Rain pelted the roof of the colony’s main hall, which had become a squalid, stinking, shack since the residents had quit cleaning up around the butcher’s table. The few remaining explorers sat around the table, not speaking, but eying each other suspiciously.
One had suffered a mental break a few days before and taken potshots with the camp’s only rifle at the colony’s official mascot, a Labrador named Clementine, injuring the dog’s left eye beyond repair. Clementine’s original master, Yakuo, had died after succumbing to wounds he’d suffered during a pirate raid the week before. His former lover, Trail, was shivering in her bed in the adjacent room now, reeling from the effects of an infected tortoise bite. The remaining colonists were on edge and hungry – Trail wasn’t improving and she was the camp’s only trained medic, and Yakuo had done all the hunting.
Suddenly, disaster: a loud explosion nearby. The rain had leaked into the shack set up around the camp’s battery system and caused a short circuit, sending fire into the camp wall behind the unused cookstove. Despite the rain, the fire spread rapidly. Nobody knew what to do.
RimWorld, like its predecessor Dwarf Fortress, is a machine for generating these kinds of emergent stories. It’s a game where you start with a handful of survivors or tribe members on an alien planet and attempt to build up a colony in an intricately-simulated world.
If you’ve played Dwarf Fortress, then RimWorld will feel instantly familiar and even streamlined. If you haven’t, there’s a lot to learn and not a whole lot of in-game help when you first begin. In the game’s basic format, you’ll start with three variously-skilled colonists, some meagre supplies, and you’ll crash somewhere on a procedurally-generated world full of extractable resources, animals, enemies, and mysterious dangers.
You have little direct control over your colonists – instead, you create jobs for them to do, which they’ll perform based on the order in which you’ve given them and the priority they each have for the type of task: crafting, mining, building, repairing, hunting. There’s a research tree for unlocking new technologies; and traders, native tribes, and raiders will periodically visit your base out of curiosity or malice.
Despite being set on a different planet and far in the future, RimWorld is much more “Little House On The Prairie” than “The Expanse,” and that ties it closely to its inspiration Dwarf Fortress. Your colonists have to figure out for themselves how to cut stones and make carpets, and there’s less emphasis placed on sci-fi trappings like lasers or bacta tanks. You’ll build wooden shelters that sprawl into complex bases with workshops, bedrooms, meeting halls, and dining facilities and mine stone to make your base stronger and more resistant to the elements.
There’s a level of complexity to RimWorld that will either confound or delight players, depending on who you are. For people who find a certain Zen flow state in setting hourly work schedules and assigning priorities for each member of a camp, RimWorld offers that depth and more. For players who prefer simpler, brighter experiences like The Sims, the game could very well feel like playing a spreadsheet.
For those who enjoy these systems-heavy games, though, RimWorld is a real treat. There’s something profoundly satisfying about establishing and constantly tweaking the variables in a complex, self-sustaining system like this, and the sheer number of options as to how to approach your colony’s setup means there’s an almost limitless amount of game here. Master a build order for a temperate biome, and you can try your next game in the tundra or desert, or crank up the difficulty. You can also pick from between three “narrators,” which each have a different way of introducing random events into your scenario.
And “narrator” is a perfect choice of framing for what happens in RimWorld. Normally we’re faced with the choice between games that lead us down a particular narrative path, even if we’re offered decisions along the way; and sims where we either drive a truck or watch a city grow. RimWorld constantly generates the kind of story I tried to evoke above, because its focus is on individual, unique people rather than a particular machine, a scripted story, or a wide-angle view of a specific system.
The people in your colonies are what drive the stories the game creates, because they act like real people. They get jealous if someone has a better bedroom, they’ll become depressed if they’re subjected to tragedy like having fellow colonist die or if they’re forced to do violence against their will. They’ll pursue and cherish romantic relationships, or become sullen if their advances toward someone are rebuffed. Failure to maintain crops means starvation among your colonists, who can eventually resort to cannibalism and suffer the moral stress that causes.
This many variables inevitably means a difficult game to learn, and RimWorld certainly is that. While there is an in-game tutorial of sorts, it falls far short of covering everything about the game and at times arguably even offers misdirection. Menus aren’t well laid-out and it can be difficult to find an item you desperately need for your colony unless you already know where it is. Fortunately, after a long time in early access, RimWorld’s community has generated many very helpful guides – between the Steam Community and the game’s subreddit – that can make getting started a lot smoother.
Further, the game has Steam Workshop support fully integrated, and many long-time players have already created mods to help ease your way into the game, or as the case may be, completely change the way it works.
RimWorld is certainly a niche game, but it’s more approachable (if no less punishing) than its grandpa Dwarf Fortress. As I said above, there’ll be a pretty bright line between the people who love it and the people who find it insufferably dull, but for me, it’s utter management catnip, with a little Donner Party horror mixed in.
RimWorld was developed and published by Ludeon Studios and was released on Steam Early Access on July 15, 2016. A copy was provided by the publisher.