Rime: design ruminations

Sunday, June 4, 2017

Tagged: reviews, ruminations, ico, journey, wordless narrative, shadow of the colossus, walking simulators, rime, text, climbing

I bought a PS3, in part, because I figured there might be another Fumito Ueda game someday. Then I watched The Last Guardian skitter away into an uncertain future. Then I lost patience with the Playstation platform, and set up a Windows gaming box. Then The Last Guardian shipped for PS4, and I realized that I was never going to play it because Sony was just too awful to put up with.

(Did I tell the story of how I bought all my PS3 games using store-bought gift cards, because I was too paranoid to give Sony my credit card number? And then Sony got hacked and proved my paranoia right? If I'd been a real conspiracy theorist, that would have been the happiest day of my life. I'm not and it wasn't.)

Anyhow, I've seen Rime floating around the convention show floors for a couple of years now, and it looked like a pretty cool... PS4 exclusive. But no! It showed up on Windows, so I get to play it after all.

Rime is a beautiful, moving, lovingly-polished, wordless narrative adventure game. It makes me want to say that the wordless narrative adventure game is a dead genre.

It's not dead dead. But I'm going to be more skeptical about it in the future.

(SPOILERS start here. Big, big SPOILERS.)

Let's start with the good parts. Rime is a story about grief. It doesn't start out with grief; it starts with an idyllic green island to explore and find cute statues all over. At the end of the game you may learn that this first chapter was titled "Denial", and the subsequent chapters were "Anger", "Bargaining", "Depression", and "Acceptance". No ambiguity there! But the tone -- and the tonal shift -- is presented cumulatively; it sneaks up on you as you explore and puzzle your way through the game. This is awfully effective.

It's particularly effective when the designers manage to tie the gameplay into the theme. The "Anger" chapter is a running steeplechase, hounded by a furious bird-monster whose gaze burns the screen red if it spots you. (Then it rips you apart.) Spot on! "Bargaining" is a series of mechanical puzzles where you construct, and then receive aid from, a friendly robot. Everything in this chapter involves getting machines to do work for you. So that fits too.

The other chapters aren't as thematically effective. "Denial", as I said, is an idyll of free exploration; it expresses its theme mostly by pretending to be a sort of game that the rest of the game isn't. "Depression" is just ordinary tomb-climbing exploration. The scenery expresses the theme, all gloom and pouring rain, but the gameplay doesn't particularly.

And then "Acceptance" is a minimally interactive epilogue -- what we'd call a walking simulator if the whole game were like that. Do we take the point that, having worked through our loss, we have no more need for this story to be a videogame? I guess that holds up.

Okay, three out of five chapters get the gold star for thematic gameplay. The other two aren't failures, they just don't pull off that deep reflection.

The whole game, as I said, is beautiful, moving, and effective. So why do I walk away feeling skeptical?

Perhaps I am overly analytical. But for me, Rime was a running metagame of spotting familiar game elements. It wasn't just "Hey, this tower reminds me of Ico". It was "This tower reminds me of Ico, and here's where the spiral stairway is broken so you have to climb out a window and make your way around a ledge to the next window." The rage-bird who chomps you if you spend too long out of cover? Final Colossus boss. Shadow-monsters? Ico again. Vast, slender stone bridges across the land? Red Journey cape? Cute animal companions? Cinematic orchestral score? Walking down a hallway towards a narrow vertical opening filled with blinding light?

(I admit that playing Rime right after Edith Finch and Dream Machine chapter 6 was unfortunate timing. It would be tacky to carve "crawled through ladyparts again" notches on my game controller, but...)

The little-boy body language, the frolicking fox, all well-mapped territory. Even the friendly robot in the "Bargaining" chapter left me with the unnerving thought that the designers had just won a bet: they got me sad about a GLaDOS Personality Core.

And then of course there's the ending note of revealed tragedy, which is, you know, exactly like every other walking-sim game in the past several years where you turn out to be dead, a ghost, a memory, or otherwise in the process of dissolving into the infinite. (Credit to Gone Home for being the honorable non-morbid exception.)

Now, taking a step back, this is unfair. You can pick common elements out of any game genre. And I'm a permanent sucker for the you-were-haunting-the-story-all-along ending; I've used it more than once in my own games. So it's not like I have any grounds for complaint.

My problem in Rime was this stream of familiar elements, insufficiently leavened with new stuff. There was new stuff! Rime's core puzzle mechanics are sound, shadow, and point-of-view; these are all cool and they're elaborated in creative ways through the game. Just not enough to distract me from all the stuff that didn't feel so new.

Let's compare other wordless-narrative games. I've said nice things about Virginia and Quadrilateral Cowboy, both of which have a cockily-cinematic thing going on. I just played Old Man's Journey, which was tiny and delightful and had its own out-of-shape-old-dude thing going on. Inside was not entirely successful but it had a terrific creepy-gross chiaroscuro thing going on.

But then I've played Firewatch, Oxenfree, and Night in the Woods, whose things-going-on are vivid, endearing characters who get into your head by constantly talking to each other! I've played Edith Finch, with its carefully-drawn historic voices, and Ladykiller with its intense discussions of consent and need. Maybe this whole wordless-narrative thing is unnecessarily restrictive?

My point is -- and I know this has been a long route around to a blitheringly obvious conclusion -- words are a really great way to make your game stand out. I feel like the designers of Rime struggled to find nonverbal ways to express their story and character. They wound up in the same corner as a lot of other games because there just aren't that many great nonverbal solutions. If you have to convey tone through animation, a flowing red cape is a great focus. If you have to convey tone through architecture, improbably-soaring architure is wonderful. Are these the only possible choices? No, but maybe you have to work to steer away from them.

Or else Rime's designers just really loved Fumito Ueda and Journey. To which I say, have at it! I loved them as well! But words are awesome too.