TECHNOFILE: RIVEN DEEP, MOUNTAIN HIGH

As soon as I saw the cumulus clouds above the cliffs, I wanted to climb the steps to the bridge. Once I saw the plesiosaurs, there was no turning back. They are first glimpsed as one rounds a corner, descending through a cleft in the rocks to a beach. One lolls on its back in the sun; they crane their necks at your approach. Move too fast and they flip themselves into the water, but it's worth it to see their silhouettes glide away under the surface of the sea.

Riven (Red Orb, Win 95/Power Mac, 16Mb, pounds 40) brings a fresh glow to the tired image of "immersive experience". Weeds ripple in pools of china clay blue, insects whirr in tropical groves, and the player is immersed along with the virtual objects. Like its celebrated predecessor, Rand and Robyn Miller's Myst, Riven poses a series of logical and spatial problems, but at the same time instils the dream-like sensation of seeing a film from a character's point of view. The player is released from a cage in an unknown location, with a handwritten book of enigmatic notes for a guide, and has to work out the plot by exploring the terrain.

As it turns out, the mission requires combating an evil genius and rescuing a maiden. The task will be particularly familiar to Myst fans - who are legion, the game having sold 3.5 million copies - since it is based on the same characters and mythology. Riven has already been described as the Lord of the Rings to Myst's Hobbit. You could also call it the Gravity's Rainbow to Myst's Crying of Lot 49. Its digressions, recursions, eclectic imagery and eccentric detail make the comparison a reasonable one; though it must be said that the humour is still missing.

While it is solidly rooted in its genre, and many of the images are standard fantasy kit, you can see from the first reconnaissance that the islands of Riven are a highly sophisticated construction. I could take or leave Myst; the subjective point of view was an interesting device, but I didn't actually find it inspiring.

The hyper-realistic cliffs of Riven are quite another matter. Their paths take you in an instant from places you may well have been in real life - limestone caves in southern France, perhaps - to places you could never go. Although there are daggers and hieroglyphics aplenty, the core technology is industrial: catwalks, pipework, weathered copper. The stopcock is to Riven what ventilation ducts were to Terry Gilliam's film Brazil. One spends an inordinate amount of time fiddling with plumbing.

The elusive inhabitants in Riven are loosely Andean in their appearance and material culture, inhabiting globular adobe houses on the heights, while the evil genius has given his laboratory Deco overtones. Electric blue uplighters illuminate a passage through the rocks, while a jungle clearing is lit by luminous fungi of a similar hue. The underground chambers tend more to the baroque. Even in its most fantastical nooks, however, Riven retains its fundamental good taste. What gives fantasy a bad name is the assumption that genre works require only stock elements, and the creators simply have to fling as many of these at the viewers as possible. Riven succeeds so brilliantly because the designers at Cyan, the Miller brothers' company, know where to find just the right ingredients, and how not to overcook them.

You can almost smell the air above the Riven islands. At the same time, you might object that though it has atmosphere, it doesn't have characters. On that count, it falls short of qualifying as the multimedia equivalent of a D W Griffith epic. But it's a hell of a trailer.

VIRTUAL NAM

Officials estimate that by the middle of this month, Vietnam will have about 12,000 Internet users, even though access remains restricted because of government fears that the Net could be a channel for subversive material. The Socialist Republic's digital future is certainly safe in the hands of the new Vietnam Online service, though. This business and travel site, delivered in English and hosted in Hong Kong, succeeds in making Vietnam look as bland as Singapore.

JUST WHAT YOU ALWAYS WANTED

Celebrating its first birthday, "Gifts of Speech" gushes its thanks to the "wonderful, generous women" whose speeches are presented on this anthological site, based at a US women's college called Sweet Briar. The orations range from the wonderful, generous Courtney Love extemporising "On the Suicide of Her Husband", to "Selected Remarks from an Address to the Leaders of the Church of Scotland" by the equally wonderful and generous Margaret Thatcher.

MORE CAKE, M PROUST?

Penguin editors have the year 2001 circled on their planners as the publication date for a new translation of A la Recherche du Temps Perdu. Each of the six volumes will have a different translator, and Penguin is hoping to use its website to draw upon a still wider range of inputs. Proustians are invited to send comments for posting on the Proust Bulletin Board, at the discretion of the project's general editor, Christopher Prendergast.

Other sites turn Proust to less scholarly ends. One bright spark presents a picture of himself sprawled on the author's tombstone (above), as part of a gallery of famous graves from which he has collected souvenirs of soil. Eden Gutenberg offers Proust as an imaginary dinner guest for her Supper Party (below), for which visitors are invited to contrive conversation. The site's attractions include a menu of poisonous foods, from Japanese fugu fish to potatoes, and a glossary of indigestible food metaphors. The master himself is quoted on the "celestial hues" of asparagus, which "indicated the presence of exquisite creatures who had been pleased to assume vegetable form".

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