Review: Riven

Official Riven web page. Riven produced by Cyan and Broderbund and Red Orb Entertainment (like I can keep track of this mess).

Review written by Andrew Plotkin

Dialog and writing
Fair, in both senses of the word
Solid, if not deep
Excellent (too simple to go wrong)
Very good
Forgiveness rating
You cannot get stuck or make a mistake, until the ending. Then there are some obvious mistakes you can make, but you're clearly warned against them.

Why, yes, it is silly to write a review of what is certainly the most-awaited adventure in computer gaming history. Everyone, but everyone, has already decided to buy it -- and an extra copy for their aged Aunt Mabel. So what can I possibly say?

Maybe not much. But I'm interested in interactive fiction. I'm interested in what works, and what doesn't, and why. I even have a fond hope that game designers, as well as game players, are reading these reviews. So I'm going to try to circumvent the hype; I want to talk about the aspects of Riven that make it a good game, or -- in places -- a not so good game. As opposed to a guaranteed best-seller, which I'm sure it will be. Best-sellerdom is boring.

So if all you want to know is "Is the damn game really worth buying?" then the answer is "Yes." You may be excused now. Enjoy the ride. On the other hand, if you want to know "Is Riven the best computer game ever, has it redefined the boundaries of computer gaming, is it a story-telling miracle of the modern age?" the answer is "Uh, get a grip." (But then, if you're asking that question, you're not listening to my answer. Neener neener to you too.)

Enough of that.

People will begin by talking about the art. Ok; the art is terrific. You may recall that I say that about a lot of games, and I'll repeat why: art is the easy part. Zork Nemesis looked terrific, Obsidian looked terrific... I can't really compare. Riven is definitely in the first rank -- both for technical wizardry and sheer visual imagination. Things are huge; things are detailed; there is a tremendous sense of presence, of the physical reality of the rock and stone and sea. Plants have individual leaves. (Go back and load up Myst sometime; it's amazing how much plants have changed since 1993.) When you first see the gold dome, it's instantly clear how big it is. And, equally, when you wander through the rainforest and see individual motes of dust drifting into and out of sunbeams... it's terrific.

(I should note, in case it's not obvious, that sound is just as much a part of the art as graphics. Among the things that Myst pioneered was sound as background art -- waves, wind, echoes, music as an accent rather than a soundtrack. Riven does this just as well. I bought cables to hook in my stereo, purely because of Riven. Good decision.)

As for imagination, well, I've already said how real it feels. That's the hardest part of fantasy. And oh, the feeling of wonder when I saw the water in the bay. "Is that really...?" I asked. We decided it was. (I was playing, by the way, with a friend watching over my shoulder -- someone who was totally unfamiliar with computer games, nearly so of computers altogether. A good counterpoint view to have. She was as stunned by the art as I was.)

There are all sorts of tiny little animation details, like the drifting dust motes. They're thrown in just for the hell of it -- a feature I heartily approve of. Shall I rant about classic text adventures for a moment? The best thing about pure text is that it's cheap. You can write a tiny paragraph, a one-use side description, in ten minutes. The player may never see it, but what the hell? Put in two dozen of them, and the player will catch ten. That's worthwhile; that's a solid, rich background. The technique is just as applicable to graphical games. But it's expensive. It takes three weeks of rendering time, not ten minutes. Riven spends those two dozen times three weeks. The first time I saw the... creatures... sunbathing on a rock, I nearly choked. They grunted at me, glared, and swam away. I nearly choked again. They're not a puzzle. They're just there. I love it.

On to plot; but I must digress briefly, because I've never posted a review of Myst. [Footnote July 2002: I have now.] I have talked about it, now and again. What I said was: Myst had the weakest excuse for a plot, and the worst writing, of any computer game that I've liked. Yes, it had a good start. But then the plot stopped dead for nine-tenths of the game, and the only thing that anyone said was "More pages! I'm good! He's bad! More pages!" Over and over and over again. And then it ended, an ending which inspired the subject line "Myst: was that really it?" in more Usenet posts than I can comfortably spit at. Myst did many things wonderfully (including sell) but plot and writing weren't two of them.

So, does Riven do better? Yes, praise all things. The designers obviously caught a clue.

The story is not spectacular modern fantasy, mind you. There's a bad guy, Gehn, and you have to find him and snare him with a prison Book that Atrus gives you. Finding Atrus's beautiful wife Catherine would be peachy, as well. Now, Gehn turns out to be charismatic and personable, but there's never any doubt that he's a bad guy. An obsessed, ruthless, power-hungry bad guy at that. I give them some points for making him charismatic; and many more points for not making him sadistic, gloating, or frothing-at-the-moustache crazy. But there are no shades of grey in sight here.

The storyline, on the other hand, is great. Er, I just dropped all my terminology on the floor; bear with me. (I write these reviews infrequently enough that I lose my consistency. I get all starchy and gelatinous. No, er...)

Sorry. The game design is very good at keeping the story going, that's what I mean. You learn what's been going on in fragments, from several different points of view. The pieces are well spread around. I think they could have been divided into smaller chunks. There are at least four places where you have to stop and spend fifteen minutes reading a journal, cover to cover. That's a hefty expository lump -- epistolary lump, I should say. But they're not bad writing. They're plausible as journals, and like journals, they leave out some "obvious" details; figuring out the complete picture is part of the fun. I'm just pointing out that they're awfully long to read all at once. Ok, never mind, it's a small complaint.

Dialogue is rare. This isn't much of a surprise, since the designers chose to keep Myst's one-click interface. There's no way for you to respond other than by action -- touching something or walking away. So extended dialogue would be glaringly artificial. Very sensibly, they didn't try for any. There are a few scenes where someone walks in, says something, and hurries out again. Half the time the person doesn't even speak your language. (The directing is coherent enough that this works just as well.) Other than that you're alone. The dialogue (monologue) that you do hear is, like the journals, well-written enough, if not spectacular. It's not painfully fake, it advances the plot, and that's good enough for me.

The interface, the interface. It's nice to know that after all the effort people have put into do-anything graphical interfaces -- the pop-up action menus, the inventory bars, the subwindows, the "use X on Y" click sequences -- you can still kick butt with nothing but a "use this now" cursor. Technically, Riven has an inventory; but through four-fifths of the game you only carry one item, Atrus's journal, and you can't do anything with that but read it. Every action through most of the game is "push this button", or sometimes "grab this lever and drag it in some direction."

I don't mean to demean this. It's hard to make your world that simple. I'm much more impressed by this than, say, the complex assembly puzzles in Lighthouse. There are no "guess the verb" puzzles in Riven; you always know, ok, this is a button, if I click on it then it will push. The puzzle is, hm, what will happen and why? And that is a matter of snooping around, seeing what it's connected to, what it looks like, what it sounds like.

I see that I'm onto puzzles. This puts me in some confusion. Riven is, at the same time, one of the hardest games I've played, and one of the most solvable games I've played. Isn't that strange? Can you tell I'm about to digress again?

The first thing you learn in adventure game school is: a badly-designed puzzle is too hard, as opposed to too easy. Any idiot can make an unsolvable puzzle with unreadable clues. I've done plenty of it. (Self-taught, you see, never went to game school...) I solved Riven in three days, a bit over twenty hours of play time. In that time I looked at exactly one hint (more about which soon.) Aside from that one hint, I solved it all myself. (I'm afraid my friend didn't help much -- sorry, truth. She was only there for the first few hours anyway.)

It was not an easy game. I glared and sweated, and I goggled and gasped when the pieces came together in my head. But, you see, I wouldn't have sweated if it hadn't been solvable. I've played games with much more obscure puzzles. (The programming puzzle in Obsidian, for example.) Those didn't make me work, because I realized that I was completely stuck, and I got a hint. Riven very rarely made me think I was stuck. Let me count: Once I knew I was being sloppy, because I wasn't mapping a complicated path layout. As soon as I drew a crude map, I saw what I'd missed. Mmm, actually, that happened twice. Once I was stuck because I didn't recognize a circular glowing spot as a button. (Idiot.) Once I was stuck because I was lazy and walked away from a complicated machine instead of playing with it. And once I was sincerely stuck on a puzzle.

You see my point. Riven isn't that hard; I always had all the pieces to play with. Therefore I spent time playing with them, and therefore I remember the puzzling and the "Eurekas," rather than only remembering nice scenery. That's exactly what interactive adventure games are for. Riven does it well.

The one puzzle I needed a hint on... it's the one with the animals; you'll know which one I mean once you've played. Naturally, my judgement is biased. It seems to me that that one puzzle was unfair. There were five clues, and I don't think I ever found the fifth one. And of the four I found, I could only interpret two -- and that's after reading the solution. Before I cheated, I didn't even know what I was looking for. Or at.

But then there was the puzzle of the colored marbles, which was even more complicated and was based on integrating several very disparate pieces of information. I thought that was a brilliant example of making disparate pieces of information which fit together perfectly, obviously, with grace and beauty. But then, I solved that puzzle myself. So what do I know? If I'd noticed the damn frog, I would probably have been praising the animals puzzle just as highly. So let's say this: Riven is a game with the potential to make you feel really smug. Just keep at it, and keep looking.

(Here's the thing about cheating: what you're missing is probably not that hard. For example: I've seen posts begging and whimpering for the combination to the domes. The puzzle, of course, is not figuring out the combination by some arcane act of will. It's getting to where the combination is written down; and then reading it. The first of these is quite easy. The second is a little harder, but about as logical as a problem can get.)

(And closing open doors is as important as opening closed doors. Remember this.)

I've already praised the game design with regard to plot. The rest of the designing is just as good. For all the detail, there's a very good sense of focus; you can always tell which details are important and which are scenery. This is a game of machinery, but it does not make Lighthouse's mistake of hiding a lever in a forest of levers. Every control within reach is important. Anything out of reach is obviously out of reach, and if there's a way to get to it, you'll know when you find it. Many of the controls do nothing important to the plot, mind you -- that's the background detail I was talking about earlier -- but they do something important to somebody. And you can usually figure out what it is. And if you can't, but you need to, you know that you need to try. That's what I mean by focus.

(In a sense, this is exactly the same as my previous point. You always have all the pieces to play with. For gods' sake don't forget where any levers are; you're expected to play with them, and if you leave one behind, you'll never know what it does. But the levers are right out there in the open.)

I have two more notes on my little list: "integration", and "wedge-chocking". Now that I think about it, they're also two sides of one point.

When I say integration, I mean the opposite of contrivance. Myst got a bad reputation for contrivance; and indeed, it had a lot of doors with combination locks (for no good reason) and combinations made up of constellations or sounds (for no good reason) which were written down in strange places (for no good reason.) That was pretty goofy. On the other hand, it had some very good spots as well. The water-power village, with the valves, was one of the the best-integrated puzzles I can remember. That's the trend that Riven continues. Just about everything you discover has a reason to be there. Okay, many catwalks are more convoluted than they really need to be, and the doors, gates, and elevators are convenient only for making movement awkward. But you can argue that the place was built for security, and you are breaking in. Generally, once you get into an area, you can unlock it from the inside. That makes perfect sense, of course, and it also prevents you from having to go through complex machinations more than once. (There's nothing more boring than going through a finicky vehicle maze the second time.)

And at any rate, gates and elevators and drawbridges are far better than the miserable fifteen-puzzle. I am so, so happy to report that the fifteen-puzzle occurs nowhere in Riven. Nor does either of the jumping-pegs puzzles. There are no toys-which-obstruct. No mazes, no jigsaw puzzles. There are weird symbols to decode -- which are of the everyday writing of the native people, and which you can figure out a realistic fraction of, and not the rest. (Their writing is not a substitution cipher of English, nor a pictographic language with a convenient Rosetta Stone. Praise be for that as well.)

That leaves wedge-chocking, which I guess is the integration of the plot, as opposed to the puzzles. I'm thinking of one bit of the opening scene. Someone pulls a lever, and then someone else comes along, bends over, and pounds a wedge into it, chocking it in place. Looked at cynically, this is plot manipulation pure and simple. The designers would have had to film three extra ending scenes if you were free to move that lever. But it fits in fairly well; there's a reason for the person to jam it, and you even discover the reason eventually. There's a fair bit of this in Riven -- closing off options which are extraneous to the plot. But the plot is moving fast enough (at those points) that you don't want to go off track. I won't say it's seamless, because I did notice it. But it didn't bother me.

Riven is unlosable. As in Myst, you can't screw yourself up; there's no way to die or prevent yourself from winning. Well, not until the endgame (again, like Myst.) Once matters become critical, you can do some extremely stupid things if you really want. But you're clearly warned that the mistakes are mistakes. (Actually, I recommend saving your game and then trying stupid things. There are a number of unhappy endings and one Pyrrhic victory, and I found it worthwhile comparing them.)

And the happy ending? Well, it's a much better resolution than Myst's. I thought a few plot points were wrapped up too pat, too quick, and off-camera; but I can live with it. The story behind the two games, Myst and Riven, is fully resolved. Of course, there is room for more stories. They're not stupid. Heh.

(Footnote: I have not read the tie-in novels that have been published. The writing in Myst did not inspire me to read more by the same authors. The writing in Riven, as I said, is an improvement, but I still don't think it has the makings of a great book. On the other hand I'm now curious enough to read the additional background. Maybe. In the meantime, please be aware that in this review I judge only the games, not the novels.)

As usual, I've gone on at great length. (I just looked at how long I've been working on this document, and I'm embarrassed to say.) I hope I haven't sounded too effusive about Riven. I certainly recommend it, as I've recommended a few other games in the past. I've written this not to praise Riven but to dissect it -- and to point out the bits that won't be consciously noticed by your aged Aunt, even though they help her enjoy the game more.

And to point out issues that other game companies might want to think about. Terrific art is the easy part.

Conclusion: Strong in every aspect.

Availability: Give me a break. You can get it literally anywhere software is sold, and they'll try to sell you the hint book and the poster and the mouse pad too. (It's a hybrid Mac/PC package, so they can't even tell you they don't sell Mac games.)

System requirements: PPC only, System 7.5 or later. The box says 90 MHz CPU minimum; Net buzz says 75 is tolerable, if you can live with some sound breakup. 4x CD drive; I got noticeable breaks and pauses even with that, on my 120 MHz box. 9 megs free RAM, which means that if you have only 16 megs total RAM you may be in trouble.

Bugs: I experienced one total freeze-up. Save every so often, just in case. I saw a few (brief) animations which seemed to play twice. There is a 1.0.1 patch (free download from Broderbund) which is supposed to fix that problem; I only tried it with the patch, so maybe it would have been worse without it, I don't know. It didn't interfere with play.

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