Paul's Really Late Reviews #2: Riven

As I continue my project of trying to play and review the tall pile of game CDs sitting next to my computer, I start to get an idea of how the pile got so tall in the first place. I finished the first review (of The Space Bar) late in January 2001, and now I find myself in April only just finishing the second. Somehow real life keeps getting in the way. Well, that and writing text games. Let this be a lesson to you, kids. (Though just what the lesson is, I'm not sure.)

The idea behind these "Really Late Reviews" isn't to help people decide whether or not to buy a particular game -- in the vast majority of cases, the games probably aren't available anymore except through auction sites and dusty bargain bins. Even Riven, one of the biggest hits ever, is no longer in print, though it's not too hard to find. Instead, these reviews try to focus on what does and doesn't work in a specific game with an eye towards good and bad design decisions in general for adventure games. The scrutiny is perhaps especially appropriate in this case, since Myst and Riven were such humongous hits that they had to be doing something right for somebody. The fact that they've both received such tremendous backlash from some hardcore adventure gamers is, to me, just more evidence of this fact. The tone of many of those complaints always reminded me of the irritation felt by longtime fans of groups like U2 and Nirvana after those groups got big, annoyance that their hip and private playground had suddenly been invaded by the unwashed masses.

It's not that I thought that all the criticisms of Myst were baseless -- on the contrary, I was just as annoyed by its anticlimactic ending and its sometimes pointless puzzles as anybody. But the vehemence of those objections always felt a bit out of place to me. I will say, though, that I've always been struck by the irony of Myst's emphasis on books, and the same is true for Riven. Here we have the adventure games that, more than any single other, took players' hands off the keyboard and placed emphasis totally on mouse interaction, yet their central metaphor is of books as transportation devices. In fact, when one of those books opens and we see that the pages are in fact blank, and in place of the text is an animated graphic, we might realize that there, conveniently displayed before us, is the Myst aesthetic: gorgeous art on the simplest background, divorced from (con)text as much as possible. For an old text adventurer like me, there was something amusing about the fact that the games had such a worshipful attitude towards books and pages, while eschewing actual words almost completely. I say almost because the games can't quite manage to avoid presenting text, and consequently end up hitting players with giant swaths of it at once. But more about that later.

Of course, the point has been made before that this very ejection of text in favor of art was one of the keys to Myst's success, and it's a point I find persuasive. I know that while playing Riven, I enjoyed how easy it was to find one breathtaking vista after another, even before any puzzles had been solved, with only a few mouse-clicks. That simplicity is a solid virtue, and the fact that almost anybody could figure out the interface within 60 seconds had to have helped the game's popularity. Simplicity and dazzle are a powerful combination, and Riven has both in spades -- it's no wonder that so many other games have copied its interface. But as easy as that interface was to use, I found it frustrating at points. For one thing, the fact that Riven's graphics were so detailed, with so many subtle areas of light and shadow, meant that in any given screen, there were several features that might yield results when clicked upon. Consequently, I found myself doing a lot of random clicking in a great many places. It's not that this approach is difficult, but it does get rather tedious, especially when only one out of oh, say 75 of those clicks actually accomplished anything. Another problem with the Riven hunt-the-hotspot interface is that for unspecified areas of many screens, clicking would actually advance the PC forward, while clicking elsewhere would have no effect. Numerous were the times when I'd have to backtrack because I'd moved forward without wanting to.

The answer to these problems would have been just a little more cursor differentiation. Riven already has this feature for some areas. For example, when the cursor would turn into finger pointing right, clicking would turn the PC 90 degrees to the right. When the cursor becomes a grabbing hand, you know it's possible to click and drag the feature beneath it. If only it had lit up on other (non-draggable) hotspots and evinced some difference between forward motion and no effect, I could have been saved a lot of pointless clicking. These features seem so obvious that I wondered whether they had been omitted in the name of making the game more challenging. If so, they certainly served their purpose, but increased challenge of that sort doesn't make a game any more fun, just more numbing.

But even when I'd feel myself sliding into a stupor from all the fruitless clicking, Riven would always reawaken me with its phenomenal art. This game is known for its graphics, and rightly so -- even its fiercest critics may allow that it's "pretty." I'll say more than that: it's stunning. The level of detail in rocks, plants, and skies made them feel indelibly real, and the effect was aided by all the tiny touches that were put in just to enhance the game's feeling of presence. In a forest, tiny fireflies (or are they dust motes) swirl around you, for no other reason than to deepen the aura of enchantment. Water shimmers and refracts brighter and darker colors up at you, creating a remarkably mimetic effect. From time to time you'll see other people, always shying away from you and warning their companions of your presence like timid prairie dogs. The other thing that just knocked me out about some of the graphics in Riven was their choice of colors and level of color saturation. When an elevator descends from the ceiling, it isn't just gold, it's GOLD. When the pathway from that elevator leads to a huge viewport on the ocean, it's hard not to be awed by the intense BLUEness of that panorama.

Riven's puzzles partook of a similar intensity and attention to detail, and there were plenty of neat ones. I won't discuss them in too much detail, since I don't want to spoil the game for those who might still seek it out, but I will say that the game often rewards sophisticated spatial thinking, and that the solutions often require bringing together disparate pieces of information in crafty and revelatory ways. In fact, my main criticism of the puzzles is that sometimes they go one step too far in this direction. In one instance, several things clicked together at once in my brain and I realized that I had figured out a puzzle that was cunning and delicious, but when I went to solve it, I found it unyielding. Turns out that the game had established a pattern of clues in four out of five sub-parts of the puzzle, but had broken that pattern in the fifth part, presumably to make things more challenging. My frustration arose from the fact that where I had once felt clever for teasing out the underlying motif, I now felt cheated out of the solution I'd earned, for no compelling reason. The pattern-matching was a bit of a stretch already, and when the pattern was arbitrarily broken, the puzzle started to feel a little unfair to me. Other problems occurred in one or two combination locks whose solutions didn't quite make enough sense, including one in particular that I had to try over and over until it worked, even though previous attempts with the same combination had failed.

This last may have been a technical problem, and if so, it was one of the few bugs I encountered in Riven. There were little problems here and there, usually having to do with the cursor changing shape erroneously, sometimes making me wonder if I was missing additional screens because of an error in the navigation routines. Besides the art, the game's other really outstanding technical achievement was in its sound. I recently bought a new computer with a powerful soundcard and speaker set, and Riven took the fullest advantage of these. The music was understated and evocative, and the foreground sound effects achieved a remarkable level of verisimilitude. But even when these weren't playing, the game kept up a steady stream of ambient background noises -- chirping birds and insects in a forest, lapping waves at the seashore, echoing droplets of water underground, and so on. These sounds blended seamlessly into each other and did a lovely job of completing the sense-picture started by the graphics. On the other hand, a five-second foreground sound effect that's enchanting the first time through becomes really annoying the fifth time. Riven provided the option to skip transition animations, thank goodness, but omitted any such feature for sound effects, with the result that I sometimes had to stop a quick run through already-explored areas just so I could let a sound play yet again. However, this interruption wasn't as inconvenient as the numerous occasions when Riven would ask me to swap among its five CDs. I have two CD-ROM drives in my current machine, and I still felt like I was constantly disk-swapping, especially as I got further into the game and was doing a lot of hopping from one area to another. I've read that a Riven DVD was released which eliminates this problem, and if you're still looking for the game, I'd highly recommend pursuing this option -- the game casts such a lovely spell that I wanted it broken as little as possible.

Prisons are a recurring motif in Riven. In fact, at the beginning of the game you're given a "prison book" that you're supposed to use to capture the Bad Guy, but as soon as you're transported into the game, you find yourself in an actual prison (you know, with bars), where the book gets stolen from you. On the way to retrieving it, you'll explore a number of different cages and cells, and in fact you'll be imprisoned yourself when the book is returned to you. All this incarceration felt like an appropriate theme, because it nicely symbolized my relationship to the plot. I think it's fair to say that Riven's story is very poorly paced. At the beginning of the game you're given a number of teasers (and references that seem inexplicable if you haven't played Myst and/or read the tie-in novels recently, which was exactly my situation) and then thrown immediately into the standard lovely-but-abandoned landscape. From there, it'll be a loooong time until you get more story. Oh sure, there'll be hints and evocative little clues of what's going on, but I found myself wishing for more narrative throughout the game, instead of the endless wandering, button-pushing, and lever-throwing that I got instead. This feeling was not alleviated when I finally stumbled across one of the game's several plot-advancing journals. These journals are uniformly massive, page after page of spidery handwritten text that provides plenty of plot detail and background information (more than enough, in fact) along with some well-placed puzzle hints. The problem with these things is that they take a long time to read, and whenever I'd find one I'd sigh, realizing that my next half-hour or so would be spent slogging through a sea of text. Trapped in this stumbling rhythm, I began to feel like a starving detainee (albeit one with a very large cell in which to pace), begging piteously for a few more scraps of plot, please, and instead given massive meals every six days.

In the end, I decided that I wasn't playing Riven for its story, and allowed myself to sink more deeply into its lovely graphics, sounds, and puzzles like a warm bath. I came out feeling refreshed and contented, more or less happy for the time I'd spent with the game.

Really Late Reviews #2: Riven / Paul O'Brian / obrian at / Revised April 2006
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