For additional context, first check out my Thoughts after playing Myst – I’ll be referencing Myst a lot.
The difference between Riven and Myst is remarkable. Not only in how much more Riven is in just about every way, but also in how the Cyan team were able to deliver a sequel so far advanced from the original and and still absolutely nail it. If I were to play the games without context, I would have assumed there was at least one or two entries worth of refinement between them. More than just “holding up” like I have said for Myst, Riven is one of the best puzzle games I’ve ever played.
So, what exactly does “more” mean? On a technical level, an easy way to express it is that where Myst came on a single CD-ROM; Riven was 5. It was once-again on the forefront of graphics in computer games. There were more images (with a higher fidelity), more video (now often full-screen rather than relegated to a small box), more dialogue, more locations, more lore, and so on. But beyond that, there was just so much more to the game itself – to learn, experience, and understand.
As a child I played Myst far more than I played Riven simply because – as I’ve mentioned – my puzzle solving ability was largely non-existent at that age. In Riven, particularly near the beginning, there were relatively few mechanical devices to click on and interact with, and the objects that could be interacted with didn’t make it obvious what they did or were useful for. Simply put, I couldn’t really figure out how to do anything. This made it very boring to play as my younger self, but it set the stage for an absolute treat of an experience as I returned to it later in life.
To borrow a phrase from another review I read, Riven is less a puzzle game and more of an archaeological expedition. Most of the gameplay revolves around just exploring and being observant in order to learn about the world and how it works. I would expect most people to say that Riven is much harder than Myst – not necessarily because the puzzles are more complex or more difficult to solve based on the clues, but rather because Riven is a much more self-guided journey. If the player doesn’t pay attention, they might be able to explore all of the islands of Riven, but won’t end up with the tools necessary to complete the game.
Something that Riven does exceedingly well is making the puzzles and clues feel “diegetic” – that is – as if they are genuine and meaningful parts of the world, rather than abstract obstacles. It feels like every single piece of information you’re given has an in-world justification. One illustrative example (minor spoilers ahead) – and one of my favourite design elements of the game – is where the player is able to learn the in-game numeral system by playing a simple mechanical game that can be found in what appears to be a classroom. Rather than present the info directly through a diagram, or maybe something to decode, the game allows the player to interpret a believable in-game artifact based solely on their interactions with it and the context it’s found in. To add on even more clever design work in this very simple event:
- Once the player figures out the operation of the game, it essentially reveals one random numeral from 1-10 each time the player interacts with it. The symbols that make up the numerals make it possible to determine the full set of 10 numbers after only learning 6 or 7 of them, and the random nature makes it more likely that the player will attempt to work this out, rather than continuing to rely on chance. (For the record, I learned 9 of them before cluing in)
- Not only is learning these numerals required to complete the game, it’s also necessary to know how to “count” up to 25. These additional numbers are not provided directly by the game, but the ways that the symbols and their combinations exist from 1-10 also provides the player with the clues to reach 25. (This method of providing incomplete information that needs to be synthesized through related clues is re-used several times throughout the game, always to great effect)
Another very smart choice made in this game is to not make it immediately obvious what clues are necessary to solve which puzzles, or even what pieces of information are truly necessary clues. Most things that look like a clue do end up being a clue – or at least meaningful information – so the player isn’t punished for being observant by wasting their time (unless you’re like me and spend an hour trying to decode the D’ni alphabet to find it’s only got 25 letters and is definitely not a straight cipher for English). But I found that when the game was less clear about its immediate intentions with clearly important details, it led to a more inquisitive and curious mindset. I didn’t just care about the discreet details of a clue, I also cared about the context that I found it in, and how it might relate to other pieces of information I’ve gathered and contribute to what I know about the world. I didn’t just feel smart when I pieced things together, it also felt like I was understanding something cohesive and logical.
I will say that the game is not without its flaws; it does fall victim once or twice to the typical “hunt for the single detail on the single screen you haven’t noticed” roadblock that seems to happen in most point-and-click games (in fact, I found an actually hidden button well before I found one particular intended path). Also the steps to obtain one of the endings were somewhat difficult to intuit, and somewhat contradicted by a different ending. But, in a game that otherwise has some of the smartest and most engaging puzzle design I’ve ever come across, I consider those relatively minor points.
I’d recommend Riven to folks who are fans of the series and/or genre (particularly those who enjoy studious note-taking); folks who like to study game design; and honestly anyone who read all of the above and didn’t immediately think “ugh.”
I’m continuing to play the series! Here are my Thoughts after playing Myst III: Exile
Bonus content: As I’ve said previously, I love games that encourage/require taking notes. Here are the notes taken during my playthrough: