Thursday, May 23, 2013

Myst Series, pt. 2

Riven -- One Nation, Under Gehn

Remember how Portal was made by a few people with a teeny budget, and then when it became more popular than breathing, the makers got massive amounts of manpower and money to craft Portal 2? Yeah, it’s all happened before. Nobody expected Myst to be a landmark of gaming, and you can bet that Cyan and the Miller brothers basically had a blank check on the sequel, which went into production very quickly. It took about four years to make the second game, Riven, and damned if the time and effort don’t show in the end result. Riven was the best-selling computer game of 1997. Can you even imagine a game that doesn’t have any guns being the top performer in any given year? (Actually, someone uses a blowgun in Riven, so never mind.) The great thing is, its success is deserved. I firmly believe that Riven is the strongest game in the Myst series. It may lack the amazing graphics and gameplay improvements of the next couple entries, but it feels the most whole in terms of story, puzzles, and experience. Unlike Myst, Riven still stands up today. More or less.

The game begins with Atrus, the somber dude who created the worlds of Myst, asking a wee favor from you. Nothing much: just go to a dangerous, decaying world and capture a powerful god-tyrant with nothing but a booby-trapped book. No biggie. The world is Riven, and the bad guy is an elderly chap named Gehn who’s turned Riven into his personal laboratory. Atrus is totally guilty of the same thing, but the catch is, Riven is home to an indigenous culture who live under Gehn’s cruel thumb and feed victims to hungry whale-monsters in his name. Gehn is forcing the Rivenese to emulate his own white-dude culture in a move that is clearly not symbolic of anything. There’s an underground resistance movement, and one of its leaders is Atrus’s wife, Catherine, currently MIA. Oh, and Gehn is Atrus’s father. Because of course he is. What is up with this family? So you have to explore Riven, avoid Gehn’s cronies, capture Gehn somehow, find Catherine, and then signal Atrus so he can get everyone the hell out before Riven falls completely to pieces. TALL FUCKING ORDER, ATRUS.

Hey, it’s way more of a plot than the first game had. It’s really nice that they weren’t content to just remake Myst with different worlds; they wanted the sequel to stand proudly on its own. For most of the game, you’re just in the one Age, which is divided into several islands. It’s an austere place of rock and ruin; most of its natural beauty has been spoilt by Gehn’s meddling. But even the artificial has beauty. A vast golden dome containing a watery power plant. Opulent temples where the hapless natives can worship at the Altar of Gehn. An underwater trolley system and a dizzying skyrail. Speaking of water, the stuff has rather unusual properties in Riven; it doesn’t always obey the laws of physics. On one island (my favorite), you find a gigantic topographical map made of water, that you can control from on high. Despite its weirdness, Riven feels more like a real world than anything in Myst. Not only are there actual people (who live in neat gourd-shaped houses), but you encounter plenty of local wildlife too. Even the native critters are part of the puzzle. Everything is, really.

Ahh, the puzzles. They are FUCKING DIABOLICAL. Some people actually complained at how difficult Riven was, and when I first played it, I freely admit to purchasing the strategy guide. In Myst, each puzzle was pretty much self-contained, especially between the different Ages. In Riven, practically everything is connected. Puzzles stretch across the game in layer upon layer, gradually taking shape as you amass clues that you must somehow fit together. You have to pay attention to the native wildlife, to the local numerical system, to the position of certain landmarks on the islands, to colors and sounds and patterns and other things that you wouldn’t normally consider important. Thankfully, there are real reasons behind some of the puzzles (for instance, the rebels want to make their hideout hard to find, so they create a system of secret signs to point new recruits in the right direction). Yes, things in Riven have an actual point beyond merely existing, and it adds to the overall richness of playing it. Once you start making connections and seeing them pay off, the feeling of satisfaction is incredible. I really wish I could wipe my memory of the game, then go back and replay it without cheating. Payoffs rarely cause a bigger endorphin rush; it’s way cooler to feel really smart than to feel like you can shoot the most bullets.

It’s a great, great game that improves on Myst in almost every way. If it has flaws, it’s the stuff that it wasn’t able to improve. You’re still stuck in a slideshow format, viewing the game one static shot at a time. There’s still a sense of disconnection with the characters; you have to stand there motionless as they perform a skit and then vanish offscreen so you can move again. This was forgivable in Myst because there were only three people in the game besides yourself, and they were trapped inside freaking books. In Riven, with its more dynamic plot and larger cast, it’s distracting and unreal that you can’t interact with them in any tangible way. Myst seemed groundbreaking in 1993, but four years later, realistic 3D graphics and real-time navigation had become the norm, and critics questioned why Riven was sticking to such an archaic form of gameplay. It was certainly acclaimed, but with the caveat that maybe the series needed to keep up with the times. Assuming there would be more.

Heh. Of course there would be more. Riven marked the end of the “original” series as created by Cyan. Rand and Robyn Miller split to pursue separate projects, and neither one had any real intention of continuing the series that put them on the map. They closed the book: Riven has a satisfying ending, which Myst utterly lacked. But the franchise still existed, and as long as gamers liked it, somebody or other was gonna make more sequels. But without the original creative minds, WOULD THEY BE ANY GOOD?

They would. Stay tuned!

Myst Review Series

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