Of Puzzles and Language

The Witness Riven 1

Few conversations or articles about The Witness, the rare puzzle game that has ignited nearly everyone’s attention, end without mentioning Myst at least once. It doesn’t take a leap of logic to find the connections (not including the comparisons Jonathan Blow himself has made): both throw players on a sizable island dotted with puzzles that block access to even more puzzles, offering a degree of nonlinearity while silently tracing a path to a conclusion of sorts. Aside from a few Witness environments that are clearly built to evoke its best-selling grandfather, their differing goals quickly bring an end to the similarities. The Witness is entirely focused on melding awe-inspiring moments with iterations on the same puzzle, spread over 50+ hours. As Cameron Kunzelman demonstrates, Myst finds its heart in its plot (a piece noticeably missing from The Witness), which is an earnest mix of fantasy and age-old archetypes of attempted patricide.

Though Myst vs. Witness is well-trodden ground, there is an even better comparison left surprisingly untouched. Riven, the follow-up to Myst that often disappears under its brother’s shadow, shares a similar mindset with The Witness in its intertwining of puzzles and language. There is one key difference: while The Witness presents its puzzles as a language, Riven is more interested in language as a puzzle.

The opening moments of Riven thrust you headfirst into a world as alien as it gets. Held behind bars, a guard barks questions in a foreign vernacular before stealing your one line of defense. Once you’re free, you are surrounded by machines that rarely have real-world counterparts, indecipherable text carved into walls, and a populace that flees as soon as you approach their village. You’re an intruder stepping inside a totally foreign society, and there aren’t any English-speaking natives willing to lend a helping hand.

To make any progress in Riven, you must study its environment and culture. Rivenites have their own method of writing out numbers, and like citizens of other countries, they teach said method to their children in a classroom setting. Of course, when you find this classroom, there are no instructors to be found: instead, you play with the learning materials on hand, left to intuit how each piece works on your own. A wooden toy sits in the back of the room, featuring two figures dangling over a body of water with a monster at the bottom. Pressing its switch causes the figures to lower a certain number of notches until reaching the bottom and starting anew. It doesn’t take more than a few attempts to realize the number of notches corresponds with whatever number rotates into the toy’s base, and with pen and paper handy, you’ll soon have your own numerical codex.

Riven Classroom

Learning your ones, twos and threes from a gallows toy is a dark method of instruction, but it’s a clever way of teaching players both language and culture at the same time. Gehn, the unseen despot and creator of Riven is not a pleasant person, and that manifests through this counting toy demonstrating what happens to citizens when they don’t behave. Earlier, a chair in the side room of a chapel hints that its user projects themselves into a monolithic orb near the stained glass windows, taking on godlike proportions. Without uttering a word, Riven’s culture communicates exactly what kind of person Gehn is, and why the populace might worship and fear him, long before you meet him yourself.

The Witness is interested in teaching you a language of its own. Every one of its 600+ puzzles follows the same principle rule: you must draw an unbroken line from a circular starting point to an end piece. It starts at the most basic level, reminiscent of a maze you might find on the back of a cereal box, but gradually layers new twists and pieces that prepare you for the puzzles to come. You quickly learn how to approach panels that have black-and-white squares or multi-colored stars (even if the solution requires slamming your head against a desk for 10-40 minutes).

lagoon riven

Those “Aha!” moments when solving particularly obtuse puzzle panels offer a level of satisfaction rarely found elsewhere. Sadly, when you solve a particularly daunting challenge that opens an intimidating door, the only reward you receive is yet another set of puzzles. Despite numerous audio logs and stone statues hinting at an unseen tragedy, there is no straightforward story to speak of. For all of The Witness’s efforts to create a convincing island setting, the panels reduce it to an ornate box with a complex locking mechanism. It exists for no other reason than to be solved by whomever managed to find its entrance.

Meanwhile, Riven’s insistence on teaching you the native language makes its universe all the more believable. Rather than presenting challenges solely built to test the player’s mettle, it feels like you’re activating devices and following paths used by actual people. By putting in the time to study their methods of communication, you learn both how and WHY things work the way they do, growing to appreciate the intricacies of this imaginative culture in the process. Teaching puzzles as a language will help you solve even more puzzles, but by treating language as its own puzzle, Riven communicates a story with a level of believability no audio log or hastily scribbled diary could ever hope to match.