Anyone else remember this game? Riven was the sequel to the massively popular game Myst which launched in 1993. It was famously one of the first games to be released on a CD and helped to popularize the CD-ROM drive. I can't even believe Myst is more than 20 years old now. I can still remember playing Myst on Windows 3.1 and how frustratingly often it used to crash. Then Riven was released in 1997 and came on 5 CDs. You had to annoyingly keep swapping the CDs out as you explored different parts of the island. There's a lot of stuff like this about Riven that requires the player to have a lot of patience. Patience that I had as a kid, but has long since left me as an adult. It's kind of a shame because I'm pretty sure that if I played a game like Riven today, I'd push it aside after 15 minutes or so and move on to something else. While there are some technical limitations and some game mechanics in Riven that have not aged well over the years, there's also a lot this game does really smartly. It's a "slow burn" type of game. If you give Riven your time and patience, it will reward you with some amazingly clever puzzles and an unusual and immersive fantasy story.
For those not familiar with the Myst games, they are point & click style adventure games. But not quite in the same way as the old King's Quest or Monkey Island games. They're no puzzles that involve combining items together through some absurd logic that allows you to progress further or whatever. In Riven, you're gated only by how much you've explored and how deep your understanding is about the island and its inhabitants. It's a game that does a beautiful job of communicating a complex story with few words and minimal cutscenes. The only cutscene you're given for quite a while is the game's initial opening cutscene, which really gives you more questions than answers. During this cryptic scene, a man teleports you to an island called Riven after giving you nothing but two books. You arrive in a jail cell on Riven where one of the books you were given is promptly stolen by a man who does not speak your language. The thief is then quickly killed by another mysterious person who sets you free, but not before taking the stolen book for himself. You're then free to explore the island and unravel the mystery of Riven. An intriguing open, no? What's in that book that's worth killing for? And who are these people who are so desperate to get it?
Riven's story is told through exploring the island, discovering its secrets and understanding the meaning and purpose behind them. Riven doesn't tell its story through dialogue or cutscenes as in most games. When you do watch a cutscene in the game, it usually only serves to confirm what you've figured out about the island already. It's never directly or clearly communicated to you what any of the character's motivations are or even why you were sent to the island in the first place. It's really up to the player to discover and understand the deep story in Riven for themselves, and this may have been the most satisfying part of the game for me. I think the best way to go about doing this is to always ask the question "Why?" when something doesn't make sense. A lot of the fun in this game is trying to form the answers to all of the questions the game gives based on what you know about the island so far. The developers did a fantastic job of being very deliberate with their world design. Nothing is there by accident or coincidence, nearly every object or structure in the game is meant to communicate something important to you. As you explore Riven, you'll encounter many mysterious machines and contraptions. Ask "What do they do?". "Who would have put them here?". If you think on these questions, eventually the details of the story will come in to focus.
The puzzles in Riven are given to you in a similar fashion as the story. The objective or elements of the puzzle aren't given to you explicitly, but rather communicated to you subtly through the environment and world design. It's definitely a game where you have to keep a sheet or two of handwritten notes while you're playing, which is something not many games do anymore. Some of the puzzles in Riven are downright brilliant. There's one amazing puzzle in particular where I can remember feeling so impressed with myself after I had figured it out. The solutions to these puzzles are really so satisfying when you finally figure them out. I'd challenge you to play through this game without looking any of them up.
Riven is not without its faults though and some of them are unfortunately due to this game's age. The game is first person, but it's not full 3D. It's essentially a bunch of still images that have been linked together. This, to me, really makes the game feel aged. A full 3D engine would do this game a lot of good. The game's pace is also incredibly slow and it can be very frustrating to be stuck in one place for a while and feel like you're not progressing. This will likely happen a lot in Riven which can be discouraging to players if they don't have a deep well of patience. There are certain puzzles in the game where Riven may have been to clever for its own good. The puzzle solutions are fair, but they're hidden so deeply in the game's world that they're not easily discovered without a very keen eye and extremely sharp mind.
If you've got the time and patience and love puzzle games, mysteries or unusual stories, Riven would probably be a good fit for you. Just keep in mind that this game will probably show its age and you may also get stuck frequently while playing it. If you've never played a game in the Myst series and are curious, Riven is a great place to start. It's a refinement and improvement on everything that the first game was. While subsequent games in the series improved their audiovisual fidelity, they never quite recaptured the sublime story or brilliant puzzles that made Riven a great game. Also steer clear of Myst 5. That game is terrible. Rand Miller, one of the lead creative minds behind Myst and Riven recently launched a successful kickstarter for his new game, Obduction. It sounds like Obduction will play similarly to Riven and I'd love to try another game like this to see if I still have the patience for it. I'll be interested to monitor the development of Obduction and hopefully play it soon.
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