Myst in Retrospect Re-Run: Riven

Sequels are a notoriously difficult thing to pull off, but Riven is an example of an unequivocal success. It took Myst‘s concept and built upon it rather than simply aping it, and in doing so created a completely fresh take on the existing formula. Beyond its control scheme and its universe, Riven bears practically no resemblance to its predecessor, but this actually works to its advantage. It isn’t Myst II but Myst 2.0, a second release which addresses the shortcomings of an earlier version. Riven is a masterpiece, an example of what can happen when creators learn from past mistakes, aim high, and ignore the risks.

Gehn's effigy

Riven‘s intro picks up where Myst‘s anticlimax left off. 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 player is palpable, but there’s also a strong undercurrent of worry in his voice. It’s an impeccable portrayal of a desperate man whose only hope rests in the hands of a stranger. Atrus doesn’t spell out his plan, but rather provides a journal containing “most of what you’ll need to know,” along with a trap book to be used on Gehn. Finally he turns the Riven book around to reveal its staticky linking panel, the first sign that there’s something seriously wrong with this Age.

The player’s initiation into the Age of Riven takes the form of a short cutscene that efficiently introduces a few central elements of the game’s setting. Upon link-in, the player is immediately imprisoned in a cage, a clear demonstration of Gehn’s paranoia. This booby-trapped arrival site identifies Gehn as a worthy adversary, one who’s prepared for all contingencies. As soon as the bars go up, a new character wanders into the scene: Gehn’s minion, better-known as “Cho.” Cho manages to steal Atrus’s trap book before he suddenly collapses and is dragged away by a man wearing bizarre camouflage. The whole thing is over in only a few minutes, but it goes a long way in summarizing the complexity of Riven’s unstable status quo.

Cho-oo!

It’s important to recall that in the previous game, the player practically never encountered human beings in the flesh. This fundamental “alone-ness” often imparts a feeling of invulnerability to the player: even in the most frightening environments nothing can happen to _you, _because the evildoers are long gone. When the player is physically accosted 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, and some of them are hostile.

Chief among the game’s antagonists, of course, is Gehn. Moreso than any other game in the series, Riven is about a specific character. Riven is Gehn’s age, Gehn’s prison, and Gehn’s burden. It is his life, his creation, and his plaything. In Myst, Sirrus and Achenar’s personalities were revealed by what they left behind, but Riven takes the same storytelling principle to an entirely new level, because the Age of Riven has itself become a representation of Gehn. Gehn has torn it apart and rebuilt it according to his whims. Where the brothers’ legacies filled a few small rooms, Gehn’s encompasses an entire world.

The relationship between Gehn and Riven is the most complex part of the game’s story; it’s present in everything from the most grandiose constructions to the humblest of everyday objects. To demonstrate this, let’s look at two examples.

The Golden Dome is perhaps Riven’s most visible landmark, a massive, shining thing that’s visible from nearly everywhere. Most of the Rivenese people aren’t allowed to go anywhere near it, so most will know it only as a symbol of Gehn’s power and inscrutability. The player, however, eventually learns the Dome’s secret: despite its grandiosity, it’s nothing more than an enormous hollow shell enclosing a generator about the size of a Volkswagon. There is absolutely no practical reason for the Dome exist at all; it is simply a facade Gehn throws up to impress his subjects. Gehn is effectively a pharaoh, simultaneously a god and a king, and the Dome is his pyramid: a structure comissioned by a human king but representative of superhuman godhood. Gehn’s godlike powers are nullified by his imprisonment on Riven (he can’t alter the Age while inside it), so he must rely on spectacles like the Dome to instill respect in his subjects.

The Golden Dome

On the other end of the spectrum is the wooden number-learning game we find in the village schoolroom. The game is designed to teach a rudimentary understanding of the D’ni numeral system, but it’s modeled after the “wahrk gallows,” Gehn’s preferred method of execution. The Wahrk is Riven’s alpha predator, a monstrous marine carnivore which the Rivenese view with a mixture of admiration and fear. (It’s implied, even, that the Wahrk may have been their primary deity before Gehn’s arrival.) Gehn, predictably, has appropriated the creature and confined it to an enclosed pool where he can use it to execute his enemies. The game in the village schoolroom represents this narrative with a pair of wooden dolls who are lowered into the jaws of the Wahrk, the steps of their descents represented by D’ni numerals. It’s a morbid and horrifying theme for a teaching tool, but very telling. The children who play with the toy are learning something more important than numbers.

The number-learning game, featuring Wahrks.

The Age itself is composed of five separate islands, each of which is significant. The game starts and ends on Temple Island, home of the Golden Dome and the Fissure. Like most of Riven’s islands, Gehn has declared Temple Island to be off-limits to most of the Rivenese: aside from Cho, only his “high priests” are supposed to come here. It is here that the deification of Gehn is most pronounced; the island features a massive temple and a stained-glass “Gospel of Gehn,” both built right in the shadow of the Dome. While only the most elite of his subjects will ever set foot here, he has taken great pains to ensure that his shrine to himself is among his most impressive creations. Despite all this, though, there’s something distinctly ironic about Temple Island: though Gehn has appropriated it as a symbol of his greatness, it happens to be the very place where he was originally defeated.

The player next travels to Jungle Island, the one island not set aside for Gehn’s exclusive use. Jungle Island is by far the largest of the islands, and has more story significance than most of the others. It’s the home of the Rivenese, and it doesn’t take long for the player to understand how fearful the people have grown under Gehn’s rule: they desperately avoid contact with the player character and have a complex system of watchtowers surrounding the village. The player can walk through the village, but it becomes deathly still, work abandoned on the ground and silent but for the occasional barely-audible cry of a baby. The rest of the island is mostly wild, filled with imaginative creatures which contributes to both the atmosphere and the mechanics of the game.

The titular jungle of Jungle Island

Wildlife is spread throughout the Age in a very thoughtful way which supports the plausibility of the world overall: each species prefers a specific habitat, and the villagers’ foods and natural resources can easily be traced back to their sources. Where many games tend to treat wildlife as an afterthought, Riven‘s creators have put a lot of work into building a consistent ecology here. The Rivenese, of course, have a very intimate relationship with the Age’s animals, which is aptly illustrated by the animal-themed combination lock used by the Rivenese rebels. Gehn’s relationship with the jungle is entirely different, of course: he has no respect for it whatsoever, and sees it as nothing more than a source of raw material for his wood chipper. It is these different approaches to nature that make Jungle Island one of the game’s most engaging environments.

The other two major islands, Survey and Crater, are somewhat smaller and are primarily dedicated to Gehn’s research projects. As such, they don’t contain quite as much story content as Jungle or Temple. From a gameplay perspective, the function of these islands is to provide the player with information needed to solve the game’s two uber-puzzles, the rebels’ animal lock and the so-called “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 functions rather than existing simply as “clues.” In the context of the game, Gehn’s map room exists to show the player where the Firemarble Domes are. In the context of the story, it’s a device Gehn uses to track the islands’ gradual drift. There are few objects in Riven which feel like gameplay conveniences. The world is populated with things that, while important to the gameplay, also have clear in-universe functions. This is probably why Survey and Crater are still a joy to explore, despite their narrow focus. In fact, they are home to many of the game’s most iconic scenes, including the player’s only face-to-face encounter with a Wahrk. We as players want to see new and surprising things, and even these more marginal areas do not disappoint.

Crater Island

Despite the immaculately detailed nature of Riven‘s environments, there’s actually not much happening in the game’s “present time.” Plausibly one might expect to see activity on the part of the Age’s inhabitants, but instead the entire environment seems to exist in stasis. Gehn’s paper factory is idle, the schoolroom is empty, no one is fishing or collecting fruit. Obviously, for the player to truly interact with the Rivenese is outside the scope of this game, and in any case is unnecessary. It’s not character interaction that the game is lacking, it’s the sense of an ongoing storyline. In both Exile and Revelation, the player is made to feel that he is a participant in a narrative that is unfolding even as the game plays out. Riven, for all its successes, is stuck in a specific moment: things happened before beginning, and things will happen after the end, but there’s very little going on for the duration of the gameplay experience. But is this truly a problem? No. Riven‘s story and world construction are strong enough that it succeeds brilliantly despite this potential shortcoming. While the later games certainly benefited from their unfolding storylines, they still didn’t attain the same degree of depth that Riven did.

While much of the game is centered around Gehn, its most complex character is Catherine. We last encountered her in The Book of Atrus, in which she abandoned Riven and simultaneously trapped Gehn there. Rather than explore her feelings about this decision, Catherine’s Riven story picks up much later. Her journal begins after Sirrus and Achenar have tricked her into returning to her homeland, which has changed so as to be nearly unrecognizable. Her people see her as an outsider, possibly even a messiah. Where Atrus’s writing is detached and analytical, Catherine’s is intimate and personal. She describes her frustration in trying to relate to her people, her fears and concerns, and details her plans to assist the Rivenese rebels, the Moiety. It’s a brilliant exploration of her character, and well-deserved, as it’s the most development she is ever going to see.

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

While Catherine appears both in The Book of D’ni and in Exile, her roles in both these works are marginal at best. Her final contribution comes in the form of a journal found in Revelation, and sadly it’s not as well-written as the one seen here. Much of the obscurity that hangs around Catherine is due to the fact that in none of the games does the player have an opportunity to visit any of her personal spaces. Since the main storytelling technique of the series involves the examination of personal effects, this puts Catherine at a disadvantage by default. (The botany lab in Revelation is implied to be hers but reveals little to nothing about her personality.) Catherine’s depiction in Riven is the most development she’ll ever get, which is ironic considering that she spends the game literally pacing in captivity. The strongest character in the series is here reduced to a helpless damsel in distress: it’s one of the game’s few weak points.

Gehn is under no such disadvantages. As we’ve established, he scrawls his signature across the very landscape, trumpets his ambitions to the heavens, and destroys his enemies accordingly. Yet as the game progresses, the player begins to glimpse the man behind the facade of godhood, and he proves to be both complex and contradictory. Like any good villain, he is the hero of his own story, and argues his positions calmly and reasonably when he finally meets the player face-to-face. He has been working hard on a new Age for the Rivenese (Riven being on the verge of collapse), and paints Catherine and the Moiety as a bunch of rabble-rousers who are interfering with this noble goal.

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

He has changed, or so he claims. He is no longer “the man [he] once was.” But who was Gehn before? The reader sees several sides to him in The Book of Atrus: his coldhearted pragmatism; his absurd delusions of godhood; his monomaniacal obsession with D’ni. Is his depiction in Riven any different? All these traits are on display, yes, but there’s more to him than that. He has a more human side, one which is slowly revealed throughout the game, but particularly so during his monologue. He regrets his past, and takes responsibility for both his own future and that of the Rivenese. While much of his humility is insincere, even false humility is a new thing for Gehn. The way Gehn’s physical presence is handled is fascinating: the player builds up a mental image of him based upon everything he has read, heard, and seen, but the real Gehn is revealed to be not a monster but a tired, gray-haired man defined by crushed hopes and long-held resentments. His humanity is further reinforced by his private journal, particularly one grief-wracked passage regarding the death of his wife. Far from a one-bit “bad guy,” Gehn is a well-rounded character, and the player can’t help but empathize with him, if only a little.

That said, the “intended” narrative of the game gives a somewhat narrower view of Gehn than we can see otherwise. In any of the other games, the bad endings are little more than rebukes: “you trusted the villain, tsk tsk!” Riven‘s bad endings are somewhat different, in part because we’re never actually asked to trust Gehn. The bad endings only arise if the player misunderstands instructions by calling Atrus at the wrong time, misusing the Trap Book, or disregarding Gehn’s warning not to try his patience. The Final Big Choice here depends not on second-guessing Gehn, but on the player’s understanding of the Trap Book concept. Gehn is defeated not by losing the player’s trust, but by succumbing to the player’s wits. But while this “good ending” is very rewarding, it’s only in the bad endings that Gehn’s true character shines through. In the worst of all the bad endings, Gehn disowns and murders Atrus before killing the player in cold blood and abandoning the Rivenese to die. Despite his proclamations, he knows no forgiveness, and his first concern is still his pursuit of godhood. It’s a disturbing scene, yet 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.” His entire monologue is here revealed as a web of lies, a rehearsed speech designed solely to persuade the player that Gehn is worthy of redemption, while in reality the years have only hardened him. While the bad endings aren’t “true” in a continuity sense, contrasting them against the lies of Gehn’s monologue reveals more about his character than anything else in the game.

And they lived happily ever after until Mattel Interactive needed more money

While Myst had a non-ending, Riven‘s conclusion is superb, a well-paced sequence in which the player makes his way back to the Fissure and witnesses Atrus and Catherine’s reunion as the Age collapses around them. It’s a touching and well-acted scene which succeeds in being emotional without crossing the line into sentimentality. The one odd note in the thing is that Atrus links away to safety and leaves the player behind. His reasoning, he explains in voiceover, is that the Fissure will somehow carry the player character home, on the grounds that it once delivered his Myst book into “worthy hands.” Well, we’ll just have to take his word for it. Implausibility aside, falling into the Fissure works well as an ending: watching Riven fade away into the starfield is not only a gentle and contemplative conclusion, it’s a nice callback to the opening of Myst. It’s a brilliant denoument, one at which the series could have (and arguably should have) ended.

Riven isn’t perfect, but it may be the most literary game ever made. Its characters are complex, its storyline is simultaneously epic and personal, and it is presented with a very delicate balance of spectacle and subtlety. To understand it completely requires a good deal of patience, more than most people are willing to invest, but for those who take the time, the game provides endless subtexts which raise as many questions as they answer. That is Riven‘s greatest strength, and that is what makes it come alive more than any other installment of the series.

Posted on October 2nd, 2016. Filed under Myst in Retrospect. Tagged as: , ,

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