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Riven: how 1997’s most boring game has become 2024’s most exciting

Point-and-clicks are back. Somehow

Published: 10 Jul 2024

Lewis Hamilton isn’t the only veteran campaigner to enjoy a glorious comeback lately. In the year of our lord 2024, the gaming world has been drawn improbably back into the world of the notoriously tedious ‘90s CD-ROM puzzle game, Riven.

But while Hamilton’s return to the top is at least explainable, Riven’s return is a lot harder to fathom. It’s 2024. We can jump into 100-player multiplayer battle royales and join sim racing competitions. Why are we playing an old-school point-and-click?

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In case you don’t spend every spare moment thinking about ‘90s PC games, Riven was the sequel to Myst, a point-and-click adventure game that had you moving between static screens of pre-rendered backgrounds and solving particularly cryptic puzzles. For a long time, Myst was the best-selling PC game there’d ever been. Riven, released in 1997, was more of the same. The pre-rendered scenes were more detailed, the puzzles even more baffling. Most critics loved it, but there was a vocal minority who called out its tediously slow pace and outdated mechanics.

There’s very little about that synopsis that screams ‘breakout hit of 2024’. And yet here we are, somehow sucked into Riven all over again. For one very good reason.

It’s running in Unreal Engine 5 now. That’s the simple answer. What was previously a punishingly slow-paced slideshow has become a haunting, evocative wonderland thanks to the bleeding-edge visuals its game engine provides. For the first time it’s running in real-time, experienced in first-person. It’s like a Call of Duty protagonist ate some gone-off cheese.

Remasters of ‘90s titles are a well-trodden path in gaming now. Conceptually there’s nothing new happening here. Studios like Nightdive have made their name on artfully restoring classic games like Quake and Doom 64 for modern PCs, updating the boring bits like controls and online functionality for ease of use while retaining the essential spirit, the bits that make your neurons gently vibrate with delighted childhood recognition. But Riven’s a bit different.

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Because it turns out that a simple but fundamental change like ditching the pre-rendered backgrounds and the achingly slow frame-by-frame movement totally transforms what the game feels like. Moving around at normal speed, with an easy understanding of your position and orientation, allows you to actually enjoy the abstract environment and focus on the puzzles.

Sometimes you read about historians in the British Museum discovering that they’d put the Sutton Hoo helmet together incorrectly or something, and now based on new evidence they’ve rebuilt it in a more accurate fashion. This is like that - the way Riven was always intended to be played, finally freed from its technological shackles.

While most remasters make tweaks under the hood to make the experience more accessible for modern players, Cyan Worlds’ 2024 Riven release is more like a game finally realising its original creative vision.

The puzzles are still brain-meltingly obtuse at times, and you’ll never convince us that rotating rooms full of water pumps are genuinely fun. But for now, we’re gritting our teeth and engaging the grey matter to get to the next spectacular vista, the next composition of brazen strangeness. If there’s a lesson to be learned here, is that even the games we might once have despised can be redeemed, if the graphics are flashy enough.

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