Myst in Retrospect: Riven

Warning: Spoilers abound. If you haven’t played Riven, I suggest you do so before proceeding. You can buy it at gog.com

Gehn's effigy

Sequels are a notoriously difficult thing to pull off, and Riven is an example of an unequivocal success. It took Myst‘s design and built upon it rather than simply aping it, creating a completely fresh take on the existing concept. Beyond the continued storyline and identical control scheme, there is practically no resemblance between the two. It isn’t so much Myst II as it is Myst 2.0– a second release which corrects the shortcomings of an earlier version. Riven is a masterpiece, an example of what can happen when creators consider their past mistakes, aim high, and ignore the risks.


Riven‘s intro picks up where Myst‘s great anticlimax left off. In Atrus’s previous appearance, he spoke of another foe and mentioned that Katran was being held prisoner in an unnamed age. (For the sake of consistency, I will be referring to Catherine as Katran at all times.) Following a delightfully artistic new Cyan logo, we again see Atrus sitting at his desk. Rand Miller’s acting here hits a degree of subtlety that I don’t think he ever quite reached again: Atrus’s relief at seeing the Stranger again is clearly visible, but there’s also a palpable undercurrent of worry in his voice. There are innumerable ways that Atrus’s plan could backfire, and Rand’s performance conveys his feelings perfectly.

The seriously flawed linking panel is further cause for alarm: we know from Myst what those panels are supposed to look like, and the flickering, noisy image imbues a subtle dread in the player. As it fills the screen and is replaced by the Riven logo, we are primed. We  don’t know what we’re about to see, but we sense that it’s going to be a wild ride.

Cho-oo!

Likewise, our first experience in Riven itself is a carefully-orchestrated glimpse into the chaos of the Age. The immediate appearance of cage bars is far removed from the inviting vistas we’ve become accustomed to in Atrus’s ages, and speaks volumes not only about Gehn’s suspicious nature but also the degree to which he’s prepared for any contingencies. Before we can give much thought to escaping, however, we meet another character: Cho, Gehn’s minion. He stammers incoherently, relieves us of the trap book needed to capture Gehn, and then suddenly clutches his neck and collapses. After a lengthy pause he’s dragged away and we catch a brief glimpse of a man in bizarre camouflage, who silently lets allows us out of the cage before slipping away. The whole thing is over so quickly we hardly know how to react, and it summarizes Riven’s unstable status quo quite neatly.

It’s also important to recall that in the previous game, we practically never saw human beings in the flesh. This absence of living humans often imparted a feeling of invulnerability to the player; a sense that even in the most disturbing environments nothing can happen to you. When we’re physically accosted by a person within seconds of arriving on Riven, that assumption is immediately dismissed. The familiar feeling of safety from the original game is replaced with a sort of hanging dread: there are people on Riven, some of them are hostile, and they could be anywhere.

So, while we’re on the subject of hostile people, let’s stop and talk about Gehn for a bit. Moreso than any other game in the series, Riven is about one specific character. Riven is Gehn’s age, Gehn’s prison, Gehn’s burden. It is his life, his creation, and his toy box. In the Myst review I talked about how Sirrus and Achenar’s characters are revealed by their effect on the Ages, but Riven takes this principle even farther, because Gehn does more than just leave his fingerprints on Riven: he tears it apart from the top down, rebuilding it according to his whims. The very landscape, therefore, becomes his symbol, and the relationship between Gehn and Riven is the most complex part of the game’s story.

The Golden Dome

The Golden Dome is perhaps Riven’s most visible landmark; a massive, shining thing that’s visible from nearly everywhere. Since most of the inhabitants of Riven aren’t allowed to go anywhere near the thing, most who see it will understand it only as a symbol of Gehn’s power and inscrutability. The player, however, eventually learns the Dome’s true purpose: to serve as a housing for Gehn’s generator system. The generator consists of two components: a big piston-like thing perhaps eight feet tall, and a boiler about the size of a Volkswagon. The entire assembly is perhaps a hundredth the size of the Dome, if that. So there’s absolutely no practical reason for the Dome exist at all; it is simply a facade Gehn throws up to impress his subjects. Gehn is a pharaoh–both a god and a king, and thus has needs beyond those of gods or kings. The Dome is his pyramid, a structured commissioned by a human king but representative of superhuman godhood. Since Gehn has been effectively stripped of all his godlike powers at this point, the Dome’s arresting existence serves as a physical reminder of his omnipotence. It is perhaps the most striking symbol of Gehn’s relationship to Riven.

The number-learning game, featuring Wahrks.

Another very important symbol of this relationship is the wooden number-learning game we find in Riven’s small schoolroom. The game is designed to teach a rudimentary understanding of the D’ni numeral system: each time the game is activated, a D’ni numeral appears in a window, and one of two hapless figurines are lowered closer to the jaws of a wahrk-inflicted death, the degrees of their descent describing the number. The “wahrk gallows,” we come to understand, are Gehn’s preferred method of execution. Victims are lowered, head-down, into water-filled pens where they are eaten alive by Riven’s alpha predator, the Great Wahrk. The Rivenese reverence for the Wahrk is clear: they view it with a mixture of admiration and fear, and we’re given the impression that it was their primary god before Gehn’s arrival. Gehn’s appropriation of the Wahrk is typical of his pragmatic and callous approach to everything; the people view the Wahrk as important, so Gehn simply styles himself as being the Wahrk’s master and uses its dramatic power to instill fear in his subjects. That this imagery works its way into a humble teaching tool is telling. Gehn never passes up any opportunity to remind the people of his primary axioms: I am Gehn. I am your creator and ruler. You are nothing to me.

Temple Island, looking toward Jungle Island

Moving beyond Gehn for a bit (to the degree that we can considering that he’s everywhere), let’s talk about the islands. The game starts and ends on Temple Island, right in the shadow of the Golden Dome (although most people probably don’t notice it right away since the game’s navigation system discourages looking upward). Temple Island’s primary features are its titular temple, the Golden Dome, the Gateroom, and (of course) the Star Fissure, which is covered over and not really recognizable as such until the end of the game. The Gateroom is primarily a puzzle, but it’s also a sort of mini-temple, adorned with some of Gehn’s symbols and a series of stained-glass images describing Gehn’s “defeat” of Atrus, subsequent rule, and (apparently) his ultimate ascent to Heaven. The Gateroom is off-limits to anyone outside of Gehn’s elite, but he never hesitates to preach to the converted. The main temple is likewise exclusive to his own staff, but he still sets up a complex hologram projector allowing him to appear as a larger-than-life phantasm when he wants to. Temple Island’s primary function is to assert Gehn’s superiority, which is ironic considering it is also the site of his original defeat.

The titular jungle of Jungle Island

From Temple Island we travel to Jungle Island, the one part of Riven where the natives are still allowed to go. Jungle Island is by far the largest of the game’s islands, and is the setting of much of the game’s story. The Rivenese village is impressive, but we learn quickly how fearful the people have grown under Gehn’s rule, watching as they sound the alarm and scurry away every time we arrive. We also see the fingerprints of the Moiety here, their trail of wooden eyes leading the way to their secret Age. The Rivenese wildlife is also most in evidence here, and we become familiar with the local flora and fauna to a degree not seen in the later games. Exile‘s Edanna has more-numerous distinct species perhaps, but they’re all so whimsical that they tend to push suspension of disbelief a bit too far. Riven‘s wildlife, by contrast, is both a background and a puzzle element: while we learn about the beetles and sunners, we also come to recognize things like the fruit-bearing “mushrooms” and the little red flowers that grow beside the volcanic chasms. (In one particularly inspired detail, these flowers also appear as offerings in Gehn’s temple, the great risk required to obtain them symbolic of the giver’s devotion.) We also get a taste for the villager’s reverence for the landscape compared to Gehn’s cavalier industrialization: the villagers are so close to their environment that animals were a natural subject for the Moiety’s combination lock, but to Gehn the entire jungle just represents so much raw material to be thrown in his grinder. Jungle Island is perhaps the game’s strongest arena; the place where the interests of Gehn, the villagers, the Moiety, and the Age itself play against each other in the most visible ways.

Crater Island

The other two islands, Survey and Crater, are the lesser part of the game’s four main locations. They aren’t less beautiful or less interesting than Temple or Jungle, they’re just so strictly assigned to Gehn’s research that we don’t see much of the conflict relationship between Gehn and the other characters. Still, they’re home to some of the game’s most striking imagery: the copper-saturated lake, the golden elevator, the giant stone spikes, the Wahrk viewing chamber–and, naturally, the Wahrk itself. The primary gameplay function of these islands is to provide information needed to solve the game’s two uber-puzzles, the Moiety Cave and the “Waffle Iron.” The way this information is doled out is really quite ingenious, as all of the information sources are designed to have in-universe functionality as well. The map room, from a gameplay perspective, exists only to show the player where the Firemarble Domes are, but from an in-universe perspective it’s also part of Gehn’s survey equipment, used to track the gradual drift of Riven’s islands. These two islands exemplify the designers’ attention to detail, taking necessary gameplay clues and presenting them within something inherently interesting.

The infamous Waffle Iron

However, this leads me to the elephant (or, perhaps, the Wahrk) in the room: Riven‘s two uber-puzzles are just too hard. Both are based upon principles of gathering and applying information, but neither clearly specify what kind of information they need. This is particularly true of the Waffle Iron: to get the combination right requires the player to learn two different symbols for each island (the pixel outline and the dome eye symbol), a color associated with each island (one of which is broken), and the location of each firemarble dome…and none of this is ever stated outright. The player is just expected to guess that the Waffle Iron is looking for the dome positions, and the color-coding system still requires significant trial and error beyond that. The entire puzzle is dependent on so many different factors that it’s easy to get it wrong even when you know the principle of the solution–a principle which, I reiterate, is never stated outright. The Moiety Cave is somewhat better conceived–the concept of the eye sequence is not difficult to follow, and it’s easy to match the animals to their vocalizations and corresponding petroglyphs. There’s still the matter of the missing piece, though…the Fish eye can only be seen out-of-context on Gehn’s desk. The only “clues” associating it to fish are its location in the middle of the lake and the fact that it appears in the middle of a fish-shaped shadow when viewed from a certain angle… and it’s barely visible in either case. While these puzzles do make sense in-universe, they take things a bit too far to be actually feasible as gameplay. Some people have decoded them without help, I’m sure, but for most players they’re a trip straight to the cheat guide, and whenever that happens it means something has gone wrong with the game design.

On the subject of game design, there’s a major but subtle difference between Myst and Riven. In Myst, we begin with no knowledge of the story and we must uncover it piece by piece. Riven, by contrast, starts us off with pretty much the entire story spelled out: Gehn thought he was a god, so Atrus trapped him on Riven, and then Katran got trapped there later. Anyone who hasn’t read The Book of Atrus will, naturally, be a little behind on this, but the game quickly brings them up to speed with the journals. This approach means that instead of learning a story by witnessing its aftermath, we instead witness the aftermath of a story we already know. The effect this has on the player’s interpretation of the content is worth considering. I don’t know that Myst‘s approach would have worked as well in sprawling environments like Riven; there’s just too much to take in without some idea of the context. Delivering the backstory ahead of time gives the player a head start to understanding the environment.

Unusually for Riven, something is happening right now

For all the strengths of Riven‘s backstory, though, its “frontstory” is practically nonexistant. Given that Riven is an inhabited, and therefore active, environment, one might expect there to be a fair amount going on in the game’s “present day.” Instead the entire environment seems to exist largely in stasis. No one is operating Gehn’s paper factory, the schoolroom is abandoned, and we never witness any event of consequence. There are a few minor details which imply activity, such as Gehn’s gun and pipe disappearing from his laboratory, the fleeing scribe, and the infamous “girl in the jungle,” but for the most part nothing seems to be happening. The only current event we hear about is Gehn’s work on the “sanctuary for the villagers.” Later, in Myst III and IV, we will see a more conscious effort made to involve the player in an unfolding storyline, but Riven, for all its successes, falls short in this department. That said, this shortcoming is eclipsed by the virtuosity with which the game presents the story assets it has. Players are unlikely to notice that there’s no real storyline, as they’re too engrossed in the trappings of the backstory.

Katran needs you to solve a problem for her... no wonder she married Atrus

In the previous essay, I promised we’d be looking at Katran in more depth, so here we go: Katran is one of the most intriguing characters of the series. After leaving Riven at the end of The Book of Atrus she submitted herself to what amounted to voluntary exile, leaving her homeland forever to seek a new life of adventure and exploration. In doing so she also condemned her people to become the permanent subjects of a tyrant in the interest of protecting strangers from becoming his victims. Meanwhile, her own life brought its own complications. An accident lead her to develop a phobia for Linking, thus effectively ending her own Writing and explorations, making her little better than a prisoner on Myst Island. When she finally makes her way back to her own people (as the result of being hoaxed by her own sons), she discovers that even among them she’s now an exile, having been remade into a messiah figure. Katran is perennially of two worlds, and being so split surely leads to a deeply complex state of mind. We get some sense of this from her Riven journal, but for the most part Katran’s character seems distanced from us. This is, I suspect, because Myst’s storytelling relies upon the examination of peoples’ personal spaces, and we never actually see any of Katran’s personal spaces. The closest we come is her (shared) bedroom in Myst IV, which has practically no decoration worth a second thought. Tomanha’s botany lab is implied to be one of her haunts, too, but again, there’s not much there that could describe any character trait beyond an interest in plants. Neglecting Katran, a character who is in many ways far more interesting than Atrus, is one of the greatest tragedies of the entire series. Her journals in Riven and Myst IV are about as close as we ever come to learning about her, but it’s too little too late. Her in-the-flesh appearance in Riven is fairly strong; Sheila Goold portrays her as enigmatic and even a little threatening, which in my opinion is a much better interpretation than the overly-jolly mother we see her as in Myst III. But even so, we can’t escape the fact that Katran is effectively in a Rapunzel situation on Riven, literally pacing around a small cell waiting for someone to save her. Even in a game set in her own homeland, Katran ends up getting sold short.

He is Gehn. I assume you've heard of him.

The character stealing the whole show, of course, is Gehn. We’ve discussed his relationship to the land already, but we still need to take a look at the man himself. Gehn is a similarly complex character to Katran, but unlike Katran, his complexity is fairly visible. The question which recurs throughout the game is whether Gehn has “changed” or whether he’s still “the man he once was.” This begs the question, naturally: who was Gehn before? He’s fairly one-dimensional as seen in The Book of Atrus: a power-crazed maniac and dyed-in-the-wool pragmatist who sees his own son as little more than a means to an end. He believes that he’s a god despite all evidence to the contrary and expects constant submission from the peoples he visits. His ultimate goal is to resurrect the D’ni civilization and rule the universe. Is his depiction in Riven any different? All these traits are on display, yes, but we begin to see more shades of Gehn’s character as well, particularly in his long monologue upon first visiting his private age, in which he expresses a multitude of regrets and explicitly claims to have changed. Furthermore, he has actually accepted some degree of responsibility for the Rivenese, albeit of a callous “white man’s burden” variety, working sincerely and dutifully on a new Age for them to escape to. While much of his humility is insincere, even false humility is a new thing for Gehn as we previously understood him. The way Gehn’s appearance is handled is fascinating: we build up a mental image of him, and of his personality, based on what we’ve read, heard, and seen, but meeting him face-to-face reveals him as a real person, not just the evil caricature we imagined.  This is further reinforced by his private journal, particularly the barely-legible passage in which he mourns the death of his wife. Indeed, Gehn’s complexity as a character is so pronounced that I often feel downright dirty carrying him around in a book after he’s captured, and more than a little annoyed at Atrus that he’d find such a fate acceptable.

Strangely enough, following only the “intended” (ie, winning) narrative of the game gives a somewhat narrower view of Gehn than we can see otherwise. Riven is a rare case in which the “bad endings” actually contribute significantly to one’s understanding of the characters. In any of the other games, the bad endings have no more depth than “whoops! shouldn’t have trusted the villain!” but Riven‘s are somewhat different, in part because we’re never actually asked to trust Gehn. The bad endings are all reached by various misunderstandings of instructions, whether they involve calling Atrus at the wrong time, misusing the Trap Book, or disregarding Gehn’s warning not to try his patience. The Big Choice is here depends on our understanding of the Trap Book concept, assuming that the we’ve read Atrus’s journal and understand that when Gehn uses the book we’ll be released again. We’re never given the opportunity to choose between Gehn’s word and a “good guy’s” word, so there is no “sorry, you chose Gehn” ending. Instead, the bad endings reveal nuances of Gehn’s character that we don’t get to see otherwise, and establish that while he has changed, he has also stayed the same. We do get some sense of this when we see him pack his gun before using the Trap Book, but seeing him disown and kill Atrus in the worst of all the bad endings shows just how deep his hatred still runs. And yet, to me, the most chilling ending of them all is the one in which he kills the player out of impatience, calmly explaining, “You see? I have changed. There was a time when I might have let you live.” If you never have, I encourage you to check out all the bad endings. While they aren’t, in a continuity sense, “true,” watching them against the lies of Gehn’s monologue tells more about his character than anything else in the game.

And they lived happily ever after until Ubisoft needed more money

So we capture Gehn and release Katran (who then proceeds to start breaking everything), thus initiating the endgame. The pacing here is quite adept; it takes a long time to get to this point, but the game doesn’t drag its feet to the ending. Katran’s destructiveness, while it doesn’t exactly make sense in context, does serve to force the player to the only place still worth going: the telescope on Temple Island. The solution to the telescope puzzle is spelled out pretty clearly in Katran’s journal, so it’s a simple matter to break the glass and invoke the outtro movie. While Myst had a non-ending, Riven’s ending is superb, showing us the both payoff of our actions and the foreshadowed destruction of Riven. Still, watching Riven start to collapse around us is pretty alarming, especially given that Katran isn’t there yet. Seeing them reunite at what seems to be the last second is a relief, and Katran’s hesitant link-away is a touching moment.

The one sour note of the whole thing is that the Fissure doesn’t really seem quite as safe as Atrus believes it is. While the characters maintain that it has a breathable atmosphere, it must be thin at best given the intense vacuum effect we witness when it opens. Atrus seems to think it’s safe just because it delivered his Myst book safely, but a book can withstand significantly more beating than a human body. Using the Fissure is a leap of faith at best, but since the decision isn’t even ours to make, it’s more of a “fall of faith.” The game does its best to reassure us about the Fissure’s safety, but if I was really there (and these games always encourage you to imagine you are) I’d be pretty upset about this arrangement.

Atrus’s closing monologue, as we watch Riven drift away, echoes the opening of Myst and ends the game on a soft, pensive note. The appearance of the credits, accompanied by one of Robyn Miller’s catchier themes, brings a note of finality to the story. Really, the entire series could have ended here. It’s as strong an ending as you could want.

Riven isn’t perfect. It has some shortcomings, and I’m certainly not about to argue that it’s somehow universally accessible. It’s more like an “art-house film,” filled with complexities for those who want to look for it, but requiring more patience to fully unlock than most people are willing to invest. The surface of the game is rich on its own, but an even greater degree of depth is opened to anyone willing to look at it in detail. That is its greatest strength, and that is what makes Riven come alive more than any other installment of the series.

Notes

  • While Gehn’s fingerprints are prominent in-universe, Richard Vander Wende’s influence is the most visible from a production perspective. While he didn’t create the game single-handedly, his work on the story and atmosphere is so pervasive that the whole thing seems to have been lifted straight out of his imagination. I don’t know the circumstances of his separation from the series, but had he stayed on, the series would likely have been very different. On the other hand, it might have just made the later games more like Riven, and while that would hardly be a bad thing, it would have made Riven itself less unique.
  • As pointed out in one game walkthrough on YouTube, Atrus and Katran can both somehow see that Gehn is inside the Trap Book, even though we can’t see anything. Luckily Gehn can’t seem to tell if the book is occupied, either, or the whole thing would have been for naught.
  • There’s a crucial weakness to the Fire Marble Domes’ design: two people working in tandem could easily break into a dome. One would sit in front of the combination lock and the other would press the button on the scope, causing the dome to close. Whoops!
  • The Moiety’s portable linking-book-enhancer highlights an amusing difference between Gehn and Katran’s characters. Katran improvises the device into her new world, as is her style, but once Gehn finds out about it he assumes that it was something she read about somewhere, as would be his style.
  • Where did Cyan Find Sheila Goold (Katran) and John Keston (Gehn)? Goold still has hardly any credits to her name fifteen years later, and Keston’s only IMDB entry is for Riven. They’re both capable actors. Who are they? Where did they come from? Where are they going?
  • Despite having written over 4,000 words, there are still an endless number of things I didn’t even touch on, particularly the significance of the number 5. It’s fun to watch it recur in the game, as it tends to pop up in the weirdest places–including, of course, the game’s five discs. Gehn says that 5 was important not just to him but to the D’ni–but strangely enough it doesn’t seem to appear at all in Uru.
  • Gehn’s personal effects, namely the imager and the photographs of Aitrus and Keta, seem a little odd when you consider that he must have already brought them to Riven when he was stranded there. The photographs are small enough, but does he really bring that bulky imager everywhere? Also telling: he doesn’t have a photograph of Anna.
  • I played Riven on my Linux machine this time, using Wine. Everything worked perfectly except the combination lock on Prison Island. That was pretty annoying.
  • Am I the only one who can’t stop clicking on the sink in Gehn’s bedroom? I find that endlessly entertaining.
  • The one thing that really dates this game is the resolution, particularly in the live-action sequences, in which peoples’ faces are often too blurry to even make out. I’d pay good money for an HD release instead of the recent cell phone version. (I know this would take tons and tons of re-rendering, but maybe it could be worked out somehow… computers are much faster than they were in 1997.)
  • The graphics themselves, I should note, are still quite lovely. If the game were made today there would be more polygon definition in the rock face, but for the most part Riven trumps even Myst IV in realism. It’s mostly those famous Santa Fe textures, I think.

Next time: Myst: The Book of D’ni

Screenshots property of Cyan Worlds.

Posted on April 11th, 2012. Filed under Myst in Retrospect, Review, Writing. Tagged as: , ,

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