Watch tiny people set themselves on fire in Rimworld, an ultra-hard space-colony simulator

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May 2, 2016 by David Andrews

This in-development colony-sim is extremely difficult and extremely strange. (And it has mod support, so it's only going to get stranger.)

Rimworld isn’t a mod of Prison Architect, I promise. It may look eerily similar, and indeed draws significant inspiration from Prison Architect in both the visual and audio departments, but Rimworld is well and truly its own special blend of anarchy, order, personal interactions and giant space slugs. Rimworld is a sci-fi colony simulator that presents the player with three people, stranded on an alien planet with nothing but the clothes on their back and the scraps of their spaceship littered across the landscape.

These three people are often completely unsuited to life as a colonist. There are game developers as well as doctors, commissars as well as farmers. Some refuse to clean, no matter how much filth piles up around them; others get into fights with fellow colonists or passing traders.

There are environmental concerns, too. Planets are procedurally generated, and while they all happen to exist within the range of habitable environments for humans, that range is pretty big. Some are frigid, capable of supporting crops for only a short portion of the year; others are humid harbingers of malaria and heat stroke.

Rimworld on even its easiest, chillest of settings is a challenge. Rimworld features a unique two-tier difficulty system, where players choose a difficulty ranging from Free Play to Extreme, but also select the type of AI ‘storyteller’ they want. There is Cassandra Classic, who ‘creates story events on a steadily-increasing curve of challenge and tension’; Phoebe Chillax, who plays it nice and easy with the random disaster spawns; and Randy Random, who is basically just a jerk. I’ve played one game on Extreme, with Randy as my storyteller, and lasted all of twenty minutes before I was down two colonists and the third was on fire.

On slightly easier settings, however, I’ve found a rhythm of basic human survival transitioning into some semblance of civilization. I’ve created smithies, hydroponics farms, ranches, and even begun work on a spaceship to get my unwitting colonists off the rock they find themselves on. Defenses can be constructed, primarily of walls and automated sentry turrets, and hay can be planted in vast swathes to support ever growing packs of Muffalo and Boomalopes.

The combat isn’t half bad either. Raids are randomly triggered events involving human NPCs spawning at the edges of a map and assaulting your compound. While strong defenses like steel walls and gun turrets are the best way to take care of business when it comes to hostile attacks, it can be awhile before you have access to all of the resources needed to construct a robust defense. To deal with this, each colonist can be ‘Drafted’, or put under your direct control. Armed with anything from a steel shiv to a minigun, your colonists can be deployed against the enemy.

In combat, Rimworld feels more like an RTS than a colony sim. Combatants use cover and shoot around corners, though only if you put them into positions to succeed. They aren’t the smartest, though, a point driven home when a woman was abducted from my colony by a raider, only to be shot dead – by her own husband – as her would-be rescuers indiscriminately laid down a hail of fire.

Even on its easiest settings, Rimworld can be a challenge. I played three different colonies before getting the hang of things, each one succumbing to different pathetic endings. Colony 1 starved to death on the planet Helhoal after I failed to notice everyone was starving to death and insisted that they all keep chopping wood and mining marble. Colony 2 met a grisly end on Hileah, thanks to a wildfire that consumed the entire colony (which was built out of wood) – you’ve never known despair like that of having one colonist, marginally on fire, attempting to put her inferno-engulfed brother into a makeshift infirmary. Colony 3 was death by a thousand cuts, with one colonist dying after a wounded leg became infected, another succumbing to malaria, and the third dying apparently from depression and loneliness.

One of the incredible facts about Rimworld is that it is only in alpha – Alpha version 13, to be specific. It’s been around since November of 2013, immediately following a successful Kickstarter that raised $268,132 CAD. Since then, Rimworld continues to improve, slowly but surely, under the careful guidance of its sole designer Tynan Sylvester. In most respects, Rimworld feels like a game with enough depth and structure that it could be released at more or less any point, but it still remains in alpha – available for 30 dollars through the game’s site.

It even features its own small but productive modding scene, helped along by the fact that Sylvester made sure to include tutorials on how to mod Rimworld on the game’s official wiki. The vast majority of the mods seem geared towards making small adjustments or additions to Rimworld, such as energy efficient lighting research and development, reducing the cost of certain crafting projects, or adding in cosmetic improvements (which are not solely cosmetic, but can in fact boost the mental well-being of your colonists) like area rugs. Others allow you to fully customize the gear of your colonists pre-crash or provide complete overhauls of the UI.

Development of Rimworld continues to this day – Alpha 13 released just scant weeks ago. In July of 2015, Sylvester decided to release the game on Steam, either as an Early Access title or as a full 1.0 release, but then pulled back from the idea, stating that releasing on Steam ‘seems like a risk’ in a blog post on his development studio’s website.

At that point, a Steam release was set for some time in 2016, and that does seem to still be in the cards for Rimworld. In the run up to the release of Alpha 13, Sylvester stated: “After Alpha 13 comes out, we’ll probably target doing the Steam release. However, the Steam release is a game’s most important moment. One does not simply release a game on Steam. It takes a lot of effort and time to prepare a proper, decently-marketed Steam release, plus any time Valve might take to approve the final build. So there’s no date – just know that it is coming.”

While I’ve seen many Early Access titles come and go, flashes in the pan of Valve’s enormous marketplace, I don’t believe that will be the case for Rimworld. As ‘early access’ titles go, it is in a remarkably playable place. Fishing isn’t in the game (though it is available via a mod) and the UI is still extremely utilitarian (again, addressable via modding), but it is easily capable of eating dozens of hours of your free time. Rimworld is currently available at www.rimworldgame.com, or if you prefer to wait for the Steam release, can be followed at its Greenlight page.