Locus Online

notes on science, fiction, and points in between
8 Nov 1997

The notion of interactive novels never took off -- or at least never gained literary respectability -- but if a computer game ever approached the feel and complexity of literature, it is Riven, the sequel to Myst, the best-selling computer game of all time. Myst, introduced in 1993, has sold 3.1 million copies, almost twice as many as the next best-selling game. It's done this despite, ironically, not appealing to many hard-core computer game fans, who found it little more than a pretty slide show -- with no action, no killing, no interaction with other characters.

Both Myst and Riven plop the player down into a deserted landscape filled with enigmatic structures and objects. The flavor is heavily steampunk; the designers acknowledge in the title of the first game their inspiration from Jules Verne. The player encounters levers, buttons, and steam-powered devices, as well as holographic projectors and magical linking-books that transport the player between worlds. The games excel in their sheer artistry of photo-realistic landscapes and animations. Both are driven by logical puzzles, but Riven's are far better integrated into the fantasy world and plot: there is a story to be revealed, a story that is variously ended depending on the actions of the player.

Laura Miller in Salon pinpoints the appeal of the games:

Adventure games add yet another twist, though: Neither the exploring nor the puzzles would be anywhere near as much fun all by themselves. Put them together, make the opportunity to investigate new places dependent on unlocking a puzzle, and you've got order, a sequence of cause and effect that approaches another pleasure deeply wired into the human mind: storytelling.

What is revolutionary about Riven is its imaginative depth. Robyn Miller has made an analogy to J.R.R. Tolkien's Middle Earth books -- Myst was like "The Hobbit" to Riven's "The Lord of the Rings." While neither game has the sheer storytelling brio and dramatic impact of those novels, Miller -- along with his collaborators at Cyan Inc., the company that produced Myst and Riven -- has aspired to Tolkien's achievement in inventing an entire land and culture, complete with its own language, artifacts, religion, history and architecture.

Art, finally, is what Riven approaches. It has many other delights, particularly the way that almost all of its puzzles have a real-world quality, solvable by common sense and practical know-how (the Monkey Brain thanks you for that, Cyan). In addition, the design of Riven's gameplay has a graceful elegance that reminds me of a masterfully constructed novel.

Even a reviewer in Next Generation, a gaming magazine, is persuaded:
[Y]ou need to use Riven's sights and sounds as a springboard to open up your imagination. If you're not prepared to do that, Riven will leave you cold and bored. But if you do, it all suddenly comes together and you realize why Myst is so special and why Riven is an astoundingly good game. What I'm about to say sounds like I'm heading up my own ass, lubricated by my own pseudo-intellectual claptrap, but I feel that Riven, in a way, is a kind of visual literature.

Kurt Vonnegut Remembers
Syndicated gossip columnist Liz Smith notes (6 Nov.) that Kurt Vonnegut's latest and ''last'' novel Timequake contains a character named Jerry Rivers. Jerry Rivers is the rumored real name of talk show host Geraldo Rivera (who has denied it). Rivera was once married to Kurt Vonnegut's daughter Edie. The marriage broke up because of Rivera's admitted ''compulsive womanizing.'' Vonnegut never forgave Rivera for his behavior. And so now a Jerry Rivers appears in Vonnegut's novel -- as a chauffeur.
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© 1997 by Locus Publications. All rights reserved.