I offered Phil a chance to review Riven last week.
He came back to me with the following caveat. “I’m an avowed, on-record foe of Myst and its sequels. I resent what it did to the market for more story-driven, Lucasarts-style adventure games back in the 90s. That is, it destroyed them.”
“Why don’t you review something else,” I said.
Unlike Phil, I was really excited to play Riven again. Riven (and its predecessor Myst) are adventure games that innovated the use of first-person perspective in that genre. But like other adventure games and unlike the first-person shooters that were starting to become popular in the 1990s, Myst and its descendents had static “scenes” that you moved around in. Stand on a pathway on Myst Island and you can click on interactive objects – or click further down the path and a screen dissolve later you’re there. There’s very little animation in these games, but they were full of wonderful sound effects, evocative music, and (for the time) gorgeously detailed graphics.
The story-telling in the Myst series is also unusual today. You spend the vast majority of the games entirely alone – there’s few cutscenes and those that exist are full-motion video, something that will leave players too young to recall the 90s absolutely aghast. Most of the exposition was done through good old-fashioned reading of in-game books. The story in Riven is about finding the wife of your character’s benefactor from the first game – the only person who can return you to the real world after you’ve been zapped, Tron-like, into the world of the game.
Back when they were first released, Riven and Myst were magical transportative experiences. Many people still talk about the diabolical and inventive puzzles that formed the gameplay backbone of the series, and to be sure, those puzzles were brilliant. But what made Riven and Myst more than a collection of brain-teasers was the atmosphere.
Playing Riven on your PC in 1997 was to spend a few hours alone in an eerie, deserted world, full of familiar things that were rendered abstract by their composition, like walking into a Magritte painting. But the years have been very hard on these games. In attempting to achieve photorealism, Cyan Worlds created visuals that would become dated very quickly. Riven was extraordinary at 640×480 – on a retina iPad, it is a grainy and somewhat spooky PowerPoint presentation.
Cyan Worlds have taken care to adapt the iPhone version’s interface into a sensible iPad UI. You have the option to skip animations (useful when you’ve seen the same door open and shut thirty times) and there’s a user-configurable hint system that cuts down on the pixel-hunting that often plagues adventure games. The game should also be commended for handling multi-tasking and loading saves in heroic fashion – even after shutting down and firing up the iPad again the game loads you right where you left off.
With last year’s RealMyst for iPad, Cyan attempted to paste over the cracks in their venerable product by rendering the world in real-time 3D, creating something that was almost (but not quite) as convincing as a modern PC first-person shooter. That treatment would have been welcome with Riven for iPad, which is terribly let down by the low-resolution graphics.
The puzzles remain unique: for patient souls that enjoy a game that takes its time and encourages keeping a notebook to hand, Riven is still a memorable challenge. The thrill of solving one of the game’s conundrums hasn’t faded. But the feeling of inhabiting another world is sadly gone. Time has broken Riven’s spell.