Revisiting Riven

I haven’t played my XBox 360 in over a year,   and yet in a way, I’ve been gaming as much now as ever. That probably isn’t surprising to anyone who knows me. For the past few years, I’ve spent a great deal of my free time and disposal income camped out over at GOG.com, which, in my humble opinion, is surpassing Steam in terms of its selection of retro and indie games new and old. Seriously, if you were as big of a dork as I was growing up, then just a casual scan of the titles they have for sale at any given time will probably trigger seizures of weapons-grade nostalgia.

Speaking of which, you’ve probably guessed by now which game of theirs I downloaded and played through with my girlfriend recently. I don’t think we had an original timeline for how we were going to play it, but I do know that we kind of decided to revisit it together, and then slowly but surely the time between play sessions began to shrink. I’d say the momentum was half due to the fact that we had never beaten the game before and were thrilled to have the chance to pit it against our (theoretically) adult brains. But we were also simply sucked into it. Because it’s fucking Riven: you could make a strong case that it’s the single greatest adventure game ever created.

I’m not alone in thinking this game is fantastic and holds up even today. As usual, the double-reverse-hipsters over at the A.V. Club have beaten me to the punch and spewed out thousands of words of scrawl on the lonely atmosphere the game excels at creating. I can’t really top that, but I can offer up my humble opinion.

First, a quick catch-up: The full title is Riven: The Sequel to Myst, as it is the second game in the ground-breaking series of first-person wander-around-and-click-on-stuff titles that sparked a quiet, herbal-tea drinking gaming revolution. The first game introduced you to the troubled family dynamics of Atrus, a wizardly man with the power to write magical “linking books” that can take users to different worlds, but imprisoned by his sons in a desolate dungeon. As Riven opens, Atrus is sending you off in a recovery mission to the world of Riven, inhabited by its own native people but ruled over by Atrus’ cruel father, Gehn, who has captured Atrus’ wife, Catherine. You will have three objectives: rescue Catherine, trap Gehn in a one-way “prison book,” and signal Atrus so he can take you home. I still get shivers at that opening sequence, where the image of the world you’re about to enter dissolves into that strange, rippling blue texture. From there, you are plunged into the five islands of the world of Riven, most of which you will figure out how to get to relatively easily. There is a goal, and a series of tasks to accomplish, but the emphasis is on poking around and being startled by the appearance of strange animals and, even stranger, real human beings.

Lots has been written about how phenomenal the game is, and I don’t really want to gush. I’d just like to make some points based on my experience checking the place out again as an adult. Because that’s what it felt like: I wasn’t booting up an old game, I was going back to a physical place I used to spend time in. And many of the same frustrations were, surprise surprise, still there. But so was much of the beauty of it.

One of the big themes of the game is “turn around.” This is both literally something you will do a lot, and a sign for how looking close will help you solve so many of the game’s puzzles: doors are often hidden behind other doors, the path you just took has another fork right behind you, and buttons are hidden in the scenery. It pays to double-check, zoom in, take a close look and remember.

But probably the best thing about the game that I noticed this time was how seamlessly all of the so-called puzzles were woven into the landscape. Many of the lesser Myst clones that would try to follow in this series’ footsteps would lazily shoehorn puzzles in to make you feel like you were doing something important and complicated. In Riven, you may get stumped, but it’s because you just haven’t figured out the point yet.

For example, take the spinning domes you find throughout the game. In order to access them, you have to look through a telescope mounted near their location and hit a button when a certain symbol comes up. It might seem arbitrary, but these symbols correspond to the locals’ signs for colors and stand for the identity of each dome. Pushing the button is essentially a form of logging in.

This becomes even clearer in a later puzzle that involves putting colored marbles on a map: it’s a means of sending power to specific places throughout the world. There’s a reason it exists the way it does, and why you have to solve it. Even the infamous animal puzzle is less about randomly clicking on things (although that’s one way to go about it) than it is immersing yourself in the surroundings and learning about a fictitious culture.

There are only a few weak points in the game that I noticed, aside from some technical hiccups that are to be expected even when running a souped-up remastered version on a current computer. There is kind of a lot of reading. All three main characters keep journals, almost all of which you will have to read to solve the game and get the full reason for what you are doing: while it does add to the immersive experience, some of it may have been shortened to no ill effect. And I’m not going to probe into this too deeply, because it’s an essay for another time, but there’s a somewhat problematic racial element in that the story does hinge on the old trope of white people being worshiped as gods by natives. There’s thankfully more complexity to it than that, but it still feels a little weird that only one of the indigenous characters of Riven who speaks Rivenese ever gets a name and identity (and that’s really for one short scene).

But this aside, the game is even more of a masterpiece than I knew at first, and 100 percent worth checking out today, even if you have no nostalgic memories of eating tuna sandwiches and playing these kinds of games during a snow day in 1997.

I think I may have just overshared a little.

Read Whatever You Want: Just Do It Critically

Nobody asked, as usual, but I thought I’d give my two cents on this whole Ruth Graham is-it-a-controversy-I-can’t-really-tell thing brewing over Young Adult fiction. I say so because the backlash, which surely won’t linger around for very much longer at the rate the internet gets enraged about stuff, seems to have transformed one opinion piece into a mini-dramatization of one of the issues of our time: mainly, the idea of what “growing up” means nowadays.

First, the basics: Graham’s piece, in case you haven’t read it, is entitled “Against YA” and contends that the genre of literature aimed at teens is pitched at their level and not at an adult’s. Citing John Green’s novel The Fault In Our Stars as an example, Graham doesn’t say that adults can’t read books written on this level, but that they shouldn’t because they have more appropriate things to contend with in the realm of “literary fiction.”

The piece had some, like one friend in my Facebook feed, seriously reconsidering their cultural intake, but it has made far more strike back, and now pretty much every news source on the internet has some counter-article with a title like “Yes, It’s OK to Read YA. Don’t Cry. The Big Bad Slate Lady Can’t Hurt You.” Many people are, probably rightly, condemning the piece as clickbait, and I run the risk of prolonging this whole thing more than it needs to be by even linking to the original article, but I think there’s more to the subject than that.

Now, don’t worry: I don’t agree with Graham. I’ll admit straight away that I am not going to argue for her position. Heck, as a late-twenty-something who gets paid to write about old adventure games and cartoons, I’m one of the last people who can condemn the adult embrace of childhood pleasures. Also, “literary fiction” as a category is bullshit. Some of the best genre fiction is literary, some of the best “literary fiction” is genre, and we should worry less about labels than what it is we’re actually reading.

While I definitely find Graham’s position overly reductive, there’s one point I do think needs to be stated: we are infantalized by the media on a regular basis. And a lot of us like it. But the danger in this has nothing to do with what we consume, and rather how we go about consuming it. I read a piece a while ago about superhero movies, where the author said that it used to be children wanted to watch movies that were made for an adult crowd, and now it’s the other way around. The problem comes when people think that the YA label means “leave your brain at the door,” or “it’s just simplistic kid stuff.” It doesn’t, and it isn’t.

I think what troubles Graham is the idea that we might wave away more complex issues because we’re too busy projecting ourselves back into the minds of teenagers and abandoning our “adult” selves. But you can read books and watch television and see movies that are all “meant” for that age group without sacrificing your current mindset. The important thing is critical thinking, whether or not you get anything new from the experience.

Too often I hear the phrase “It’s entertainment!” thrown around as a defense for a superhero movie or something that someone feels I don’t like because it’s not “intellectual” enough. Well, I can recognize something’s purpose and whether or not it succeeds at that. I can also see if there are any discomforting tropes or messages tucked away in there that others might take from it. And I can enjoy something as entertainment even while recognizing these aspects. I can do all that, because I have an adult brain. Here’s a tip: a Young Adult brain can do that too. It’s all in how you use it. Plenty of hifalutin intellectuals have won over new followers by wading into the muck of “mass entertainment,” and plenty of people reared on loud music and trashy films have gone on to create important artistic works.

When I was the librarian’s definition of a “young adult,” I didn’t seek out books that were explicitly written for that market, but I didn’t necessarily avoid them either. I was more interested in what they were about. While i delved into Harry Potter, I also read authors like Douglas Adams and Terry Pratchett and Dave Barry and Kurt Vonnegut and Roger Ebert. All of these guys have something in them that arguably makes them, shall we say, outside the realm of  traditional “serious literature,” and some wind up on the reading list of younger crowds. But they aren’t necessarily explicitly marketed as “for teens,” either. They are what they are, and teens may or may not gravitate toward them. And my guess is the average young person doesn’t pick a book to read simply because it’s got YA on the margin, but because they want to read it (or they’re being forced to by their evil, cackling English teacher).

Ebert wrote many movie reviews where he acknowledged when he was not  a film’s target audience but still gave his honest opinion and evaluated it for that crowd. Why can’t the average Old Adult do the same thing? I stand by a philosophy of omnivorous consumption when it comes to art: go everywhere, try a little of everything, and get outside your comfort zone.

That being said, I have the feeling I would hate The Fault in Our Stars, and would have hated it even more as a teenager. But that doesn’t mean I shouldn’t read it.