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The Backseat Game Designer: The Rest of the Riven Review

This is the addendum to my Riven Review in which I put all my opinions that contain spoilers. If you haven't finished playing Riven yet, you don't want to read this page. Please go back to the regular review site, where I promise to tell you everything you need to decide whether or not to play this game without giving away any of its plot.

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The Backseat Game Designer: Riven

These Backseat Game Designers pages are primarily a place for me to put all my game commentary that was too revealing for the regular reviews, as well as a place to tell everyone exactly how *I* would have done the game so much better. Not that the Myst team exactly needs the help, because they came out with Exile before I ever wrote this page, after all. But I can always sit back and pretend they read it before they started work on Revelation, right? Anyway, here's all the news about Riven that's fit to print, just not on the no-spoiler review site.

Personal Reactions

I'm going to be honest here: Riven bored the living daylights out of me. The first time I played it, back in the 90's, I didn't even finish it. It's a shame that the game is so badly paced and executed, because the artistry is beautiful and the puzzles are some of the cleverest I've ever seen in a computer game. But any time a game requires you to spend an hour of realtime jogging slowly back and forth across several islands, screen by screen, in order to collect the information you need to solve a single puzzle, it's got a problem. It's one thing for a puzzle to keep the player stumped for hours because of its own fiendish difficulty level, quite another for a puzzle to waste hours of the gamer's time executing mundane interface maneuvers before permitting itself to be solved. The plot was lower quality and the puzzle-to-tedium ratio worse than in the original Myst, and that kept Riven from evoking the same kind of magic. It had its moments, though, and puzzle fiend that I am, I was glad when I eventually did slog my way through it.

Riven Game Advances

Things I wish more contemporary games would learn from their elders:

1) The attention to detail in the design of Riven's environment was absolutely breathtaking. As near as I could tell every object depicted anywhere in the entire game had a function, a point, and/or a believable connection to Rivenese culture; the architecture was consistent, the materials used to build things available somewhere on the island. Riven has surpassed even the original Myst in this regard, and if there were set design awards for computer games, this game would deserve every one of them. From the daub houses to the wahrk gallows, everything in Riven serves the same purpose as things we have here on earth while retaining an air of alien difference. It reminded me of "Star Wars" in that regard.

2) I loved how Riven was not afraid to challenge a player with really difficult puzzles. With the number code, for example, the game teaches you the numbers from 1-10 and then leaves you to figure out the rest of the numbers for yourself; most games would have explicitly shown you every number you were going to need. With the animal code, too, Riven left one of the animals undefined and forced you to really search for it, using a few spare clues from a journal, rather than explicitly providing the answers to all five. This may have frustrated some gamers who are less fond of puzzles than I am, but I adored it. Like the rest of Riven, its puzzles were also wonderfully well-integrated into the gameworld, and shared the same remarkable clarity of design pioneered by the first Myst game.

3) I was glad you didn't die every five minutes in this game. I don't mind a game in which your character can die (in fact, this is true in every CRPG I've ever played), but it's very annoying when your character dies for stupid reasons (like accidentally stepping out of an elevator while it's halfway up a tree). In real life, no one tries to push a button and instead winds up stepping out of an open elevator door to their deaths; or if they do, who wants to role-play it? By saving game losses for special occasions (you really have to deliberately and substantially err to die in this game), Riven magnifies their impact, and keeps frustration levels down.

Other Riven Notes

* Something I'm not succeeding at suspending my disbelief about: Atrus and Catherine have two sons who are at LEAST thirty. Why did they get this, like, 25-year-old actress to play Catherine? I'm willing to buy that the D'ni have extendedly long lifespans, but it's really stretching credulity to expect me to believe that the ordinary folks (like the Rivenese) do TOO.

* The language the Rivenese people are speaking is apparently based on one of the Papua New Guinea languages. This is a standard sci-fi movie trick. There are 800 languages of Papua New Guinea, each spoken by fewer than 1000 people, so the director can feel reasonably confident that no one in the audience is going to understand what's being said and laugh at some unintended gaffe the way someone would be sure to do if they used some more-commonly-spoken language like Indonesian or Turkish. The D'ni language, on the other hand, is a conlang (artificially constructed language, like Star Trek's Klingon) and you can find plenty of information about it at http://www.dnidesk.com/, including translations of what the various inscriptions in the game actually say (no funny Easter Eggs in the bunch; they all say things like "All hail our great leader Gehn.")

Advice from the Backseat Game Designer

In my game review, I gave Riven a 5 out of 10 (rating: okay). So, what would have taken this game to the next level? A more interesting plot, for starters. Riven opens with a wise bearded wizard giving you a quest to imprison a villain and free a princess, basically, and that's all there is to the game. Nothing else happens; the player has no choices to make. In Myst, you started out on this strange island with the compelling mission of figuring out how the hell you'd gotten there and how to get back; only as the plot progressed did you learn about some characters who were imprisoned, and then you had to find clues to help you decide whether it was a good or a bad idea to free each of them. In Riven, there is nothing beyond the simple rescue mission and no decisions to be made along the way. Gehn makes a relatively convincing argument that he should be freed (okay, he's probably lying, but so were the brothers in Myst, and you got the chance to take them at their word and see what happened), but there's nothing you can do about it--trusting him, or trying to talk him out of his evil ways, is not an option. The only real choice you can make in the whole game, in fact, is not to free Catherine; the other alternate endings are just variants on the "game over" theme, triggered when you make a real error (like touching the trap book, or signalling Atrus while the villain is still lurking about). There's not much plot here in the first place, and you're basically led through what plot there is by your nose--which makes the glacial pace and lack of action that much more aggravating. So in that sense, Riven is a significant step back from Myst.

It also hasn't improved upon many of Myst's flaws. The movement system is still headache-inducing, with a sideways click sometimes turning you 90 degrees, other times 180. There's no way to feel like part of a world when you can't even control which direction you face. Riven players still lack the ability to take or even examine most objects, which is really distancing when you encounter an interesting object you'd probably like to know more about or an extremely useful object that any sensible adventurer would like to pick up. (Gehn's gun is the most glaring one. You have no choice but to leave it where it's lying and then later on, he menaces you with it, even kills you in some of the bad endings.) Riven's ending is marginally better than Myst's, in that the game at least visibly ends and gives you a voiceover congratulating you; however, the finale isn't very satisfying. Atrus basically leaves you to fall into the void, claiming that this will somehow bring you home. Well thanks a lot, you linkwriting jerk; you send me off to some falling-apart dimension to do the legwork of defeating your evil father and rescuing your wife, and you can't even be bothered to bring me home and write a link to Earth for me? No, instead you push me into the void and trust the fate that brought me into your life to return me home. No wonder your entire family is insane.

Which brings me to the next point: it's nearly impossible to care what happens to any of these characters. They have no visible personalities--we learn about them only by reading their diaries, which is slow and distancing. The closest thing to a three-dimensional character in the entire game is Gehn, who is obviously a harsh dictator but who also evidently mourns his wife, has ambivalent feelings about his son, and really has built a sanctuary to evacuate his subjects to before their world collapses. So he's not just the psycho-evil kind of world-destroyer that, say, Achenar was (though this makes it all the more frustrating that there's no way to rehabilitate him or even try to rehabilitate him). Atrus and Catherine, on the other hand, remain two-dimensional and remote--a real problem since your motivation in this game is supposed to be helping Atrus and rescuing Catherine. But even if you've already played Myst, all you really know about them is that they were evidently the worst parents in the universe (I, a total stranger, took about thirty seconds glancing around Achenar's bedroom to deduce that he was batshit crazy; how stupid and uninvolved did his parents have to be to somehow overlook the fact that their son kept severed heads in his camp trunk?) If you haven't played Myst, all you'd know is that you were trapped on Atrus' world and he'd only send you home if you rescued his wife. None of this makes a player care about any of these people. Any interactivity, any human depth at all, would have turned this mediocre game into a great game.

Some of these issues were slightly improved in Riven's sequel, Exile (in particular, Exile's plot is less boring and cliched than Riven's.) Myst IV: Revelation is also due out soon, and despite the many flaws of this series, I'm looking forward to seeing where they take it next. :-D

Best Quest: Rescuing Catherine was rather satisfying, and not strictly necessary, either.
Lamest Quest: The non-decision not to trust Gehn.
Best Puzzle: There were several excellent ones, but deciphering the Rivenese number code was my personal favorite. It was both logical, and rather tough; unlike most computer game codes, it wasn't just a simple cipher, and you had to do some thinking to untangle it.
Lamest Puzzle: The marble puzzle was OK (although it was more a matter of laboriously writing things down than using any intellect; I suppose Gehn didn't think the Moiety rebels knew how to use graph paper), but what really sucked was the annoying mechanism for turning the power on once you ALREADY CORRECTLY SOLVED the stupid puzzle. Any puzzle that leaves you hanging as to whether or not you even got the right answer until after a second puzzle is completed is being almost intentionally irritating.
Best Plot Twist: This game had no plot twists. (Unless you count the 'bad' endings.)
Lamest Plot Twist: This game had no plot twists.
High Point: When Gehn asks you to enter the trap book first. I was paralyzed for a second with my mind running a mile a minute as to what it would mean if I did that; and it was actually the consistent logical structure of these books that made me decide to go for it, not trial and error.
Low Point: Slowly and tediously moving the submarine all around its undersea track, trying to open the hatch at each stop, clicking everywhere in sight and wondering why I couldn't get up the ladder, and then, more than a dozen stops later, reaching the levers that extended the ladders and realizing that not only was I going to have to take the whole circuit again, but the game designers WANTED me to be annoyed in this fashion. That was when I stopped playing the first time. :P

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