Replaying Riven

Tuesday, July 2, 2024

Comments: 4 (plus live)   (latest 4 days later)

Tagged: riven, myst, cyan, reviews, ruminations

I haven't played through Riven since 1997.

I've replayed Myst several times, once for each major remake. (RealMyst for Mac in 2002, iPad port in 2012, Unity remake in 2014, Unreal remake in 2020...) I replayed Myst 3 and Myst 4 when they showed up on Steam in 2018. I replayed Myst 5 on a whim in 2010 (it was five years old then) and then again recently.

I never replayed Riven. I'm not sure why. There was a high-def iPad release in 2013; I jumped in but drifted away pretty quickly. I suppose the slideshow interface is just exhausting to my 3D-adapted brain, and this was already true ten years ago.

But when I started to hear about a true-3D remake of Riven -- originally as the Starry Expanse fan project -- not replaying it became a thing. "Oh," I said, "I will save my re-experience for this upcoming new version. It will be great! I won't remember anything! It'll be like playing a whole new game!"

Of course that was 2013, or maybe 2012. I knew Starry Expanse would be slow. It crept along and switched engines and crept some more. Then in 2019, Cyan announced an official Riven remake, which was... either based on the Starry Expanse project or collaborating with it, they weren't real specific. Then another couple of years of awkward silence went by. And now it's out!

...Sorry; it's hard to find a narrative through-line. The timeline is lumpy, and if there was any drama, people kept it under wraps. I just kept waiting and one day a game turned up.

Then I replayed Riven.

It wasn't like playing a whole new game, but I had to relearn everything.

Turns out I remember quite a lot from the original -- piecewise. I recognized many scenic vistas, but I'd forgotten just as many. I definitely had to figure out how all the scenery fit together; I'd entirely forgotten the large-scale topography.

Cyan's tagline for these remakes is "We recreate the game you remember playing, not the game you played." They have entirely succeeded at that. Are these 3D spaces more spacious than the slideshow originals? Probably, but you don't notice. You remember them as being as spacious as they ought to be. The environments are certainly more detailed, but it's the detail that your head filled in.

As with Myst (2020), certain elements have been adapted to be VR-friendly. Everything important is at waist-to-shoulder level. No more crouching to peer at the fissure plate. Most of the doors slide open rather than whack you in the face.

Some elements are truly new, and you'll notice those instantly. They stand out. I won't get into spoilers (yet) but a few aspects of the game have been completely rethought, and others have been expanded. There are updated puzzles and brand-new puzzles. You can walk around some areas that you always wanted to walk around.

Don't get me wrong: it's still Riven. If you (unlike me) have replayed Riven recently, you'll be playing the same game -- plus a little extra. The story beats are the same. The landscape is the same. They've just filled out some corners that have been sparse since 1997.

They've also added one major puzzle mechanic, which I won't spoil. But it's copying the single best idea to hit the Myst-like genre since the Myst series ended. Yes, that gizmo from The Room. (Fine, I spoiled it.) No complaints. Really, once you use that in a Cyan game, you realize how much it belongs there.

The original game's toughest puzzle has been entirely redesigned. Has it been made easier, or less annoying, or just nerfed? De aenigmatibus. I'm sure people are yelling about it on a hundred forums. I think it's an elegant redesign. It's still thematically the same puzzle. It incorporates the same ideas; you make the same connections between game elements. Some of the connections come after you solve a puzzle, rather than to solve a puzzle, but that's okay. That's just the crossword thing I was talking about a few weeks ago.

(I don't like the way one bit of the puzzle plays out, but that's another post.)

So, as a whole new game, is Riven a good game?

Yes! It's a great game. You explore a whole lot, and everywhere you explore is fantastic. It feels like a living world (and then some more living worlds). Everything you learn is knowledge, not "lore" or "clues". You never once feel like you're traversing a bunch of unrelated puzzle-realms to collect plot tokens.

(Warning: following discussion gets into general spoilers. But only to mention the existence of certain puzzles, not how they are solved.)

Plot tokens have always been Cyan's weakness. Not that it's much of a weakness; it's so hard to avoid. Zog knows I've done it myself (elemental fire/water/earth/air, sorry folks!) But the Myst series has always struggled with that sort of design. After Riven, Myst 4 comes closest to dodging the problem; Spire and Haven are only barely plot-token realms. But then Serenia is just impossible to take seriously, so there you are again. (Not-Cyan-yes-I-know; the comment stands.)

(Obduction is pretty good in this regard. The worlds don't slot into any kind of obvious plot-requirement structure; they make sense on their own terms. Firmament is very plot-tokeny but the tokens are gameplay abilities, which is a good metroid-brainy design, although the execution is shaky.)

To be sure, Riven has a couple of puzzles that could be described as collect-the-token. But one of them (the animals) varies a lot in how the "tokens" are found. (Differently than in the 1997 version, but both versions of the game deliberately break puzzle symmetry for the sake of variety.) As for the marbles, they just don't feel like a structural part of the game. (Even though they are!) The islands of Riven are densely packed with puzzles, clues, and narrative elements; that's what you spend your time thinking about. The marbles wind up being a thing you do along the way, ad hoc, as you explore.

The odd thing, though, is that exploring Riven is a very linear experience.

You don't notice this. I didn't notice it when I originally played! You're zig-zagging between islands. You repeatedly come back to areas you've visited before, but from a new direction with new doors unlocked. It feels very nonlinear and open.

And, indeed, by the time you've explored all of Riven, you've unlocked all the shortcuts and it has become an open world. Then it's time to put the clues together, reach 233 and Tay, and end the game. I believe you can visit 233 and Tay in either order. Tay requires more clue-hunting, so in practice everybody finds 233 first. But it is an open-world plot at that stage.

But not the first explore-Riven stage. If you map out Riven as logical areas (rather than islands), I think the exploration sequence is entirely fixed. You enter one area, explore it, find the exit door (cart, maglev, whatever), and move on to the next one. Every area unlocks exactly one new area.

Now, as I said, you don't notice this linearity during play. But it still has the weakness of linear puzzle games: you need to solve The Next Puzzle next. If you miss that you're entirely stuck. Oh, you can wander around gathering clues -- which will serve you well in act 2. But you're still blocked, progress-wise, and you'll sense that. In particular, you might think you need to go back to an earlier area and find an exit you missed. (Because the linearity is not obvious!) But this will be a waste of time, which means frustration.

(I hope I'm not missing a big obvious fork in the exploration chain, or this whole section of the post is going to look really silly! Check me on this, rot13-style: rkcyber tbyq qbzr vfynaq; bcra gur grzcyr qbbef; zntyri gb ivyyntr vfynaq; rkcyber ybjre ivyyntr naq ybjre whatyr; zvarpneg gb pengre vfynaq; cnff obvyre gb ernpu pengre evz; guebhtu zneoyr zvar gb Trua'f yno; rkvg onpx bs yno naq zntyri gb cyngrnh vfynaq; gnxr tbyqra ryringbe; zntyri gb onpx bs ivyyntr vfynaq; gnxr fhoznevar; rkcyber hccre ivyyntr; tnyybjf pryy gb Zbvrgl punzore.)

(The exception is the cevfba vfynaq. It's a "stub" off the main exploration chain. You can visit it early or late; it doesn't unlock any new areas.)

Jumping tracks entirely, we finally have an answer to an old Cyan mystery: what happened to the original Riven 3D model files?

For many years, Cyan just said "we can't get at them". It wasn't clear if that was a hardware problem, a software problem, or what. Riven was famously developed on SGI workstations; there could be any number of compatibility problems bringing that data forward to modern Macs or PCs.

However, last week someone came forward to say that they'd helped Cyan recover the files:

The story is just that they were apparently having some trouble re-opening the original assets of Riven. Like, they had them all, but I guess it hadn't been well documented which version of the software they had used?

So they got in touch with me and I did some minor software archeology to figure out 1. Which version (of softimage, I think?) they were made in 2. How to convert that to something they could open in modern 3d software.

--, June 26 (thread)

That Mastodon thread has more info and screenshots; it's worth a look.

okay I found my communication with someone from Cyan. It was indeed Softimage, which started as Softimage 3D, and then later became Autodesk Softimage.

I was contacted back in 2022, and I was able to load the Riven datafiles up in Softimage 3.7, then 4.0, and finally I confirmed that Autodesk Softimage|XSI 1.5 could import them (if not open them directly). Once imported into Softimage|XSI 1.5, they could be saved back out, and then Softimage 2015 (the latest (and last)) version could open them

--, June 26 (from thread)

My notes from Mysterium 2023 indicate that they only recovered some of the Riven models. (Perhaps they got more after that announcement.) So the Starry Expanse photogrammetry work was still important. Starry Expanse had been engaged in a long process of recreating the 3D models from the 2D renders available in the original Riven. (Which also revealed just how sloppy Cyan had been about fitting all the rendered locations into a consistent 3D space.)

To be clear, the new Riven is all-new modelling work in Unreal. The old files and the photogrammetry were reference material, not directly imported.

But Foone and the entire Starry Expanse team are in the Riven credits. So that's good.

So that leaves us asking: what's next for Cyan?

Back in 2019, Rand Miller discussed their plans for the next few years. They intended to finish Firmament, then go straight into the Myst remake, followed by the Riven remake. (That's where they talked about working with the Starry Expanse team.) After that, they were thinking about doing a new Myst game -- not "Myst 6" but a new entry point into the series. Perhaps a smaller-scale game.

As we know, that roadmap got overturned almost immediately. It's more-or-less confirmed that Facebook called Cyan (probably early 2020) and said "We'd love Myst to be a Quest 2 launch title, here's a lot of money." Or maybe Cyan called Facebook; I don't know the business details. The point is, Myst got moved up ahead of Firmament. After that, Riven went on as planned. (Still no sign of Rime though.)

Is the "new Myst game" part of the roadmap still in place? No way to say. What does smaller-scale mean? Not at all clear. Cyan has implied repeatedly that games on the scale of Obduction and Firmament are unsustainable for a studio their size. Of course Riven is probably bigger than either!

On the verso page, Cyan has hinted that they've got the capacity to work on more than one game at a time. We haven't really seen that play out in the past. There's obviously been lots of ideas in the planning stage -- there's always lots of ideas in the planning stage, half of them Myst-related. And then post-release support and ports are an endless cycle. But every year, they say "This is the one new project we're focusing on right now." Last year it was Riven. We'll soon see if they're still on that cycle.

Soon, indeed! Mysterium 2024 is coming up in a week and a half. Cyan will be dropping hints there, I'm sure. I'm not attending in person, but I'll do my usual news post covering anything I learn.

Talk to you then!

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