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.

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