Saturday, January 26, 2008


So, it looks like I will not be in a play semester, so I will likely be turning to writing to appease my creative impulses. I'm not entirely pleased by the arrangement, but my foci will be poems and a short play about the future, humanity, and teaching.

The party last night was fun, though.


Thursday, January 17, 2008

Why Riven is the Best Game Ever, Part 5

Five is an important number in Riven. D'ni numerals are base 25, five squared, of course, but Gehn somehow found himself with a connection to the fifth integer, one that guided his life and fittingly found itself a motif in his imprisonment in Riven. Therefore, this post will be the last in this series, and it will go into Gehn, who I submit to be the best villain ever, in any medium.

Gehn is a great person, really. He watched as his entire civilization crumbled around him in horrific terrorist assaults which were inspired by the arrival of his mother to D'ni. He suffered the loss of his wife in childbirth, a wife about whom we know little but it can be assured that their love was mutual, fierce, and tragic.

And still, fifteen years after leaving his son with his mother, Gehn found it in himself to come back for Atrus, to induct him to the Art of crafting links to Ages. This child who had destroyed the shattered bits of life he had tried to collect became his protegee, his first step in rebuilding the glorious, beautiful society of D'ni.

Gehn is a horrible person. He is prolific, but lacks talent and inspiration. He seeks to rebuild D'ni, but he fancies himself a god, last among a godlike people. He creates Ages to subjugate them, caring not for their inhabitants as people but as resources. He numbers his Ages, never names them. He never calls his prison Riven, but rather My Fifth Age, out of his eventual two hundred thirty-three. Atrus, in rebellion against this pathetic excess, trapped his father in Riven to protect other Ages from his ruthlessness, his Machievellan disregard of people in favor of causes.

But more than those, Gehn is a person - elegant, charismatic, and subtle. If you decide not to play Riven, I at least recommend reading his journals and watching the scenes in which he appears on the internet. The game, if you look hard enough, gives terrific and terrifying insights into this god-demon-man, this pathetic greatness of fallibility and aspiration.

I started writing this post in hopes that I can do the man justice - I can't. Honestly, you have to play Riven to truly see how deep, how real, how astounding this man is. There is no villain I can think of who is so believable, so dignified, and so evil in a way that is almost universally understood but in no way trite. Gehn wants his home back, but he forgets it was not a palace for his people, but for the world. D'ni, at its heart and height, is a society of awe, worship, and curiosity for possibility, beauty, and complexity. It is a shrine for the wonderment of the universe in all of its guises.

Truly, in life as in books, the Ending can never be written.


Friday, January 11, 2008

Riven Nitpicks and Why Riven is the Best Game Ever, Part 4

Riven is elegant, beautiful, et cetera. All the previous information and the next bits still hold true. The game isn't perfect, though - no game is. I will first point out a few moments in the game that are particularly bad, and then go into some broader wishes for the game.

Actually, these instances really boil down to one goal - get inside Gehn's Riven-side office, on Book Assembly Island. There are two basic paths to that:

- The direct path. Land on Book Assembly Island in a cool wood-delivery cart (fun cutscene!) solve a little puzzle about a boiler, explore the drainage tubes, and then get stuck looking at a frog trap. This one is much more horrible, and will be discussed below.

- Hunt-the-pixel for a button on Jungle Island that a player has no reason to expect, to open a ritual shrine-statue, which leads to a mag-lev to Survey island, which leads to a mag-lev to Book Assembly Island. This one is absurd, and is in fact the reverse of what you are supposed to do. That little button is very visible as you come out of the shrine, and is a useful shortcut, but is not intended for players to find without first having seen it in action.

So, the direct path. SCENE: Indoors, afternoon. The Stranger enters a cavernous, dark room through double doors which swing open effortlessly and rest snug against the wall. He (or she) walks a short catwalk over the abyss to a small, salad-tosser-looking device. Manipulating a few buttons, he finds some pellets and a pressure plate, as well as a latch to lower the thing into the pit by chain. A clue here is found for the Rebel Symbols, and the Stranger leaves, satisfied, closing the doors on his way out.

SCENE: Elsewhere on Riven. Stranger suddenly disappears, as the player hits a roadblock in exploration.

What's the thing the player missed? Why, look at those doors! They didn't close behind you, now did they? Scrutinize the metal behemoth bastards and you realize you can close them yourself. And what does this action reveal? To otherwise entirely obscured pathways, one of which leads to a Fire Dome (probably the coolest one in the game), one of which leads to Gehn's office, from where you can depart for Survey Island and discover the "treetop zone" on Jungle Island. This "nod" of exploration is the most daft thing in the game, and many people quit playing because of it. More rational people like me instead decided to cheat and look online, but that shouldn't be necessary in any game.

Nitpick 2: Little reading content. Myst was comparatively loaded with books, holding about ten journals about the various Ages. Riven has Atrus's journal, Catherine's journal, and Gehn's two journals, which I realize is a lot, but I felt that the people of Riven were largely unexplored as a subject in those, and the Age of Riven itself was largely left mentionless. Atrus talked about his attempts to secure a connection to Riven, alluding to the events of Myst, Catherine's (the most revealing setting-wise, but most illegible) discussed the rebellion and the creation of Tay as a stronghold, Gehn's first about his fruitless attempts to escape imprisonment, and his second on his more philosophical and psychological issues. This last journal is a marvel to read.

Still, I wish there were more of it, which brings me to my third point. While exploration was limitless, there is almost nothing you can do besides hunt clues and solve puzzles. This is a failing in a lot of adventure games - I wish there was some way in there to interact with the environment in a neutral way, such as skipping stones or manipulating the infrastructure of the village (pulling looms, for example). It would be nice to have some in game diversion to observe and interact with for the sake of it, not advancing any plot or puzzle, but some way to - within the context of the game - relax to think.

Finally, Riven came from a time when a pen and paper where expected to be brought to the game environment. The notes necessary for a playthrough are copious, and there is no in-game way to store them. I kind of like Myst 4's camera/journal, but holding those passwords in a system like Deus Ex's would have been nice, too, if a bit heavy handed. Either of those systems would be welcomed, though.

Now, part 4: No inventory.

A horrible, horrible cliche in adventure games is the Use Key On Door Syndrome, as named by Ben Crowshaw. Your inventory stacks up, and you just try using everything in your inventory on every hotspot. Ugly. Myst games sidestep the issue by giving highly limited inventories, with each item having a specific, memorable, and limited purpose. Mostly, these are books. Journals, Linking Books, or sheets of Linking Book paper, these are items which either possess information for your perusal (often in the form of a journal of Atrus'), are hard-won keys to complete or continue the plot (the pages), or, rarely, the capability to go to another Age (the books, and I think that the only functioning Linking book you get is in Exile).

Even in Uru, the sparse inventory is observed. You have your Relto Book - your customizable home, panic-button, and central Node to exploring the universe - your clothes (functionless, but pretty and customizable), and your KI - a chat device, GPS, camera, and more on a wristwatch, D'ni made. That's it. Use Key On Door simply doesn't happen in Myst, which is a game about environments. This focus makes puzzles usually a lot less hokey. I'm looking at you, The Longest Journey. Even the Neverhood had a very, very limited inventory, and a system which prevented you from using everything you had on every object to see if there's a result, and if it works in the Neverhood, it's gotta work everywhere.

But more than the hokeyness factor, Riven's puzzle focus on environments captures what adventure games are about - setting, culture, characters and manipulation. It's not about the collection of stuff, even of tools, but rather about touching the world, and interacting with it in a formless way enshrined in Myst's Stranger, a perfect tabula rasa.

Still, sometimes I really wish I could take Gehn's gun. His pipe wouldn't be too bad, either:


Thursday, January 10, 2008

Why Riven is the Best Game Ever, Part 3

You folk could post a bit more - I'm feeling considerably unloved. Anyway, the solution:

Take the golden symbol from each fire dome, and map it to the colors of the lights on Survey Island - the buttons that turn on the lights are adorned with those eyes. Next, find out the "grid" location of each dome by locating the beasts on the topographical maps. Finally, put each dome's associated color of marble on that dome's coordinates on the board. Then step back, push the button, and appreciate the contained explosion of directed power that fuels your teleportation betwixt worlds. The Fire Dome puzzle (also called the Waffle-Iron puzzle, which is vaguely what the grid device looks like) utilizes the player's ability to freely explore the islands, and encourages the mutual dependence each location has on another.

So, now we'll talk about that free-formliness. At some point yesterday, I had an idea. Riven, like Myst, Exile, and Revelations, is a node-based game,which is to say that the player can click on particular areas to move to them, and then turn about and see things from that node. Exile does this system best, allowing full three-dimensional spinning without clicks, but Riven's system is acceptable. Anyway, the idea was to make a map of Riven, marking each node, and listing the minimum number of clicks it would take a player to reach that point. Surprisingly, at least in my opinion, that number is low fairly universally. The island of Myst would have a low number (as the island is pretty open), but the other Ages in that game would have fairly linear progression of points until the Age's end.

Riven is an exploration dream, in a sense. Very little has to be solved to explore almost the entirety of four of Riven's five islands (Prison Island, though, requires the Fire Domes to be activated). Even the spot of the game's end can be reached in (I believe) two clicks, and with save "abuse," the game can be ended in about thirty clicks, albeit with a fairly unsatisfactory version of said ending.

Which, I suppose, brings me to the next point - this freeform nature allows for the player to screw up the canonical plot in a number of ways. What if you signal Atrus before you kill Gehn? Before you find out about Catherine's state of affairs? What if, stuck on a puzzle, you decide to pull out the Prison Book, and see for yourself what's inside? What if you did so with someone already in there? The game deals with all of these situations, providing endings that range from vaguely amusing, to chilling, to tragic. There are ten endings to the game, and in four of those you get shot. Each of the nine bad endings requires you to do something rather counter to your directives to discover, but after a first playthrough they are fun to try to "collect."

Gehn shoots you - but the game allows for no violence by players. That's always been a must for the Miller brothers, the creators of the Myst franchise, a sentiment which has lasted even
through the MMO Myst game, Uru Live (which is, by the way, great fun with a great group of people. I really need to play it again). Violence in puzzle/adventure games has always disappointed me. In The Longest Journey, they sidestepped the issue by having threats never actually harm you, which I found to be really lame. In that game's sequel, Dreamfall, the "violence" sections were like fighter games without the fun, and were tedious and out of place. In the Trilby games, only Five Days A Stranger did a good fight scene - a single affair with an autosave, a single action needed to save yourself, and a strong satisfaction for saving Trilby from harm. In later games, repeatedly running away from possessed corpses etc. got annoying as hell, especially when they cheated, teleported ahead of you, and claw you just as you're about to enter the next room, where temporary safety lies. On Myst's side lies the Neverhood, where Klayman can only die by doing the most stupid and irresistible action in the game - an hilarious ending, if I may say so.

In short, don't do violence in this sort of game, unless it's short, sweet, and the player's character is on the receiving end. I rather like the pacifist protagonist in these games, a feeling which oddly is amplified by a scarcity of NPCs. Riven has maybe fifteen NPCs in all, all but four of whom occupy but a few moments of screen time, and are there to remind you that the world you are inhabiting isn't a vacuum, but rather a home for these people. The appearances can be genuinely frightening, too, for a person who's been exploring for hours alone. I know the first time I saw the little girl I jumped in my seat.

To get back to the first point, this game's extreme nonlinearity is a great asset to the game. For any endeavors of this sort that I would work on, I would take Riven's game design as a model to follow: give an interconnected game world that they are almost never barred from re-exploring completely at their leisure; give the game's setting plenty of internal consistency and realism, finding purposes for everything and creating pieces of setting for the sole purpose of expressing atmosphere and culture; and make knowledge a primary commodity in the game, some of which is randomized per playthrough, some of which is not, to make gamers both feel challenged in later playthroughs, and rewarded for remembering obscure or complicated facts.

Final notes on that last point: there are three combination locks in the game, all of which are randomized from the game's start. This is why the twenty-click playthrough requires you to load a save: a critical code to complete it is stored about halfway through the game, and even the best players can't predict it until they find it. Because of these combinations and because of the more complex but static nature of the real puzzles, games of Riven range from several weeks to fourteen minutes and thirty one seconds. Compare to the three minutes eighteen of Myst (which is really done in a minute fifty), and I think you'll see why Riven's superior to them. All the links except for the first contain spoilers.

Next time, some nit-picking. A little spoilery, but I'm going to go over the game's worst bits as far as I remember them.


Wednesday, January 9, 2008

Why Riven is the Best Game Ever, Part 2

The Fire Dome puzzle - oh, how I love thee. This puzzle, truly, is the hardest and most beautiful puzzle in the game. You find your first clues - which are also, in a sense, your reward for completion - way, way beforehand. The items in question: On each island, there is a dome that looks vaguely like a world globe, spinning very quickly. Embossed on each side are circles of eye motifs, with each symbol a slightly modified version of the previous, until a cycle is made. Nearby, there is a camera-like device with a button on it, and a strobe-like reading of the symbols. Here, it is illuminated that one of those symbols is golden - a unique one per island. When you push the button as the gold symbol passes, the dome opens up in a spectacular animation. Upon closer investigation, it is revealed that there are five sliders on a 25-notch path. With no further clues to go on, the player leaves.

Later, the player will discover Catherine's journal, which, amidst other great detail, includes the code to open the domes. It also tells you that the books within the domes aren't powered (a long story) and that to use them to drop a visit to Gehn, the player will have to find a way to give the domes the power to teleport him to Gehn's new Age.

Another clue is found on Survey Island: maps. One of them is a view of Riven from a bird's eye, using the Age's weird water physics to construct representations of any given island's topography. The other is a 25 by 25 grid of topographical sectors of Riven, with the fire domes highlighted (sensing a motif?). However, a player may only examine the island that the larger map is set to. At first playthrough, this seems like a curiosity, or some ridiculous puzzle.

The last clue also comes from Survey Island, in Gehn's little "aquarium." He's tied up colored lights to a control panel, to train his Wahrks (think sharks, with tusks and trapezoidish bodies) to be his little Pavlovian executioners. The symbols for the colors match the eye-like symbols.

Finally, though, the player comes full circle and finds himself staring one of the most glorious sights in the game: the Temple Dome, a huge, golden monstrosity filled with iridescent water and a nexus of pipes from around the Age - pipes which connect to the Fire Domes. And then they see this a 25x25 grid, and six marbles of different colors. And, maybe, everything comes together.

Tune in next time for the next part of the review.


Tuesday, January 8, 2008

Why Riven is the Best Game Ever

"So you get more than one 'one.'"
"Some people are lucky. I've had a few ones."
"So how many ones can you have?"
"How many have you had?"
"Three. How many have you had?"
"Just one. Just one."
- Flight of the Conchords

At my dorm, a lot of discussion goes into "the best video game ever." Alex, following Jemaine's lead, has a set of multiple titles, each of which is the "best video game ever." Deus Ex, Nethack, the Neverhood - all of these are award winners in his book.Like in so many things in life, I am a bit more like Bret. There's only one game that compares to perfection for me, and the title of this post having already having spoiled it, I'll dispense with ado and start raving on the merits of Riven.

Riven - in addition to its beautiful imagery, unspeakably awe-inspiring music, and solid plot with well-acted characters - has simply the best game design I've ever seen. Perhaps the point-and-click interface would make some question that. Even if we ignored the fact that the interface was requisite to maintain Cyan's high art standard involving live actors and pre-rendered images, I argue that the interface does not detract from the game design. Game design is the architecture of the goals and obstacles that a player encounters on their quest through the game. In Prince of Persia: The Sands of Time, the combat sections were rife with bad game design choices (let's not even consider Warrior Within). In F.E.A.R. map design was a problem, as was combat's repetitiveness. Dreamfall, in the same genre as Riven, made such a bad game that I don't really consider it to be one, but rather a beautiful story presented in an interactive manner. Suddenly, I realize I have a lot of thoughts on that game, but I'll delve into it later.

Riven has nothing of the sort, so far as I can see. Unlike Myst, the game gives you a direction - capture Gehn, discover what has happened to Catherine. Unlike Myst, the puzzles aren't contrived - certainly not if compared to other video games. This is not to say Myst is a bad game, but Riven outpaces it in every regard except for reading material provided in-game.

The game has five puzzles. Total. They are huge, sprawling puzzles, with clues spread across the islands, but I can only think of five things in the game that are really puzzles, and not nods of exploration (some of which could be very tough) or password-entering. Enumerated:

- The Round Room
- Decyphering D'ni Numerals
- The Rebel Symbols
- Powering the Fire Domes
- Opening the Fissure

Of these, one puzzle shines out: the Fire Domes. I'll have a whole post on that one.

Looking over a walkthrough, I can see a number of other things that you could call puzzles - opening a fan, or emptying water from a boiler, or navigating a submersible tram - but those are those "nods" I was talking about. The above five have clues, controls, or consequences across the entire game. The Round Room, the first encountered puzzle, is the most straightforward, requiring only the exploration instinct that drives a player forward and simple logic to solve - but your "rewards" for the action are not immediately obvious, but satisfactory enough to prod a player onward.

Understanding D'ni numerals is a key part of the game, enough that I would call it a puzzle. This one, however, is not explicit. The best way to learn the numbers, in game, is to go to the shabby little school in the desolate village on Riven. You play a most horrible children's game of number-hangman until you have a grasp. It isn't horrible to play - in fact, it's quite fun - it is horrible in its morbidity. The game is a threat, propaganda, and a device to mold the Rivenese population to Gehn's beck and call regardless of the morality of the lessons. These numbers, in addition to being beautiful and the pride and joy of Myst fanboys and fangirls everywhere (and the love is indeed quite international), are key to the remaining puzzles. Each of them.

The Rebels' symbols is a puzzle of exploration and imagination. At some stage, you are trying to find the hideout of the people who rebel against Gehn, the Moeity, as they are called. At the very least, you are trying to find out to where a prisoner you thought you just freed disappeared. Eventually, you find yourself in a circle of stones with funny creatures on them, and, baffled, you go off to look for clues.

The thing is, everywhere the villagers have access, there is some indication of what the "password" is, each clue in some way indicating some sort of animal, and a number. The indication was intended by the Moiety to be both visual and auditory, but in true Myst fashion, part of their system broke, leaving enough information to find the answer, but not enough for it to be easy. Unlike in many games, this doesn't feel Deus Ex Machina-ish, as the sabotage is justified and realistic.

I want to wrap this up now, with the last two puzzles for later, but I want one thing above all to remain clear: each of these puzzles feels real. They each feel like something someone would do to protect people from mucking with what belongs to Gehn, to make people in awe of Gehn, or to help people oppose Gehn. The villain's presence, which on screen is very momentary, is present throughout the game. Gehn is my favorite villain in a game, with GLaDOS coming very close and Andrew Ryan behind her, if we pretended Bioshock ended where it should have, but that's neither here nor there. The point is, Riven pulls off puzzles and exploration in a way that is realistic, fun, and insanely elegant, and I think more games need to learn from its example. No more block pushing or key hunting, but dynamic searching through a world to gain an understanding of the pieces already seen.

Oh, right, did I mention that you can solve most of these puzzles at a time of your choosing, in the order that you like, exploring willy-nilly throughout Riven without so much as a hint of linearity until the very end (where it's still only a hint)? No? Well, I did now.

More thoughts tomorrow, I hope.


Monday, January 7, 2008

Suffertopia is Dead, Monark Chatroom

I just checked Nationstates, and my dear Suffertopia has finally fallen by the wayside. I've always thought that the game had too little to keep player's going for more than a month or two, and Suffertopia surprised me, but inevitably got forgotten and thus lost. Mourn for the land of the tangible smog!

In more joyous news, however, I partook in my first IRC chat today, concerning a science fiction role-playing system a few friends and I are creating, by the working title of Monark (nee Ark9). Today's discussion spanned the most recently invented feature of the game - server injection hacking attacks, as well as experience points and the in-game effects of armor specialization. Not too much got decided, but forgive us - it is currently rather late. Poem maybe due this week - I am visiting my high school, and may actually get my mind off its arse.


New purpose

As all of us (a set of pitifully low cardinality) know, this blog is slow to churn out new poetry. This is partially because I've stopped my regimen of forced inspiration, which leads to sporadic and sparse bouts of poetic creation.

I have, however, been in admiration of a great deal of fabulous art, in film, book, and video game media, and have decided to make this blog my writing base of operations. Hopefully, beautiful moments of awe and wonder will still strike me with the words to make something of worth, but from now on less refined and more frank posts will adorn this space in addition to poetry.