Turning off into an unmarked driveway some miles outside of Spokane, Wash., one comes upon a strange building that could be 500 years old except that it’s so magically new. A pseudo-crumbling brick doorway seems yanked out in front of the building, connected to an identically jagged hole in the main structure by a weathered wooden bridge. A waterfall burbles out of a sylvan glade around back. If it weren’t for the inexplicable lack of a rocket ship roosting out front, you’d swear the place had come out of the computer game Myst.
As in fact it has. These are the new offices of Cyan Software, and they’re here thanks to a handful of 1s and 0s on a silver platter. Myst, the CD-ROM ”that will become your world,” has done just that for more than 3 million bewitched buyers since 1993, making it, with an estimated $100 million plus in sales, far and away the most successful computer game of all time. At the end of this month, a sequel called Riven will, after four years of intense work, at last hit stores. To say it is breathlessly awaited is like saying the next Star Wars movie might find an audience.
Inside the neo-eldritch building are the three multimedia mages responsible for Riven: Rand Miller, 38, and his kid brother, Robyn, 31 — respectively the computer wizard and graphic artist who cooked up Myst on a couple of Macs in a friend’s garage starting in 1991 and came away with millions in personal profits — and Richard Vander Wende, 35, the production-designer refugee from Disney the Millers called in to help take the sequel to the next level. They and their 20 employees are clearly fried from the time and money spent creating a vast world, on five CD-ROMs, that merges the visual luminosity of a Maxfield Parrish with a slowly uncovered narrative out of Tolkien (Rand won’t divulge Riven’s final cost but allows, ”We pretty much put all [the Myst profits] in there”). Riven is a puzzle, a movie, an epic, a soothingly sensuous virtual reality — and a likely commercial monster.
What Riven is not is a bloodbath, or a shooter, or a twitch game. Although there are more seamlessly interposed live-action footage and computer-graphic dazzle than were in Myst — even the water shimmers this time around — no one gets nailed by a plasma gun. And that’s how the Millers want it, why they’re comfortable staking their claim in their eastern Washington hometown, far from Silicon Valley, or, God forbid, Hollywood (they’ve held off on all offers to make a Myst movie). Even L.A. native Vander Wende picked up on the vibe: ”You’re completely free from the influence of Hollywood, and you can focus on what your gut feelings are about,” he says. ”That’s something I don’t ever want to lose, even if I go back.”
What Riven is also not is a religious tract, even though the Millers, sons of an itinerant evangelical minister, are deeply committed Christians (curiously, it’s self-proclaimed agnostic Vander Wende who looks like a monk; the brothers themselves could pass for affably hip screenwriters). ”How does my faith affect my work?” asks Rand. ”Not as much as it should. Except that from my point of view, my faith is much more important than anything that I do.”