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nilkn

Some Riven-inspired Thoughts on Game Design

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One of my favorite games of all-time is Riven. The last time I played it was back in 1997 when it first came out, and I'm now in the middle of replaying it. Unfortunately, the first time I played it I was too young to understand all the puzzles and had to resort to using a walkthrough, but I still thoroughly loved the experience because of the immersive, alien and yet familiar world of Riven. Now that I'm older and wiser, I can appreciate some more subtle aspects to its design that I overlooked years ago. This is not meant to be a discussion or review of Riven itself. I'm just using the game to discuss some ideas regarding game design that it has brought to my attention, and I just thought I'd share them here. I apologize for the somewhat long post. It's commonly thought that the purely point-and-click interface of Riven is a disadvantage and a flawed interface design. Of course the game would be better if it allowed free movement, but consider that even with the point-and-click interface it was still damn good. Let me restate that in different terms: the only thing you need to play Riven is a left-mouse button, and yet it's one of the most engaging, immersive, and mentally riveting games I've played. There's practically no inventory to speak of, there's no need at all in the game for real-time physics, never will you have to push objects around or pick them up and transport them, jumping is completely unnecessary, and your movement in the world is severely restricted. And yet it's still one of the most memorable experiences I've had playing a game. The atmosphere of the game is unmistakably one of ominous mystery and intrigue, and you truly feel as if you are sent with the mission of correcting a wrong that has went unchecked for ages. I think modern game design could learn some lessons from this. The first concerns interface design. I'm not suggesting that we get rid of inventories or reduce all movement to clicking on the screen or restrict the player so that he can only stand at certain positions of the world. What I am suggesting is that no matter what you do with your game, keep it simple and reduce it down to its most fundamental aspects, snipping away all else. Emphasis should be placed on imbuing interactions with the game world with a natural fluidity. The player shouldn't feel as if he's manipulating menus; he should feel as if he's manipulating objects in the game world or even other characters and their emotions. If the player needs to click on something in the world and if the game is well-designed, then it shouldn't be necessary for the game to place an on-screen indicator informing the player of this. The interface should, as much as possible, feel like a natural extension of the world and, more importantly, a different expression of the character's innate abilities. Bringing up a menu to choose a spell to cast definitely does not feel like an "expression of the character's innate abilities"--it feels like a menu! On the other hand, moving the hand around in gestures in Black & White to cast a spell indeed does feel like an expression of the hand's abilities, and it's also naturally integrated with the game world as it doesn't require calling up a new menu at all. I'm not claiming the gesture system in Black & White was perfect, but I do think that indeed it was a step in the right direction. The same can be said for the movement system in that game wherein the player grabs the ground with the hand and drags--the system, as it was implemented, had its flaws, but it was definitely going in the right direction. The second lesson concerns gameplay. I think that it is an absolute of human nature that we strive always to isolate instances of simplicity in the world about us. Our first instinct upon entering into this world is a profound impulse to figure it all out--to classify what we see by simple and well-defined patterns that we can easily remember and apply when we encounter unfamiliar scenarios. A game should permit the player to pursue this innate biological impulse. Imagine going to a friend's house, and your friend goes to the kitchen for a few minutes to make a snack. You find yourself left alone standing in the living room, undoubtedly feeling an urge to look around, to examine what's in the room, and from this information you will, being merely human, make inferences about the habits and character of your friend. This example demonstrates that this desire to examine the environment is also connected with the context of the situation--in this case you are curious about the living room because it belongs to your friend. No game should suppress an urge so fundamental to our humanity. I think this is why Myst was so successful--it played upon a basic aspect of all humans, the pursuit of simplicity as we might call it. Most of the myriad Myst clones appear to have taken a similar approach, but they got it all wrong: they presented the player with a puzzle, but no context! The reason you were curious about your friend's living room in the first place was because this wasn't just any living room--it was that of your friend. Therefore, a game, to be well-designed, must not just present the player with a world to explore and learn about, but it must give the events transpiring in the world context to provide relevance for the player. So that's it. I hope I didn't waste too much of your time. :D

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This might come as a useful hint to you eventually: Riven was designed with still images in mind.

Anyhoos, atmosphere was definitely what really dragged me into the world of Myst. When I played Myst when I was little, I was completely drawn in the amazing worlds. I didn't know what I was doing, and I actually never ended up finding out until I went back years later. Sure, I loved Lil' Howie's Fun House and played Math Blaster most every day, and even blowing up robots in Descent II was one of my favorite past times back then, but nothing really took me in like Myst. The scenarios were odd, made little sense in any context, but it was just so surreal that it all just worked.

I think you're probably right about simplicity. It takes a degree of true ingenuity that most designers don't have, but forcing oneself to work only on the most limited mechanics really calls for some creative action rarely seen anymore.

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Quote:
This might come as a useful hint to you eventually: Riven was designed with still images in mind.


I understand that Riven's play mechanics were largely forced due to technological limitations and the need for detailed 3D graphics to make the world convincing.

All that I said in my previous post still applies to, say, Myst IV, which was made in the point-and-click style simply to stay consistent with the previous Myst games. The play mechanics in Myst IV are equally simplistic and yet the game is equally impressive relative to the technological context in which it was developed. I found Myst IV a much more immersive and engaging experience than Myst V. Myst V really felt like a game; Myst IV felt more like the Ages were real places I'd traveled to.

You will find, however, that this difference between the games isn't due to the shift from pre-rendered to real-time graphics. Myst V is predicated upon some fundamentally different design principles which really weakened the gameplay. In short, Myst IV stayed true to those principles I discussed in my first post. It tried to provide the Ages with a detailed and expansive context. Exploring Spire in Myst IV was a very interesting experience; I was genuinely curious to learn how Sirrus managed to get out of there, and learning of his investigations into the bizarre crystals and his eventual triumph in building a flying machine was fascinating to me. This is made all the more exciting because you are left to speculate about what he did once he got out and what his connection was with the disappearance of Yeesha. No such context appears in Myst V, and the game was much worse because of it. For example, the astronomy age, while presenting a rather challenging puzzle, was isolated from all context and purpose. It had almost no relevance to the story except for some unknown reason it was chosen as one of the four Ages to house the Keep at its "end," like a Mario level. Why the "end" happened to be a space station floating in the ring of a nearby planet is equally inexplicable.

Keep in mind much of this is my opinion, of course. These are my personal thoughts on game design, after all. :D

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