All images courtesy of Ludeon Studios.
At a glance, RimWorld—a sci-fi management sim that's been climbing the Steam charts—comes across as a very dry game: Statistics charts, assignment charts, trade charts. Just lots and lots of charts. But hidden behind all of those charts is a game that is very concerned with storytelling.
In RimWorld the player is tasked with managing a colony upon an eponymous "rimworld" (a planet at the borders of known space). You need to eke out a living while surviving environmental hazards, rival human groups, dangerous fauna, the needs, desires, and ailments of your team, and the ever-present possibility of quasi-random catastrophic misfortune. The practical core of the game is similar to Prison Architect, Dwarf Fortress, or other "small-scale" management games in which the player controls a limited number of individuals. These characters can be ordered to build things, acquire natural resources, interact in various ways with other simulated characters, and carry out research for newer and better technologies and tools.
In a universe where space travel is easy and affordable and regular, why would a planet be occupied by only a tiny number of people?
RimWorld's appeal, as with so many games with randomized elements, lies in encouraging the player to think of (hopefully) intelligent solutions to unexpected problems and situations the game throws at them. Some games, like Dwarf Fortress, bolster this by creating worlds that undeniably proceed and function according to rules, but not necessarily strict narrative rules that we would recognize in the real world nor that have their bearing in familiar traditional structure. Instead, they produce slightly (and wonderfully) odd, peculiar, or off-kilter stories that are quintessentially computer-created. Take, for example, the famous tale of Boatmurdered, in which the several players who commanded that unfortunate fortress experienced flooding visitors with lava, various forms of Dwarven insanity, and a fist fight that eventually led to the destruction of the entire fortress.
By contrast, RimWorld lacks the scope that enables that kind of free narrative madness that Dwarf Fortress enjoys, but it's also much broader than something like Prison Architect, which has a single, clear, and compelling "setting." This attempt to balance narrative justification with mechanical variety is a dilemma I've faced while developing Ultima Ratio Regum, a game that also combines procedural generation and scripted storytelling content—which is why I can say that I'm impressed with how RimWorld tackles the predicament.
Developer Ludeon Studios was faced with two big questions: First, in a universe where space travel is easy and affordable and regular, why would a planet be occupied by only a tiny number of people? Second, how do you make the answer to the first question easy to grasp but flexible enough to produce a range of narrative and gameplay outcomes? RimWorld has four answers to this challenge. The first three are in the game itself: Interesting character traits, fixed start-of-game "scenarios," and a feature the game calls "AI storytellers." The fourth, though, is the massive canon of sci-fi stories and familiar space opera tropes, many of which are referenced in order to give the player a sense of direction in an otherwise arbitrary and strange world.
In RimWorld, you oversee a procedurally-generated planet and command several people with various abilities and traits: "Night Owls," for instance, enjoy working after dark, while "Ascetics" dislike having impressive possessions. Alongside these traits, characters are given backstories, often with bleak humor, like the "abandoned child" who, rather than being searched for by its parents, was simply cloned anew from the relevant person-vat. Not only do these backgrounds help define the world of RimWorld, they also determine how the player's characters will behave with each other, with the world, and with the ongoing challenges thrown at them. What begins as mere descriptive text comes to structure the game's unfolding stories, and to determine what narrative paths are taken and ignored.
Your characters are only one element of RimWorld's storytelling mechanisms, though. If your characters are your palette, then the "scenarios" the game provides you with are your canvas and brushes.The game gives the player a choice between four different starting scenarios at the beginning of a game. Each will lock into place a set of starting resources and the number of characters in outpost. While one of these options is random, three of them will always offer the same basic starter kit. This raises a question: "Why, in a game so focused on procedural generation and responding to the unexpected, are there these fixed starting scenarios?"
These scenarios give players some handle on what might otherwise seem complete randomness, and in the process they represent a rather interesting conversation about archetypes, tropes, and "expected" stories, with science-fiction as a whole.
In the first scenario, you start with three characters who wake up "in your cryptosleep sarcophagi to the sound of sirens and ripping metal." This scenario is a combination of two very familiar sci-fi tropes: the sleeper ship and the crash landing on a deserted alien world, which is a classic blend: take, for example, the fate of the ruined colony ship Hispania in Freelancer, the encounter with a meteor storm in Pitch BIack, or the hypersleep malfunction in zombies-in-space offering Pandorum. This starting scenario stands in a clear lineage to these other tales of long-spaceflights-gone-wrong, and immediately puts the player's imagination within a scenario they'll recognize. You control only a few characters after all, rather than a large, more practical and more directed colonization effort. What better and more narratively sensible way to get only a small number of people onto the surface of an unknown world than through a "cryptosleep" disaster in orbit?
In the second starting scenario, you're a rich, galaxy-trotting backpacker who leaves behind a "glitterworld home" in order to explore the "real" universe. No sci-fi story has ever explored this concept of the "bored explorer" better than Iain M Banks's Culture series. Take the lead character of The Player of Games who, bored with success and safety, travels to a far scarier part of the galaxy and risks death and dismemberment in the process. In RimWorld, this again offers a strong and entirely convincing narrative justification for how only a few people would wind up on a barren planet at the edge of known space, and a reason for them wanting to scrape out a living. This scenario positions the game's "story" within another set of familiar sci-fi ideas of the deeply safe utopian society and the risky outer world that, now overcome in the everyday life of its citizens, beckons to a certain few who desire risk, adventure, and discovery.
In the final scripted start to the game, players can choose to be natives to the planet instead of new arrivals, playing as five survivors of a local tribe "destroyed by the great blood machines sent by the gods," and struggling to rebuild. Once again, we see a clear lineage for this third scenario throughout sci-fi. Take the interaction between spacefarers and tribespeople in Arthur C. Clarke's Encounter at Dawn or the Goa'uld from Stargate SG-1 who trick less technologically advanced societies into thinking they're gods. This kind of comparison between the "primitive" and the "advanced" situates this RimWorld scenario very differently to the previous two, but once more within common and more importantly familiar sci-fi tropes. We see here not the contract between civilization and the empty world as in the second scenario, but rather the contrast between high- and low-technology, the meeting of alien cultures, the impossibility of understanding a society so far outside one's own, and the place of tribal peoples in a galaxy filled with space travelers.
These scenarios take the disparate elements of RimWorld's world and offers the player a loose, but clear, narrative structure for understanding what takes place within it. But once procedural generation enters the fray, things start to get a little wackier. On top of the three set scenarios, the player is also given the option of generating a randomized scenario. In one I found myself starting the game with over five hundred units of tortoise leather, which didn't really strike me as being absolutely integral to the quotidian science-fiction alien-planet survival-story. In another I began with 60 already-fertilized (well, we are living in the future, after all) cassowary eggs; in a third I was lucky enough to bring three foxes with me along with a group of characters suffering from malnutrition (the tragic outcome of this scenario is painfully obvious). One time, I even started with a doomsday rocket launcher, a bionic arm… and 300 bales of hay. The perfect set of tools to survive in the wilderness, right?
Many of these are what we might call "frontier items," more familiar to real-world, pre-contemporary settlers than space travelers. So, despite the wackiness, even this has an anchor in established sci-fi. Perhaps the most famous example is the Firefly universe, in which we see rapid and presumably faster-than-light space travel and a thriving interstellar economy, sitting alongside dozens of "border worlds" akin to the American West making their way with horses, carts, and shootouts in backwater saloons. (And I'm sure that if it existed, Firefly's second season would've had at least one episode about a planet with a tortoise leather economy.)
Nevertheless, it is hard to escape the feeling that this really shows the problem with pure randomness. In effect, it shows just how finely-tuned the three standard scenarios are: Each invites the player into the game with a basic story that they're familiar with from their favorite sci-fi media, but the randomized scenarios leave us searching for connections, sense, and rationality in the items we're presented with.
This is backed up by another feature of RimWorld: Player-created scenarios. Users can create carefully-crafted scenarios and share them with others, and most successful shared scenarios seem to be those with a strong integration between the story and the resources and characters the player starts the game with. Among the over 500 fan-made scenarios, some of the most well-received mods include one that puts the player in control of an exiled group of tribespeople, another that sets you as the last soldier in a devastated platoon, and one even starts you off as a group of hungover partiers. Each of these has analogues in other media, and each offers a way to contextualize their play.
This style of directed or limited procedural generation can also be found in the game's "AI Storyteller" system. Think of these as a more complex version of the difficulty selection in other games. One slowly ramps up difficulty, one gives long periods of calm interspersed with dramatic challenges, while the last, the charmingly named "Randy Random," does everything in his power lives up to his name.
Because these storytellers can interact with the pre-chosen scenarios in a vast range of ways, you might think that the "origin stories" of your team, whether survivors, explorers, or tribespeople, might quickly become lost in the game's events and the massive possibility space of RimWorld's mechanics and events system. But that isn't really the case, as one comes to instead position these events within the narrative selected at the start—a particularly dreadful catastrophe can be seen as just another trial that the survivors of the doomed ship will have to endure before making it back to civilization, whilst that same catastrophe in the bougie backpacker scenario will put the mettle of the explorer to the test and bring home the danger of these frontier worlds. In this way, the AI Storytellers integrate well with the starting scenarios, keeping them fresh rather than clashing and undermining their fairly exact stories.
By skillfully weaving well-worn (and well-loved) sci-fi settings through the game's core, RimWorld counts on the player's familiarity with similar stories to be a point of reference in a world of immense possibilities. Despite all the charts and statistics, RimWorld exists in a broader conversation with our expectations and understandings of sci-fi stories, explores the directions such stories can take when combined with procedural elements, and allows the player to explore a totally unknown universe that is, in some small ways, surprisingly familiar.