If there’s one thing that unites us as human beings, it might just be a love of story. From the toddler begging for a bedtime story to the elder watching the nightly news or the film buff seeking out a rare movie, narrative plays a pivotal role in not only our entertainment, but also the way we process information and even our decision-making.
Consider the roles that narrative play in arenas like courts of law and politics. We wouldn’t think of the jobs of lawyer or politician as storytelling jobs, but that’s exactly what they are. Both the lawyer and the politician share the fundamental mission of persuading people, and nothing persuades people like a good story.
Today the video game industry is one of the most powerful storytelling media, and it’s also the most versatile. While it’s possible for books and films to leave space open for interpretation (Picnic at Hanging Rock is an amazing example of open-ended storytelling in both its literary and film incarnations), interactive video games have the opportunity to let players create stories in a unique way.
And the medium truly shines when players are allowed to take the reins and shape the stories they tell. Consider the wildly successful Sims franchise: theoretically, there’s nothing particularly exciting about tiny people who act like people.
But the open-ended nature of Sims gameplay means that players are free to build their own stories. Some players will create an ideal version of their own lives—others will ratchet up the dramatic tension with criminals and cops falling in love, and some will take gleeful pleasure in filling the lives of their tiny people with chaos and death. The Mod the Sims community is full of challenges invented by players to inspire others to create unique dramatic situations.
RimWorld, a scifi colony sim from Ludeon Studios currently in Early Access, plays like a combination of The Sims and Minecraft in many ways. Like The Sims, game characters have specific wants and needs and enough free will to add surprises to their behavior. Like Minecraft (or the roughly one billion other survival games released in the last couple of years), the game has a strong gathering/building/survival element.
What sets RimWorld apart, though, is its AI storytellers.
On creating a new colony, the player is prompted to choose a storyteller. Cassandra Classic follows a traditional storytelling arc, beginning with small difficulties (a rabid animal, a temporary psychic drone attach) and working up to more difficult challenges (a pirate raid, a crop blight) as the story proceeds. Phoebe Chillax gives a little more time between story events and is the best choice for those who are more interested in colony building than devastation. And Randy Random, like life, has no respect for dramatic story structure but throws out challenges with no particular logic.
These storytellers are independent of difficulty settings, so a Phoebe Chillax story played on the hardest setting will result in a much harsher situation than Cassandra Classic played on the easiest. Randomly generated character traits also play a role. (Tip: Never let a pyromaniac in your colony. Never.) And player choices matter too, meaning that no two RimWorld stories are ever alike.
Consider the tragic tale of Bonhome, my very first colony. Three intrepid colonists crashlanded on this harsh, alien world. At first, things went well. They built a house, sowed crops, and began taming animals. Then came the squirrel.
This rabid squirrel attacked everyone it saw, and I hadn’t yet worked out all the intricacies of gameplay, so I wasn’t really sure what to do about it (kill it, kill it with fire), and all my characters were still on the default setting of fleeing from danger. First the squirrel took down one colonist, then the doctor who came out to rescue her collapsed from bites in the doorway of their home. Unfortunately, that meant the door stayed open and the squirrel was able to come in and attack the last colonist until everyone was dead or in shock with no one left to rescue them, and only the squirrel was left alive to tell the story of how it destroyed a budding new civilization (until it dies from the rabies).
As I became more skilled at the game and was able to keep my colonists alive for longer, the stories became more elaborate. When Basque the pyromaniac went on a mad fire-setting spree, my other colonists regretfully decided they had no real choice other than to club him to death. Unfortunately, they were also starving at the time (mostly because Basque had burned up their crops), so…well, Basque will always be with them.
And while RimWorld’s graphics are generally uninspiring, the game has little strokes of genius that add to the experience more than any visual flourishes could. Colonists can make art, and they enjoy commemorating particular events from their colony’s history such as someone being naked, someone vomiting, or a couple becoming lovers, and the descriptions are elaborately hilarious.
The modding community has upped the ante of the game’s storytelling too. Players can install a mod that adds H.P. Lovecraft to the storyteller options, and another mod adds Cthulhu-esque “cosmic monsters” to the gameplay. It’s a fair bet that no one gets out of those colonies unscathed. There are also mods to add items, increase social interactions, and, of course, start a zombie apocalypse.
The possibilities are endless, and your RimWorld story will always be a unique creation, which is one of the reasons the game shines when shared on a platform like Twitch. Will you create a new utopia or a cannabalistic hellscape? The story is yours.