Riven is a computer game for those who like thought rather than action. Although marketed as 'The Sequel to Myst', Riven stands on its own as a wonderful game. You don't need to have played Myst first, or to have read any of the books that explore the world of Myst.
What's it about?
Riven is set on a group of islands. Although you occasionally see the inhabitants (who look and dress like Mongolians), they appear to be shy and suspicious. As a result, you are free to wander around the islands on your own, and enjoy the magnificent views. One of the most enjoyable things about Riven is the realism of the scenes. Most players have their own favourite spot in the islands. For example, in one secluded cove, some plesiosaurs are sunning themselves on a rock. If you creep up slowly you can get quite close. This scene was so popular that a poster was produced of it.
The islands are connected by railways, mostly of the 'magnetic levitation' (maglev) sort. It is normal to do as much exploring as possible on each island before going on to the next.
As you wander around the islands, you may notice evidence that the people are being oppressed by a tyrant. Graffiti on one wall show people being fed to a sort of whale with tusks, and there is other evidence that this actually happens. Your purpose in the game is to find the tyrant (whose name is Gehn) and to trap him in a magic book which you have been given. You also have to free a woman called Catherine who has been imprisoned by him.
During your wanderings, you will encounter problems. These range from simple ones such as how to operate an underwater railway, to fiendishly complex ones such as how to break into Gehn's security system. These puzzles are normally solved by observing everything and trying things out to see what happens.
For most of the game, you can't do any harm by trying anything, so push buttons, pull levers and poke around at everything to see what it does.
The Game Interface
The Game Interface is very simple. The views of Riven are almost all still photographs. As you move around, it switches from one still shot to another, but there are so many of them, from every conceivable angle, that this is rarely a problem. There are occasional moving video sequences, such as when moving from one island to another, which can be spectacular.
All interaction with the system is done using the mouse. Clicking on the centre of the screen moves the player forward. Clicking on the side of the screen turns, or if appropriate will turn and then move. Objects are manipulated by clicking on them. With the exception of a few books, you don't carry anything around with you.
One annoying feature of the program is that it is so big that it comes on five CDs. The designers have sensibly put one island on each CD, so you rarely have to change CDs, but it can still be annoying when you journey to a different island and have to stop to swap CD. A new DVD version has recently become available which gets over this problem by having the whole thing on one DVD.
Without giving away too much, the five islands will be described here to give a flavour for the game. Since the islands are not named within the game, the names used here are ones made up by some of the gamers.
This small island is the one where you start the game. It is dominated by a giant building with a golden dome, dubbed 'The Waterworks'. Pipes carrying what appears to be water come to here from all the islands. A rope bridge leads to a small headland where there is a strange rock-hewn temple.
This is the biggest of the islands. It has a small jungle and a large lagoon. On a cliff above the lagoon is a village of mud huts, apparently abandoned in a hurry. In a felled area, there's a railway that carries wood from here to Crater Island.
This island is a small one. It seems to be in the form of a giant crater, with a lake in the middle. There is a boiler house, where water from the lake is heated up before being pumped away in giant pipes.
This island is bizarre. There are giant rock crystal formations and pools of transparent goo. (Some say this is water, but it appears to behave more like goo). From a viewing platform high above the goo, you can press a button and the goo lakes will swell up as if inflated from below. Elsewhere on this island there is a lake with a dangerous inhabitant: the tusked whale.
You only get to this island very late in the game. It is the smallest of the islands, with only one thing on it: the base of a giant tree. The tree must have been enormous in its day, but the trunk has been cut off about 50 feet up and there is a small prison at the top.
How hard is the game?
Riven has often been criticised for being too difficult. Some of the puzzles are easy, but many are extremely complex. The best approach is to make a note of everything. For example, early in the game you find a small wooden ball with a picture of an eye on one side and a symbol on the other. When you touch the ball it makes an animal sound. Write down the symbol and a description of the sound. You'll need it later. Even if you don't know what sort of animal it is, you'll find clues later on.
The problem that most people found the most difficult to solve is the Riven number system. You will find numbers in many places, but they are not written in our familiar numerals. Instead they use special symbols, and you don't have the key. Or do you? If you are reasonably familiar with mathematics, there are enough clues around to figure out the number system. On the other hand, if mathematics is a closed book to you, you'll just have to cheat and read one of the many hints sites which are available on the web.
Problems with the game
The ending of the Riven game is very poor. Once you have solved the final puzzle, you might expect some sort of reward in the form of a fanfare, or a 'thank you for saving the world'. Instead, the world is actually destroyed (although you're told that the inhabitants are saved) and you fall into space, ending with you falling through a field of stars1. This is all a bit of a let-down.
Another problem with the game is the start, in which you meet the character Atrus from Myst. In a short video sequence, he bombards you with information, telling you all sorts of stuff you're supposed to be doing. If you don't catch it the first time, you can't ask him to repeat himself - you have to start the program again from the beginning. This is not a major problem, as it is not necessary to know all that stuff; all you need to know is that you have to find Gehn and trap him in a magic book.
A final criticism of the game is that Riven is a lonely place. All the people are in hiding. The few that you meet don't speak your language, or if they do, they make a speech and then disappear. There is no conversation between you and these characters, which makes Riven different from adventure games such as Discworld, Monkey Island and Starship Titanic. You get to pull lots of levers, but you don't get to talk to anyone.
To play Riven, you have to live it. You will end up thinking of the islands as real places and that it is normal to run railways underwater and to build machines for trapping frogs in mine-shafts. With luck, you'll get as much enjoyment from the game as the many players who made Riven a best-seller.