The best game ever made is Riven.
Okay, even as I type that, a bunch of qualifiers spring to mind. I am using “games” in a rather narrow sense, excluding board games and, you know, tag. What I’m talking about is what the kids aren’t calling video games, the kind you play on a computer or a console. That’s where Riven is the best.
Yeah, okay, some more qualifiers. Riven is 15 years old now, and it’s showing its age in comparison with more recent releases. The graphics, which were absolutely stunning top-shelf stuff in 1997, now pale in the face of what more computer power can do. The pre-rendered environments are a chapter we’ve left behind, and the point-and-click interface is on the old-fashioned end of what is now an unpopular choice to begin with. In terms of game-play and technology there’s been innovation, is what I’m saying, and Riven‘s been surpassed in that area. Where I don’t think it has been surpassed is in terms of interactive storytelling.
You can have games without any sort of story, like Tetris, where you’re essentially just solving a puzzle, like a Rubik’s Cube, but I can’t get very invested in that. It’s in interactive storytelling games as a medium shine, and Riven tells its story so well it’s mind-boggling. The Myst series in general has an excellent story, and a fantastic way of telling it, but it is Riven which is the pinnacle of achievement. As Riven is the second game in the series, that might sound a bit damning of the following games, but they are still very good games; they just don’t reach as high as the champion. Bronze in the Olympics is still a great achievement.
I should stop at this point and explain where I’m coming from. I am a huge Myst geek. It ranks very high amongst my favourite stories. I’ve played all the games, read all the books, I’ve dabbled in learning the D’ni language, I have a journey cloth hanging on the wall above my desk, I have given deep and serious thought as to the possible identity of the Stranger, and I still number my lecture notes using D’ni numerals. … Hey, I like having glyphs going to 25! Now, is this excessive fanboyism a bias in declaring Riven the best game ever, or does the fanboyism follow from the fact that the Myst games are indeed the most awesome? I lean to the latter, but
crazy people others might disagree.
But back to Riven. What makes Riven such an immersive experience? Why do I think it’s a triumph of interactive storytelling? Well, for one thing it’s extremely tight-lipped when it comes to telling you the story. Like all the Myst games, it just sort of drops you into the world with a few cryptic comments for context, and then leaves it up to the player to figure out what is going on, how the world works and the characters fit into it, and what exactly you’re supposed to achieve. You have to snoop around, look at the environment and the clues you find in it, sneak peeks at letters and private journals and recordings, and piece the bigger picture together yourself. This is where Riven in particular excels – nothing in the game is there for no reason. The attention to detail is amazing, even the bolts keeping pipes together are given a particular shape which makes sense in the context. The puzzles continue that theme, there are no rubber ducks to combine with clothes lines, the puzzles all have a function in the world of the game beyond being a puzzle for the player.
This attention to detail contributes to the overall atmosphere of the game, which might be its main strength. I don’t think I’ve ever seen atmosphere conveyed as effectively as in Riven. Where Myst was a very solitary and lonely experience of exploring abandoned worlds, Riven constantly reminds you that you are not alone. Your every move is being watched. You glimpse people in the distance, who sound alarms at your approach. Villagers are hiding in their huts as you pass through. There are periscopes and cameras, and if you turn around quick enough you can catch a glimpse of Gehn observing you in his temple. The whole thing makes what is actually a very leisurely experience feel very tense. I think I actually shouted in terror the first time I unexpectedly came across a little girl in the forest, I was so startled.
There aren’t a great many characters in the game, but there’s one very important one who is excellent. Exploring Riven is very much a dive into the mind of its master, an exploration of Gehn’s madness and megalomania and obsessions, like his fixation on the number 5. The more you see of the world he considers his greatest creation, the more disturbed he appears – and yet without falling into cartoonish villainy, he is too believable an example of a man corrupted by power. When you finally meet him in the flesh, and he greets you by politely apologising for the cage, I get goosebumps.
I started quite bombastically – I obviously haven’t played every game, or any more than the tiniest fraction of the available market, so my opinion is of somewhat limited value when it comes to handing out Lifetime Achievement Awards to game designers. Riven remains my favourite game, though, and I’ve yet to see a game that seems to come close to its level of storytelling.
Okay, so I guess I ended up writing a review of a game that came out in 1997. Way to be topical, me!