I was killed by a manhunting group of chinchillas.
This is not something you’d expect to say in any facet of life, even in relation to a video game – but it’s a very real risk when you first land on RimWorld. Naked and alone, your avatar fights for survival on a cruel and unforgiving planet. You play a potentially benevolent god, guiding the actions of colonists trying to make it through the night.
RimWorld has been playable for a number of years, but recently left early access. Version 1.0 is out now and ready to play. This frustrating, yet oddly compelling sci-fi colony sim, a spiritual successor to Dwarf Fortress, is a sandbox, with no formal story to play out. There is a single objective; survive long enough to build a spaceship and make it off this world. But what the creators set out to do, and achieved, was to generate story lines that, along with your imagination, could create a saga, and death count, to rival Game of Thrones.
I became aware of this game through Twitch, watching one of my favorite streamers (not Marcia – the other one) play a game that looked dated; borrowing character models from Prison Architect with its backdrop of muted colors to denote ice, sand and dirt. This is a graphical style that belongs in the early 2000s. And yet, I got hooked. Just a few hours later I began my own journey, quickly killing off my first group of intrepid adventurers (not on purpose, I swear).
Although I was depressed at how difficult it was to keep a virtual person alive in RimWorld, I immediately started it up again. And I found a survival game that seems to immerse you more in the stress, tragedy, and joy of survival than any zombie-infested tundra or battle royale has ever done for me. Surviving should be hard. I should learn as I go and work things out for myself. It made my characters’ struggles more real for me and so their, often fleeting, successes that much more impactful.
Depending on the game mode, you can pick between 1-5 starting characters to join your new civilization, on one of a ridiculously large number of pre-generated worlds. The difficulty is set by the game mode itself, giving you different numbers of starting characters with varying amounts of tech and knowledge, as well as by an AI difficulty rating.
The planet is split into a variety of biomes that you would expect to see on any habitable world; from ice sheets to rain forests to arid deserts. Picking a biome will affect your colonists’ immediate risks but also allows you to tweek the difficulty. Some areas are much more challenging than others, at least initially.
Each character is ranked in 12 skills, including shooting, mining, and social, with each modified based on personality traits. For example, pacifists won’t be able to fight. Additional characteristics affect these wonderful and tragic little people, giving them depth and heart. True, some will just want to eat human hearts (yes, cannibalism is a thing here) but some traits will make them less likely to bend under pressure or go on food binges when they have a mental break.
But these are just your starting members. The colony will grow, leading to an increased need for food, shelter, and security.
The real magic happens as the characters start to tell their stories, building their new lives and protecting themselves. A blight can kill off all your plants. A short circuit could destroy your food supply. A plague could befall your only cook. All this could happen and more, but it could all also happen at the same time and as a neighboring clan decides to raid your base. Survival is not convenient and death is but a mouse click away.
But through all of this I hold on to hope. These little pixels have personality, drive, and purpose. I want them to live. The game inspires me to give them nicknames and question whether to send them into harm’s way, even when I know I have to. I am genuinely happy when they find love and share a sense of loss when a beloved pet dies. The game’s ability to make you care about these characters is what keeps me coming back every time my group wipes.
Sadly, that happens a lot. Damn those chinchillas.