There’s a saying about space, and it’s this: don’t go there. Don’t go to space. Nobody says “I had a great time, up there, in space”. Instead they say things like “the gravity’s failed” or “why is there all this fire” or “this is like being under the sea but much worse”. Going to space is, for the most part, an invitation to die very, very far away from soft things.
Rimworld is a game, then, about things going badly in space. You take control of three survivors of a horrible crash, and guide them through establishing a colony on a hostile planet. You’ll face raids from rival groups, illnesses, food shortages, wild animals, scarce resources and bad moods. Warm days will cause you problems. Cold days will cause you problems. Beginning a new game of Rimworld is like being shown the world’s largest house of cards and being told that the only way to play is to remove a single card. The game oscillates wildly between the comedy and the abject tragedy of disaster, and far from feeling tonally jarring, it navigates the waters around both of these modes with a sort of freewheeling virtuosity.
There have been plenty of games about things going wrong, of course. The infamous Dwarf Fortress, perhaps Rimworld’s most direct inspiration, features a cast of remarkably petulant dwarves cooped up under a mountain and generally results in a horrifying cascade of events precipitated by, say, somebody tripping over a cat. Where Rimworld really shines in the “things going wrong” genre is in its entire presentation. The designers have a fantastic eye for hiding the statistics and systems that could be confusing or uninteresting while exposing the numbers that really count. As such, you’ll often find yourself in situations where you’ll understand most of the reasons why your colony is on fire, but still be mystified why, rather than helping, two out of your three colonists are stargazing.
Here are some things that Rimworld shows you, if you dig through the menus enough. Colonist’s moods; breakdowns of recent conversations; personality traits of people and animals; the exact status of everybody’s internal organs; how tidy the floor is at a given spot; whether or not a “gigantic” wooden sculpture is “awful”.
Do those individual components sound like they would be used to tell a light, bubbly story about a group of people coming together against adversity? No. No, they sound like they would be used to tell a story about three separate cave-ins and a massive case of food poisoning.
There were three of them. Yutte, who was seventeen, was a remarkable miner and builder. Roach was in his mid-fifties and tended the farms and ovens. Doc was maybe twenty five, and he was the doctor. He was also Roach’s son.
I’m using the past tense here. You might be wondering: “is that because these people are going to die?” and the answer is yes, yes, they’re all going to die.
I should probably say before I begin that I don’t have any screenshots from this save, so you’re going to have to take my word that these events happened. The reason I don’t have any screenshots is because instead of pressing F12 I was grimacing at the screen.
Rimworld’s early game is an exercise in forward planning. You have to carve a home into the rock of nearby cliffs. You have to set up stockpiles for wood and food and junk and corpses. Yutte got to work building the rooms and Roach laid out two large farms; one for potatoes, which apparently grow fantastically on alien planets, and one for strawberries, because I figured that a little variety would be good. You can only eat potatoes for so long before you start saying things like “I wish I could eat strawberries”, and that’s a fact about farming.
One of the many ways in which this game is brilliant and horrible is that it tricks you into thinking that this is the time, this is the save where things aren’t going to go horribly wrong. It manages this by making the early game all about building up your confidence; I managed to dig out all the rooms, I have a sustainable food supply, I built a freezer, everybody’s well armed, etc. What you don’t realize until it all inevitably slides into horror is that you sowed the seeds of your own destruction from the very start and, like a multi-step math problem, screwing up in the early minutes has completely messed you up.
Most of the trouble here stemmed from Doc, who, while a capable doctor, wasn’t particularly great at anything else. Here are the things that Doc really enjoyed doing: making sculptures, laying floors, being a doctor. With the exception of the latter, none of those are the things that really keep a colony going. Often Doc would rush into a room as if just about to help, only to hastily complete one floor tile and go back to working on sculptures again.
Yutte built a hospital, a room kept clean and sterile with two beds in case there was an influx of patients. In my first ever game of Rimworld I didn’t build a hospital at all, and that went predictably. In my second, I built a hospital with a single bed, which was a little better but didn’t account for the inconceivable situation of more than one person needing medical care at once.
Once I’d got the basics of the colony down and it was humming along nicely, I decided to branch out a little. I tasked Doc with creating a few more ambitious sculptures and built a generator to power a freezer. We had enough food to see us through the winter, but just to make sure, I built a hydroponic growing station in a vast room inside the mountain. Kept out of the weather, these potatoes could grow all year around. Once Roach got a bit better at farming, I figured he might be able to grow hops. We could start a brewery.
At one point, raiders attacked and Yutte’s leg had to be amputated, which Doc did with such efficiency and care that everybody was back to work essentially immediately. Yutte had a peg-leg now, but was thankful for the work Doc did to keep her alive.
He laid down some nice wood flooring in the hydroponics room.
And then everything went to hell.
The raiders attacked again, and, at first, it seemed to have gone okay. We fought them off, and it was only as I looked through the interface after the battle that I realized something had gone horribly wrong. Roach was fine, he’d made it out with nothing more than a bad mood. Doc, though, had been beaten over the head pretty badly by a raider with a club.
Look, being smacked over the head with a lump of rock is distracting, right? It’s distracting. That’s probably why, at some point in the battle, he’d accidentally shot Yutte in the stomach.
Distraught, he carried the unconscious Yutte to the hospital she’d built earlier and began tending to her, nursing the bruise on his head at the same time. He stabilized her, and then, perhaps to try and cool down a bit, headed off to work on a sculpture.
Then a solar storm occurred and all the power in the base went out, and several things happened at once.
First, all of the crops in the hydroponic farm, of which Roach was so proud, died instantly. He was distraught. Meanwhile, the sculpture room was plunged into darkness, but Doc soldiered on, working on a sculpture a little then wandering to the hospital to try and work on Yutte.
Simultaneously, and for reasons I can only put down to bad luck, Roach developed a horrible case of food poisoning and started throwing up all over the darkened base.
Lying in the darkened hospital room, Yutte began to develop an infection in her remaining leg. It crept up through the flesh and I decided that there was nothing for it but to amputate. For some reason, though, perhaps out of guilt that he shot her in the first place, Doc was nowhere near as good at surgery as he once was. The operation failed, leaving her infected leg in a worse state, but Doc tried again. He tried and failed to amputate the leg three of four times, before, depressed, wandering off to work on a sculpture.
Roach, ill, distraught at the loss of his farm, had a temporary mental break and wandered off into the wild.
Before the wound to his head became infected, Doc made one final sculpture. The sculpture showed Doc cutting into Yutte with an expression of terror on his face, and is clearly the doctor trying to work through the guilt he feels. It’s awful. I’m not being mean, that’s literally how the game describes it: “awful”. It actively reduces the value of any room it’s placed in.
I have to picture him, the pain in his head growing stronger, working in the dark on a sculpture he believes will absolve him of his sins. He carves his own face into the wood, he walks in the dark to the hospital, he tries and fails again to amputate the leg, he returns to his sculpture. It is quiet in the base. He’d put down wood flooring.
And then the wound in his head became too much, and he crawled into the other bed in the hospital room and lost consciousness. Nobody could tend to him, because there were no other doctors, and so he lay there, and days passed. His infection worsened.
Suddenly, at the gates, Roach appeared. He’d recovered from his mental break, and he walked slowly into the colony. There was blood everywhere. A sculpture in the kitchen distressed him. He walked past the door to his failed hydroponics experiment and into the hospital room, where he found that his son has died.
He carried Doc’s body to the graveyard outside and buried him and then, perhaps out of grief, died beside the grave.
After a moment, lying in the hospital, Yutte regained consciousness. She couldn’t move. The base around her was silent.
Perhaps she called out to her friends.
And then the solar storm passed and the power in the base came back on.
It was spring.
Jack de Quidt is a writer and a composer who designs games at The Tall Trees and talks over videogames as part of the Streamfriends. You can find him on twitter at @notquitereal.