The Millers' Tale
On October 25, 1997, at Cyan World Headquarters, brothers Rand and Robyn Miller took a deep breath and held it. It was a day that was a long time coming; the culmination of four years of intense, anxiety-filled, press-pestered labor. The brothers were shipping their latest CD-ROM game, Riven, the feverishly anticipated follow up to their 1993 release, Myst, the best selling CD-ROM game in history. Across the country, anxious Myst lovers sat quietly in front of their PCs, empty CD carousels beckoning. They drummed their fingers, spun in their desk chairs, dashed off an e-mail or two. Their processors hummed and chirped. They waited.In less than a week, thousands -- teenagers, business executives, soccer moms -- would be immersed in Riven, solving its puzzles, wandering its surreal landscapes. They would try to understand the story, empathize with the characters, become a part of this world of scarabs and footbridges and railcars and water (lots of water). And then they would judge. Was Riven worthy of its beloved predecessor? Were the creators of Myst really geniuses, or just one-game wonders? Would the game sell, or had Cyan sunk all its profits into a dud? The e-mail trickled in, the first coming from the most fanatical. Then the messages arrived in a flood: "Myst was great, but Riven ... " "Better than we had hoped ... " "Incredible graphics ... .""That was the best," says Rand, producer of both games. "When people who are really into Myst said, 'I'd been waiting a long time, and I was ready to be disappointed because I didn't know if you could do it. But this is better. You guys have really done incredible things.' That's what we live for."The Millers let out their breath. They clasped hands with Riven co-director Richard Vander Wende, sent kudos to the other artists and programmers and support personnel. Finally, after four years, they could go home early and be with their families, sleep late -- maybe even plan a vacation. They had finished their work, and, by most accounts, reset the standard for CD-ROM games.The Myst MystiqueI came to Riven late and somewhat backwards -- that is to say, without playing Myst. I was skeptical, and besides, didn't own the hardware to run the games; until a year and a half ago, I was still the proud owner of a Mac Plus, the home computer equivalent of a Model T. As a kid I had been into arcade games -- Defender, Missile Command, that kind of thing -- but it hadn't carried far into my twenties. What I had seen of computer games since then didn't zing me. They looked crude, ran slow and sounded like they had been recorded on a handheld microcassette. Nor did the games seem too challenging. You could blow things up and rescue the troops. Or rescue the troops and blow things up. I'd rather go skiing.Then there was the hype following Myst. Those who weren't playing it were talking or writing about it. Hardcore devotees learned the D'ni (say: "Dunny," the land of Myst) language. Others dressed up as game characters for Halloween. Web sites emerged. A cover story ran in Wired, then in other papers, periodicals and online 'zines. Here were two brothers -- devout Christians who hadn't finished college -- in a town hardly known for its innovative software industry, and they had produced the hottest thing since Donkey Kong. But it was smart, too. Maybe even brilliant. Best of all, it was hip in a moody, offbeat kind of way. Strangers began to recognize the Millers at airports; suddenly, Cyan, Myst and its creators were known well beyond their niche market, and lots of people wanted to hear their story.In the wake of it all, I did what any self-respecting journalist would do long after a national story has broken in his back yard -- I called to ask if I could come up, hang out at Cyan and do a story."You mean, like a fly-on-the-wall kind of thing?" Bonnie Staub, their publicity director, asked over the phone."Exactly.""No. I don't think so."The Millers had done enough with the media. Rand, Robyn, Richard Vander Wende and the rest of the staff were trying to buckle down and get Riven (then called Myst II) pulled together. Besides the media blackout, Cyan had secrets to protect -- some 400,000 new images that would comprise the world of Riven -- and also, like any major project in development, they had their share of snafus and inner turmoil. The company had enough on its mind without reporters hanging around writing everything down. That was two years ago.Just prior to the release of Riven, when all the work was done, they opened the doors to the media again. Since the initial snub didn't seem to be personal, I headed out north of town to pay Cyan World Headquarters a visit, check out the new game and see, finally, what all the hubbub was about.The Next LevelRiven takes up five CDs, packaged in an encyclopedia-sized box with an image on the front that looks like a cross between a helium balloon and a shiitake mushroom; it's a domicile of sorts, with windows, in a crater. I looked a little closer. There was a door at the bottom of the structure, and dark clouds overhead. Behind the windows glowed a warm, yellow light.Atmosphere is everything in Riven, as it is with Myst. Well, maybe not everything, but it's the atmosphere that creates the games' unique allure and sets the standard of quality that separates the game from the rest of the PC pack. The images in Myst were striking -- ornate temples, a ship embedded in a stone island -- but Riven's are downright dazzling.Riven's opening sequence is fully animated. Atrus, son of Ghen, greets you (the player) in his writing room. He needs your help, he says. Catherine, his wife, is being held captive by his father on Riven. You have to go get her. Atrus hands you a "linking book," one of the many dusty, cloth-bound tomes that function like transportation devices. You're zapped through the pages into a small chamber with a metal gate. On the other side of the gate is the land, or "age," of Riven. While you're waiting for the gate to open, a native Rivenese comes up, reaches through the bars and grabs your book. Then, suddenly, he's nailed by a poison dart and another character that looks like a Ninja in swim goggles runs off with the book, but not before opening the chamber and jamming the gate lever. You're now free to roam.If you're confused by the opening sequence, brace yourself: it gets a lot tougher. But that's the game. There is an almost palpable tension generated by these initial obscure, somewhat ominous events. The sense of foreboding is fueled further by the soundtrack (all composed by Robyn), which sounds like a mix of sampled industrial machinery and John Tesh's Hearts of Space.Intuitively, the player understands that there is much more to the game than wandering its paths and solving puzzles. Even in the first few frames, you encounter odd machines and impassable portals. Strange creatures. Fantastic buildings and labyrinthian corridors. Riven appears deserted (it's not), yet there is clearly an intelligence to it all, an underlying logic, a story. Learn the story, win the game."You know that there's a lot more there than people are picking up at any given moment," says Vander Wende. "We tried to have nothing that was just there arbitrarily. Everything had to be there for a reason."Upping the AnteAt Cyan World Headquarters, Rand Miller and Richard Vander Wende pull into chairs around a sprawling mahogany conference table. The 10,000-square-foot office is actually a bit more modest than I had expected, though it's still an oasis of cyber-hipness at the edge of Spokane's suburban sprawl. Cyan's entrance resembles an extension bridge spanning a dry moat surrounding the building. You pass through a facade that looks like it was broken out of the actual building and pushed out with the walkway, bricks and mortar ragged around the edges.Inside are several suites of cubicles, a sound production room, the graphic artists' studio, a lounge, etc. Artifacts used in the live animation sequences in Riven are displayed under glass. There's a basketball hoop outside for a little late-afternoon pickup, but now that the snow's flying, it will have to wait until spring. Everyone wears jeans.Since the release of Riven, Robyn's been working out of his home and can't make the interview this afternoon. Rand, eldest of the four Miller brothers at 37, hardly comes across as the stereotypical computer geek. He's tall and imposing, with a broad jaw line swaddled in a brown beard. Except for the wire rim glasses that give him a bookish glint, you might imagine Rand on a fire crew, or as the guy that comes around in coveralls to read your electric meter.Vander Wende is slighter and, at least on the surface, more apprehensive. While Rand leans back in his chair and laces his fingers behind his head, Vander Wende sits bolt upright, hands in his lap. His hair is shorn down to a black skull cap and his eyes periodically dart to the clock. Where Rand responds to questions with a preacher's oratorical skills, Vander Wende is more reserved and soft spoken.Vander Wende's participation in Riven upped the ante considerably. Before coming to Cyan, and Spokane, he had spent the previous four years at work on Aladdin as a visual designer for Disney Studios outside of L.A., where he grew up. The Millers knew that to make their follow-up to Myst a success, they needed to expand their own vision, to challenge their ideas and push the design envelope. They brought Vander Wende on board as a graphic artist, but after realizing his talents and ambitious vision, placed him beside Robyn Miller as co-director of Riven."I think we underestimated what he would add, at first," says Robyn, during a phone interview later in the week. "The more he was around, the more he would provoke us in new directions."For example, in one underwater room the player enters in Riven, a fish swims up to the window and looks in at you. It was Vander Wende's idea, and one that had to grow on his teammates."I was thinking, 'Wait, this isn't the look,'" Robyn says. "But he was saying, 'Let's stand back and see if we're going in the right direction. Let's make it a little more out there.'"The creative challenges brought on by Vander Wende, and accepted by the rest of the team, did add to the project's timeline. But those delays were more than made up for by Riven's underlying force: a powerful faith in its potential. Vander Wende, who had attended the Pasadena School of Design, had just finished up working on Aladdin and was in between jobs when he met the Millers at a software convention. The Millers went to work recruiting him for a position at Cyan, but Vander Wende's skills and credentials with Disney could have taken him just about anywhere. Why uproot his family and leave behind the SoCal climate? What was the appeal of a staff job at a relatively dinky company working on a sequel out in the proverbial middle of nowhere?"In L.A., it is almost impossible to get away from the sense that you have to compete all the time," explains Vander Wende. "It was just so nice to come up here and be almost totally free of that. It enabled us -- enabled me -- to focus so much more clearly on the task at hand, on what I thought would be cool on a daily basis. It really added up to a significant contribution from me."Following Myst's success, Cyan had plenty of interest from investors, but the Millers insisted on maintaining complete control. Riven's development was funded almost entirely on the profits from Myst. Fortunately, Riven's predecessor had sold some 3.5 million copies, providing a good-sized chunk of change to pour into the next project. It bought Cyan its new office building, but perhaps more importantly, it bought the development team freedom from external deadline pressure. Initially, Christmas, 1996, had been pegged as the release date, but when the date arrived, the Millers and Vander Wende weren't satisfied with what they had. The press was getting impatient, and the market clamored for the next game, but the final decision about when Riven would be finished resided with the project directors."We didn't have a lot of time to think about what those people out there were expecting because we were too caught up in what we were expecting," says Rand.Into the ManholeThe most direct origins of Myst and Riven are tied to a fateful sketch, scratched out by Robyn in the late '80s, of a manhole cover. Robyn lived in Seattle at the time, where he attended the University of Washington working on an anthropology degree. He and Rand, his older brother by seven years, were collaborating long distance on developing computer games for children. As a student, Robyn was trying to convince himself that he wanted to work as a medical professional in a third world country, but his heart lay elsewhere -- in art and music. He found sketching out ideas and brainstorming images with his brother to be a far more satisfying pursuit than his schoolwork.Rand lived in eastern Texas, working as a computer programmer for a bank. He had been the brother who had fallen in love with computers the moment he first laid eyes on a mainframe -- the power, the beautiful simplicity of binary code. While Robyn was the visionary, Rand knew the hardware and software. He could turn ideas into pictures on a screen.The manhole idea was fairly straightforward -- lift the cover and enter an underground maze. A children's game. Simple."After I drew the manhole cover, I wanted to open it up and go down in it," says Robyn. "It provided a means to go down into this world."He didn't know it at the time, but Myst and Riven had been born. He had stumbled onto (or into) the central notion of "immersive environments." Six months later, the brothers had produced their first game, The Manhole. Others would soon follow: Cosmic Osmo, Sphelunx, Myst.The more involved they became with the games, the more difficult it was to work long distance. They decided they needed to live and work in the same place and began to discuss options. Rand preferred the desert Southwest; Robyn loved the Northwest. They moved around often as kids, as their father Ron, a minister, took jobs in Philadelphia and Albuquerque, among other cities. Most recently, he had taken a job at a church north of Spokane. Neither of the brothers had been to Eastern Washington, but they were intrigued by the description: more arid than the coast, four seasons, incredible summers. Going on the positive word of mouth from their parents, and without a prior visit, they moved out in 1989 and established the first Cyan World Headquarters in a garage behind the house of Chris Brandkamp, a founding Cyan employee.Myst grew out of a desire to make a more sophisticated, complex game, one that appealed to adults as well as kids. Like The Manhole, the idea was an immersive world, full of mazes and puzzles. Unlike The Manhole, Myst began to take on literary characteristics: more elaborate settings, characters, conflict, a possible resolution. The inspiration, say both Millers, were many and varied. "I remember early on, our parents reading us, or at least me, certain books," says Robyn. "Some I remember the most are Dr. Seuss and [C.S. Lewis'] Chronicles of Narnia. I remember wanting to be in those worlds. They still prove a great inspiration."Rand says his influences were less specific, but there was always that sense of wanting to enter another place and time. When Rod Miller, the youngest of the four Miller brothers, got into Dungeons and Dragons, a role playing game in which a dungeonmaster invents the playing field. Rand once sat down to draw out one of the game settings, "Only there weren't any dungeons or dragons," he says, letting loose a booming laugh. "[But] the interesting thing about it was that it felt like you were in another world."In the 1980s, many Christian congregations had condemned the playing of games like Dungeons and Dragons, a compelling bit of irony not lost on many national journalists covering the Cyan story. The fact that the creators of perhaps the most completely escapist game in computer history are devout Christians has been a common feature of many stories about Myst and Riven. For the Millers, perhaps it's a lesson for church elders -- that science and faith can mix in a positive way. But for journalists trying to make something out of their faith, it doesn't amount to much. Rand says that Myst and Riven don't have any particularly Christian themes or messages, aside from the struggle between good and evil. But he says future Cyan projects could exhibit more Christian influences.While the Millers rattle off a cache of influences, Vander Wende claims that, for him, one stands above the rest: Star Wars."The cool thing about Star Wars was that this was a movie, but it felt like a lot more. It felt real," says Vander Wende.His infatuation with the film eventually lead him to the name Rob McQuarry, the visual designer for Star Wars. "He designed everything from the creatures to vehicles to environments -- everything. I found out that this guy existed, and that he did this for a living, and from then on that's what I wanted to do: create worlds."Star Wars served as a model environment. The film merged the new and sleek with the old and rustic. Things were dusty, dirty, chipped and sometimes broke down -- just like in the real world. If the artists at Cyan could achieve the same effect, Riven would be that much more believable.From the outset, one of the overriding goals while developing Riven was to create a powerful sense of authenticity. Surfaces needed texture, water had to ripple. A lever couldn't just move straight down, it had to have a certain action, slow at first, then faster. The designers obsessed over details -- each leaf on a tree was drawn and pasted onto a branch -- but the details would add up to accomplish the impossible.A New MediumI'm stuck. In high neophyte style, I've wandered into one of Riven's domains and it won't let me out. The place (called "Book Assembly Island," I learn later) looks like some kind of refinery, crisscrossed with rusting pipe, leading from what appears to be a pump in the middle of a lake to a boiler and a sort of odd wood chipper-type thing. Surrounding the refinery are 360 degrees of sheer cliff, at the top of which is a walkway. There's a ladder leading up to it, but the game won't let me up there. I throw all the levers and push all the obvious buttons, but to no avail. I can't figure out the trick to take me past this place.What I really need to do is go back and start with the basics, with Myst. There are plenty of ways to cheat both games -- just dial up www.riven.com, and you can track down solutions to every age and puzzle -- but what fun is that? Instead, I call on the help of a seasoned expert, a skilled Mystian, a pro: Nate, age 12. I don't really want to play Myst as much as I want Nate to show me the logic of the game, explain a few puzzles, let me in on a few secrets.Nate lets me operate the mouse, but it's obvious I'm moving painfully slow. I want to stop and look at things, but he doesn't have any patience for my curiosity. He "beat" Myst a long time ago, and will indulge me only long enough to show me the puzzles."Here," he says, taking over the mouse. "I'll show you the hardest one in the game."The puzzle is in a room with a keyboard at one end and what looks like a mixing board with five channels on the other. You have to select the five correct keys on the keyboard, then match those notes with the sliders on the mixing board.But even if you can pick the right keys (fourth from the left? fifth?), you then have to match the tones. It would be easier to randomly guess the right numbers on a combination lock, I think, and I ask Nate how he figured that one out. The Internet, he confesses.Rand says creating the puzzles was always a challenge. Some people feel they were too easy; others say they were too hard. The trick was finding the right balance. But the puzzles, he adds, take a back seat to the overall experience, the sense that the player is actually in this far away, make-believe place."After we put [Myst] out there, people would come back and say, 'You know, I was having a little trouble getting around, and then I came to the conclusion I was going to act like I was really there, and all of a sudden everything fell into place. I understood,'" recalls Rand.Vander Wende chimes in on that note: "One of the strengths of this medium is that you're free to digest the information at your own pace, unlike a movie, or even a book. In [Riven], you can approach something from different angles. The player is capable of coming to a much higher degree of intimacy with the information."It comes to me at some point during my own immersion in Riven that storytelling has always been about recreating particular experiences. Literature allowed us to pass into other worlds by stimulating our imagination through language.Television and film, now surpassing literature as the primary means of storytelling in popular culture, recreated live images and sent them up in front of us in living color. And now the evolution of storytelling is bringing us this new, strange hybrid that places the outcome in the hands of the participant.Lots of clicking and dragging, but one notch closer to the real thing.The Millers and Vander Wende will chat for hours about the technology they had at their disposal to create Riven, including four huge SGI (Silicon Graphics Indigo) Challenge L servers, but they will also agree that the entire PC gaming industry is still in its infancy (you can't even buy those SGIs anymore -- that's how fast the technology is changing).Ten years ago, says Rand, computer games were just getting color. Ten years from now ... he shakes his head. "It's just going to get more immersive." It's hard to tell if he's excited, doleful or just ambivalent. He looks out the windows of the conference room where they built a waterfall that tumbles over basalt columns. The afternoon sun is going strong. It's a beautiful view.Because Myst, and now Riven, have made such commercial and critical waves, I wonder what it means for Spokane. Will it trigger a techno-revolution in the Inland Northwest. Will it attract more software companies to the area? Probably not, speculates Rand. Other regions, Silicon Valley, San Francisco, L.A. just have too much in place already, and besides, he adds, hiring artists to come live here was no easy task. Cyan even wound up offering "activities packages" -- ski trips, theater tickets, airfare -- to ensure employees got their fix of recreation and cultural stimulation. And Spokane still remains something of curiosity in the eyes of the national press. Take Wired's writer, who seemed stunned when he found the city wasn't the provincial backwater he expected, "Chickenburgers, ginseng, clear mountain air and huge houses for next to nothing -- Spokane!"Indeed. And what will Spokane make of Cyan, now that the company is putting us on the high-tech map? Who knows. Can the city grow up with the company, embrace it, claim it as one of our own and nurture a productive relationship? Or will the Millers remain a kind of distant cousin, an anomalous import? Lest we forget, Microsoft and Boeing were small companies once, too.Life After RivenRiven has sold more than 400,000 copies in less than two months, and Broderbund, the California-based software company that distributes Riven, hasn't tallied the sales figures from the last week. Riven's success has even floated Myst back up to number five on the CD-ROM chart. At one point, according to Dennis Leahy, a senior producer with Broderbund and development manager for Riven, the game was selling faster than any software product ever, including Windows 95. He quickly reconsiders -- maybe not Windows 95, but still faster than most products, games or otherwise. Leahy's close to the project, but he's also a devoted fan of Cyan and the Millers."These guys are the Spielbergs of the industry!" he practically shouts over the phone. Besides, he says, the last poll he saw reported something like 46 percent of American households now own a personal computer, a number that is climbing steadily.Leahy hones in on a key term: family entertainment. Riven and Myst, free of simulated blood and ridiculous weaponry, appeal to kids, parents and grandparents, he says. Testimonials have been coming in for weeks. They've cracked a limitless market.So what's next? A Sony Playstation version of Riven is in the works, which won't require the relatively expensive hardware that the PC version requires (no less than 16MB of memory and a 90 mhz processor). There is a DVD (Digital Video Disc) version being discussed, which will run on a TV, but with better quality than the Playstation version. And there are all the peripherals: three books that elaborate, in fine detail, the story of Atrus and Co., baseball caps, posters, T-shirts. Oh, and maybe a movie. "Everybody wants to take a franchise and turn it into a film," says Rand, who adds that they don't want to rush into anything. "If we do a movie, we want it to be good."One thing of which they are certain: there won't be a sequel to Riven. It's done, says Robyn. Riven was the logical extension of Myst, but now it's time to seek new ideas and other directions."We're catching our breath mostly," Robyn says. "Were working on some ideas. Brainstorming and visual design. Right now, it's a completely blank sheet of paper. It can become anything."