Stay Tuned/Cry Me A Riven

From Eccentric Flower


stay tuned

Cry Me A Riven
23 November 1997

I was going to write a column about the excesses of this year's Christmas toys, but I made the mistake of finally succumbing to the inevitable and buying Riven yesterday. As I write this, I've played it for about four hours (not nonstop) and have reached the game's first bottleneck - the point where you have stopped being overwhelmed by all the stuff to explore, and started to realize that you're actually not getting anyplace. Fortunately, I have unearthed the perfect hint - just enough information to steer me in the right direction without giving the show away.

Riven is almost certainly going to succeed wildly, even though there will be a certain number of naysayers who insist that it's not as much fun as Myst was. Will it be as successful as Myst? Probably not. That's a really hard act to follow. In addition to being the first true CD-ROM game (in the sense of being one which couldn't have been done without that technology), it's challenged many expectations about the computer game industry with its long cozy stay on the best seller list.

Myst has been in the top ten computer games for years now. Normally, a good-selling game stays in the top ten for less than four months. Even games whose expandability buys them a long lifetime in the world of add-ons, third-party levels, and modifications - such as Quake, which has a large and devoted sect of players and hackers (with quite a lot of overlap between those groups) - don't themselves stay on the lists very long. Quake is alive and well, but its retail sales have stopped: Basically, everyone who wants it already has it.

But Myst keeps selling, in the process destroying the notion of the limited buyer pool for computer games. In fact, for those who follow these things it's become something of a joke: Who is buying these copies of Myst? Doesn't everyone with a computer already own it by now?

The answer seems to be that every time a new user enters the world of home computers, they end up finding Myst sooner or later. The question is: Will Riven become a standard like that? Probably not.

But it'll do well enough that the marketers are willing to throw a lot of money behind it.

I have followed the adventures of Rand and Robyn Miller, the creators of Myst and Riven, for some time. Rand and Robyn have something of a reputation in software for being difficult to work with. You could argue that this is because they're strong visionaries, or because they're stubborn, or because they're just weird - who knows? But there are a few horror stories floating around.

The Millers don't self-promote well. Even with their success, they're basically shy people who don't excel at talking to the public. (The Riven box has a photo caption which says "Encounter reclusive beings and mysterious creatures." My immediate reaction was, "Oh, they must mean Rand and Robyn!" This is funnier when you know that the Millers were the only human actors in Myst, and that one of them is reprising his role in this one.)

Anyway, this is why hooking up with Broderbund, way back when, was a godsend for them. Broderbund will do the selling. And then some. Broderbund didn't quite know how to sell Myst when it started out; their experience with computer games was in the field of arcade-style games, mostly for the venerable Apple II, such as the original Lode Runner. Myst basically grew by word of mouth ... slowly and steadily.

This time Broderbund is determined to beging promoting immediately. How determined? Rumor has it that their new games division, Red Orb, was spun off expressly for Riven's launch. That's true grit for you.

The Riven hint book came out at the same time as the game. (The Myst hint book arrived many months after the game - or at least the software stores didn't begin carrying it until then.) There was a Riven web site well in advance of the game; there are Riven banner ads on other web sites. I haven't seen a Riven TV ad yet, thank heavens; that would be too surreal for me.

More to the point: The merchandising tie-ins, which with Myst didn't come along until later, are here from the beginning - right in the box. Along with the registration card comes not one but two flyers hawking goodies.

One has Myst and Riven baseball caps, the three rotten Myst novels (useful for mythos, for those who care, but nearly impossible to read), a Riven calendar, Myst and Riven coffee mugs, T-shirts, posters - standard tchotchkes. The other is a little more hazardous.

Entitled "Artifacts from Riven," it features replicas of some of the props used in the game - a sickle used by the villagers, a monklike robe worn by some of the actors, a dagger like the one a key character uses, and the funny little pushknife that a ninjalike tribe in the game uses as its calling card, sticking it in the ground to show they've been there. (What would you do with it? The copy genteelly suggests that you use it as a paperweight.)

I don't know if it's scarier that someone's trying to sell this stuff, or that someone somewhere will actually buy it.

Ah, well. I'll attempt to ignore the hype and go back to playing Riven, which seems (so far) like an exceedingly well-engineered game, with all aspects thought out in positively anal-retentive detail, if perhaps a tad soulless. (Like Myst, you won't encounter very much else that's breathing in the course of your explorations. On the other hand, the place that most other adventure/exploration games fall on their faces is in interaction with other beings - something which is usually too complex to quantify in an interface - Myst and Riven both neatly sidestep this problem.)

I can't help but wonder, though, as I wander through Riven, how the Millers - who have been outspoken about keeping their games pure and doing it their way at all costs - feel about some of the more outrageous promotional efforts taking place.

Even if some of the marketing offends their sensibilities, I suspect they're not crying over it.


[February 2007:] Riven got mixed reviews, and there seems to be a general feeling that it was a sales disappointment, although such things are relative and I'm told it sold very well initially. The buzz was that it was simply too hard and the puzzles confusing and sometimes tedious. I don't remember it very well, I'm afraid. I've played a couple of the games in the series since then, and I don't remember those too well either. Yet I remember the original game vividly. Perhaps you can only have that sort of iconic status once. It probably didn't hurt that Myst came in at the very early dawn of the CD-ROM based game, and thus could be said to be genuinely historical.

At the time I wrote this, there was an official Riven website. That URL now redirects to Cyan's site (Cyan being the game company the Millers founded). Broderbund, by the by, still exists but does not produce games per se; Riven marks the point where they stopped producing games under their own name (as noted in the copy above). Their spinoff Red Orb no longer exists; Ubisoft appears to handle all distribution of things Myst-like now (and wrote the third and fourth games without any input from Cyan; Rand Miller designed the fifth). Robyn Miller left the game world after Riven.

One of the things which may need to be spelled out now that didn't at the time (it was a standard feature of Myst news stories) is that the Millers are preacher's kids and relatively religious, clean-living folks. The Myst games contain no sex and only the vaguest of implied or offstage violence. People tend to get trapped or otherwise taken out of the story rather than killed. Some people claim this contributes to the general coldness and sterility of the games. Others probably find it a point in their favor.

As soon as I finished saying how glad I was that there weren't any Riven television ads, only a day or two after the original article, I promptly went and saw one. (Rumor has it that I screamed.) It was a pretty good ad (or so I noted at the time), but a rude shock.

and now back to our program

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