I was certain that my ninth and longest-lived Rimworld colony was doomed when Sweetpea fell ill with mechanites and collapsed in a corn field. The little nanobots had taken hold of her muscular system, giving her superhuman strength at the cost of being in constant pain. Sweetpea was the backbone of my colony, throwing up entire buildings in a matter of minutes and harvesting crops as if winter was perpetually right around the corner. Now she could hardly get out of bed and was stuck in the ramshackle hospital she had finished just days before.
Everything I knew about base building games was telling me it was time for a restart. The colony was set to slowly wither away, just as the last eight had. But to my surprise, the daily lives of all my colonists went on with minimal changes. My colony didn’t enter a decline, but rather a period of adjustment that everyone made it out of. That’s when I realized that, in a genre that prioritizes ruthless efficiency above all else, Rimworld stands out in letting players strive for their own ideal version of what a society should be and value.
There are a number of systems in the game that promote this playstyle. Every colonist has a set of needs that must be met on a daily basis. The basic needs like food and sleep are there, but so is the rest of the hierarchy. One of the first structures the game’s tutorial has you build is a horseshoe pit to give your colonists a place to hangout after work. If your characters don’t get enough time to relax, they’re liable to break down and go rogue.
But the colonists aren’t just concerned about their own needs; they care about the wellbeing of people in general. If an innocent prisoner dies, every character’s mood will be negatively affected—even more so than if one of their fellow colonists dies. Like a proper simulation game, Rimworld allows the player to exert a questionable level of control over characters. You can harvest a prisoner’s organs for later transplanting or even sell them into slavery. Unlike other games, however, Rimworld forces the player to ask themselves if they’d be happy doing either of those things, and provides real consequences.
It may seem like the general valuing of human life would be an obvious motif to bake into a game attempting to simulate society, but it could have been easily overlooked. Very few strategy and simulation games ask the player to consider the ramifications of their actions. This sort of devaluing is most apparent in the SimCity games. When developer Will Wright got serious about turning his map editor into the first SimCity, he turned to a book by Jay Forrestor called Urban Dynamics. The book sought to explain the rise and fall of cities via a series of mathematical equations, a number of which Wright implemented into his game.
But in doing so, Wright also implemented Forrestor’s assumptions about what an ideal city looks and operates like. Urban Dynamics encouraged city planners to forgo social programs in favor of incentivizing businesses, saying that such programs were actually detrimental to cities. When these ideas were integrated into SimCity, they created, as Kevin T. Baker wrote, “an ‘unreachable black box’ which could ‘seduce’ players into accepting its assumptions, like the fact that low taxes promoted growth in this virtual world.”
SimCity 3000 player Vince Ocasla took four years to figure out how to build the ideal city for this black box, and created an absolutely monstrous city dubbed Magnasanti. Magnasanti is a perfect city according to the game, with six million residents jammed into it. But a look under the hood shows a city that would be hellish to live in. There’s no fire stations, hospitals, or readily available leisure. But there is an extreme amount of air pollution, high unemployment, and a totalitarian police state available to all citizens.
There’s an assumption that comes with playing simulation games that the player is dictating the events that unfold; that they’re booting up the game for a few hours of playing god. But the worlds in which we play are based on others’ interpretations of reality, whatever they may be. It’s here where Rimworld stands out, including parameters for human happiness and empathy in its black box. Optimizing for a better colony means creating a better life for everyone in it—even Sweetpea.
I was stunned when Sweetpea was first incapacitated from her pain. Partially because I thought my colony was over, but mainly because I saw a bit of myself in her. I have chronic back pain. There have been days where getting out of bed was a herculean task, made possible only by throwing back whatever combination of over-the-counter painkillers I had in stock. Seeing Sweetpea lie in the hospital transported me back to those times when moving wasn’t an option. It also forced me to confront (what I assumed to be) an uncomfortable truth, that I was playing another game with a black box that wasn’t designed with people like me or Sweetpea in mind.
But it was. The colony did just fine with Sweetpea on bedrest for months until I was able to get her a steady supply of painkillers. I had even cut back on everyone’s work hours during her bed rest without any issues. Rimworld’s black box doesn’t just focus on valuing human life, of course, but its inclusion makes the game feel more lifelike than other games in its sphere. And that’s what makes accepting that my colony will eventually die from an animal stampede, dry lightning storm, or some other freak accident palpable.
Nicolas Perez is a freelance writer and opinion co-editor for New University. He’s rambling on Twitter @Nic_Perez__.