Commentary

Review: RimWorld

Pablo was a real hardass. Late 40s, good with a gun, had his hair up in a mohawk, not a style popular with other colonists. He rubbed a lot of people the wrong way, but if he let you in you had a friend for life.

The raiders gave the colony plenty of time to prepare, but they came heavily armed. Usually the raiding parties were from the Green Tarsier tribe to the south, but these pirates had high-powered rifles and body armor. Pablo was one of the first to the perimeter. He took a hit from a sniper rifle and went down before the fight really even started. It was a tough fight, but after a couple hours of bullets flying, the pirates were repelled. The colonists even took the sniper rifle that hit Pablo as a trophy.

McClure, the surgeon, patched Pablo up as best he could. But even after the bleeding stopped, Pablo wasn’t walking. It was at this point…that I opened up the health tab in Pablo’s character menu, and saw that his leg had been shot off.

This game. Holy shit, this game. To get the basics out of the way, RimWorld is The Sims, in space, with guns and a tech tree. Or to put it another way, if you loved the idea of Dwarf Fortress but bounced hard off of it every time you actually attempted to play, RimWorld has almost as much depth but a learning curve that’s actually human. And graphics, too!

I wouldn’t say the graphics are a selling point, but they’re easier on the eyes than playing Dwarf Fortress in ASCII. They’re fairly similar to Prison Architect, in my view, being cartoonish and simple, but RimWorld has far fewer frames of animation than Prison Architect does. And ultimately, that’s OK.

All right, enough with the comparisons and carrying on. In RimWorld, you control a group of colonists who have crash-landed on a remote planet, a “RimWorld” in the game’s parlance. You must help them set up a colony so they can survive, thrive, and maybe even get back off the planet. Like in Dwarf Fortress, you don’t directly control your colonists, instead you set up orders for them, either in terms of construction or in terms of work orders on production equipment. They will then follow those orders based on a priority queue and their own personal moods and needs.

While the graphics are simple and cutesy, the simulation and AI around your colonists is miles better than what The Sims had in 2000. Your colonists will tend to their needs and generally be productive, getting things done unless their mood gets low enough to cause a mental break. These breaks can be mild (locking themselves in their room, wandering around in a daze), moderate (binge eating, binge drinking, getting really stoned), or severe (forgetting where they are and stripping naked, going bezerk and shooting people), and if your colony is a high stress environment they’ll happen pretty often.

What makes your colony a high stress environment isn’t always (or even often) you, though. Colonists will fight, fall in love, break up, get hurt, get pets, and a whole bunch of other things. The amount of detail is quite impressive, and it all works together. Let’s go back to my example of Pablo. Pretty much all of what I wrote about Pablo was specified by the game logic, including the fact that he was coolly received except for one or two very loyal friends. So he got shot, and I didn’t realize the shot had taken his leg off until I checked his health panel when he was in bed. OK, so while I hadn’t discovered prosthetics in the tech tree, I did know how to make (I’m dead serious) peg legs. So I set up an order for McClure, the surgeon, to perform the operation “install peg leg”. Well, the surgery failed catastrophically. So McClure spends the next six hours patching up the leg he had tried to cut open, there’s blood everywhere…Pablo somehow survives. But the colony is out of medicine, and it’s the dead of winter so the healroot (herbal medicine crop) won’t be ready until spring. Pablo is confined to bed for a month until I order the colonists to harvest the healroot early so Pablo can get his peg leg. The second time around, the operation is a success. Pablo is still a hardass, and after contributing to the colony for another couple seasons, he’s shot again in a pirate raid. This time he doesn’t make it. McClure still sometimes goes out and visits Pablo’s grave.

These are the kinds of stories this game generates, and it’s amazing. I’ve had one wedding, one engaged couple break it off, and one colonist who had lost his wife…only to have her come running out of the woods after escaping from slavers. One of my colonists is a 76 year old woman with dementia…a brilliant scientist who sometimes wanders around the colony late at night, forgetting where she is. As our tame red fox (the animal systems are also great) has gotten older, he too has developed dementia, and is also prone to wandering around, confused. When the game informed me that the two of them had made an emotional bond, it was strangely gripping.

Rock Paper Shotgun wrote a column about using procedural generation and deep simulation for storytelling, talking mostly about apophenia, or the human tendency to create patterns from randomness. RimWorld is the primary topic of that column because it hits the sweet spot of multilayered complexity and accessibility. The mechanics are distilled down to somewhere between The Sims and a reasonable real-time strategy game, but the layers of simulation create a lot of subtlety. I’m still marvelling over the fact that a late-game technology is ground-penetrating radar, which allows you to drill for resources. The agriculture system is a great example of finding the sweet spot between depth and accessibility: you can create a zone for growing, and then pick the crop, and be done with it, for the most part…or you can create a hydroponics system and grow crops indoors. The power system allows you to build solar panels, wind turbines, geothermal power plants and fuelled steam turbines, as well as batteries for backup or for moderating renewables. Installation is simple drag and drop, but the simulation ends up being quite satisfying even to me…and I research power systems for a living.

The downside to covering so much simulation in a limited set of mechanics is that there are limited ways to convey all the information. In the world view this is mostly fine, and anyone familiar with the realtime strategy genre will be familiar with clicking on an item to see its status. Here, though, it’s good to know there is a “next layer down” button. In agriculture, for instance, clicking on an active field will generally get you the plant you click on. To get the field itself (which is how you change the crop assigned to grow there) you need to click the “next layer down” button. With people, though, the information screen has five tabs: Needs, Gear, Character, Social,  and Health. As my experience with Pablo above showed, you need to review all five of these at given moments. While there is a certain sense of overload, RimWorld does better conveying dependencies and incomplete workflows than something like Dwarf Fortress. As an example, batteries in the game can explode, and they will do so when they get overloaded, overheated, or wet. The game tells you this. The game leaves you to figure out that you must keep batteries dry by putting a roof over them. I figured out the hard way that that means roofing them and keeping them outside, because if you put them inside and they explode you’re dealing with a very large fire.

Once you’ve gotten basic survival out of the way, the game’s trade system means you can support your colony in a wide variety of ways. You can become a space brewery (or a space grow op). You can become an outfitter, making clothing and equipment and selling them. You can mine. You can imprison people and trade them to slavers. You can make a space hotel. Even as I’ve played through most of the tech tree with my current game, I find myself itching to try all sorts of different things. There are a lot of things the game can do that I haven’t dug into yet at all.

In conclusion, RimWorld scratches all the right itches for me, and has been deeply compelling. Not only did I pay full price for this game (something I rarely do period and essentially never do with Early Access games), I knew immediately I had gotten my money’s worth. As the game is still in Early Access there are likely more features on the horizon, which could be very exciting.

RimWorld

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