Why morality is central to the success of Rimworld’s emergent storytelling
The ultimate goal of Rimworld is to survive, build a colony and thrive. On a mechanical level Rimworld is about problem solving and micromanagement, but its greatest victory is the way the emergent narrative creates a sense of morality. Your role as unseen god to your group of colonists allows you to shape the feel, tone and themes of their survival. Is this is story about how a group of outsiders came together, arriving at the realisation that it wasn’t a way home they were looking for, having already built a new one together? Is it about how – in the face of survival – sane, rational individuals will literally eat each other in an every-man-for-himself tale about what horrors humans must inflict, simply to survive? Perhaps it’s the origin story of the biggest drug cartel in the galaxy, from humble smokeleaf fields to a large scale interstellar yayo empire. The truth is: it’s all these things and more. Rimworld is full of victories and tragedies, where a ‘winstate’ isn’t the priority. Losing isn’t failure, it’s the twist in your tale or a point at which ultimatums of ‘never again’ are created. To load a previous game when you lose a colonist is to derail your own story.
Having a large population isn’t necessarily a win in Rimworld – and while greater numbers mean greater productivity, each colonist is a complex individual. One colonist may be a drug addict, sparking conflict with a teetotaller; one may take issue with prosthesis, while another firmly believes in modification. While statistics play a key role in what colonists can and can’t do, the real alchemy is how they work in tandem within Rimworld’s highly reactive gameplay systems.
Tales of woe
Rimworld is bursting with Icarian stories of societies that shot for the top and missed with tragic results. I heard a Rimworld anecdote the other day about how someone’s thriving colony was torn asunder by the simple act of trying to tame a wild animal. The animal handler in question had the appropriate stats to make the taming a reality and the early signs looked good as he built a rapport with the beast. With the rest of the colony ticking along, progressing slowly and taking few risks; the opportunity to tame the beast and sell it a high value could allow the push for expansion that the colony had been seeking. However, things went south when the mercurial creature turned on its would-be master – brutally wounding him.
Should the colonists have left the creature alone they might have survived – learning a valuable lesson while paying a heavy price. However, whether it was for revenge, fear of continued reprisal or simply to salvage a missed opportunity, the colonists attacked back. Despite various ranged weapons, all but two of the colonists fell. While there were fewer mouths to feed, the colonists, all useful in their own ways, left gaping holes in the productivity of the burgeoning settlement. Then there was the emotional price. Having lost those dear to them, the remaining colonists started to lose hope. Their chores were cut short by frequent visits to the graves of their fallen friends. While these visits would bring them a fleeting meditative joy, the losses reverberated over time.
When Bioshock was released in 2007, it was praised for its critique of Objectivism through its narrative and (to a lesser extent) its gameplay. Bioshock’s use of Ayn Rand’s ideology (right down to the naming of its sort-of-antagonist) was a focused negative attack against it. Rimworld’s approach is different. What Rimworld does skilfully is force you to explore different moral philosophies without reminding you that it’s doing so and without judgement. It asks you to define what is valuable in your society. You could play the game as vegetarian pacifists but as soon as you come into contact with pirates whose source of wealth is plundering, you are forced to make difficult choices. Prosperity itself is subjective. If you have a highly technologically advanced society of a labour class and a science/intellectual divide, tensions are sure to form. Equally you could a build an egalitarian society with a focus on happiness and leisure over rapid expansion and advancements.
What makes the morality of Rimworld ring so true is its nuance. Many games have attempted morality systems; the result often being somewhat binary: a set of devil horns or a halo; kill an innocent puppy or save it. These choices were backed up in limited reward systems. Being bad may make the game easier in the short term but only good actions will give you a good ending or simply a bigger payoff that takes longer to arrive.
However, in Rimworld, your rewards for actions can be penalties in context. By using simple graphics and pen-and-paper style character sheets with bios and pre-existing relationships, Rimworld asks you to use your imagination. When a colonist loses an arm in a mining collapse, you’re asked to imagine it, how they feel and how others now see them. Keeping a miner with only one arm to work might be an indulgence for a colony that needs everyone to pitch in equally if it’s to survive. From a game-y perspective, the correct thing to do to achieve victory would be harvest his organs and sell them; with the money you could buy vital supplies and sooner or later the game will generate another colonist to join you anyway. But seriously, think about that. You’re making the call to harvest the organs of a functioning person who you have taken care of to get ahead in a game. It’s not the wrong choice but it’s an entirely Darwinian one and you can justify it in the context of survival.
That’s a real moral choice in a game.