As I mentioned in last week’s weekly reading post, I really enjoyed the experience of re-playing Riven, which coincidentally coincides with Cyan’s (the creators of Riven, and its predecessor, Myst) 25th anniversary.
Myst was a fairly ubiquitous experience for the early 90s PC owners – it came on CD-ROM on my parent’s Gateway computer, along with the ambitious, pre-Wikipedia Encarta and pre-Youtube music and movie encyclopedia projects Microsoft Music Center and Cinemania, both of which sparked a nascent interest in the broader worlds of music and film. Gaming-wise, the “bundle” also included the early LucasArts collection of non-Star Wars of animated point-and-click adventure games: the scifi Day of the Tentacle, the Road Rash-influenced Full Throttle, the extraterrestrial adventure The Dig, the cartoonish buddy comedy Sam & Max Hit the Road, and the globetrotting Indiana Jones and the Fate of Atlantis.
Lucasarts’ Indiana Jones and the Fate of Atlantis (1992)
All of these games required a certain level of attention, intelligence, and imagination – items to be found, logical connections to be made, and tiny pixelated switches, levers, and buttons needed to be noticed and pushed/pulled. In short, you needed to think like a game designer, not a click-hungry eight-year-old. Needless to say, I beat none of these games, but both remain captivated by them, and nostalgic for them to this day. Thanks to the magic of GOG.com (originally Good Old Games.com), these games are mostly available to be played on modern-day PCs for less than $4.99 (and even more incredibly, on iOS / Android devices!), and have faithfully honored my recollections (though the graphics are always worse than I recalled) and indulged my nostalgia.
Lucasarts’ Full Throttle (1995) – now remastered & available on the iPhone!
Unlike any of these games, Myst defied (and continues to defy) convention. For a young person uninitiated to the world (and possibilities) of mid-90s video gaming, Myst was a revelation. Upon starting up the game, you are dropped into an seemingly alien world – with artifacts of planet Earth (wooden ship, clocktowers, library) and Alice in Wonderland-esque set pieces (oversized gears, spaceships, infinite oceans), all open to be explored at one’s leisure. There was no storyline (at least not without painstaking reading), objective, or clear-cut answers to be had. And I was hopelessly lost. The game couldn’t be more different from many of my other beloved early gaming memories – two-button Nintendo and Sega side scrollers with teams of enemies (and level-ending bosses) to dispense of, and yet I kept coming back. Something about the mystery of the island, and the potential secrets behind the puzzles and reading (imagine: reading in a video game), ignited my curiosity.
In retrospect, I conflate the hours spent and limited payoff playing this game as a 10-year old to the collegiate / adult experience of reading a brick-of-a-postmodern-novel – with the right amount of intelligence, concentration, and investment, pleasure exists, but it’s most definitely beneath the surface. And sometimes, it doesn’t exist at all.
The sequel to Myst, Riven, first arrived at the house of a friend’s in a carefully crafted box set of CD-ROMs. The ominous Riven logo graced the front and back covers, with inserts of each CD evoking the gorgeous, otherworldly scenery to be had in the game. With no ability to purchase the game myself, I immediately sought to prioritize my time spent at this friend’s house to maximize the amount of time spent exploring the contents of Riven.
Screenshot from Riven – “The Rotating Room”
Even back then, Riven always felt more inviting – less barren, with more immediate “action” and even interaction with other humans, right from the start. Its world felt just as imaginative, following the same arrow-led point-and click format, with an entirely new world to explore and even more collections of weird contraptions, eerie music, puzzles to solve, and answers to discover. I’m not sure if I got much further in Myst than I did in Riven (maybe slightly), but Riven always felt like a more complete game than its predecessor, and worthy of my time and concentration. I imagined myself as an older person, notebook in hand, dutifully working my way through the game and solving its puzzles.
Two more screenshots from Riven
As I spent the past weekend recreating my imagined self, albeit in a foreign country and consuming an alcoholic beverage, I’m struck by just how much Riven met its hype, more than 20 years after the game’s release. As I worked my way through the game, I was struck but just how mindful the game required you to be – no in-game map or hints to be had – requiring the player to survey the areas themselves, both for orientation and hints for what’s next. It was interesting to learn that Riven was intentionally made more intuitive and rewarding: as recollected by one of the principal game designers (now a longtime animator at Disney), in a recent essay coinciding with the studio’s 25th anniversary:
Many players of the original Myst, while loving the experience, had never actually escaped Myst Island. That seemed… unfortunate. This time around we would start players in a fantastic world that would promote more exploration with less roadblocks. Puzzles would be equally challenging to Myst’s but more logical, better integrated into the cultures and environments and therefore less arbitrary. (link)
Watching some of the behind-the-scenes videos associated with the 25th anniversary release, as well as the 13-minute documentary on the Making of Riven (all due to the magic of Youtube), you are struck by the incredible analog effort behind the game’s production, as well as the romanticism behind the low/shoestring budget game with giant aspirations – a story akin to Kevin Smith’s Clerks, and his subsequent success.
Riven reflects everything that I still love about games (and art in general): a sense of mystery, adventure, and discovery, immersive worlds, and engaging and medium-hard puzzles. Just like most of the masterpieces that I love, it reflects the fact that more is not always better – in our current day of life-like graphics and multi-million dollar game budgets, I’ve found very few games which can equal the imaginative environment, evocative imagery and music, and rewarding and thought-provoking (and rewarding) puzzles – though I’m certainly open to suggestions!
Bonus: Here’s Steve Jobs introducing Riven’s creator, Rand Miller. “I guess some of the prior management didn’t like games. I heard this from so many developers that they didn’t support games. The current management really likes games.”