Rimworld begins with a crash landing. Your crew of three randomly generated colonists stand in the wreckage of their former ship on a foreign planet. They must figure out how to survive. Each of them come with a unique set of skills and relationships and histories and desires, and soon you’re instructing them to tame animals, and research technology, and make clothing, and build a lodge, and wind turbines. It’s, on its surface, a survival game, and the colonists could be viewed exclusively as drones generated to make the survival aspect varied and challenging – how do you coordinate these imperfect drones and build a new ship to get off the planet? The game’s puzzle stems from their deficiencies. How do you feed your people if none of your drones can grow plants? What if only one of them can hunt, and only one of them can cook, and they are the same ones who can research new technology, so while you’re fed you never have enough time to research and you become a static colony? It’s a puzzle based around skills and time management.
That, perhaps, is all the game needed to be. It’s playable that way, even though there’s a lot more flavor built on top. You don’t have to envision your drones as colonists, as individual characters. You can view them simply as bundles of skills, as units good at flicking different levers. Nothing forces you to get invested in them. The fact that my three survivors happen to be a father, a step-mother, and their son didn’t mean much for me logistically, except that I had to build two of my “drones” a shared sleeping quarters. But Rimworld wants you to view them as characters. It doesn’t want you to solve the puzzle of survival and then escape. It wants you, instead, to be invested in the survival of this colony. Your colony. Rimworld is clever because it doesn’t force a story on you. It doesn’t have a pre-planned story to tell. The game gives you a goal and then generates events and personalities, and that’s all. It’s a generator of a path and of moments, but never of story. It gives you the building blocks, but leaves the actual story-weaving to you.
Frequently games have a difficult time hitting the right balance. If they’re too narratively driven, they ought to just be a book or movie. There are, of course, countless exceptions to that rule, and yet in general I feel most heavily narrative-based games are missing out on what may be the essential most basic tool of their medium. Games that are too open-world face the opposite challenge – total chaos and lack of any guiding narrative force means that the game is confusing and jumbled, just like the real world, and relies entirely on the meta-narrative to supply meaning. This also obviously occasionally yields wonderful results, but it’s much more of a toss-up, and I feel it is difficult to create any clear “feeling or flavor” to the story a game is trying to tell if it relies too heavily on just the meta-narrative. I recently wrote about BOTW, and how by pointing you in a direction but giving little guidance, the game allows you to better inhabit Link. You feel you’re making his choice, and that your story with him is personal, a story you built together. If another friend who had played BOTW talked to you about the game, the vast, vast shape of their story would be the same, but the narrative would be different. Your stories would be unique.
Rimworld, with even fewer classic story elements, makes for wildly unique stories, and the more a story feels like yours, just yours, the more invested you are in it. Like BOTW, Rimworld excels at letting you and the game work in tandem to create constant new situations and puzzles for you to untangle. If a colonist becomes depressed they begin to wander around aimlessly, refusing to do the jobs you’ve scheduled for them. This can create a problem if few or none of your other colonists can fill the job slot. If only one of your colonists is a skilled miner, and refuses to mine, production will grind to a halt. You may assign another colonist to the job, but they are more likely to get hurt, or killed. In this case one of my colonists, “McFly,” was getting dangerously close to being depressed, and he was the only person who was able to harvest crops – a big worry because a day of him refusing work could mean starvation. Again- it’s possible to view this as a strictly mechanical puzzle – how do I improve his mood and what is my contingency plan should that fail? I solved the problem and I moved on to the next administrative challenge.
While investigating the causes of McFly’s depression I discovered that over the course of the previous few days he had attempted to hit on his step-mother, and she had continuously turned him down. It was clearly a product of two different randomly generated programs – single colonists frequently attempt to woo other colonists, and his step-mother, who was in a happy relationship, was not being woo’d. The game had equally randomly generated their relationship. These different pieces of programming came together to create an incident, and though it caused a mechanical challenge I had to fix it also became a piece of history within the story of my colony. The game isn’t trying to create a series of events to tell a story. It’s creating a series of events, and leaving the storytelling to me.
It’s me, looking at this colony I inhabit the same way BOTW has you inhabit Link, who creates a history for my colony. I string together the individual events to form a story, a history. When my miner is injured in a pirate raid and someone has to take over her job and is captured themselves, I remember the series of events. When a pyromaniac constantly researches new technology next to a woman who pisses her off because I’ve given them the latest bedtimes and eventually decides to burn down all my crops because they’re so angry about interacting with their nemesis, I remember that series of events. It’s not that cause and effect aren’t built into the game, just that they aren’t predetermined. I bead them together into a story, and by forcing me to do the work they are reinforced. I create causal relationships to remember the sequence, not because I have to, but because the game has caused me to get invested.
The real gem is making each unique event exist on both the narrative and mechanical level. Pirates attack periodically, and remembering who your best fighters are can mean the difference between survival and death. That’s a mechanical challenge, but the best way to remember them is the narrative – you can read their stats, sure, but eventually you begin to think of them by name. Who gets the last kill? That no longer is mechanical. That’s narrative alone, but you still remember it. Who was brave and got wounded and will be out of commission for a while? Both mechanical and narrative. It makes it easy and imperative to pay close attention to these things on a mechanical level, but it’s impossible to ignore the narrative superimposed over the mechanics. It makes each event memorable. It makes adding them to your narrative easy.
By telling its story passively, by secreting it away, the game invites you to fill in the gaps more than if it clearly had a story it wanted to tell you, and insisted that you follow. As my colony grew I captured a pirate, and was joined by another survivor of a different crash landing. The two fell in love. The crash-landed colonist’s sister requested sanctuary, and I granted it to her, only to discover upon her arrival that she was lazy and actively hated everyone in my colony. The two love-birds asked to move in together, and eventually got married, giving everyone a morale boost. The reason the game succeeds so well is that none of the story was planned. It could have fallen out a radically different way. The game generated two random characters with random traits and interests, and the paths I assigned them in the colony I designed possibly had them interact a certain number of times that would make any two characters generated by the computer to “fall in love”. The marriage too could be viewed, if one wished, as simply a gaining of points – I have completed a flavorless task that has made all my drones happy, and I will have more leeway in all immediate challenges and puzzles the game generates. The game can be played clinically, should you want to play it that way. But the game gives you enough bread crumbs that you can string it into a story, should you choose to, and it makes those breadcrumbs enticing enough that you do want to. Your goal is to make your colony survive, but the only reason it matters is because the game puts you in a position to care about your colony’s survival, because you know their story, because you made that too.