How RimWorld’s wild tragedies lead to better stories

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RimWorld is a bleakly comedic game that finds fun in three colonists starving to death, clinging to life under the shadow of a nuclear winter — or a whole group of beloved pawns being wiped off the map by a surprise raider incursion. It’s a game that isn’t interested in the concept of what’s fair, but what’s the most interesting. And this chaotic ethos is part of what has led the game to endure for nearly a decade: It’s not just a management or base-building game — it’s also a storytelling simulator that cranks out the wildest tales imaginable.

Games are often a power fantasy or an escape, and at first glance RimWorld might look like an idyllic Stardew Valley-esque romp. Pawns hang out and chat, gather in social areas to throw parties, farm crops, and cook them into delicious meals. While it’s certainly possible to stop the game at this level, RimWorld is notorious for its disastrous events that drive pawns to noble last stands or despicable deeds, thanks to the game’s wild AI story generator. Polygon spoke with Tynan Sylvester, the creator of RimWorld, about creating a game that can be equally compelling and cruel.

“We worked on RimWorld for six years to get it to the original final release. It took that time to make sure it was fully rounded — but there’s always new directions to take it in. It’s such an open simulation,” says Sylvester. Since RimWorld’s official launch in 2018, the game has received two expansions (Ideology and Royalty), which give pawns “belief systems” and add in royal titles and tithes, respectively. And a third expansion called Biotech, which will allow pawns to control mechanoids and raise children, will launch “in a few weeks.”

Image: Ludeon Studios

RimWorld is built on overlapping systems that link together. Pawns have moods that are affected by a host of variables. When their moods drop, they can have breaks, which kick off more chaos. A colonist might refuse to obey orders to go stress eat all of your valuable rations, or even attempt to murder another pawn. The expansions add on this; players can designate powerful psychic nobles in their colonies, which has benefits, but the nobles demand better treatment and more luxurious quarters. In Ideology, a player can join or create a raider religion that demands blood, or a pacifist order of vegetarians.

Fans have also made a host of deep, carefully designed mods. These mods can add things like family dynamics and generations, the ability for players to run their own bed and breakfast, or in-depth genetic modification. But while players can stack more variables on the pile, like space travel, giant bioengineered beasties, or an elaborate cocaine factory, if they keep the Storyteller settings close to the default, they’re eventually going to run into tragedy and violence.

“I think [RimWorld is] a little bit different from most games, which are more about creating a sense of victory, those emotions of triumph, or you’re creating something romantic or beautiful,” notes Sylvester. “But RimWorld is about the ups and downs of drama.” Ludeon Studios has worked to create a wide variety of circumstances that can affect a RimWorld playthrough, including inspiration from great movies and books — even the grim ones. There’s love, marriage, breakthroughs, victory after battle… and addiction, cannibalism, infection, and betrayal.

RimWorld - A pulse happens inside a wooden home, damaging the colonists inside as a fire rages to the south and attackers approach from the north.

Image: Ludeon Studios

“We embrace the negative as well as the positive,” says Sylvester. In RimWorld, negative outcomes can happen in several ways, either by random chance or due to a player choice. A squad of mechanoids can drop in the middle of a player’s temple and instantly smoke the religion’s head priestess. A band of raiders can come out of the woodwork, and prisoners can make a mad break for freedom. If you betray an ally, they might come back to beat your ass. For every win a player earns, there’s a malevolent AI or murderous rage waiting to drop on the player.

“In Star Wars, when Luke’s parents get roasted by Stormtroopers — that couldn’t happen in a video game with full systemic control over everything,” explains Sylvester. “The impulse would be to make it so Luke wins every single encounter and his parents never get killed. That really weakens the story as a story, if not the gameplay experience. If we’re going to have a story, it has to have tragedy, it has to have conflict and challenge.”

While games like Stardew Valley or Disney Dreamlight Valley thrive off a relaxing flow, RimWorld fans enjoy the game because it’s so prone to turning around and punching them in the kidneys. “It’s a weird type of enjoyment, right?” acknowledge Sylvester. “But as a broader experience, horrible situations make a ton of sense. I think there’s something that gets missed a lot of the time in design discussion, is that the player’s knowledge of what could happen has a tremendous impact on their understanding of what is happening.”

In short, every victory in RimWorld, each triumph snatched from the jaws of defeat, feels better because the player knows that if they had played their cards differently, it could have gone so horribly wrong. For some people, the disaster and danger is what makes things fun — and it’s why RimWorld has stuck around in the gaming zeitgeist.

“Starting all those years ago, sitting on a chair I got out of the garbage at my old job, in an apartment with roommates, I was like, Let’s make an indie game and hope it works out,” says Sylvester. “So to go from there to here is pretty remarkable.”

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