Riven: The Sequel to Myst

Posted by Philip Jong.
First posted on 09 November 1997. Last updated on 09 October 2012.
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Riven: The Sequel to Myst
The difference in image quality between the CD-ROM and DVD version is subtle but definite.
Riven: The Sequel to Myst
Each island in Riven is a world on its own.
Riven: The Sequel to Myst
Surrealistic graphics add to an immersing universe.
Riven: The Sequel to Myst
The enriched culture of Riven provides the added realism of escape.
Riven: The Sequel to Myst
Realistic artworks fill the landscape of Riven, both indoor and outdoor.

"Why mess with success?" may well describe the thoughts of the designers of Riven: The Sequel to Myst. Myst is arguably a controversial title among fans of adventure games. Both its proponents and opponents are numerous. Some hail it as the ultimate surrealistic interactive experience, while others fault it as just a fancy slideshow with eccentric puzzles. Yet, no one can ignore the incredible sale figures the game has commanded and the multitude of imitators it has since inspired. As such, it comes to no surprise that the production of Riven: The Sequel to Myst has been under intense scrutiny by the press. Over 4 years in the making, it is rewarding to see that the final product spots a step-up in both sophistication and design to provide a new level of surrealism in adventure gaming.

D'ni is an ancient civilization who possesses the magical power to create worlds by writing "Linking Books" describing them. Each distant realm contrived in this way is known as an Age. When Gehn, the father of Atrus, creates the Fifth Age (better known as Riven) for his own evil intention, Atrus traps him on the islands of Riven in hope to limit his corruptive power. Unfortunately, Gehn has taken his revenge by holding Catherine, Atrus' wife, hostage on Riven. Over the years since then, Gehn has ruled the land of Riven and its citizens with an iron fist.

Once again, you find yourself teleported to Riven by Atrus, who now asks for your help to foil Gehn's evil scheme and save Catherine. To capture Gehn, Atrus has made a trap book with a link to an eternal prison, in hope that Gehn will mistake it as his escape route from Riven and link to it. As you explore the surreal realm of Riven and its culture, you quickly learn that this world is not as tranquil as it first appears. A group of rebels, known as the Moiety, has fought hard against the oppressed dictatorship of Gehn. Like all worlds created by Gehn, Riven is also flawed and unstable, doomed to collapse soon through the Star Fissure. As you unravel the many mechanical contraptions on Riven, you learn about the secretive ties that bind these technologies with its local inhabitants. At the end, you must rescue Catherine from the Prison Island, trick Gehn into linking to the trap book, activate the telescope, and save all the locals before Riven's ultimate demise.

Both Myst and Riven: The Sequel to Myst are created by the Miller brothers. For this sequel, Rand Miller is the producer who oversees the business aspect of the production, while Robyn Miller and Richard Vander Wende are responsible for the actual design of the game. Robyn Miller also composes the music for this title. Rand Miller returns to play the role of Atrus and Ryan Miller has a brief cameo appearance as the Moiety Scout. With respect to the art production, all the game images are pre-rendered on high-end workstations in glorious 16-bit high color. The incredible details in these images are simply breathtaking. They provide a completely photorealistic environment in a first person perspective within the game. At almost all places, one can turn to left, right, back, front, up, and down to gaze at the different perspectives of the world. Over 4,000 images and cut scenes have been created for Riven. Full Motion Videos are available for several key sequences, such as the tram rides and the submarine excursion. Although the resolution of the animation playbacks is somewhat lower than that of the static images, the animations still look incredible in both their quality and fluidity. Their effect is further enhanced by over 2 hours of immersing sound effects and music. Most of the sound effects are environmental—beetles buzzing, wahrks crying, and the wind blowing. Some sound effects, however, serve a more important role in the puzzle play. They provide clues to the player as what many contraptions, such as buttons or levers, do in the game. By listening to the noises they make, the player can deduce how they function by matching the sounds to ones the player is familiar with when certain machines are operated. This is a key to solve many puzzles since the controls needed to activate these machines often lie far away from the contraptions themselves. Ambient music is used sparingly but effectively. It is context sensitive and provides a truly eerie atmosphere when being played in the jungle or the underground caverns. The number of Full Motion Video clips is small. Most are played near the end of the game when the player meets Gehn and Catherine. The world of Riven is over 3 times larger than that of Myst. The game discs are even packaged neatly in a box and in pretty sleeves with religious artworks. The artworks on the sleeves actually tell the religious tale of Gehn's rule over the land of Riven and foreshadow the destruction of Riven through the Star Fissure.

In addition, the outdoor environments that have been painstakingly rendered make a stroll through the islands of Riven breathtakingly convincing. Each tree is a unique construction, right down to individual leaves. The ground, cliff faces, and hills show a mixture of soil types and plant and rock coverage. Broken down to its most basic 3D modeling elements, a single Riven island is made up by about 2.5 million triangles. Riven's higher resolution rendering and broader color palette allow for greater subtlety and complexity. Approximating the spontaneous asymmetry of natural formations places heavy demands on the artist—highly detailed geometry and texture must be employed. The interplay of direct and ambient light that fills Riven's interior views with shadows of varying softness requires thousands of colors to be properly displayed. Perfectly drawn clouds cast shadows and reflections on Riven's scenic oceans. The coral reef beneath the water's surface is also visible depending on the viewing angle and the water's depth. These atmospheric effects can exert remarkable influence on the subconscious and help to immerse the player into the Riven universe.

World Assembly is the term coined by Cyan Productions for the process of taking pieces of computer artwork and composting them into complex computer generated worlds. 3D modeling and animations are performed using Softimage. Textures are scanned from photographs and retouched in Adobe Photoshop. The scene is rendered using Softimage's Mental Ray Renderer. The animated scene is prepared using only elements that will be visible in the movie. Removing parts of the island that are out of sight from the viewer's perspective keeps the geometry involved as simple as possible and allows the complex animations process to proceed faster. To add character and realism to the movie, action is achieved through the use of a lattice. A 3D region is defined around the object to allow for bending, warping and stretching the model over successive frames of the animations. The lattice is very useful because instead of animating the elements of the object individually, the entire object is animated as a whole by simply pulling or stretching this lattice. For the final rendering, multiple light sources are applied to the scene.

Riven: The Sequel to Myst is a direct continuation of the Myst epic. The game starts in the prison on D'ni where Atrus has been trapped by his two sons whom you have foiled in Myst. Riven consists of five islands—Temple Island, Jungle Island, Plateau Island, Crater Island, and Prison Island. Strangely enough, the name of the character the player assumes in Riven is never disclosed in the game. The only reference is in Atrus' journal where the player is referred as the mysterious benefactor. Unlike most adventure games, almost all of the puzzles on Riven are environmentally rooted rather than inventory based. Two types of puzzle dominate in the gameplay. The first deals with the search to activate various mechanical contraptions found on Riven, such as the various drawbridges and the submarine. The ultimate goal in this type of puzzle is to activate the Great Golden Dome in order to power up the five Fire Marble Domes, each holding a Linking Book critical to the mission. The second type deals with the understanding of the cultures of Riven and the D'ni people, such as their religious beliefs and their mathematics. This knowledge is critical in solving the difficult stone pillars puzzle which is the gateway to the Moiety Age. Although the puzzles vary somewhat in difficulty, most are quite difficult if not nearly impossible. Fortunately, since there is essentially no inventory, there is no obscure puzzle which requires the player to use the dreaded time-honored strategy of trying every object on every other object in an exhaustive manner. A handy Zip Mode enables quick transportation to places the player has already been. The pointer changes into a lightning bolt when it is over certain objects or areas. Clicking the mouse then zips the player to these areas immediately, bypassing all the inconsequential areas in between. Spacebar can be used to skip over animations or video playbacks already seen.

The graphics and animations in this sequel are nothing short of spectacular! They are simply a feast for the eye to look at! One can spend countless hours wandering around aimlessly without boredom, just to admire the meticulously drawn surreal imageries brought to life by the many talented artists involved. Certain animated effects, such as the rippling of water and the tram rides, stand head and shoulder above all other animations seen in other games released so far. The entire environment, with its people, creatures and plant lives, is so photorealistic that a player can easily imagine the world of Riven to exist in the real world! Moreover, the music contains a full range of eerie ambient and tribal melodies. All are played in perfect synchronization with the animations to provide a maximal immersing experience. The sound effects are recorded and played back in very crisp high quality. To hear the wind howling when crossing a wooden bridge on high ground just adds the extra bit of realism not found elsewhere. All the videos are carefully used to good effect but not to distract gameplay. The intricate descriptions of the cultures and technologies of Riven and D'ni, all of which draw parallel to our own universe and can easily exist in our real world, complete the illusion. Just curious, does anyone notice that there appears to be a big age difference between Atrus and Catherine? Those D'ni people are so lucky.

To say that Riven is just a pretty slideshow is an insult to its designers. All the puzzles in the game are devilishly clever. They are so well woven into the game that the player will not distinctly feel that puzzles are being solved. Gameplay is mostly nonlinear, in that multiple puzzles are open to tackle on the various islands at the same time. There are over 40 hours of solid gameplay. All of the puzzles make logical sense. Several puzzles, such as the stone pillar puzzle and the Marble Puzzle, can be considered as "mega" puzzles. These puzzles incorporate the solutions of several smaller puzzles that need to be solved on the other islands of Riven. This level of sophistication in puzzle design is rarely seen.

Despite its technical and artistic achievements, Riven: The Sequel to Myst is a game not without its shortcomings. It is quite hardware intensive. Moreover, as clever as some puzzles are, the occasional dreaded pixel hunting (entrance switch for the wahrk idol) can easily frustrate the player. Since the cursor has no hotspot feature except for the obvious levers or buttons, the player may spend enormous amount of time clicking on the screen to find out secret passageways and important artifacts. The majority of the puzzles in this game are too difficult for the novice gamers, especially the ones near the end. For example, the stone pillar puzzle requires a power of observation that is a bit farfetched, even though it can eventually be solved by brute force. The Marble Puzzle requires the players to actually guess one of the colors used in the placement of the marbles, since that piece of information is not available even if the game is played perfectly. Again, brute force must come to the rescue. As such, for gamers who are thinking of purchasing this game as their first venture into adventure gaming, this game may prove to be a difficult and frustrating exercise. Minimal replay value exists once all the puzzles are solved.

Because all the images in the game are pre-rendered, it is impossible to avoid conflicts involving the appearances of objects that can be manipulated. For example, regardless whether the submarine access ladder bridges around the lake in the Jungle Island are extended or retracted, the sky view of the lake from the Ladder Control Room always shows that at least two bridges are extended. Furthermore, there are several passageways that are completely pitch black, requiring the player to simply click randomly to move forward without a clue. Because the differences in graphic resolution, the animation overlays glare out easily against the still images with a visible seam. At the end, it simply demonstrates that this type of frame based engine is beginning to show its age. Although Riven can easily be said to be evolutionary, it is not by any means revolutionary.

Given that much of the sophistication of Riven lies on the richness of its culture, it is ironic that most of the storytelling is done cruelly through the writings in the journals of Atrus, Gehn and Catharine. There are no video or no voiceover for flashbacks. Reading over 50 pages of text on screen is a daunting task for any impatient gamer, especially with the dreaded script handwriting of Catherine. Despite the much publicized character interactions, these are far and few in between, all of which are non-interactive.

Like Myst, the ending in Riven: The Sequel to Myst is rather quick and anticlimactic. In the end, Atrus simply says, "Perhaps we'll meet again someday... in another world..." Interestingly, one of the two possible game endings that are originally written by the Miller brothers does not appear in full in the final retail release. In this alternate ending, if the player fails to trap Gehn before opening the Star Fissure, the game is lost. Atrus simply arrives and asks the player where Catherine and the book are. As a dawning horror appears on his face, he says, "I don't understand!" "You never did!" cries Gehn, appearing behind him with a guard. As the world crumbles, Atrus is killed by a blowgun dart. Gehn retrieves the Linking Book—his gateway back to D'ni and freedom—and then walks close to the player, smiling. "I don't know what you thought you were doing," he says, vastly amused, "but... thank you!" Gesturing with the book, he adds, "I finally am... free..." He then signals the guard, who shoots the player with a blowgun dart. The player falls into darkness as a world dies. In the final release, this entire sequence is lost.

In addition to the CD-ROM version, a DVD-ROM version of the game is available that includes higher quality images and enhanced stereo sound, along with a "The Making of Riven" behind the scene movie. The DVD-ROM version alleviates the frequent need for disc swapping when playing the CD-ROM version. A limited production commemorative edition also includes an one of a kind limited production box, complete with lithographic signature replication of Rand and Robyn Miller and the entire Riven design team. In the end, Riven: The Sequel to Myst stands as a surreal gaming experience to the extreme. Its devilishly clever puzzles and enriched storytelling truly provide an immersing gaming experience that is unmatched by other adventure game titles to date. In other words, the true successor to Myst can only be Riven.

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