, even your grandma who still didn’t know what the weird clicky rolly thing connected to the computer was. Riven‘s appeal, it seems, was far narrower.

It’s really kind of a shame, because Riven is actually a very good game – it’s just hard as hell. The premise of the Myst series and the lore behind it are interesting and original: an ancient civilization’s art of linking to other worlds by writing books describing them and the death and destruction that eventually result, both for a lot of those linked worlds and for the civilization itself. Some of the characters of the Myst story are able to practice “the Art”, as they call it, by linking to these worlds and even writing changes into said worlds, with varying results. Riven tells a vital part of this story.

Myst lore simplified: people write magic books and fuck up life for a lot of other people.

Myst lore simplified: people write magic books and fuck up life for a lot of other people.

The main object of the game is to entrap a certain character inside a prison book – a normal linking book with part of its connection destroyed, so that the person linking through is trapped between worlds in some kind of void world (note: this isn’t a spoiler; you’re told the plan at the very beginning of the game.) This prison can only hold one person at a time. As the anonymous/silent protagonist, you’ll have to figure out how to trap this dude and bring a happy close to the story. Not that the game gives you any help getting there. Riven was made in the 90s, a period when video and PC games didn’t bother to give the player hints beyond “go to X and kill Y”, and the same is true here: you’ll get vague hints for how to get to the bad man, but trapping him is something you’ll have to figure out on own, using your brain skills. As a result, managing to get the good ending on your own is pretty rewarding (although, to be honest, the game really shoves you towards the good ending – all the other endings require either serious oversights on the part of the player or the simple desire to see all the endings possible, which can be fun in itself.) In the tradition of Myst, there aren’t any bullshit Sierra-style deaths in Riven: every bad ending occurs because you explicitly fucked up.

It may be nostalgia talking once again, but I think both of these games are still well worth a play. They’re atmospheric, interesting, and have aged a lot better than other early CD-ROM adventure games. Apparently a lot of other people think so too, because both are available on mobile platforms. Makes sense, when you think about it: the formats of Myst and Riven are perfect for a tablet or smartphone. (Also, Riven is on sale for three dollars on Steam until January 2nd, which is a great deal.) I also like the basic idea of the Myst/Riven universe and the overarching story that connects all of these games. We can only hope that the coming Obduction, currently predicted for release late next year, will be as great as Cyan’s first games.

Riven also featured decent to good acting, which is basically Oscar-level as far as old CD adventure games go.

Riven also featured decent to good acting, which is basically Oscar-level as far as old CD adventure games go.

One more point: back in the day (yeah, all the way back in the late 90s, that legendary age) industry people talked about the Myst phenomenon having “killed” the adventure game genre, I guess by bringing too many plebs unused to traditional adventure game mechanics and standards into it. For a response to this, see this article from the great, now dead, game website Old Man Murray, which sums up the whole debate. No disrespect to Sierra or adventure game queen Roberta Williams, but some of their games’ puzzles really were absolute arbitrary bullshit. Which is something you can’t say for Cyan’s work: as hard as some of Riven‘s puzzles are, their solutions basically make sense.