Riven is the sequel to the highly successful computer game Myst. Developed by Cyan Worlds, it was initially published by Brøderbund. Riven was distributed on five compact discs and released on October 29, 1997 in North America; it was later released on a single DVD-ROM, with improved graphics and a fourteen-minute "making-of" video. In addition to the PC versions, Riven was ported to several other platforms, including the PlayStation and Sega Saturn.
The story of Riven is set immediately after the events of Myst. Having been rescued from the machinations of his sons, the main non-player protagonist Atrus enlists the help of the player character, to free his wife from his power-hungry father, Gehn. Unlike Myst, which took place on several worlds known as Ages and linked together by special books, Riven takes place almost entirely on the eponymous Age of Riven, a world slowly falling apart due to Gehn's rule.
Development of Riven began soon after Myst became a success, and spanned more than three years. In an effort to create a visual style distinct from that of Myst, director Robyn Miller and his brother, producer Rand Miller recruited former Aladdin production designer Richard Vander Wende as a co-director. Brøderbund employed a US$10 million advertising campaign to publicize the game's release.
Riven was praised by professional reviewers, with the magazine Salon proclaiming that the game approaches the level of art. Critics positively noted the puzzles and immersive experience of the gameplay, though publications such as Edge felt that the nature of point-and-click gameplay limited the title heavily. The best-selling game of 1997, Riven sold 1.5 million copies in one year. After the game's release, the Miller brothers drifted apart, with Robyn Miller forming his own development studio, while older brother Rand stayed at Cyan and continued to work on Myst-related products, including the novel Myst: The Book of D'ni. The next entry in the Myst series, Myst III: Exile, was developed by Presto Studios, and published by Ubisoft.
Like its predecessor, Riven is a point-and-click adventure game played from a first-person perspective. The player explores immersive, prerendered environments using mouse clicks for movement. By operating mechanical contraptions and deciphering codes and symbols discovered in the surroundings, the nebulously explained goal can eventually be reached. The cursor changes in appearance, depending on its position on the screen and what it is hovering over, to show what effect clicking will have. To navigate the world, the player simply clicks in the direction they want to walk or turn. For instance, if the player positions the cursor hand near the right or left edge of the screen, it may show a bent finger, indicating that clicking will turn the camera 90° in that direction. The cursor also changes in context to show when players can drag or toggle switches, or when certain items can be picked up and carried. Such items can then be examined at any time, and either reveal clues to puzzles or provide information on the game's setting and story. As in Myst, Riven has an optional method of movement known as Zip Mode, which allows players to skip to areas already explored, but may cause them to miss important clues.
Whereas in Myst the objective of the game is to travel to different Ages to solve puzzles before returning to a "hub Age", Rivens gameplay takes place on the five islands of the Age of Riven. Much of it consists of solving puzzles to access new areas of the islands, though players are also able to explore without fulfilling objectives. Many puzzles' sole purpose is to advance the backstory.
At the beginning of Riven, Atrus equips the Stranger with a trap book—a snare that functions as a one-man prison, yet looks identical to a linking book—and his personal diary. This diary summarizes the history of events leading to the Stranger's present situation; Atrus cannot explain in depth, as he is engaged in rewriting a descriptive book of Riven, in an attempt to slow its deterioration. Also, he does not want to risk sending a real linking book to Riven until Gehn is safely imprisoned, in case his father should capture the book and use it to escape his confinement: the Stranger must enter the Age with no way of leaving. Instructing the Stranger to capture Gehn in the trap book, find Catherine, and then signal him, Atrus holds out the link book that will transport the Stranger to Riven.
Once there, the Stranger travels across the islands of Riven, eventually finding Catherine in the company of Moiety, rebellious inhabitants of Riven. Gehn is fooled by the Stranger and trapped in the prison book.
Because of the decay of Riven's structure, the only way to clearly signal Atrus is to bring about a massive disturbance in the Age's stability—accomplished by reopening the star fissure, which Gehn had closed. When it opens, Atrus immediately links to Riven to investigate, and meets the Stranger at the brink of the fissure. Depending on the player's actions, the ending to Riven varies. In the canon ending, the Stranger tricks Gehn into the prison book and releases Catherine. Atrus and Catherine thank the Stranger, before linking back to the Age of Myst. The Stranger then falls into the star fissure, to be taken on the path back to his world. Different actions can, however, result in the Stranger's entrapment in the prison book, or even his death.
The design for Riven stemmed from a desire to create something different and more dynamic than the Romantic style of Myst. The first stage of development was to create the puzzles, in an attempt to integrate them as smoothly as possible into the areas in the game. The Millers met their co-designer, Richard Vander Wende, at a demonstration of Myst for the Digital World Expo in Los Angeles. Wende had previously worked for Disney, as a designer for the animated feature Aladdin. As the third member of Rivens conceptual team, Wende ended up contributing what Robyn Miller described as an "edgier" and complementary vision, that made the game dramatically different than its predecessor. Whereas many computer-generated environments of the time ended up looking smooth, like plastic, the Millers and Wende developed a more gritty and rustic design, with corroded and aged elements.
Riven combined pre-rendered backgrounds with live action footage, in order to increase the player's immersion level. All the actors were filmed with a blue screen as a backdrop, which was removed in post-production by chroma key, so that the actors would blend into the virtual environment. Rand Miller had to reprise his role of Atrus from Myst, even though he hated acting. Riven was the first game any of its designers had directed live actors, and Wende was apprehensive about their use.
At the time of Rivens development, publisher Brøderbund was facing falling revenues as development costs rose. Brøderbund's stock dropped from $60 a share to $22 in 1996, causing a delay in the publishing of Riven. Even though Rivens sales were expected to be higher than any other game that holiday season, Brøderbund launched a $10 million marketing campaign and developed a retail marketing partnership with Toshiba America. Anticipation for the game was high even among non-gamers, helped by web-based word of mouth and well-placed media coverage.
Miller established three leitmotifs for the game's three central characters, Atrus, Catherine, and Gehn. Gehn's theme is only heard in its complete form near the end of the game, but portions of the melody can be heard throughout Riven, highlighting his control of the Age. Miller tried to let the environment dictate the resulting sound, in order to make the music as immersive as possible. He blended live instrumentation with synthesizers: "By mixing and matching conventional instrumentation, you can create an odd, interesting mood," Miller said. Ultimately, he wanted the music of Riven to reflect the game itself, which he described as having "a familiar-yet-strange feel to it."
Miller described his biggest challenge in writing Rivens music as reconciling the linear, pleasing construction of music with the nonlinearity of the gameplay. As players can freely explore all areas, Miller explained in an interview, "the music can't say anything too specific. If it says something, if it builds in intensity and there starts to be a climax, and people are just standing in a room looking around, and they're thinking 'What's going on in here? Is something about to jump out from behind me?' You can't have the basic parts of music that you'd like to have, you can't have a basic structure. It's all got to be just flowing, and continue to flow."
Being the first sequel of such an extremely successful game as Myst, Riven was eagerly anticipated. On the whole, it was also positively received, with the PC version garnering an average critic score of 84% at Game Rankings. The game sold more than 1.5 million units within a year of its release, and was the best-selling game of 1997, despite having only been on the market for less than three months. By 2001, over 4.5 million units had been sold.
Jeff Segstack of GameSpot gave the game high marks, explaining that it is "a leisurely paced, all-encompassing, mentally challenging experience. If you enjoyed Myst, you'll thoroughly enjoy Riven." Computer Gaming World stated that the graphics were the best they had seen in any adventure game. Laura Miller of Salon declared that "Art [...] is what Riven approaches," and praised the gameplay as having "a graceful elegance that reminds [her] of a masterfully constructed novel." The game's sound and graphics were consistently praised.
Nevertheless, several publications found fault with aspects of Riven. Computer Gaming World felt that the gameplay was too similar to the original Myst, making Riven the "same game with a new title"; the magazine further disagreed with the minimal character interaction. Gaming magazine Edge felt that although Riven was a good game, the solitary atmosphere and lack of mobility was steadily becoming outdated, as games like Super Mario 64 sacrificed graphical fidelity for an increase in freedom. They stated "the question is whether Cyan can incorporate its almost Tolkien-esque world-building skills into a more cutting-edge game vehicle next time." Even long-time players of the Myst games, such as Heidi Fournier of Adventure Gamers, felt that a few puzzles were too difficult; Computer and Video Games, meanwhile, believed that the story clues were too symbolic and scant, which made following the plot difficult.
Despite the success of the game, the Miller brothers eventually pursued other projects. Robyn Miller said: "I think it would be a detriment to always, for the rest of our lives, be creating Myst-like projects. […] We're going to change, evolve and grow, just like any person does in any manner." Robyn would leave Cyan to form a new development company called Land of Point; Wende would also leave to pursue other projects. The next video game entry in the Myst franchise would be 2001's Myst III: Exile, which was not developed by Cyan or published by Broderbund; Presto Studios took over development, and Ubisoft published.