On Inference and Understanding

  • Reading time:8 mins read

(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?

The Playlist / Those Tenuous Twos

  • Reading time:23 mins read

by Eric-Jon Rössel Waugh

You may have read the first part of this column in the December 2009 Play Magazine. It was intended as a single article, and the start of a whole series of such lists. In the event, I was asked (due to my incorrigible verbosity) to break the article into three pieces; only the first found its way to print. Here is the column in full.

Used to be, when a game was successful enough to demand a sequel, the design team would do its best to avoid repeating itself. Though I’m sure they mostly wanted to keep their job interesting, the practical effect was that if the games were different, they would both remain relevant. In an arcade, Donkey Kong Jr. could stand handsomely by its father, each shilling for its own share of the coin. You might call them companion pieces, rather than updates or replacements.

When home consoles hit, design teams were even more modest, and were generally left to do their own thing. So starting on the NES, you will see a certain trend: successful game spawns weird, only tenuously related sequel; fans of the original scratch their heads; a greatly expanded dev team releases a third game, which is basically just the first again, on steroids; fans think it’s the best thing ever, because it’s exactly the same, except better! And to hell with that weird second chapter.

Thing is… usually the second game is the most interesting you’ll ever see.

At its peak, Insert Credit was an iconoclastic blend of esoterica, literary analysis, and cult of personality

  • Reading time:1 mins read

So okay. Today ends the penultimate season of Riven: The Series Lost. Tomorrow ends the penultimate season of Supernatural. After today, only two more episodes in the second season of Lupo & Cutter. (Yeah, season 18 was practically a reboot. It’s good now. Also, Season 20 is Dick Wolf’s “goal” for the show — anything after that is bonus. So, in that sense sort of penultimate here as well.)

A bit of a relief, I can tell you. Somehow, however much I like a thing, I welcome the opportunity to divest myself of the self-imposed responsibility of keeping in sync with it. Nothing more to pay attention to! I can focus those brain cycles elsewhere.

Good year for Upper Boat to cut back, while we’re at it.


  • Reading time:1 mins read

Mm. Tomb is really the only time I think they’ve been used well — as objects of creeping fear and mystery. There’s a sense they’re this contained force; they’re the snakes in this box that you absolutely must keep closed. And they just keep charging forward, blank, expressionless, incomprehensible. They’ll charm you, try the back door, use every crack to their advantage. (Much like Captain Jack?)

Mostly they’re just used as generic shuffle-monsters. Or, in the ’80s, alien race. Or as a droll bit of wank, as above.

Actually, I thought that Cyberwoman did a good job at capturing their threat. They’re like a plague, is what they are. A schlocky B-movie plague. The kind of thing you should be making up arbitrary rules to protect yourself from. Don’t dangle your feet over the bed. Don’t step on the red squares.

I’d like to see Moffat write for them.

Web Utility

  • Reading time:4 mins read

eric-jon: Have you been able to nab Chrome yet? Last I looked, it still wasn’t up…
Don’t immediately see the need, but I’ve not read the comic.
Up to now, Firefox has basically been The Google Browser.
And, you know. It does everything I want from a browser.
The error messages are fun.
“Sadly, your Mozilla Firefox settings are not available while that browser is running. To import these settings to Google Chrome, save your work and close all Firefox windows. Then click continue.”
So are the immediate help pop-ups. “Search from right here.”
And you’re immediately asked if you want to keep Google as the search engine.
Shepard: “No, I just want your browser, I don’t use your search”
eric-jon: I have actually wondered why the search bar and address bar are different.
Shepard: Poor unborn kids, they’ll be gchatting about their gmail on their gchrome and someone will point out that google can search, too.
I think on recent Firefoxes, if you type in a regular phrase into the address bar, Firefox will make that a google search.
I think the general logic is:
1) Is it a webpage?
2) Can I make it a webpage by appending www. or .com?
3) Google Search.
These days.
eric-jon: Ah.
Whoa, it even imported my bookmark bar from Firefox.
I was just about to go fish for some urls, yet… there they are, where I’m used to them being.
Middle-click scrolling doesn’t work yet.
Shepard: This comic is well put-together and insightful, but it’s kind of pissing me off.
eric-jon: Yeah, that’s Scott McCloud.
Shepard: And I own both of Scott McCloud’s books.
I think it’s just so one-note.
eric-jon: I hate his stuff, sometimes.
I like his first book.
The Understanding Comics.
Shepard: Yeah.
eric-jon: But he quickly becomes a bore.
Shepard: He’s written some brilliant stuff.
eric-jon: I hate his authorial voice.
Eek. It even imported my password settings and stuff from firefox.
I mean, I just clicked in the field, and my username was there. And, uh, okay. Clicked in the other field, and it was filled with asterisks.
I hit enter, and I was logged in.
Shepard: No need to re-enter your password for www.girlswithboobsyoucansee.com!
eric-jon: I never do.
Shepard: Free preview galleries?
eric-jon: That’s not a real website. :(

Try searching on Google:
girls boobs you can see

The “most visited” business on a new tab is interesting, certainly.
Shepard: What’s that?
eric-jon: Oh.
Every time you open a new tab?
The default page is your start page.
Shepard: Mm.
eric-jon: Which has thumbnails of all your most-visited sites.
Shepard: Oh, neat.
eric-jon: And a sort of a feed of all your most recent bookmarks.
And whatnot.
So basically, it’s an immediate resource.
Shepard: Neat!
eric-jon: And it has this thing for turning web pages into… applications.
Basically, giving them unique windows and putting icons wherever you want them — desktop, quicklaunch bar, start bar…
Shepard: Oh, huh.
eric-jon: The example is gmail.
Shepard: The latest Mac OS has something like that, for turning web pages into widgets.
eric-jon: And… yeah, it’s basically equivalent to opening up a mail client.
This is a very maccy program.
Google has always struck me as Apple Gone Right.
They do what Apple and Nintendo try to do.
And Valve… generally succeeds at doing.
There’s something very weirdly no-bullshit about Chrome.
And it does run really really quickly and cleanly.
It’s like opening up a text file in wordpad.
Shepard: That’s a nice feature.
eric-jon: Oh, I like the highlighting…
Yeah, okay
I guess that fits, but.
The whole idea of Chrome
is to make the web browser work like any other simple application.
And to treat webpages like any other file.
Shepard: That is a nice idea.
eric-jon: This is exactly like using Notepad or MS Paint.
Except it’s dealing with web locations.
Even Firefox, great as it is, has a bit of hullabaloo to it.
Window to the Web!
And Chrome just shrugs, and says, ih. They’re tools.
Something almost Windows 3.11 about this.
Meanwhile I understand that the newest IE is getting even more bloaty-floaty all-encompassing.
Shepard: Ha.
That’s… uh, actually impressive.
eric-jon: Whereas you’d expect Microsoft to try to integrate the Web more organically. That’s the (poorly executed) principle behind explorer.
Chrome really demystifies.
Shepard: The company itself is so bloated, it’s not surprising that’s how things turn out.
eric-jon: That’s I guess the best way to put it.
It demystifies the Web.
Shepard: Good tagline!

The Soul Patch of Ire

  • Reading time:3 mins read

So I’ve rambled about the Sontarans, and how essentially uninteresting they are as they have been portrayed and used: yet another proud warrior race, which, aside from being familiar and trite, means they’re rational and focused and therefore no particular threat unless you’re distinctly in their way — and even if you are, you just may be able to talk your way out of harm. Furthermore, they have usually only appeared one or two at a time, leaving them to waddle around in the place of any other generic monster. Not too effective!

Leaving aside the cosmetic update, which is half brilliant (the prosthetics) and half ridiculous (the suit), the new series team has done two things with the Sontarans, at least one of which should have happened thirty-some years ago. First, they’ve finally taken narrative and thematic advantage of the Sontarans’ nature as clones — which has, to date, mostly been background detail. This is a wealthy area to explore, and I’m really curious where they’ll go with it next week, up through episode thirteen. Second, and more immediately significant, is the adaptation of their “proud warrior code” into a relatable emotional threat.

It’s subtle; they’re not playing it up too much. Yet the Sontarans have been rejigged from their status as basically ineffectual boogiemen to fit alongside the Slitheen and the Daleks as somewhat ridiculous, somewhat imposing, altogether unreasonable adult figures. Where the Daleks represent wrath and the Slitheen, hypocrisy, the Sontarans are now spun as manipulative “tough love” paternal figures, full of their own unpleasant martial codes through which they measure everything and everyone. If you can adapt and get into their graces, which generally involves behaving in ways that don’t feel very comfortable, you’re all right. You get a certain amount of praise and appreciation. If you can’t do that or you can’t maintain it, though, you get stomped all over — and they try to tell you that it’s your own fault, for having failed them. For being weak. For somehow just not being good enough.

The point is driven home by the irritating “teen genius” in this week’s episode, who serves basically as the smug over-achieving suck-up that everyone hates, and everyone is measured against. “Why can’t you be more like Luke? Luke never fails me.” What Luke doesn’t realize in his smugness, of course, is that he’s just a tool for someone else’s ego and sense of righteousness. And the moment he stops serving his purpose, whether through his own doing or otherwise, he’s in for a huge fall.

It’s not as visceral a threat as some of the other adversaries, yet it is poignant. Combine it with the clone theme, and the Sontarans are suddenly a rather complex and nuanced device.

The Remake of Samus

  • Reading time:4 mins read

Someone put a lot of effort into addressing the common complaint that the entire Metroid series isn’t exactly like Super Metroid, with different maps.

You know what a Metroid II remake would really need? Complex lighting. And lack thereof.

Lack of ambient lighting, a lot of the time. You’d get some from lava, from certain bioluminescent materials, and whatnot. Maybe some areas would be brightly lit. Mostly, though, and at times exclusively, you’d be relying on a certain tapering bubble of light around Samus. Outside of that you’d get a vague hint of shapes and motion. This would also give the game a somewhat monochrome appearance.

Maybe the more injured Samus is, the smaller the window or the dimmer the light, or the more flickery.

Heck, maybe phaser shots would set things on fire, creating light and attracting/distracting certain monsters.

Maybe, instead of a map, a way of marking the terrain. So you’d know if you’d been somewhere. Like, if the spider ball were to leave a faint residue behind…

Shepard: You could even have upgrades that enhance how much light Samus gives off, as an extra bonus.
Like maybe your gun shots are a little more sparkly now.

Eric-Jon: I can see an argument for adding the charge shot.
Just hold the charge to light the room, pretty much.

Shepard: Try to tune it so that Samus’s ambient light increases as the environmental light decreases.
So at the beginning you’ve got all these fungi and lava pits and glowbugs.
And by the end it’s just… a dead pit.
Maybe the occasional nigh-dead Chozo lamp.

Eric-Jon: I like how a lot of the natural lighting will be a deep, threatening red.
From all the lava.

Shepard: Mmm.

Eric-Jon: A lot of the game, where there’s color, it will seem tinted.
Oh heck. And light would generally just show the surface of things. So outside a certain number of pixels (one “block” or so), walls would be flat black.

Shepard: Yeah.

Eric-Jon: A narrow, well-lit corridor would still leave half the screen dark.
Creating a sort of letterboxed, managed feeling to the space.

Shepard: I wonder how that would look if you had the rare, fully-lit-even-penetrating-the-tiles room, for Chozo Artifact rooms.
I get the feeling players would want to just chill out in those rooms.

Eric-Jon: That would seem comparably tranquil, wouldn’t it. especially if the light were to have a sort of ethereal, light blue cast to it.

Eric-Jon: I want to play this now.
Heck, this sounds closer to what Metroid should be doing in general.

Shepard: It is warm inside the power suit.
Everywhere else is cold.

Eric-Jon: The third game set too much of a template for laying everything out in front of you like a videogame. Here’s this kind of tile, which needs this kind of key to break. You need this to get through here. Everything laid out clearly; you just have to go through the motions. All very rational. Of course, it’s a lot less obnoxious about this than other games that followed (and preceded it). Still, Metroid shouldn’t be an action puzzle game. It’s supposed to be mysterious, oppressive, anxious, and a little wonderful.
The first two games have this.
Fusion does, a little, in its completely different way.
Prime does, pretty much. The first one.

Shepard: It turned “do it because I said so” into the actual story.

To add to earlier ideas: surfaces glisten. So (depending on the potency of a light source and the reflectivity of a material) to things just outside the range of full lighting, you’d still get some faint one-pixel-wide reflection off any surface parallel to the light source, partially outlining an otherwise black mass. Which would be incredible if there were several living things around the edges of the screen.

Combine this with the business about spider balls leaving residue, and there’s a lot of complex stuff going on with edges.

Maybe an infrared visor upgrade, that you can toggle. Danger of flaring sometimes, especially when you’re shooting. When exploring and travelling, generally speeds things up.