From the moments after that foreboding introduction, given by the world’s weariest writer - holed up in his lonely yet wonderfully byzantine cave, you know this adventure is going to be something different, something to remember. Sure it followed one of the best selling PC games of all time that many would argue eclipse it’s place in history but I write this piece to heartily disagree with that sentiment and argue instead that in the nearly 20 years since it’s release nothing has matched this rich sequel in terms of ambition, complexity, scope, and sheer worldbuilding bravura. Riven is nothing short of a masterpiece that carved a fissure in my heart and links to a place in my imagination so singular, so enigmatic it continues to send shivers down my spine all these years later. In the forlorn words of Atrus:
“For reasons you’ll discover I can’t send you to Riven with a way out”
It all starts with a barrier, both literal and metaphorical. As a cage slams shut in front of you, your first experience of this new world rather ignominiously begins in passive observation. In a feeling akin to that first plunge into the icy waters of a deep lake you are greeted to an introduction and indeed first act that are similarly vivid and yet simultaneously uninviting for newcomers and initiates alike. Wondering this new world can often feel overwhelming, almost impenetrable, as you try to decipher the symbolism, strange architecture and technologies - as beautiful as they can be befuddling.
By willfully eschewing the hand-holding techniques usually employed by more modern games to guide you through the environments and tunnel your attention, I’m sure many people bounced off the game in these first few hours out of sheer confusion. But for some like myself it was that captivating wall of mystery and intrigue juxtaposed against the sublime, visceral surface that hooked us in - That solitary moment spent gazing deep into an indigenous cave painting on the wall of a lonely cave, pondering the significance of it’s meaning; Or standing frozen atop the creaking planks of a rickety jetty as one of the denizens of the lagoon runs from you gripped by a primal fear. What was so refreshing of Riven was it’s deliberate inclination to surround you with a complex and expansive world akin to a lavish fantasy or science fiction novel - a place so rich and otherworldly that a period of acclimatisation had actually been factored in to the gameplay experience.
Of course part of the allure was always going to be that smarty pants feeling you got when perseverance finally broke you through that wall of intrigue, setting off on your journey to actually figure things out. It was the same sense of intellectual smugness I remember fondly from the original Myst - Successive eureka moments that punctuated the players journey and ultimately molded the rhythm of the Myst experience as slowly the seemingly mad contraptions began to make sense. The way in which Riven advanced the formula was first to ground the structure and its components in a reality and internal consistency that had seldom been witnessed in game design up until this point, but beyond that the puzzles and their solutions (If you choose to define the gameplay in such terms) were for the first time arranged along the conceptual lay lines of something I can only describe as the culture of the world itself.
Riven expected a scholarly attention to detail from its players. You literally had to study the history, understand the power structures and judge character motivations in order to unlock that culture. This was a ‘game’ where to crack a code you (almost intuitively) needed go to school and learn the local numerical system; a game where understanding the spiritual importance of animals to the indigenous population would allow you to make contact with their underground movement; a game where studiously reading the journal of a complex ruler and his prodigal son ultimately informs your judgement when you are tested in a pivotal encounter; a game where within the fiction of it's world, the lever puzzles actually made sense.
Sure there’s probably been a tonne of games before and since that have placed you in equally beautiful settings while integrating puzzles and narrative to similarly satisfying synergy, but somehow what Riven did was to weave it's environments, history, gameplay and culture together in my subconscious in such a way as to actually imbue the world with an intangible and yet authentic sense of meaning - to elicit a feeling some would consider the holy grail of world building - the sense that these spaces, factories and shrines, evidenced inhabitation, industry and ritual formed part of an rich and interconnected ecosystem - or to quote a great old cliche Riven succeeded in creating ‘a living breathing world’.
Riven was a place like no other - a doomed prison world beholden to an aging false god, inhabited by a divided ingenious society, and exile for an impassioned revolutionary recast as a prophet. Without spoiling too much - In the end Gehn’s (The antagonist) great downfall was his inability to respect the island's inhabitants and take the time to understand their beliefs and culture in a beautiful inversion of the players own journey. Because given a willingness to invest the time and patience required to fulfil this unique journey, you will discover rich cultures, unlock a world through understanding and conquer it all in an experience that will … well like the lonely writer says:
“Now I understand... endings and beginnings are within the Fissure, that Riven-cleft of stars that acts as both wall and a bridge... And now, I am at rest”