Finding the Plot: RimWorld and the Art of Making It Up

Bedroom Brawl in  RimWorld

Bedroom Brawl in RimWorld

We have a tendency to think of stories as concrete sequences of events that are told to us by an authoritative source. Stories have a beginning, a middle, and an end. Stories slowly build to a climactic moment. Stories have clear arcs and identifiable subplots. And, more often than not, stories embody or express a clear idea throughout. But what if we sat down to consume a storytelling product, and, through play, were invited to create our own unique story? Enter procedural generation or the randomization of certain elements within constraints.

Procedural generation has had a bad few months. We’ve seen several titles that championed randomized content over deliberate design at the expense of control and polish. The results left a sour taste in the mouths of many consumers. Not so with RimWorld, a game that sits carefully between planned and unplanned to bring us a polished and fresh experience every time.

There are three things that make RimWorld a powerful plot-making machine. The first is procedural generation. It’s behind the majority of what we see and experience as we play, from the lay of the land to the personalities and skills of our colonists, to the timing and frequency of heat waves and bandit attacks. The second ingredient is a total absence of pre-written plot. We’re given a brief introductory paragraph explaining how our colonists arrived on the planet, but after this there’s nothing. The third is authenticity. The colonists that we control have systems behind their AI that lead them to act and react in ways that we’d expect real people to behave. This helps them feel relatable, which is essential for emotional engagement of the audience. These more predictable patterns of behavior also help them to interact with the less-predictable procedurally generated content, allowing them the space to create poignant moments of plot to fill in the empty narrative.

The core driver that pushes us to engage with the authenticity of the colonist AI is the game’s focus on colonist mood. Colonists with low moods are likely to have mental breaks, leaving them mentally incapacitated and occasionally causing them to attack or kill their friends. To prevent this we keep an eye on what colonists are thinking. We can see a list of thoughts for each colonist, such as ‘ate a fine meal’ or ‘was rejected by Xavier’. Each entry tells us whether the thought is positive or negative, and also how severely the positivity or negativity affects mood. 

Social relationships also effect mood, often being the most powerful influencer. Colonists seem to understand this, too. They have their own desires, and they pursue their desires when their work schedule allows it. Sometimes, if the desire is related to survival — eating, for instance — the colonist will stop working to satisfy them self. However, it seems that some desires are pursued even while the colonists work. Such as chatting up their fellow workers.
It was fascinating to watch this system do its thing. During the first hour of a game, I had all three colonists in a cave, mining. I watched as one of my male colonists flirted with the female colonist and was shut down. The third colonist, also male, tried his luck and did a great job. He ended up eventually marrying the woman. Here we have a classic love-triangle. A love triangle story spun into existence by algorithms and luck. And horny AI.

Things get more interesting when we add complexity. I had a colonist called Sten. He’d been on the planet for a couple of weeks and the group had built a half-decent base when enemies attacked. Scanning the field, I realized that one of these enemies was Sten’s mother. There was no easy way to shut the bandits out, so we had to fight. I made a point of keeping Sten hidden away so that there was less chance of him seeing his mother die. However, for some reason (possibly my own bad logistics), Sten ended up firing shots into the fray. He hit and killed her. 
This dumped Sten with one of the biggest mood debuffs: -20 for a family member’s death. Add to this the pain he was in due to injuries, as well as a lack of sleep and the general mess left behind after an attempted raid on their home, and his mood was devastated. He ended up having a mental break, taking a gun and shooting another colonist dead, before being beaten senseless and taken to the infirmary. 

And there it is: a story about a man defending his home from a gang, only to realize that one of the gang members that he’s shot and killed was his own mother. He wasn’t able to handle it, he had a breakdown and ended up going on a rampage that was stopped only when one of his friends took him down. Some of that was influenced by my own actions, but none of it was scripted or planned at all. The interaction between the unpredictable event system and the predictable AI led to a totally believable story of human tragedy.

I probably wouldn’t have cared about Sten and his story if I wasn’t invested. With RimWorld, the basic act of playing the game gets us all the investment we need. We’re essentially babysitting these characters in order to keep their mood levels up — it feels inevitable that we would feel some sort of fondness for them. We’re also always aware that this experience is unique. Nobody else is playing with these exact same characters with their exact same skills, on this same map and with the same threats. It’s just you. You own this story.

RimWorld wasn’t the first game to do something like this. It’s not dissimilar to The Sims. There’s a bit more blood and accidental alcoholism in RimWorld. What this game does well is the same thing that LOST, Stranger Things, Breaking Bad and Game of Thrones did well: encourage speculation and interpretation. For as long as you speculate and interpret events through your own lens, the story belongs to you.

In RimWorld your base morphs and changes as you renovate or fix holes. Your characters pick up scars and wounds. New colonists join your group. The colony graveyard grows every so often, and your colonists go to visit the graves on their own accord. There’s a sense of ongoing history, as the months tick by, and it really does compound that sense that the experience I am having right now is my own. Unique.