D'ni Color Symbols

Spoilers: A couple puzzles in the game Riven involve determining the meaning of certain symbols through observation. Reading this document could spoil those puzzles for you.

The power of Five

In Riven, Gehn writes about the D'ni color symbols in a passage about his obsession with the number five:

I have been cataloging the natural elements of this Age for nearly thirty years now, yet still I continue to find evidence of the D'ni's preoccupation with Five. As a boy, it was very clear to me that the number five had a special significance to the D'ni society -- from the ancient heraldic emblems of the ruling elite to the humble homes of the commoners, it was ubiquitous. ...

While most of my constructions have been based on D'ni designs, I see now that the ones that I have imbued with the power of Five are clearly the most beautiful, the most perfect. And, I believe, the most structurally sound.

I am still attempting to determine how the D'ni color symbology reflects this superior design principle. Although superficially it is based on a six color system, I am convinced that there has to be a deeper connection to Five. I will continue to investigate.

The influence of five is obvious in the number system. The 25 digits are formed by the 25 combinations of the digits 0-4 with themselves. Guildmaster Josef of the Guild of Linguists has made the very interesting observation that the 24 letters of the D'ni alphabet seem to be based on combinations of five tops with five bottoms, and may even have evolved from the numbers.

It is also manifest in the language. The D'ni use numbers to quantify emphasis, so that to 25 is used to mean extremely. As Richard Watson reveals in From Myst to Riven:

Quantifiers such as very, extremely, and really, which add emphasis to phrases, are indicated by numbers from one to twenty-five. The higher the number, the stronger is the emphasis. For example, the phrase I am a little tired in D'ni becomes, I am tired to two. I am very tired would be, I am tired to twenty. To exaggerate something, the D'ni would use a number over twenty-five. I am incredibly tired, in D'ni could be written or spoken as, I am tired to thirty.

D'ni symbols or insertions by Gehn?

Gehn also writes of his study of D'ni color symbology:

I am still attempting to determine how the D'ni color symbology reflects this superior design principle. Although superficially it is based on a six color system, I am convinced that there has to be a deeper connection to Five. I will continue to investigate.

Ideographs for six basic colors follow this entry. These symbols also appear on Gehn's rotating domes, with five intermediate symbols between each. Let us assume these additional symbols signify intermediate colors in the spectrum.

Gehn does not explicitly state whether these intermediate symbols are D'ni symbology, or his own invention. Likely his own, since I doubt even keen-eyed D'ni readers would readily distinguish an iris half open from an iris seven twelfths open.

Gehn could have constructed deeper connections to Five.1 To suit his numerological fixation, Gehn could have inserted four intermediate irises between the major color symbols, for a total of 30 symbols. Irises would thus have ten states, each a tenth wider or narrower than the last.

Instead, this color symbology is imbued with the power of Six. A total of six times six color symbols are based on the six main ones. Each iris has twelve states. Perhaps his mathematical mind wondered if another number had power over color.

Roy G. Biv

Remarkably, the D'ni use erroneous primary and secondary colors common in 19th century European color wheels.

In 1704, Isaac Newton's book Opticks proposed that light was composed of primitive colors. He arbitrarily defined these colors as ROYGBIV. His spectrum originally had only five hues, but he inserted orange and indigo to make an octave of colors, reflecting his notion that colors have harmonies like the notes of European musical scales.

Artists soon found his model unworkable for choosing complementary colors, so later theorists adapted it into color wheels. The most popular wheels used red, yellow, and blue as their three primaries, with green, violet, and orange incorrectly positioned opposite them as their complements.

Modern graphic designers know the true primary colors of light to be red, green, and blue, corresponding to the three colors of photoreceptors in (most) human eyes, with cyan, magenta, and yellow being their proper complements.

The D'ni science of optics seems to have had similar historical accidents.2 However, the D'ni symbols for orange, green, and violet are much more basic than the others. Could D'ni color theory have arrived at the same wrong colors from the opposite direction, considering those colors the primaries?

World without magenta

If the D'ni used all 36 of these color symbols, these colors must have names.3 Given the skewed color ranges, D'ni color vocabulary would be rich in fine shades of red and orange, impoverished in greens, and lacking in light blues4 and purples.

Anthropologists may speculate whether this relates to the acute sensitivity of D'ni eyesight. According to the Myst novels and Uru, the D'ni dwelled in deep volcanic caverns cut off from the surface. Perhaps they needed few words to describe verdant plants and azure skies, and a great many to describe molten rock.


  1. Harsh critics of Gehn's record at writing worlds might not consider that evidence against him inventing the intermediate symbols, however.

  2. As have Lightbringer's Martians, who also use European primaries and secondaries. Game designer Andrew Plotkin has criticized Lightbringer for this and other failures of imagination.

    Frederik Pohl's Gateway is even more humanocentric. Gateway's Heechee, an ancient race which left our universe long before fish crawled on land, improbably divided the spectrum into Newton's idiosyncratic ROYGBIV.

  3. What words and symbols do the D'ni use for black, white, and shades of gray?

  4. One of the colors omitted in this system is also the name of the company that created the Myst saga: Cyan.