Barely a few days into my latest attempt to build a colony on this hostile planet and it’s already all falling apart. A violent drifter attacking early on saw my meager defenses scattered. Engie, an older lady and apparently the only one half capable of hitting anything with a pistol, was clubbed half to death and crawled back into bed. Egan, a middle-aged shopkeep who had been doing his best to keep it together since the crash landing, started to snap.
I watched on, clueless and morbidly fascinated, as an invisible rift grew between Egan, Irma and the quickly deterioriating Engie. I had no idea how to pull them all together, and not for the game’s lack of trying to explain – I had simply been too busy poking through endless menu screens, getting to grips with irrelevant mechanics and building tasks. Like a despairing parent, RimWorld had been trying to warn me of the oncoming doom, but I was too involved in micro-managing crop growth to care.
Engie passed away in her bed due to blood loss. I had no idea what to do. At the time I didn’t know you could assign colonists as doctors – something I’ll never be slack about again – and a passing rabid hare heavily injured Irma, who took to her bed. Engie’s corpse still lay in hers – again, I didn’t know what to do with it – and Egan snapped. He spent what felt like hours trying to shoot at a rabbit that had passed out due to shock, all the while Irma became more and more infirm. I hit the reset button. Time to try again.
It’s taken me a long time to love RimWorld. Games like this don’t usually draw me in but there are a few things that reached out across my void of misgivings and dragged me into the colony builder’s bleak and unpredictable world. First, it’s impossible to experience the game’s frontier style sci-fi without hearing the Firefly theme music in the back of your mind (I had to name the teenage engineer I started with Kaylee or they would have taken my browncoat away). Second, it employs a genius AI storyteller concept that allows you to decide just how brutal and random your colony’s life is going to be. You can opt for one of three different storytellers and at which level of difficulty they’re going to operate. With an insane amount of unscripted events and different character/environmental variables, you’ll never get the same game twice.
So I ground away at it, each failure sending me back into the game with new knowledge of its mechanics – not to mention new irrational fears of everything that happened in the game ever – and by the time I got to my fifth colony, things just sort of came together. I’m not saying RimWorld is inaccessible or overly complex – but for someone like me who mainly hits things with swords or jumps across a series of increasingly wide chasms, I didn’t quite get it right away. The graphics are minimal, doing the job of letting you know where your survivors are, what time of day it is, and where you can collect resources. The real meat is in the menus. You don’t just set your colonists tasks and leave them to it, you construct ever-changing work orders depending on the needs of the group at that time, prioritising one task over another even when it leads them to failure.
The genius of RimWorld is in the anecdotes. The story develops as you play, truly different each and every time. You can build the best colony on the planet but the game has various tools at its disposal to bring everything you’ve made crashing down around you at any given moment. Rather than making the struggle feel futile, each precious moment of peace and progress is precious, every colonist pulling through after an attack or disease outbreak a champion against the brutal elements. Just when you finally start to feel like you might be making some headway, the AI storyteller throws another spanner in the works.
There was one colony I was particularly fond of. They’d weathered a few pirate attacks thanks to dead-eye shot and pilot Mal, a wandering bodyguard named Steroid had joined their little homestead. Toni, the surgeon, threw a party not long after he arrived, and everyone was happy. The potato crop was almost finished and winter looked hopeful.
Then a grizzly bear killed the dog – a golden retriever named Quick – and it all went to shit. I wanted revenge for Quick, so I sent Mal out to kill it. The bear mauled him half to death and tore Steroid’s leg off. Toni managed to wound it but not before it got a hit in that lead her to bleeding out on the floor. Only one colonist was left standing – Allie- and she hurriedly dragged the wounded into their beds and did her best to fill the doctor role, but her low skill in the area meant she did more harm than good. She couldn’t get the harvest in, winter was creeping up, and she had resorted to eating Toni’s body before burying the remains out back alongside Quick. Mal and Steroid were bed-bound when bandits attacked and kidnapped Mal, who probably died of various infections not long after.
Allie went through the motions for a few days, dancing on the edge of a major mental break after witnessing so much death and chaos, until she found a small parcel the bandit who kidnapped Mal had dropped. It was yayo, a powerful stimulant drug. I had her snort it to boost her mood so she could keep maintaining the declining household and feeding the immobile Steroid, and eventually, she overdosed, throwing up everywhere. I thought the end was near so despite her low medical skills I tried to get her to give Steroid a wooden leg so he could get up and about. He needed a chance at survival when Allie’s drug addiction got too deep.
He died during surgery, and all I could do is look on in despair as Allie rapidly developed a set of mental and physical health problems that would put your average 80’s rockstar to shame. It had all been going so well.
I’m going to go back to RimWorld time and time again this year. Through playing it for the purposes of review, it’s awoken a morbid fascination in me. What stories will the AI generate next? What else is going to be taken away from me when I least expect it? It’s still technically in early access, meaning there’s more features and updates on the way, so I don’t feel entirely comfortable delivering a final score just yet. The game is complete in a lot of ways, but there’s framework sturdy enough to carry a mighty amount of content. As it stands, RimWorld is a unique and incredibly deep sim game powered by seriously impressive AI storytelling, a game all about the drama, comedy and tragedy human life out in the middle of nowhere entails. Dogs will die, friends will eat each other, grizzly bears will ruin everything you ever loved. Prepare to lose hours of your life to this clever, compelling experience – and for the love of all that is sacred, try not to get too attached to anything.
RimWorld is developed by Ludeon Studios for Windows, Mac, and Linux. You can find out more about it over at the official website. We’ll be regularly updating with stories from the game in a ‘Tales from the RimWorlds’ series of features soon!