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Saturday, March 2, 2024

I've Played 'RimWorld' for 700 Hours. I May Never Escape

Life is an unforgiving struggle. Eleven years have passed for my rag-tag band of hardened survivors. I’ve spent more than 130 hours trying to get them off this godforsaken rock.

I’ve lost many, many colonies, but I won’t let this one die. I’ve done so many terrible things to keep them alive, yet many have already perished. An alien centipede killed Grim. Bell died of a heart attack this past summer. And there’s no forgetting Waldo, our brave, beer-guzzling grizzly. He died fighting off megaspiders to protect the colony, and when meat got scarce, they ate him.

Welcome to RimWorld

This gritty, dark, sci-fi real-time management simulation is unlike anything I’ve ever played before. It has base-building, survival elements (if you die, you start over), an open world, strategy, and a space-western feel like Firefly. It’s not an easy game to pigeonhole, which is probably why it took a Kickstarter campaign to get it made.


It has become an obsession. I’ve spent more than 700 hours of my life playing it in the last couple years. A game hasn’t gripped me this powerfully since the days of Civilization II, where I kept taking “just one more turn” for hours on end. But eventually I mastered Sid Meier’s epic, developing reliable winning strategies over time. With RimWorld, I still feel like I’m learning.

The game doesn’t look like much. The 2D top-down art style is simple. The animations, sound effects, and music are sparse. Each new game features randomly generated characters, maps, and events. There’s also no narrative beyond a general struggle to survive long enough to build a spaceship and flee the planet you're stuck on. Even escape is entirely optional; there’s no pressure to leave this place, beyond how inhospitable it is.

Emergent storytelling is a tricky thing to nail, and RimWorld’s hook is that it masters the methods better than most. Stories gain deeper resonance because the gameplay is so brutally challenging and full of moral dilemmas. Do you recruit the raiders you took prisoner, or harvest their organs for profit? Do you save the volatile pyromaniac begging for rescue or leave her to die alone? Should you euthanize your brain-dead dog? If you do, should you eat him?

The game doesn’t judge. If you want to be a slaver and make bowler hats from human skin, you have only your own conscience to contend with. I prefer a strategy that lets me sleep at night. I’ve run breweries, turned out high-end furniture, farmed chocolate, and woven devilstrand clothing from genetically engineered mushrooms. I’ve had colonists sculpt beautiful statues of jade, manufacture masterwork miniguns, and train packs of golden retrievers.

Not that I’m a saint. Some morally questionable strategies are simply too rewarding to pass up. Captured raiders are an opportunity for much-needed surgery practice. You can give your enemies wooden legs, then send them home for a relations boost. It’s perversely comical to see pegleg Joe hobble back into town with the next raid.

There’s also a wider world of guard posts and settlements, where stashes await amid competing tribes. Not everyone is hostile. You can trade and make allies, complete missions, give gifts to win favor, and call in help when you need it most. But the heart of the game is your colony and the people that live there.

I get attached to my colonists, or pawns, as players often call them. They develop new skills and forget old skills they don’t use enough; they pick up scars, both physical and mental; they craft unique art and watch TV; they get worse at negotiating when stoned; they fall out and make up again; they get married and divorced; they have affairs; they do your bidding some of the time; they have psychotic breaks when things get too bleak; they get inspired when they’re happy; and they die … a lot.

The fact that death is permanent elevates RimWorld. I’ve seldom felt such grief when a game character dies. Think of all the time you might sink into your favorite Sims character, building up their career, designing a great house, furnishing and decorating it, clothing and styling them. Now imagine a space pirate kicking in the door and shooting them in the guts.

These days I don’t play regularly, because the painful nature of colony implosions is intense. When it all goes wrong, I have to take a break. I was sure the game before this was going to be my glorious triumph, but a raider with a Doomsday rocket launcher knew different. I didn’t play for six months after that.

But the insidious temptation grows as the memory of bitter defeat fades. The familiar gameplay is soothing. I’ll remember that strategy I’ve been meaning to try, then start to fall in love with a new group of pawns. Soon enough, I get stuck in RimWorld again.

Live. Die. Repeat.

In my latest playthrough, I managed to build my ship and once again fired up its reactor, which triggered the end game. I knew this would spark wave after wave of relentless attack.

I was ready. Traps covered the perimeter, and a killbox I set up funneled waves of tribespeople and pirates to their ruin. My first casualty arrived with the mechs, then a plague outbreak hit. It’s all a blur after that. When the raiders break through, Nelly the rhino is the only thing that stops them from running wild. It’s a bloodbath. The last wave of attackers landed mechs inside my walls, sending four colonists to hospital, and one to the morgue, but the ship was finally ready.

It felt wrong to leave my animals behind, but this game is full of hard choices. We blasted off as the screen fades to white. The credits roll, starting with a list of eight colonists who made it and then the 15 who didn’t. I remember every one, and I’m not ashamed to admit there’s a tear in my eye as the music plays us out.

My colonists are finally free, and so am I. But even as we soar off into space, a part of me knows I’ll go back.

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