Ivy Allie

Myst in Retrospect


Riven, as Myst’s first direct sequel, is an unequivocal success. It took Myst’s concept and built upon it rather than simply aping it, and in doing so created a completely fresh take on the existing formula. Beyond its control scheme and its universe, Riven bears practically no resemblance to its predecessor, but this actually works to its advantage. It isn’t Myst II but Myst 2.0, a second release which addresses the shortcomings of an earlier version. Riven is a masterpiece, an example of what can happen when creators learn from past mistakes, aim high, and ignore the risks.1

Riven is primarily concerned with the fallout from the events of the The Book of Atrus, in which Atrus and Catherine contrived to trap Gehn in the Age of Riven to prevent him from continuing to use the Art to further his power trip. It also picks up a few threads from Myst. At the end of the first game, Atrus is seen endlessly writing in a book, and tells you that any interruption in his work could result in “a catastrophic impact on the world in which my wife, Catherine, is currently being held hostage,” and alludes to a “greater foe” against whom he is fighting. These statements, in the context of Myst, are left ambiguous.

That greater foe, you now learn, is Gehn. Prior to the events of Myst, Sirrus and Achenar tricked Catherine into returning to Riven, where Gehn captured her. His hope is that by holding her hostage, Atrus will be forced to come to Riven in order to rescue her, and in so doing, provide Gehn with a means of escape. What Gehn doesn’t realize is that Atrus couldn’t come to Riven even if he wanted to: his continuous writing is the only thing holding the Age together. The Age is unstable, and to prevent it from falling apart he has been forced to endlessly copy phrases conferring stability into its description. Were he to abandon his work, the Age would fall apart before he had time to locate Catherine.

And Gehn, for his part, has been busy in the years of his exile. Despite having lost his powers in the events of The Book of Atrus, he has nevertheless managed to maintain dictatorial control over the Rivenese. He maintains an inner circle of elites to carry out his bidding (modeled after the structure of D’ni government), and publicly executes anyone who defies him. What’s more, Atrus and Catherine’s primary aim has failed: while Gehn no longer has access to D’ni, he has managed to scrounge up the materials needed for him to continue practicing the Art. Some of the Rivenese have been conscripted into the role of bookmakers, clearcutting trees to be made into Linking Books. He can’t get back to D’ni, but other than that he is effectively free already, and will soon be able to resume his grandiose plan to rule an empire of Ages.

Riven’s intro picks up where Myst’s anticlimax left off, with Atrus sitting at his desk. Evidently he hasn’t seen you for a while: “Thank God you’ve returned,” he says. “I need your help.” Rand Miller’s acting here hits a degree of subtlety that I don’t think he ever quite reached again: Atrus’s relief at seeing the player is palpable, but there’s also a strong undercurrent of worry in his voice. It’s an impeccable portrayal of a desperate man whose only hope rests in the hands of a stranger.

Atrus doesn’t spell out his plan, but rather provides a journal containing “most of what you’ll need to know,” along with a trap book to be used on Gehn. He lifts up the book in which he’s been furiously writing, and for the first time, turns it around for you to see. The linking panel, rather than providing a clear view of the Age as you’ve seen in every other case, is instead a blurred, staticky mess. It’s unsettling, a sign that there’s something seriously wrong with this Age.

The player’s initiation into the Age of Riven takes the form of a short cutscene that efficiently introduces a few central elements of the game’s setting. Upon link-in, you are immediately imprisoned in a mechanical cage. This booby-trapped arrival site reveals Gehn as a worthy adversary, one who’s prepared for all contingencies.

As soon as the bars go up, a new character wanders into the scene: Gehn’s minion, “Cho.”2 Cho manages to steal Atrus’s trap book before he suddenly collapses and is dragged away by a man wearing bizarre camouflage. The whole thing is over in only a few minutes, but it goes a long way in summarizing the complexity of Riven’s unstable status quo.

It’s important to recall that in the previous game, the player practically never encountered human beings in the flesh. This fundamental “alone-ness” often imparts a feeling of invulnerability to the player: even in the most frightening environments nothing can happen to you, because the evildoers are long gone. When you are physically accosted within seconds of arriving on Riven, that assumption is immediately dismissed. The familiar feeling of safety from the original game is replaced with a sort of hanging dread: there are people on Riven, and some of them are hostile.

Chief among the game’s antagonists, of course, is Gehn. More so than any other game in the series, Riven is about one specific character. Riven is Gehn’s Age, Gehn’s prison, and Gehn’s burden. It is his life, his creation, and his plaything. In Myst, Sirrus and Achenar’s personalities were revealed by what they left behind, but Riven takes the same storytelling principle to an entirely new level, because the Age of Riven has itself become a representation of Gehn. Gehn has torn it apart and rebuilt it according to his whims and needs. Where the brothers’ legacies filled a few small rooms, Gehn’s encompasses an entire world, present in everything from the most grandiose constructions to the humblest of everyday objects. To demonstrate this, let’s look at two examples.

The Golden Dome is perhaps Riven’s most visible landmark, a massive, shining thing that’s visible from nearly everywhere. Most of the Rivenese people aren’t allowed to go anywhere near it, so most will know it only as a symbol of Gehn’s power and inscrutability. The player, however, eventually learns the Dome’s secret: despite its grandiosity, it’s nothing more than an enormous hollow shell enclosing a generator about the size of a Volkswagen. There is no practical reason for the Dome to exist at all; it is simply a facade Gehn throws up to impress his subjects. Gehn is effectively a pharaoh, simultaneously a god and a king, and the Dome is his pyramid: a structure commissioned by a human to represent his divinity.

A much more humble example of Gehn’s influence can be found in the wooden number-learning toy you find in the village schoolroom. The device is designed to teach the D’ni numeral system, but it’s modeled after the “Wahrk gallows,” Gehn’s preferred method of execution. The Wahrk is Riven’s alpha predator, a monstrous marine carnivore which the Rivenese view with a mixture of admiration and fear. (It’s implied, even, that the Wahrk may have been their primary deity before Gehn’s arrival.) Gehn, predictably, has appropriated the creature and confined it to an enclosed pool where he can use it to execute his enemies. The game in the village schoolroom represents this narrative with a pair of wooden dolls which are lowered into the jaws of the Wahrk, the steps of their descents represented by D’ni numerals. It’s a morbid and horrifying theme for a teaching tool, but very telling. The children who play with the toy are learning something more important than numbers.

The Age itself is composed of five separate islands, each of which is significant. The game starts and ends on Temple Island, home of the Golden Dome and the Star Fissure. Like most of Riven’s islands, Gehn has declared Temple Island to be off-limits to most of the Rivenese: aside from Cho, only his “high priests” are supposed to come here. It is here that the deification of Gehn is most pronounced; the island features a massive temple and a stained-glass “Gospel of Gehn,” both built right in the shadow of the Dome. While only the most elite of his subjects will ever set foot here, he has taken great pains to ensure that his shrine to himself is among his most impressive creations. But there’s a subtle irony to Temple Island: though Gehn has appropriated it as a symbol of his greatness, it happens to be the very place where he was originally defeated, when Atrus leapt into the Star Fissure with his only means of escape.

The player next travels to Jungle Island, the one island not set aside for Gehn’s exclusive use. Jungle Island is by far the largest of the islands, and many of the game’s most significant moments take place there. It’s the home of the Rivenese, and it doesn’t take long for the player to understand how fearful the people have grown under Gehn’s rule: they desperately avoid contact with you and have a complex system of watchtowers surrounding the village, sounding the alarm whenever they see you approach. You can walk through the village, but it becomes deathly still, work abandoned on the ground.

The rest of Jungle Island is wilderness, dense vegetation and distinctive animals. Where many games treat wildlife as an afterthought, Riven’s creators put a lot of thought into the world’s flora and fauna and created a consistent and believable ecology. Each species prefers a specific habitat, and the villagers’ foods and natural resources can easily be traced back to their sources. The Rivenese have a very intimate relationship with the Age’s animals, which is aptly illustrated by the animal-themed combination lock used by the Rivenese rebels, the Moiety. Gehn’s relationship with the jungle is entirely different: he has no respect for it whatsoever, and sees the woods as nothing more than a source of raw material for his projects. It is these different approaches to nature that make Jungle Island one of the game’s most engaging environments.

The other two major islands, Survey and Crater, are somewhat smaller and are primarily dedicated to Gehn’s research projects. From a gameplay perspective, the primary function of these islands is to provide the player with information needed to solve the game’s two uber-puzzles, the Moiety lock and the so-called “Waffle Iron.” The way this information is doled out is ingenious, as all of the information sources are designed to have in-universe functions rather than existing simply as “clues.” In the context of the game, Gehn’s map room exists to show the player where the Firemarble Domes are. In the context of the story, it’s a device Gehn uses to track the islands’ gradual drift. There are few objects in Riven which feel like gameplay conveniences. The world is populated with things that, while important to the gameplay, also have clear in-universe functions. This is probably why Survey and Crater are still a joy to explore, despite their narrow focus. In fact, they are home to many of the game’s most iconic scenes, including the player’s only face-to-face encounter with a Wahrk. We as players want to see new and surprising things, and even these more marginal areas do not disappoint.

Despite the immaculately detailed nature of Riven’s environments, there’s actually not much happening in the game’s “present time.” Plausibly one might expect to see activity on the part of the Age’s inhabitants, but instead the entire environment seems to exist in stasis. Gehn’s paper factory is idle, the schoolroom is empty, no one is fishing or collecting fruit. For the player to truly interact with the Rivenese is outside the scope of this game, and in any case is unnecessary. It’s not character interaction that the game is lacking, it’s the sense of an ongoing storyline. In both Exile and Revelation, the next two games in the series, you are made to feel that you are a participant in a narrative that is unfolding as the game plays out. Riven, for all its successes, is stuck in a specific moment: things happened before the beginning, and things will happen after the end, but there’s very little going on for the duration of the gameplay experience. But is this truly a problem? No. Riven’s story and world construction are strong enough that it succeeds brilliantly despite this potential shortcoming. While the later games certainly benefited from their unfolding storylines, they still didn’t attain the same degree of depth that Riven did.

While much of the game is centered around Gehn, its treatment of Catherine is at least equally complex. At a certain point in the game, the player gains access to her journal, which documents the period from her arrival in Riven to her eventual capture by Gehn. It paints a portrait of a woman caught between worlds, desperately trying to make sense of an impossible situation. Riven has changed so much in her absence that it is nearly unrecognizable, and worse, her people now see her as an outsider, possibly even a messiah figure, a role which she is unprepared to fill. She describes her frustration in trying to relate to her people, her fears and concerns, and details her plans to assist the Rivenese rebels, the Moiety. Where Atrus’s writing is detached and analytical, Catherine’s is intimate and personal.3 It’s a brilliant exploration of her character, and sadly, is the most development she is ever going to see in the series.

But Gehn has a human side too, and as the game goes on, you begin to catch glimpses of the man behind the deity, and he proves to be both complex and contradictory. He is utterly convinced of the righteousness of his own mission, and argues his positions calmly and reasonably when he finally meets the player face-to-face. He has been working hard on a new Age for the Rivenese (Riven being on the verge of collapse), and paints Catherine and the Moiety as a bunch of rabble-rousers who are interfering with this noble goal.

He has changed, or so he claims. He is no longer “the man [he] once was.” But who was Gehn before? The reader sees several sides to him in The Book of Atrus: his coldhearted pragmatism, his absurd delusions of godhood, his monomaniacal obsession with D’ni. Is his depiction in Riven any different? All these traits are on display, yes, but there’s more to him than that. His monologue is very revealing: he regrets his past, and takes responsibility for both his own future and that of the Rivenese. While much of his humility is insincere, even false humility is a new thing for Gehn. The way Gehn’s physical presence is handled is fascinating: the player builds up a mental image of him based upon everything he has read, heard, and seen, but the real Gehn is revealed to be not a monster but a tired, gray-haired man defined by crushed hopes and long-held resentments.4 His humanity is further reinforced by his private journal, particularly one grief-wracked passage regarding the death of his wife.

This side of Gehn will be evident in any playthrough of the game, but Gehn has yet another side, a true character that’s revealed only in the game’s “bad endings.” In the worst of them, Gehn disowns and murders Atrus before killing the player in cold blood and abandoning the Rivenese to die. Despite his proclamations, he knows no forgiveness, and his first concern is still his pursuit of godhood. This is theatrically disturbing, but at least equally chilling is one in which he kills the player out of impatience, calmly explaining, “You see? I have changed. There was a time when I might have let you live.” In these endings, Gehn’s entire monologue is revealed as a web of lies, a rehearsed speech designed solely to persuade you that he is worthy of redemption, while in reality the years have only hardened him. While the bad endings aren’t “true” in a continuity sense, contrasting them against the lies of Gehn’s monologue reveals more about his character than anything else in the game.

But Gehn’s sincerity is not put to the player’s judgment. Riven’s climactic Final Big Choice hinges not on whether to trust Gehn, but on whether the player correctly understands how to use the Trap Book. The bad endings arise if you misunderstand instructions by calling Atrus at the wrong time, misusing the Trap Book, or disregarding Gehn’s warning not to try his patience. Functionally, it works (and you feel smart when you figure out how to trick the highly intelligent Gehn into trapping himself), but for all the character development he receives, it’s a little disappointing that he is not “put on trial” in the way that the villains of the other games are.

Once Gehn has been captured, Riven launches into a superb final act, a well-paced sequence in which you free Catherine, make your way back to the Star Fissure, and witness Atrus and Catherine’s reunion as the Age collapses around them.5 It’s a wildly cinematic backdrop to a touching and well-acted scene. The one odd note in this ending is when Atrus links away to safety and leaves the player behind. His reasoning, he explains in voiceover, is that the Fissure will somehow carry you home, on the grounds that it once delivered his Myst book into “worthy hands.” Well, we’ll just have to take his word for it. Implausibility aside, falling into the Fissure works well as an ending: watching Riven fade away into the starfield is a gentle and contemplative conclusion, and a nice callback to the opening of Myst. It’s a brilliant denouement, one at which the series could have (and arguably should have) ended.

Riven was a wildly ambitious direction to take from Myst, a project conceived to be bigger than its predecessor in nearly every way. It easily could have been overburdened by this scope, but it stuck the landing, all its huge risks paying off exactly as intended. Its characters are complex, its storyline is simultaneously epic and personal, and it is presented with a very delicate balance of spectacle and subtlety. To understand it completely requires a good deal of patience, more than most people are willing to invest, but for those who take the time, the game provides an expansive subtext which raises as many questions as it answers. That is Riven’s strength, and that is what makes it come alive more than any other installment of the series.


1. One crucial player in the development of Riven was Richard Vander Wende, who had previously served as the production designer on Disney’s Aladdin. He joined Cyan early in the project’s development and eventually became its co-director (alongside Robyn Miller). All “behind-the-scenes” information about Riven credits Vander Wende with a huge amount of the game’s story and development. He left Cyan after the game’s release and has kept a low profile ever since, making him one of the more enigmatic players in the history of the series.

2. He’s never named in the game. The name “Cho” was bestowed upon him by the fan community, a reference to his first utterance in the opening cutscene.

3. Interestingly, Catherine’s journal was written by one Mary Anderson, whereas all the other journals were written by Richard Vander Wende and writer/artist Tim Greenberg. Who exactly Anderson is and how she came to this role is unclear (she is not credited with any other role in the production), but her “voice” brings a distinctly different feel to Catherine’s writing compared to that of the other characters.

4. Gehn was portrayed by John Keston, a stage actor and opera singer who performed with the Royal Shakespeare Company. He was also a champion athlete, who served as an Olympic torchbearer in 1996 (roughly concurrent with Riven’s production!), set a world record in 2001’s Portland marathon, and continued to run into his 90s. He died from complications of COVID-19 in 2022, at the age of 97.

5. Catherine was portrayed by Sheila Goold, a Seattle actor who died unexpectedly in 2017 at the age of 54.

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