Rime, the long-gestating puzzle/adventure game that comes to most platforms this Friday and reportedly to the Switch this summer, is a product of three levels of loss.
First there’s the thematic loss. Rime is a response to creative director Raúl Rubio nearly losing his life, and that episode suffuses the game’s understated story. Enu, Rime’s androgynous 8-year-old avatar, wakes up on the shore of an idyllic but lonely island, spirited there by a sky-splitting storm. Clothed in a tunic and cape and stripped of all other possessions, the castaway spots a tall tower on the island’s opposite end and sets off to see what secrets it hides. Unstuck in space, unmoored from time, and separated from the familiar, Enu’s only object is to find and be found. At first, the island invites its visitor; later, it tries to turn Enu away.
The second level of loss stems from the game’s roundabout route to going gold: Rime nearly lost its own life during its five-year trek to our screens. The second game solely developed by Madrid-based studio Tequila Works, Rime was grouped with the greats years before its first playable demo. In August 2013, a one-minute teaser announced its existence to a rapt audience at Gamescom, anointing it as the next notable indie game; the following year, a two-minute trailer heightened the anticipation.
Rubio wasn’t ready for the comparisons that issued from every outlet. The game’s seaside setting and pastel palette drew The Legend of Zelda: The Wind Waker references; its unspeaking, pre-teen protagonist and deserted structures echoed Ico, Fumito Ueda’s PS2 classic; its towering, distant destination and faceless figures seemed drawn from Journey. Rubio acknowledges Journey’s influence and understands the Ueda allusions — both Rime and Ico aped the architectural eye of Italian artist Giorgio de Chirico — although at the time, some of the comps came as a surprise. “I couldn’t be objective, because in our minds we were creating something very personal,” Rubio says. “But now I can understand why people made those comparisons.”
The litany of name-checks created what Rubio remembers as overwhelming pressure to deliver on lofty expectations. “For us, it was like, ‘Oh shit, we want to make this small indie game. It’s a very slow-paced game, it’s about exploration, [it] has no combat, people are going to kill us,’” he says. Both cowed and encouraged by the community’s interest, Tequila Works went into seclusion for two years to turn an intriguing trailer into a full-fledged game, encountering the usual development delays endemic to small teams working with high-powered hardware.
Originally green-lit as an Xbox Live Arcade title, the game that became Rime was reimagined as a Sony-published PS4 exclusive before the Gamescom unveiling. Last March, during the team’s extended silence, Tequila Works reacquired the rights to the IP from Sony, clearing the way for a Rime release on every system. By then, fans’ formerly high hopes had cratered. Players expect to have their hands on a game no more than one to two years after it’s announced, and when a wait stretches to twice that length with little word from the developer, it’s only logical to expect a cancellation or a compromised product. Knowing that they’d have to rebuild the buzz, Tequila Works waited until this past January, when the game was close to finished, to “come back from the dead.”
“We announced the game too early, too soon,” Rubio says. “We expected that the development would be faster and smoother. We announced the game because we were eager to share with the world what we were creating. But now that we’re [more] humble and patient, probably we would have announced this title in 2015, not 2013.”
Rime’s third level of loss isn’t uncommon among creators, although Rubio may have felt it more than most. One wouldn’t know it to play Rime in its austere finished form, but the game was once slated to be much more complex, with menus marring its clean look and other inputs added to the basic climbing, carrying, calling, and jumping that make up Enu’s minimalistic move set. “At the beginning we had many more mechanics,” Rubio says. “We started to remove everything that was not critical for the experience.”
When Rubio and his colleagues came up with the concept of a kid stranded on an uninhabited island, their thoughts went to Robinson Crusoe. To survive, the player would have to forage and find shelter. That would mean collecting and crafting, which often resemble the busywork that gamers are trying to escape when they immerse themselves in virtual worlds. Giving the player a long to-do list clashed with Rubio’s vision of a game that could channel childhood’s blend of imagination and freedom from responsibility.
“It was like, OK, we’re telling the player to have fun and not be aware of the consequences, like kids ignore all of the dangers of the world and jump into the water, climb, don’t worry, everything will be fine,” Rubio says. “At the same time, it’s like, ‘Oh, yeah, you need to collect all of the [crafting materials] and you need to eat all of these grains or whatever, because when night falls, wolves are going to hunt you and you’re going to die a very terrible death.’ That nullified any attempt at discovery or wonder. People were trying to survive, right? The experience was not very pleasant.”
After cutting crafting and foraging, Rubio removed combat, which also seemed to conflict with the ethos he’d envisioned.
“You’re supposed to play as an 8-year-old kid,” Rubio says. “And becoming some highly-trained, experienced hero … I mean, no, you are a fragile little kid. That doesn’t mean that in the game, as you know, there’s no conflict or danger. But the approach to it is like, well, a child would do, with ingenuity, and maybe using your wits and determination. It doesn’t mean that you are totally helpless. But you need to be smarter, because you cannot pretend that you are going to kick ass.” Rather than give Enu extra abilities, Rubio focused on refining the core controls; one way in which Rime differs from Ueda games is its pursuit of smooth animation and precise movement, which Rubio modeled after Naughty Dog platformer Jak II.
Rubio kept whittling away extraneous trappings. Originally, Enu’s acquirable outfits bestowed special powers on the player, making foes into friends. These power-ups, Rubio says, were “breaking the experience,” so out they went, leaving only cosmetic costume changes. In 2015, he tells me, Rime featured approximately 500 puzzles, but it’s shipping with far fewer, most of which require moving and activating objects in a certain succession or manipulating light and shadow such that things fit perfectly into other things. Tequila Works trimmed not only the least entertaining puzzles, but also some of the fiendish ones that threatened to stall players’ progress in a way that wouldn’t serve the story. “It’s a game about exploration, it’s about discovering, it’s about not being afraid of failing,” Rubio says. “So if those were the rules, the puzzles should be something that shouldn’t get you stuck for long.” Plans for a literal labyrinth inspired by M.C. Escher morphed into a short sequence of never-ending corridors, which were easier to navigate and still produced the desired disorientation.
In its polished, present state, Rime leads with such a subtle touch that players aren’t always aware of the signals it’s sending. The game’s most obvious concession to hand-holding is a female fox that appears periodically to guide Enu onward, both an homage to The Little Prince and a narrative crutch in a game that otherwise walks without them: no narration, no dialogue, no tutorial, no text. Instead, Rime relies on what Rubio semi-jokingly describes as “mind tricks” and “subliminal messages,” an intuitive language formed from Enu’s body language and subverbal sounds, color-coded context cues, and a dynamic piano-and-strings score that takes lessons from LucasArts’ old iMUSE system. Although Enu doesn’t progress or level up like a traditional character, the island evolves around the character, growing darker and more decrepit as the game goes on. The cumulative effect of these audiovisual suggestions, Rubio says, is that “We could reinforce the emotions to the player without telling them, ‘Yes, you should be happy,’ ‘Yes, you should be scared.’”
That reluctance to tamper extends to Rime’s story; even the fact that the protagonist’s name is Enu, or that the fox is female, comes from Rubio’s explanations, not from Rime. Although murals scattered across the island hint at an underlying lore, much of the dreamlike tale is left up to the player’s interpretation. In Pixar-esque fashion, Rime’s ending will likely land differently with kids and adults. “We realized that we were not telling the player’s story, the player was completing the story,” Rubio says. “And that’s why it was so emotional, because they were the ones that were basically giving a meaning to all the story and the kid and the island and the tower. So that’s why telegraphing this story would have been catastrophic.”
However the player perceives the game’s point, Rime says more without words than most games manage with hours’ worth of audio logs and dialogue trees. “That’s the beauty of games these days, you have deeper messages,” Rubio says. “And now we can play games like That Dragon, Cancer or Papers, Please or Gone Home, where it’s not just about saving the kingdom or the princess or the universe.” It’s not necessarily about any single goal at all.
Almost four years after that fateful first trailer, Rime has arrived — and yes, it still looks like Ico, Journey, and even Inside. Fortunately, it doesn’t disgrace that lineage. Rime’s many losses are gamers’ gain.