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:


No comments: