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Previously in Digital Culture:
God, Man, and the Interface by Harvey Blume (October 1997)
Most of us take the computer interface for granted. But for Steven Johnson it is a defining metaphor of our times -- and a summons to the metaphysical.
The Next Dimension by Ralph Lombreglia (July 1997)
Even today's most sophisticated 3-D graphics lack a certain kind of depth -- that of artistic style. Now ThinkFish Productions moves beyond 3-D and the "virtual camera" into the realm of the "virtual artist."
What Happened to Multimedia? by Ralph Lombreglia (June 1997)
Is the golden age of multimedia already behind us? Michael Nash, who helped raise the art of the interactive CD-ROM to new levels, doesn't think so -- despite his feeling that today "most multimedia sucks."
The Genie in the Machine by Ralph Lombreglia (April 1997)
Interface visionary Kai Krause -- whose graphic-design tools combine the power of mathematics and computers with a childlike delight in sheer playfulness -- would bridge the divide between technology and art.
For more, see the complete Digital Culture Index
by Ralph Lombreglia
The software entertainment industry has never awaited a product more eagerly than it has awaited Riven: The Sequel to Myst, the closely guarded and long-delayed successor to the most successful title in the brief history of CD-ROMs. In fact, it would not be a great exaggeration to drop "entertainment" from the previous sentence. In certain quarters, I have witnessed more excitement and hopefulness about the release of Riven than I did two years ago about Windows 95, or this year about Mac OS 8. And that may tell an important tale about what people really want from their computers.
They want magic.
Since its release four years ago Myst, produced by the brothers Rand and Robyn Miller, has perpetually inhabited the CD-ROM bestseller lists despite an onslaught of competing products, and despite its complete lack of the qualities once thought essential to computer-game success: relentless onscreen action and joystick-based battle and gunplay. Myst managed to suggest an entire virtual "world," and that world's history, with nothing more than a slide show of color images enlivened by music, ambient sound, and a few modest interactive visual effects. Importantly, key images of that slide show were depictions of text -- the handwritten text of journals and letters -- that established character and "backstory" as no picture could. Myst borrowed from cinema, too -- especially by understanding the power of a good audio track, and by taking 3-D graphics to a level of realism beyond cartoon -- but it asked its users to respond in a way that was essentially literary.
Myst is a "story-driven" product built on a narrative premise that is part gothic and part science fiction; it demands careful attention to subtle (if not downright obscure) patterns and signals and clues. The clues themselves demand that users traipse repeatedly all over a virtual world to solve difficult puzzles -- the navigation and the challenges making up what is known in the industry as the "gameplay." Nonetheless, Myst's emotional impact is at times reminiscent of writers ranging from Jules Verne to Edgar Allan Poe to Franz Kafka. Its deepest magic occurred offscreen: it triumphed in a cutthroat marketplace with the secret weapons of intelligence and good taste. I loved Myst not for its gameplay per se but for the intriguing possibilities it suggested about the future of interactive multimedia storytelling. (The puzzle solving is my least favorite aspect of this genre, and I may as well confess now that I could never get through Myst or Riven without help, partly because I don't have that kind of puzzle-solving mentality, and partly because I have other things to do. James Joyce once said that his ideal reader was someone who would spend the rest of his life reading James Joyce; I love Joyce yet I doubt I'll ever read all of Finnegans Wake.)
Even before Myst, the Millers were renowned among developers for their special ingenuity and innovation in multimedia, and so it's hardly unreasonable to expect that their next venture would once again advance the craft. Since multimedia's holy grail is to be as "immersive" and "interactive" as possible, I looked to Riven to up the ante in the two arenas that have always interested the Millers most: graphical "world building" and narrative -- the picture world and its story. Unfortunately, on both counts Riven is a disappointment. It is not the historically significant project that Myst was. Technical and marketplace triumphs don't preclude artistic success (Myst was happy proof of that), but they don't equal it either. Conceptually, Riven is almost wholly derivative of its predecessor; it breaks no important new ground in interactive narrative, game design, or software interface. It is richer and more complex than Myst, and slicker, but it's based upon almost identical design ideas.
"Much photorealistic 3-D feels sterile because the desire to 'look real' is essentially not an artistic agenda at all. With the exception of gimmicky trompe l'oeil and faux painting techniques, most art through the ages has aspired to hold a mirror up to reality in some sense, but rarely has it wanted to be mistaken for reality. It would be a mind-boggling technical triumph to make a photographically perfect 3-D environment, but it wouldn't be art -- at least not as we've historically understood it."
--Ralph Lombreglia, "The Next Dimension" (Atlantic Unbound, July, 1997).
Riven's graphics raise two separate but related issues: the quality of the image content itself and the use of the imagery as a "user interface." The imagery in Riven has moved toward an often amazing level of photorealism. If you're familiar with the talent and painstaking labor required to create good 3-D graphics, Riven's pictures will be almost mind-boggling. But if you're not familiar with the technology, Riven's most photorealistic images (there is a range of realism in the game) are going to look like, well, photographs -- taken in some pretty strange places, perhaps, but photographs all the same. I suspect that the average, uninitiated consumer will quickly take it all for granted. Like most of what is produced by the 3-D graphics industry, Riven reflects a thoroughgoing "camera envy," but in moving away from the painterly image style of Myst, it gains a temporary "gee whiz" effect only to lose a more enduring artistic (or "stylistic") dimension. When all is said and done, I enjoy Myst's realistic but obviously not "real" imagery more than the pictures in Riven that nearly fool me into thinking they're photographs. There's something oddly quotidian or documentary about virtual places rendered in such photographic detail. The photorealism begins to kill the magic.|
The abundance of images, and their profuse detail, often seems to exist largely for its own sake, and this works against the magic, too. Riven presents literally thousands of painstakingly rendered pictures, but at least half of them contain no interactive elements beyond their transition to the next image. Often a particularly realistic detail almost pops from the screen -- a dangling wind chime, the leafed-out branch of a tree -- as if begging to be clicked upon, but nothing happens when you do. I often felt in Riven that I would gladly give up half of its many settings -- buildings, pathways, hidden chambers, and fantastic machines, even whole islands -- in exchange for more compelling motion and interactivity within fewer locales.
A well-established "authoring" technology exists that would have addressed both of these graphics issues: the interactive panorama. Several companies have developed schemes for this, but the best-known is Apple Computer's QuickTime VR, which seamlessly stitches together 3-D stills (photographic or computer-generated) into 360-degree panoramas that the user "travels" through by dragging the mouse. These panoramic "movies" can include "hot spots" that link to other panoramas, making it possible to model an entire interactive, navigable world that provides the sensation of willful movement -- the Myst concept, but taken to the next level. QuickTime VR panoramas have been used in CD-ROM projects for a couple of years now. I found it odd that Riven didn't adopt this highly immersive technique as its interface concept, but stranger still is that the Riven CDs include a demo of another Broderbund/Red Orb product (Legacy of Time: The Journeyman Project 3), which does use interactive panoramas, and quite compellingly.
Not surprisingly, no off-the-shelf technology exists for taking interactive narrative and drama and character "to the next level." Myst and Riven present you with landscapes and interiors typically devoid of people altogether. Instead, those places contain the puzzle-laden architecture and inventions of wizard-scientists, and these things can be genuinely revealing of a certain kind of narrative and character. Still, as I've mentioned, old-fashioned text is mostly how you know that a wicked genius named Gehn and his good son Atrus have developed a technology of "linking books" that create literal worlds to which they travel, and that Gehn has been banished from such a world -- Myst Island -- to another one -- Riven -- where he has set himself up as a god and holds Atrus's wife, Catherine, captive.
Aside from occasional snippets of video, characters have little onscreen role in either product, and they never appear in any genuinely interactive sense. Obviously, the absence of palpable characters didn't prevent many people from immersing themselves deeply in Myst. One of the hallmarks of that game was the transformation of a technical necessity into a virtue: the eerie absence of people in Myst's "ages" (or worlds) -- what Janet A. Murray, in Hamlet on the Holodeck: The Future of Narrative in Cyberspace (1997), calls "depopulation" -- contributed greatly to its foreboding mood, to the player's sense that some terrible previous events had occurred in these places.
But clearly the thorny problem of character portrayal in hypermedia-based narrative cannot rest where Myst left it, and it's disappointing to see Riven take no real step forward. Yes, human figures appear onscreen in Riven to a greater extent than in Myst, but almost always as a kind of window-dressing -- a native girl appears on a jungle path before you and runs away; a sentry can be seen observing you from a tower; native inhabitants are seen moving in the windows of their surreal elevated huts; a female member of an organized rebellion delivers books to you in a prison room. The few figures who do confront you directly speak an invented language, not English, and so their appearance hardly counts as character interaction.
Most of Riven's advances beyond Myst seem to spring from the notion that digital multimedia must prove itself by competing with TV, cinema, and theme parks, three arenas in which fantasy narrative was pioneered by the Walt Disney empire -- an organization whose animated characters have rightly been called the most financially valuable intellectual property on earth. (It's no surprise, then, that the Miller brothers turned to Vander Wende to codirect Riven.) But Myst did not seek to compete in those Disney-dominated arenas, nor is such competition why Myst was important.
"The technical accomplishments of a product like Obsidian remind us that new-media artists need to choose and fight the appropriate battles. They can't compete directly with high-end entertainments or use new technologies simply because they exist. As always, art requires an alchemical fusion of content and techniques."
--Ralph Lombreglia, "In Games Begin Responsibilities" (Atlantic Unbound, December, 1996).
Myst mattered because its producers took an unusually savvy look at what the desktop computer technologies of the moment could do convincingly, an equally savvy look at the perennial pleasure that people take in stories and pictures, and then they put those things together in a fresh, surprising, accessible way. Myst used emerging consumer-level technology appropriately, for what it could do best, and in so doing it defined a new form. By contrast, apart from the more photorealistic imagery, Riven's attempts to raise the bar have resulted in such things as a magnetic tram, a submarine beneath a lagoon, and an underground mining train, all allowing for animated "rides" that are as well-done as today's technology will allow -- which is to say they're a kick the first few times you ride them and not much of a kick thereafter. (And, incidentally, in delivering such enhancements the product has elicited howls of grief from friends of mine who adored Myst and yearned for its sequel, but who don't own -- and can't afford to buy -- the high-end desktop PC required to run Riven.)
Is it unfair to ask a "mere" commercial game product to point the way toward the storytelling possibilities of the future, to open the door to emerging art forms? In my opinion, not at all. It's a truism of the computer industry that the future of "serious" software often appears first in games. And to ask for a glimpse of the future from the work of Rand and Robyn Miller is, I think, particularly justified. In fact, it's a tribute.
Ralph Lombreglia is the author of two short-story collections, Men Under Water (1991) and Make Me Work (1995), and is a regular contributor of short stories and reviews to The Atlantic Monthly and other publications. He was a 1996 recipient of a Guggenheim Fellowship and is at work on a novel and a new collection of short stories.
Copyright © 1997 by The Atlantic Monthly Company. All rights reserved.