I want to tell you a story. A story that unfolded over 10 hours of me playing the indie resource management game RimWorld. I know that the emergent storytelling in this game is something that many have talked about, but my experience was so emotionally involving, so real, that I had to share it. My group of colonists had their ups and downs, but overall their story is an unfortunate one, though not without its humour. I still remember Smelly the geologist fondly. R.I.P Smelly, you were too good for this world.
Together with Xavier the inventor and Buffy the Oaf, they landed in the woods. Quickly assuming the role of leader, Smelly suggested cutting down some trees to build a simple shelter. Before they knew it, they had a bunkhouse, complete with torches, a table and chairs and a chess board (Smelly believed that the only way to survive was for all of them to keep their minds sharp). Before long, their fledgling colony, aptly named Smelly’s rest, was producing rice quicker than it could be eaten and had taken in several waifs and strays. They were on the up and up.
But in this world, as soon as you build something for yourself, someone wants to take it from you. The colonists were attacked by a vicious band of pirates. They could have run. They could have hid. But Smelly refused to give up what was his. He sallied out to meet the ruffians and he handled them. With his rifle, he killed one, but allowed the other to get near. Down smelly went, requiring Buffy to save him, replete with her own iron club. While Smelly recovered from his wounds, his followers worried for their leader. With one exception.
Xavier was the doctor of the bunch, but, unbeknownst to his fellows, he also had a dark secret. He was a psychopath, devoid of any compassion or care for others. Smelly’s rest could burn for all he cared. What he did care about was being bossed around by Smelly. He had had enough. So he decided to get some revenge. Going into Smelly’s room under the pretence of life saving surgery, he amputated both his legs and an arm, all unneeded. Smelly awoke screaming, unable to leave his bed at all. In Smelly’s absence, Xavier began to exert more control over the others, leading them to focus more on hunting, leaving the fields barren and bare.
This was not the end of Smelly however. Xavier’s push for technological advances was his own undoing. After months on the planet, the group gained the ability to communicate with passing ships and the first one to arrive was an exotic good trader, who just so happened to stock several bionic appendages. The group unanimously decided to sell whatever was required to restore Smelly. Grudgingly, Xavier rebuilt the man he had destroyed. Smelly was back.
But he was back in a world foreign to him. Under Xavier’s rule, his friends had become monsters. They sold passing traders into slavery. They had decimated the local animal population. There were even rumours that Engie, the cook, had used some ‘exotic’ meat she had found, after the killing of several pirates, in their meals. The settlement that held his namesake was a changed place. A place he was ashamed of and he knew it was all because of one person; Xavier.
And so, a cold war ensued, one fought through ideology. Smelly brought back the growing of food and changed the policy towards prisoners. They would be recruited, not sold. Feeling his grip beginning to weaken, Xavier hit back. He encouraged his followers to take no prisoners and perform a summary execution on any interloper. He also set up turrets, so that the job would be finished, one way or another. As these two personalities clashed, the rest of the group began to suffer. General happiness went down and several people had breakdowns, resulting in a fire, a food binge and a drug addiction (Engie would only cook meals if she was tweaking). Things were getting out of hand.
Finally, things came to a head. With neither willing to back down, it was clear that this would only be resolved with blood. Xavier, frustrated with his loss of power and wanting to prove himself to the colonists, decided to do something stupid. He tried to tame a Thrumbo. These ancient and majestic creatures are difficult to train, even by the most seasoned animal expert, which Xavier most certainly wasn’t. As he approached the beast, it flew into a rage, charging him. He was gored, dying almost instantly. The beast then stalked the town, attacking anyone it could find. As many colonists laid dead or dying, Smelly lead a rousing defence. The Thrumbo was slain, but at what price?
Will their numbers decimated, the colonists laid the dead to rest and tended to the wounded. Smelly had several grievous wounds and soon after, an infection had set in his chest, arm and leg. The survivors made his last days comfortable, but without Xavier, no one had the expertise to save him. As he laid there, dying, he reflected that his greatest enemy was the only one who could save him and Smelly lamented that they could not learn to cooperate.
Smelly died on the 4th of spring, 5502. He was laid to rest in a sarcophagus, next to Xavier. The colony went on without them for several months, until being wiped out by a plague. An ignominious end to what had once had such promise. If you haven’t guessed already, RimWorld gets real fast. I made several of the dubious choices that you read about above, but in my head, that story happened. I just watched it unfold. By the end, I had a pit in my stomach. All that struggle, for what? So they could all die off? Life is a futile rat race that no one can win….and then I started again.
RimWorld is the addiction you never knew you had. Below all the systems and stats and resource management, it’s a game about people. About winning against the odds (and trust me the odds ARE against you). And yes, about mining enough steel to make that extension to your dormitory you’ve been needing for a while. It’s a game with slavers, cannibals, psychopaths and pirates. About crafting parkas, domesticating chickens and building solar panels. It is one of the most involving games, in terms of narrative, that I have played this year and there is no story. But all the feedback you get; character moodlets, events and such, serve to build the story in your own head. You have your favourites, who break your heart when they die. You have useless colonists who just won’t die no matter what you do to them. You inject the world with character and it happens so organically you don’t even notice at first.
RimWorld is a steam early access game, currently in alpha and yet if feels like a full and complete experience. The most exciting thing about it is there is so much more that will be done to improve the game play. It has a very active Steam workshop and modding community as well as a Reddit presence which is packed with discussions stories and suggestions for future improvements. It’s a great time to start playing this gem. Just be careful. Smelly took a lot of my time up in the past week and I’m sure that once you start, it’s going to be difficult to stop.