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Like its predecessor, Riven is a point and click adventure game played from a first-person perspective. The player explores immersive environments depicted through a large series of computer generated stills using mouse clicks for movement or to manipulate objects within reach. By operating mechanical contraptions and deciphering codes and symbols discovered in the surroundings, the vaguely explained goal can eventually be reached. To navigate the world, the player simply clicks in the direction they want to walk or turn. The mouse cursor changes in appearance, depending on its position on the screen and what it is hovering over, to show what effect clicking will have. For instance, if the player positions the cursor hand near the side of the screen, it may show a pointing finger, indicating that clicking will turn the view in that direction. The cursor also changes in context to show when players can drag or toggle switches, or when certain items can be picked up and carried. Such items can then be examined at any time, and either reveal clues to puzzles or provide information on the game's setting and story. Like Myst, Riven has an optional method of navigation known as Zip Mode, which allows players to skip to areas already explored, but may cause them to miss important clues. Riven has more complex and numerous puzzles than its forerunner and is set in a larger virtual world for players to explore. Whereas in Myst the objective of the game is to travel to different Ages to solve puzzles before returning to a "hub Age", Riven's gameplay takes place on the five islands of the Age of Riven. Much of it consists of solving puzzles to access new areas of the islands, though players are also able to explore without fulfilling objectives. The volcanic landscape depicted, with its steep cliffs and crater lakes, is bestrewn with mechanical, Victorian-style artifacts such as elevators, pipes, levers and roller coaster-like transports. To solve the game, players must consider the purpose and physical principles of these artifacts as well as their role in the fictional culture.
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