justine on Sun, 29 Mar 1998 08:17:24 +0200 (MET DST)

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<nettime> review of _Riven_

[Another report from another nettime content scout. -T]

Review of Riven 
   by Justine Humphry

When I first embarked on my journey into Riven, the
newly released sequel to the best selling CD ROM Myst,
I was not surprised to discover that this game began 
where the last game left off. Summoned back to the
world of Myst I left a few years ago, I found myself
once again face to face with Atrus, the Father.

I had known then that somehow, this story wasn't or
couldn't be over. There was of course the enormous
expectations generated by the ever growing contingent
of Myst fans. Along with the devoted game players
were the accidental tourists who had stumbled across
these mysterious digital realms. All shared a wonder
and passion for these 'new worlds' opened up by a
computer game.

Furthermore, there was the narrative. It wasn't so much
that the ending of Myst was unsatisfying. What could
be more satisfying than making a space knowable,
readable and meaningful through sheer effort and
persistence? The final meeting with Atrus, however, was
strangely disturbing. The quest was over but there were
still questions.

If you had managed to escape imprisonment in either one
of the Brothers' books, the final appearance of Atrus
in his mosque-like study hidden in the bowels of his
library, signalled to the player an ultimate dilemma.
Having gained new knowledge by making s ense of this
hypertextual space, the player, in order to leave the
game and return to the real, had to relinquish the
domains and history of Myst back to the Father.

The end of Myst  leaves you wondering if this dilemma
is somehow symbolic of an ideological struggle to take
place in the real 'new technology' environment which
has recently emerged. If so, the questions we are left
with at the end of the game become more significant
and, more demanding. Where is Catherine, Atrus' wife?
Why is she absent in this world? Is the father to reign
forever over these digital domains? Who are we, the
other players? And what is our purpose in returning to
this mythological space?

Like Myst, Riven acts as a legend for our 'new
technology' age in the form of a hypertextual journey.
But where the narrative of Myst  revolves around a
lost book thereby creating a space for 'new worlds' to
emerge, Riven is concerned foremost with its
implications. The words of Atrus reach us from his
secret retreat: 'My worst fears have been realised.
The damage is more extensive than previously imagined.
I must act while there is still time. I must find
someone...to send to Riven.'

The navigational skills you gain as a player of Myst 
are without doubt an advantage in Riven  but they
could also result unwittingly in your own entrapment.
Are you merely being used by Atrus to further his
control over these mysterious domains, to imprison Gehn
- Atrus's Father and rescue Catherine? Or is the story
we have been told by Atrus false? Should we believe
Gehn when we finally meet him - that Catherine's
involvement with the rebels has lead her to become a
ruler of Riven in her own right? And is it true that
she has become corrupted and driven mad by power? The
power, perhaps, of a new medium...

Like Myst, these questions can only be answered within
the spatial logic of Riven's hypertextual world. 
Riven is different to Myst though in a number of
ways. The motif of the archipelago still applies as the
organising schema of the game space but on Riven, the
main islands are connected in a distinct geographical
region, as a real archipelago would be, rather than
being linked as Ages, as in Myst.

One of the brothers who created Myst, Rand Miller,
explained to me a few years ago that they needed their
worlds to be contained - well defined - and making the
land masses into islands meant there was a logical
limit to exploration. Water was the barrier. [FN:
Interview with Rand Miller, CYAN inc, conducted by
Justine Humphry by electronic email on Sept 22, 1995] 
The only way to join the islands was to travel between
them using linking-books. But where water operates as a
spatial limit in Myst, in Riven, water has become a
malleable and permeable substance. The player must
traverse under, across and through large bodies of
water in order for the islands to reveal their secrets.

Because of this essential structural difference, Riven
has an openness and a sense of immensity unparalleled
in Myst. It's not only possible to move through water,
but the water itself has motion. This also means the
player must cover more terrain. The entire network of
islands must be discovered and explored before any of
the codes are revealed. Where in Myst, the story is in
effect told in chapters or segments corresponding to
the players' discovery of the logic of each island
world, in Riven, the story is layered within the
space, creating a sense of narrative depth in the

The absence of the library is significant in this game.
In Myst, the library operates as relic, it comes to
symbolise loss of the world of the book, so it's
symbolic that the library is itself in a state of
decomposition and decline. In Riven, however, not
just the library but books in general play a far less
conspicuous role. There are still books to discover but
the secret rules of the space are not so much contained
in books but rather are dispersed across the landscape
and embedded in its features.

Another of the many new properties of Riven is the
ability to interact with characters that appear to you
in the game. Cleverly, the apparitions are motivated by
actions that you yourself have initiated along your
route. These sometimes incidental, sometimes deliberate
moments are, like reality, not repeatable or in some
cases they will occur again but only after revisiting a
site after a long absence. In effect, the entire space
of the game has a memory. Movement is not just about
tracing invisible object relations to crack the codes.
Decisions you make over the duration of your stay have

Riven is not shaped in the image of a utopian world.
The codes that underlie its logic are not based on a
single unifying order as in Myst. Here, the struggles
of control have resulted in contesting logics which
belong partly to Atrus' Father Gehn and partly to the
native inhabitants of Riven. This cultural blending
makes the world far more chaotic and hybrid, a fact
highlighted by Atrus' disapproval:' With every passing
moment, I gain a clearer picture of the incredible
chaos that my father's economy of words has yielded.'

This new game by the Miller brothers is a spectacular
successor to Myst. The liminality which defined Myst 
as a pre-space, a foundational moment has developed in 
Riven into a world where barriers between water and
land, between the real and the game are even less
distinct than ever before. The player is invited to
take part not just in the rebuilding of the new from
the old but to explore the struggles that might take
place in these emergent worlds.
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