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.


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