I’m done with Riven and moving on to Myst III: Exile. It’s interesting to think about the changes between Myst and Riven. Myst’s puzzles were both more contained and more clear, and the change in tone for Riven’s puzzles makes the entire game both subtle and overly complex.
Containment is important for puzzles, especially if your audience is fairly casual (like Myst’s). You’re more likely to put the pieces of a puzzle together if they’re in reasonable proximity to each other, especially when you’re navigating a world (even in 2D).
In Myst, you enter a cabin where there’s a picture of a giant tree, an unpowered furnace, and a safe. The actual giant tree is located just outside, clearly visible, and about 2 clicks/screens away. Yes, the code for the safe is somewhere else, but it’s easy to understand that you need to open the safe to power the furnace and do something to that tree.
In Riven, you come upon a strange device on an island that causes water domes to rise on parts of the island when you push various buttons on the device.
In a location somewhat close by (probably 12-15 clicks/screens, involving an elevator), there is another device that raises metal bars as you push buttons to form what looks like topography.
Finally, in an entirely different section of the world, more clicks/screens away than I can even estimate and at least one vehicle ride and a couple elevators away, there is a third device that lets you drag and drop a couple marbles onto a grid. The colors of the marbles are significant and you can only understand them by finding specific bits of color at various locations throughout the world.
(Marbles edited out so it’s not a spoiler)
Yep, that’s one puzzle. I won’t reveal how it ties together, but it’s an essential puzzle for finishing Riven. It doesn’t just break the law of containment–it shatters it and buries the pieces all over the map. It’s not just a tricky (impossible?) puzzle to solve, but it sets an expectation for the player: anything you see may be a puzzle, and when your world becomes filled with potential clues, there’s no way to sort them out. It’s easier to spot a zebra when it’s with a herd of horses than when it’s hanging out in a herd of its zebra buddies.
It’s also easier to spot a zebra when you know you’re looking for one. Solving a puzzle is very difficult when you don’t even know what the puzzle is.
In Myst, you enter the spaceship and find an organ and a control panel with levers that play a musical scale as you move them up and down. There’s a window above the levers, currently blank/black. It’s pretty easy to understand that this is a puzzle involving musical notes from the organ and the arrangement of the levers.
In Riven, as you explore the world, you find lots of fun interactions that cause animations. There are interesting D’ni gadgets, buttons, levers, viewers, creatures, books and other interactive objects that help make it a more interesting and “alive” game than Myst.
The vast majority of these interactive objects are just for entertainment. A couple are clues for puzzles. One particular set is an essential element for solving one of the central puzzles, a show-stopper that prevents progress in the game.
You may not have even noticed the items in this set–they’re usually tucked away on side-screens. One of the items is even sitting on a desk, disconnected from where they are usually found. You may or may not have clicked on them to discover that they play a sound. You certainly didn’t connect those simple interactive objects with an essential puzzle… that you hadn’t even seen yet.
Even after you see the puzzle, it’s challenging to connect it to the items in the set because they’re actually just one of the steps in the solution. I can’t be specific about what they are without spoiling the puzzle (although realistically I would bet 98% of all Riven players look it up in a walkthrough anyway), but imagine seeing a car on the street one day and the next day trying to understand that you needed to know what song was on the radio when that car passed. You had no way to know that you needed to remember either of those things, or that they could possibly be connected.
Why This Is A Problem
I’m sure there are people who figured out those Riven puzzles without help. There are probably enough of them to fill a small stadium. I wouldn’t be in that stadium (and not just because I hate sports), but that’s OK.
What’s less OK is that you want to sell your game–and, more important, the next game in the franchise–to more people than the 1000 who fit in that stadium. And those Riven puzzles are simply not a great fit for the audience Cyan wanted… and the audience they already had after Myst.
The key here is to remember containment and clarity. Make it easy to figure out that you want to find a zebra, and even make it easy to find the zebra. The challenge should come from getting that zebra into the corral.