At the end of Myst, Atrus – beleaguered world-crafter desperate to rescue his wife Catherine – gives you the garbage reward of “free access” to the ruined worlds you already explored and solved. (Thanks, Atrus, but what am I supposed to eat??) Months presumably roll by until you are finally summoned. If you travel to a crumbling Age with no way back, rescue Catherine and capture his megalomaniacal father Ghen, then maybe, maybe, he’ll work on finding a way of getting you home.
After Myst unexpectedly broke all records (it was the best selling game of all time until The Sims), a sequel was pretty much a guarantee. But the work building up to it actually began in the years between releases, with the novels The Book of Atrus and The Book of Ti’ana. These all aimed to tie together the open-ended finale of the original game with a sequel focused far more on storytelling than simply clicking through pretty pictures.
An intro movie sets the scene, so you go into Riven with the sense that there’s a lot at stake. You’re armed only with a loose plan and a trap book identical to the red and blue books that ensnared Atrus’ sons in the original. If what you hated about Myst was the obtuse puzzles and lack of direction, brother, you’re really gonna hate Riven. It is pretty much the poster child for entering a location, having no idea what’s going on, and trying to divine some purpose out of obscure fantasy machines.
On top of this, the plan falls apart from the beginning. As soon as the game begins, you’re captured in a cage and your trapped book stolen by a native. Wait, what? People in a Myst game? Apparently Cyan took the criticisms of the rather empty worlds of the first game to heart, so you’ll be spotting people in the distance, speaking to them through cage bars (annoyingly common) , and having one sided “conversations.” It’s very limited interaction, but the inclusion of more present characters is another example of how the plot here is improved.
In fact, the villagers of Riven form the source of many of the puzzles. Ghen has built machines to scare and oppress them, and figuring these contraptions out is often key to moving forward. The villagers have an elaborate spoken and written language that (I assume) you are not supposed to decipher, but a number system that you are – taught to you in a very clever and logical way. There’s a number of different possible endings, but the major ones require you to find and interact with a rebel anti-Ghen faction by finding their own puzzles and lairs hidden around Riven.
Graphics have been bumped up all around. Everything continues to be CG-rendered, as it was with Myst, but the texture work is simply amazing. Most of the textures in the original version of Myst seem to be taken from hand and computer work – especially the near-laughable tree and grass images. Most of the textures in Riven seem to be actual or modified photographs. Gold-cast domes shimmer in the sunlight, dirt and grass have a realistic grit to them, close-ups of metal reveal pebbling and spots of rust. Grainy, yes, but photorealistic, indeed; and makes the world that much more worth exploring. Riven is much brighter and more colorful than even Myst Island, and exploring it is a treat.
QuickTime integration is also vastly improved. Levers move, swarms of bugs flit around, and villagers run and hide in the distance at your approach. The world feels much more alive for it, though you’ll sometimes see the seams between the video and the static CG background. Animals, and examining them, also form the basis of the one of the main puzzles. These are CG animations as well, all of which hold up surprisingly well to study. Technically, the four years between Myst and Riven are very apparent.
Moving around the islands and exploring has not graduated far beyond the original. Every location and item are still made up of mostly static, pre-rendered scenes, that change to other images and angles depending on where you click. They have attempted to smooth this out by using motion blur to blend between the two frames. I personally found the effect more nauseating than immersive, and you can turn this system off, though at the cost of snap-jumping between scenes as in the first game. Either way, I appreciate the option. Riven also seems to have many times more slides in between locations, so you can no longer assume something is important just because they took the time to render it.
While Myst Island served as a hub for your exploration into the other Ages, the sequel is mostly contained to the Age of Riven. There are five islands that make up the Age, and they are far from self-contained. The game is structured in such a way that frequent backtracking is required – don’t be discouraged if you don’t have the solution to a puzzle yet. You’ll be moving ahead and unlocking shortcuts to go back frequently. If you dig up the original version, each island is contained on one CD. You’ll have to hot-swap CDs every time you switch islands, usually by using a mag-rail train connecting them. Luckily, if you haven’t played Riven before, Ubisoft put out a DVD version that keeps everything on one disc.
The sound is just as fantastic as it was in the first game, perhaps even a little cleaner. It came too early for surround sound (a shame), but the environmental effects they’re able to pull off with stereo are still very impressive, and play a huge role in making the world come alive. Also, as in the first, sounds are the key to a few of the puzzles – so make sure to turn your speakers up and pay attention to the noises around you.
My complaints about Riven mostly center on the puzzles and their intentionally abstract nature. Sometimes it’s not clear what you should be doing, aside from the generic “explore,” and the backtracking amplifies your frustration – especially if your backtrack proves fruitless. I played the 5 CD version, and started to dread going back to a previous island, even if I believed it was necessary to proceed.
Likewise, you must let any animations finish before you can proceed. A good example is the village alarm towers. Every time you leave the island and come back, you’re going to have to watch a roughly 30 second animation as the tower lookout presumably warns all the villagers to hide. That got real old.
It’s rare, but I did have more than a few instances where I missed buttons or levers because they were on the edge of the screen or blended in with walls. The photorealism kind of goes both ways, in that you’ll need a sharp eye to spot everything you can possibly interact with.
To a lesser extent, it’s worth warning that a lot of these puzzles will be incomplete – i.e. you will get four out of five pieces, and be expected to brute force or tease out the final piece. A series of colored lights are the solution to one puzzle, but one light is broken. A number of carved balls will help you associate something with something else, but one of those balls never gets found. I don’t think you’re ever intentionally put in a situation where you’re searching around for a clue that doesn’t exist, but be aware that you’re expected to make some leaps of deduction at times.
I also wasn’t completely clear on what Ghen had done previously that was so allegedly evil, or the impetus of the rebellion, all of which I assume are explained in the book. It works from your characters’ point of view to not understand everything that’s going on, and the books aren’t even close to a requirement, but you may want to check them out for the complete experience. You will also get clues and some backstory from in-game journals, exactly as was in the first game. You also have a sort-of inventory allowing you to carry a few books, like Atrus’ journal on the immediate matters-at-hand around with you.
If you flat-out didn’t like Myst, you’re not going to like Riven, because the core of the game hasn’t changed. If you don’t like exploring, seemingly without purpose for many hours at a time, you’re not going to like Riven. If you don’t like the idea of having to learn a new number system, copying down symbols for later reference, and solving abstract puzzles, you’re not going to like Riven. If you’re biggest complaint about Myst was its lack of purpose or its lack of “things to do,” you’re going to like Riven. If you loved Myst, go love Riven.
Many improvements over the original, interesting story, better graphics with better detail.
Can be confusing, sometimes hard to spot switches and the like. If you didn’t like Myst, you won’t like this sequel.
Thirty years, thirty lifetimes, what does it matter? No sentence could be too harsh for the man I was. But I have changed. — Ghen