On Inference and Understanding

(The following is based on my portion of a Twitter conversation with John Thyer, Amandeep Jutla, and Thom Moyles.)

Riven… doesn’t really have puzzles as such. It’s just stuff you notice and associate and slowly understand as you explore. Anything that may superficially read as a puzzle is usually a practical device that you just don’t understand yet. The reason you don’t understand is that it’s not for you. You have no part in this world. You’re an unaccounted-for interloper. It’s Anthropology: The Game. Who lives here? What are they like? What do they do? What do they believe?

Myst fans tend to loathe Riven because its puzzles are so impossibly obtuse and unfair. I suppose they should be, because… there aren’t any, really — and the players are approaching this beautiful, internally consistent world like, well, like Gamers.

There is irony here. The underlying story to Myst is about this violent family struggle, centering on Atrus and his dad, Gehn. Gehn is a hard-ass who loves the power of “creating” these worlds through writing, and acts like he’s their God. But he’s so bad at it. The worlds he writes are unstable, because he has no art. He approaches them like formulas to solve. He has to keep going in and writing more and more to try to stabilize things, but usually just makes things worse in the end.

The son, Atrus, sees the art in the writing, and approaches it as a creative work. Ironically he has doubts that he’s creating anything. He strongly suspects that these worlds always existed, and the writing just connects him to these places. (Atrus, unsurprisingly, fell in love with a lady from one of these “created” worlds, and married her. Name of Catherine.)

The games barely touch on most of this backstory, but it does help to inform what’s going on with them.

What I’m getting at is that Myst fans all seem to approach the series as if they were its villain, Gehn.

Riven is Cyan’s creative climax. It’s everything they built toward, and it was so monumental that it ended them. Myst is The Hobbit to its Lord of the Rings (never mind that The Hobbit is better). And people hated the hell out of it. Almost universally.

The game came out the same year as Half-Life; general PC gamers said, “More of this Myst shit? This is 2008, and the game is exactly the same as Myst! What they hell have they been doing all this time? Adventure games are dead!”

PC Gamer UK - Riven review

Myst fans were no better. Riven freaked them out because it looked like Myst and had the same interface, but they knew enough to know that it played very differently. It was like a Zelda II situation; what the hell is this? We want the same thing we liked before!

So, there was no audience for Riven. It got pilloried in the gaming press, such as it was. It sold okay, but nothing like what had been hoped. The pain of creation split up the brothers Miller, and so far as I know they never worked together again. Later games by lesser artists ignored Riven, each one promising to bring Myst back to its roots as a collection of self-contained puzzles, and nothing more confusing than that.

If people were just willing to listen, Riven could have changed everything about how games are made and read. If you approach the game as it was designed, it reads as a final creative statement about the evolution of the adventure genre into something greater, wiser. This is one of the keystones of videogames as serious works of literature unto themselves… which, of course, nobody ever plays. So, really, it’s the keystone of nothing. A cul-de-sac in the maturation of a medium.

Speaking from my own contemporary experience, Myst was interesting for its time, but had always felt not quite there to me. Riven was a revelation. I’ve rarely felt so transported by a game, into a real space that seems to exist for its own reasons apart from me. When I visit Jungle Island, I just stop at the staircase and sit. I want to feel the warmth of the sun, the cool of the shade.

More than that, though — the world of Riven is built on inference, and progress is earned through active speculation, based on an intuition and an empathy for the people and forces that shaped the world that you visit.

These are the traits lacking in Gehn. Gehn is not a mustache-twirling villain; he’s just wrong, and is angry. He’s an intelligent man, curious about the world before him — but he totally lacks intuition or empathy. He is, in our frame of reference, a Victorian empiricist. He doesn’t have the framework to understand what he’s working with, and it frustrates him.

In Riven the way that things are is the story. The game is about understanding the causality and the psychology that lead us to affect our worlds. It rarely if ever reaches out, makes an overt point about what we see. It leaves any conclusions to us.

For me, the game’s sense of narrative perfectly fits the way that I read media: looking between the lines for what brought us to this point. Why are things as they are? How did they get to be like this? What role do the pieces play?

Usually in videogames, the only useful answer is the functional one: either to reward, or to limit the player. Or, just, you know, because. If there is a rationale, it’s beside the point of the intended play; a triviality. Riven is interesting in that the inference is the play — and it just lets the player get on with it. One way or another, if you’re actively engaged with the world (instead of wasting your effort trying to solve it) you’ll start to notice how things reflect each other, how physically and conceptually distant things might be in some way related.

To make this feasible, it over-stacks the deck to ensure that the player will make some kind of connection. Every player will notice different things, and it’s pointless to force them to see what they don’t. Instead of going the Nintendo route and narrating the player to death — look at this thing; see, you need to do this, understand itRiven accounts for different ways of thought by providing several routes toward understanding things. One player might make a visual analogy; another might pick up on an audio cue, or notice a thematic pattern.

The end effect of this effort is that every aspect of its world feels all the more layered and contextualized. The better you understand how it all fits together as a system, the better you understand how and why its pieces function — but what you do with that understanding is up to you.

Which may be why people hate the game, find it so difficult.

Something that has puzzled me since I began to write about games is that people genuinely seem not to be bothered by Nintendo’s “shut up while I explain at you” model. Though there may well be a counter-example, from Wind Waker to Wii Fit I’ve yet to see an EAD-produced game that allows you to skip or dismiss, or even speed up, a text box.

I’m talking about the text boxes that will pop up even the eighteenth or thirtieth time you do something, and talk to you as if it’s the first. The ones that stop your game to explain every key, every rupee; the ones that refuse to let you just boot up a minigame because an anthropomorphized balance board wants to spend several minutes talking to you about the weather.

Here I’m just talking about text, but it’s not just text. When Nintendo wants your attention, it won’t accept any response but obedience. Your role is to do what the game tells you.

And this — this seems to be what people want from a videogame. To hear it told, the EAD model is beyond reproach. This is, in fact, ideal game design. People want to follow a formula. They want to collect things, check them off a list. Ambiguity makes them angry.

Me… I would love to see, is there a list of other games that are about understanding why things are as they are? The first two Metroids (and Prime) do this, to an extent. The NES Zeldas. Phantasy Star. What I’ve heard of Gone Home sounds roughly aligned with Riven.

Why is this still, in 2016, so rare a perspective for a game to take? What, really, is wrong with videogames, that if any game should be heralded as the ideal, Riven is not that game?

Author: Azure

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