The Riven remake transforms a tricky classic into a modern masterpiece

The linking cage and huge Moiety Dagger from the starting area of Riven (2024).
Image: Cyan Worlds via Polygon

Ah, my friend, you’ve returned…

Back in the early 1990s, the creators of Myst had a problem with their testers. Players would wander around the initial island, poking at the rocket ship, flipping the levers on the podiums up and down, and watching as none of it did anything. The quantity of puzzles was overwhelming, the solutions inaccessible. They’d get bored, and then get frustrated, and then too many of them would give up.

The solution was to add a hologram, near the starting point of the game, which contained a recorded message from Myst’s guiding figure, Atrus. And if players missed that room, there was a piece of paper — a piece of paper, loose on the ground — with a note on it that told players — with, like, words! — to go check that room.

Today, this would be fixed by making the message room more obvious. Or by starting with the player facing the door, or by putting the room in a privileged position. In the genre of puzzle games in which you explore a series of freaky li’l rooms, environmental storytelling is king. Except the phrase “environmental storytelling” wouldn’t be coined until years after the release of Myst and its expectation-shattering sequel, Riven.

To unpack the legacy of those two games would take another article on its own, but suffice it to say, the genre that developer Cyan Worlds put on the map has done some significant evolving in the 30 years since Myst and Riven were first released. Which is exactly why it’s so fascinating to play this week’s 3D remake of Riven, in which Rand Miller and the rest of the folks at Cyan return to a masterpiece with three decades of environmental puzzle games at their backs.

The linking cage and huge Moiety Dagger from the starting area of Riven (2024).
Image: Cyan Worlds via Polygon

Riven (2024) is a compelling work of preservation. The game’s earliest life began as the Starry Expanse Project, a fan-run effort to faithfully convert the three hours of video and nearly 5000 images that make up the original Riven into a traversable 3D environment. The final result, after Cyan officially absorbed the Project’s assets and even hired some of its contributors, is — in a word — gorgeous.

Riven, after all, is a game of stone, metal, and wood, textures that the Unreal Engine can simulate with its eyes closed, and there are vistas in the remake that, so long as you don’t move your view, you could almost convince yourself are photographs. The other good news for the pleasure centers of fans’ brains is that the original game’s sound design is intact. The meaty thunk-griiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiind-LATCH of Temple Island’s rotating room, the keening screech of metal as a maglev car turns around, the bone-vibrating slam of a fire marble turning over — all are just as you remember them.

Also familiar: The loading screens take forever. But for a game that originally prompted you to insert one of five different CD-ROMs every time you moved from one island to another — a core, frequent, and intended part of the gameplay — sitting through a gently disguised loading screen, however long, is a palpable advancement.

Other parts will not be familiar.

Some solutions that remained the same from playthrough to playthrough in the original are now randomized for each save, so cheeky players can’t just look up the answers. The full-motion video actors have been replaced with animated figures, synced to both original and re-recorded dialogue, from necessity. Those 30-year-old recordings simply don’t scale up to modern screens.

Ghen’s throne room in Riven (2024).
Image: Cyan Worlds
A bridge leading to a dark metal dome adorned with a pattern of round sigils. In the background is a horizon of endless sea, blue sky, and fluffy clouds in Riven (2024).
Image: Cyan Worlds

The transition from static images with no need for consistency of euclidean space to a full 3D environment has had a myriad of effects. Some rooms aren’t where they used to be; some modes of travel simply turned out not to work in 3D space. But some tweaks seem fully considered on the part of the developers — and well-chosen.

The Riven remake gently gates areas of the game that were originally fully accessible to a new player, yet unsolvable until much later in their playthrough, so as to prevent exactly the kind of overwhelmed frustration that early Myst playtesters experienced. Two of the game’s most involved puzzles have also been completely reworked in ways that were simply not technologically possible in 1997.

These are not small changes, and I expect some of them may tweak at the nostalgia of longtime fans. But on the other hand, Riven’s most finicky, tedious, time-consuming stumper is here converted into something visually jaw-dropping and engaging to manipulate.

If you’re a Riven fan, you simply must play this version. If you’ve never played Riven, there’s no better opportunity. Escaping into another world is not just the external promise of the Myst games, but the actual premise, and Riven’s update brings those two things closer than ever before.

Riven was released June 25 on Meta Quest VR and Windows PC. The game was reviewed on PC using a pre-release download code provided by Cyan Worlds, Inc. Vox Media has affiliate partnerships. These do not influence editorial content, though Vox Media may earn commissions for products purchased via affiliate links. You can find additional information about Polygon’s ethics policy here.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *