RIME

THE YEAR’ S NEXT ES­SEN­TIAL AD­VEN­TURE IS FI­NALLY HERE

EDGE - - FRONT PAGE - BY BEN MAXWELL

When Te­quila Works re­vealed Rime in 2013, its enig­matic ad­ven­ture gar­nered im­me­di­ate ac­claim. The trailer didn’t give away too much, but the mys­te­ri­ous pas­tel-shaded is­land, con­sist­ing of bleached-yel­low grass fields, empty beaches and fore­bod­ing ar­chi­tec­ture, was un­ex­pected and al­lur­ing. The com­bi­na­tion of the game’s de­sat­u­rated, crum­bling en­vi­ron­ment and its pro­tag­o­nist – an awk­ward, but ca­pa­ble, young boy dwarfed by his sur­round­ings – im­me­di­ately drew com­par­isons with cher­ished games such as Ico and Wind Waker. Rime’s re­veal was a tri­umph. But this suc­cess nearly killed the project en­tirely.

“We had a cri­sis of faith,” CEO and cre­ative di­rec­tor Raúl Ru­bio tells us. “We were so over­whelmed by the hype, and what peo­ple felt Rime was, based on the trail­ers. We were be­ing com­pared to mas­ter­pieces, and we were scared that peo­ple were go­ing to be dis­ap­pointed. We were ter­ri­fied af­ter Gamescom be­cause peo­ple were say­ing, ‘Oh! You’re the next Wind Waker! You’re the next Shadow Of The Colos­sus,’ and we’re ba­si­cally a team of 20 peo­ple work­ing in Madrid. The game was just six months into devel­op­ment, and now we had to de­liver. We were so eager to tell the world, ‘Oh, hey, here we are!’ But we an­nounced Rime too soon.”

The crush­ing weight of ex­pec­ta­tion that fol­lowed led to hand-wring­ing in­tro­spec­tion within Te­quila Works as the small band of de­vel­op­ers com­pared their vi­sion for the game with the pub­lic’s. De­spite its hugely pos­i­tive re­cep­tion, the trailer hadn’t turned out quite as the team had hoped and had failed to clearly com­mu­ni­cate what the game was. Devel­op­ment con­tin­ued, and the team be­gan plan­ning a new trailer for Gamescom the fol­low­ing year.

“The re­veal trailer had a pi­ano track that in hind­sight I re­alise was to­tally un­syn­chro­nised with the ac­tion. At first we tried to do the mu­sic and sound like in any movie, try­ing to adapt it to the ac­tion. But it wasn’t very emo­tional – it was a dis­as­ter. So af­ter that I told David [Gar­cía, com­poser and sound de­signer] to go home and start improvising, and what­ever he com­posed would be right. So he im­pro­vised the track that we put in the next trailer.”

Viewed back-to-back, the dif­fer­ence is strik­ing. The power of the new trailer re­stored the team’s courage as well as set­ting the game’s sound­track in a new di­rec­tion (see ‘Fine tun­ing’). But there was still a dis­con­nect be­tween the stu­dio’s ideas and the au­di­ence’s per­cep­tion of the game. “Peo­ple loved it and said, ‘Oh, it’s beau­ti­ful, but where’s the game­play?’” re­calls Ru­bio. “We were like, ‘Oh crap, it hasn’t worked!’”

Just a cou­ple of months later, Rime starred on the cover of E273. It was a world-ex­clu­sive fea­ture that Te­quila hoped would fi­nally clear up ex­actly what the game was.

It al­most worked. “We re­ally felt con­fi­dent that peo­ple would get the game when Edge played it, and hav­ing that cover was great,” Ru­bio says. “But then when we tried to repli­cate that with other me­dia, it wasn’t so great – the com­par­isons with Wind Waker were still there, and peo­ple were ex­pect­ing en­e­mies, com­bat and other things that we weren’t go­ing to be able to de­liver even if we had wanted to.”

Self-doubt be­gan to creep back in. Te­quila Works spent sev­eral months try­ing to work out what had gone wrong while si­mul­ta­ne­ously wrestling with a rapidly bal­loon­ing devel­op­ment project. Af­ter care­ful con­sid­er­a­tion, Ru­bio and his staff de­cided that the only pos­si­ble way out of this bind was to put the game in play­ers’ hands, in­stead of those of the press. The sim­ple an­swer, they de­cided, was to build a demo, some­thing that the team es­ti­mated could be achieved in be­tween six and nine months of devel­op­ment time. How­ever, as the an­tic­i­pa­tion con­tin­ued to swell, and Ru­bio con­tin­ued to ques­tion his vi­sion, that cal­cu­la­tion proved some­what off the mark.

“It took us two-and-a-half years,” Ru­bio says with a laugh. “We were too op­ti­mistic about our own dead­lines. But that time spent not pay­ing at­ten­tion to the world and fo­cus­ing on our­selves has been pos­i­tive in the end be­cause we could re­ally think­ing about what Rime was, and what it was not. The spirit of cri­sis dur­ing devel­op­ment was a con­se­quence of us not be­ing sure if peo­ple un­der­stood what Rime was, but more im­por­tantly if they were go­ing to like a game with no com­bat about a kid alone in a world. When we emerged on the other side of the tun­nel, we had the an­swer, and we’re sur­prised and grate­ful about how pa­tient fans have been, be­cause if I was a

gamer wait­ing for this game, I would’ve as­sumed that it was dead.

“Even so, if I had read Neogaf at the time the game prob­a­bly wouldn’t ex­ist. I spent some time six months ago go­ing through two-and-a-half years of com­ments on Neogaf, and I was lit­er­ally cry­ing for two days. Partly be­cause I just don’t un­der­stand the cru­elty, but more im­por­tantly be­cause I could see those years over those two days, and I be­gan to un­der­stand that maybe peo­ple can love some­thing so much that they can hate it.”

There was no sign of an­i­mos­ity at this year’s Game De­vel­op­ers Con­fer­ence, which took place at the be­gin­ning of March and saw a large au­di­ence get their hands on the now mul­ti­for­mat Rime (see ‘Time and rea­son’) for the first time. Ru­bio – who was one of three Te­quila Works staffers to give a talk at the event – may have come away with a sore throat and high­tem­per­a­ture fever, and noisy booths aren’t the best way to ap­pre­ci­ate Rime’s con­tem­pla­tive at­mos­phere. But both are prices he’s happy to pay for the op­por­tu­nity to see the game be­ing ex­pe­ri­enced in the wild.

“It was amaz­ing be­cause we could walk around and watch and chat to play­ers,” Ru­bio says. “Just imag­ine your­self work­ing on some­thing for many years, and then you pre­tend to be some ran­dom per­son and ask peo­ple, ‘Hey, what game is this? What’s it about?’ And then they spend ages telling you how amaz­ing the game is and why they like it.

“Some­times, when you’re cre­at­ing a game that is beau­ti­ful, you’re afraid that it’s go­ing to be beau­ti­ful and hol­low. But that wasn’t the case – peo­ple were lov­ing it, and they en­joyed play­ing it, not just look­ing at it. And that was prob­a­bly the big­gest re­lief for us, be­cause we wanted to cre­ate some­thing beau­ti­ful but mean­ing­ful at the same time. Fin­gers crossed, but I think we’re now on track to achieve the vi­sion we set out for Rime, which is noth­ing less than giv­ing play­ers the chance to see the world through the eyes of a child again.”

Tak­ing con­trol of the young hero, ex­plor­ing a world free from nar­ra­tion, tu­to­ri­als and, for the most part, life, it’s very clear that Ru­bio’s new­found con­fi­dence is jus­ti­fied. The boy’s move­ments are at once awk­ward yet flow­ing, and his diminu­tive stature en­sures that he feels vul­ner­a­ble in a world that is mostly free from threats. At first, get­ting about can feel pon­der­ous, how­ever. It’s not that the boy

doesn’t feel re­spon­sive, but his move­ments are de­cid­edly un­hur­ried and there’s no sprint but­ton to gee him along more quickly. Rime’s unique rhythm doesn’t take long to charm us, but while it all feels finely tuned now, get­ting the bal­ance right was prob­lem­atic.

“We had a con­flict,” ex­plains Ru­bio. “Our lead an­i­ma­tor, Sandy [Chris­tensen] is ex Lu­casArts, Pixar and Dou­ble Fine. She wanted to con­vey a be­liev­able child, which for her meant he had to be clumsy – some­one not in full con­trol of their body and who is still learn­ing, but still some­one with de­ter­mi­na­tion and wits. But the player needs an im­me­di­ate re­sponse from the con­trols.”

It was an is­sue Te­quila faced with its de­but game Dead­light, a project that drew in­spi­ra­tion from ’90s 2D ad­ven­tures like An­other World and

Flash­back – in­clud­ing the some­times slug­gish, an­i­ma­tion-driven feel of their con­trols. Ru­bio ad­mits that it was a mis­step, and is well aware that it caused prob­lems for some play­ers, so run­ning up against the same prob­lem with Rime proved stress­ful.

“For many months Rime also had a con­trol sys­tem that was driven by an­i­ma­tion,” he con­tin­ues. “The kid felt like a kid, but some­times you’d press jump and he wouldn’t do it be­cause he wasn’t at the right frame. That was frus­trat­ing. But Sandy has some very good friends at Naughty Dog, and we took in­spi­ra­tion from Jak And Dax­ter’s an­i­ma­tion sys­tem, which uses hun­dreds of very small an­i­ma­tion cy­cles with a lot of blend­ing. Even then we no­ticed that there were still mil­lisec­onds that didn’t feel right. So we de­cided that there were some ac­tions that should be in­ter­rupt­ible – for ex­am­ple, if you’re run­ning up a slope and you hit jump, the an­i­ma­tion will im­me­di­ately switch to jump­ing.”

This more prag­matic ap­proach to de­sign has sat­u­rated every as­pect of the game over the past cou­ple of years. At one point its puz­zle count swelled to over 500, a num­ber that in­evitably com­part­men­talised Rime’s world through some ag­gres­sive gat­ing and a sur­feit of self-con­tained puz­zle rooms that would lock the player in­side. The ini­tial tem­plate also re­quired play­ers to man­age the boy’s thirst and hunger – me­chan­ics that proved sim­i­larly de­struc­tive to the pac­ing.

“I know that this makes us seem closer in com­par­i­son to Fu­mito Ueda’s work, but over

the past cou­ple of years Rime and the world have been shaped by sub­trac­tion,” Ru­bio ex­plains. “We had too many things, and we re­alised that we had to re­move what was un­nec­es­sary for the ex­pe­ri­ence in or­der to fo­cus on what was re­ally im­por­tant. By in­clud­ing the sur­vival as­pects, we stepped away from our orig­i­nal vi­sion.

“Playtesters were al­ways cook­ing pinecones, or try­ing to find fresh water and things like that, and they for­got about ex­plor­ing. They felt like Robin­son Cru­soe, not a kid. Re­mov­ing those things made it bet­ter for ev­ery­one: you’d be sur­prised how fast adults change their mind­set from, ‘I’m go­ing to dis­cover all the items in this area,’ to, ‘What’s be­hind that hill? I want to see.’ And you have to re­mem­ber we’re a small in­die team, so it en­abled us to fo­cus on the things that re­ally made Rime, Rime, and not Rime: Don’t Starve or what­ever. I think, in the end, re­mov­ing all of those me­chan­ics and go­ing back to the ba­sics saved Rime, but more im­por­tantly it saved us and our san­ity.”

Of course, Jonathan

Blow was work­ing on a sim­i­lar set of prob­lems at the same time and solved them, the re­sult of which was 2016’s as­ton­ish­ing puz­zle game The Wit­ness. That game shares much in com­mon with Rime – both are set on a mys­te­ri­ous is­land, both cen­tre on solv­ing en­vi­ron­men­tal puz­zles left by an un­seen creator, and both seek to let the player ex­plore their sur­round­ings freely. The sim­i­lar­ity clearly wasn’t lost on Rime’s pro­duc­ers.

“I’m re­ally thank­ful to pro­duc­tion, be­cause they for­bid us from play­ing games like The Wit­ness dur­ing devel­op­ment!” Ru­bio says. “We were only al­lowed to play it last De­cem­ber – we didn’t know why at the time, but there was a very good rea­son. It’s a beau­ti­ful world, and has a very sim­i­lar ap­proach to puz­zles. But I’m very glad that we didn’t play it un­til De­cem­ber, oth­er­wise I’m pretty sure we would have taken in­spi­ra­tion from Jonathan Blow [and his team], be­cause their puz­zles are far more so­phis­ti­cated than ours!”

Puz­zles in Rime re­volve around per­spec­tive, sound, light and dark­ness. The boy is able to sing and shout, and any­thing made of jade will re­act to his voice. Lit­tle ro­tund stat­ues will light up when he yelps, open­ing doors or pow­er­ing mech­a­nisms – though, of­ten, you’ll need to find a way to light up more than one at once in or­der to pro­ceed, per­haps through care­ful po­si­tion­ing, or find­ing some way to am­plify your voice. At one point we find our­selves in a near pitch-black labyrinth raised up high above some un­seen floor. Here, the boy’s tune­ful singing il­lu­mi­nates stat­ues that help us re­mem­ber where we’ve been, as well as show up the pre­car­i­ous plat­form edges we need to stay away from.

Per­spec­tive puz­zles re­quire the use of spe­cial view­ing plat­forms – some fixed and some ro­tat­able – be­hind which you must po­si­tion gold frag­ments in or­der to match the shape of sealed door­ways or other ob­jects to re­veal a path­way. And there are also strange mech­a­nisms that al­low you to ac­cel­er­ate or re­verse the game’s day/night cy­cle in or­der to cre­ate par­tic­u­lar shad­ows. But while it’s im­pos­si­ble not to be re­minded of The Wit­ness as we play, Rime’s puz­zles inar­guably have their own char­ac­ter, while feel­ing just as well seated in Te­quila’s dis­tinc­tive open world.

They’re also com­ple­mented by a good pinch of plat­form­ing as we work our way around the rem­nants of once-grand struc­tures, and the two as­pects are com­bined in a new way when we reach the sec­ond chap­ter of the game. Set in a more arid-look­ing area, de­void of the lush greens that char­ac­terise our ini­tial ex­plo­ration, this new re­gion con­tains three large wind­mills, dozens of small stone shel­ters, and daz­zling gold de­tail­ing. But we’re not alone here – a gi­ant bird pa­trols the skies, hunt­ing, and the red­den­ing edges of the screen that oc­cur if we spend more than a few sec­onds out in the open alert us to the fact that it has a bead on us.

Hid­ing un­der any kind of shel­ter pro­vides pro­tec­tion, and a num­ber of short un­der­ground tunnels al­low us to move larger dis­tances safely. Ac­ti­vat­ing the wind­mill – which is ca­pa­ble of gen­er­at­ing a storm to scare the bird away – is an in­volved process that in­cludes mak­ing our way across the dan­ger­ous open ground, push­ing and pulling blocks into place to un­fold golden petal­like plat­forms, and the lo­ca­tion of a key, all the while be­ing har­ried by the swoop­ing bird. When we suc­ceed, a thick black cloud pours out of the wind­mill and into the sky, block­ing out the sun above but giv­ing us the free­dom to ex­plore freely again – though now in the pres­ence of a num­ber of strange hooded fig­ures who re­coil in fear when­ever we ap­proach them. Ru­bio won’t be drawn on what or who they are, nor their role in game’s sparsely told story, but they’re cer­tainly a dis­qui­et­ing pres­ence.

“The story’s not about you be­ing some am­ne­siac char­ac­ter who doesn’t re­mem­ber

who you are, and must over­throw some evil war­lord or what­ever,” Ru­bio says. “We didn’t want to tell a story about black and white or good and evil. In­stead it’s about you hav­ing no idea what this world is and what the rules of the world are. And you are go­ing to learn, just like any child must learn to dis­cover the world. In

The Wit­ness, the puz­zles are the main driver, and learn­ing the rules of those puz­zles is what will make you move through the game. In Rime, you also need to learn the rules about ev­ery­thing else, too. How you nav­i­gate, how you in­ter­act with the el­e­ments, how the other char­ac­ters are re­lated to you. And when you think you know the rules, we add new rules.

“In the sec­ond area, with the bird, you sud­denly can’t ex­plore freely and you have an el­e­ment of pres­sure. And that’s some­thing that you want to change – to re­vert the sta­tus quo to the happy ex­plo­ration that you had in the first chap­ter, right? The more you play the game, the more you will dis­cover and then bet­ter adapt to the rules. And things that maybe lacked meaning be­fore, sud­denly will have meaning for you.” Af­ter a pro­longed and no­tice­able ab­sence,

Rime is very nearly with us. The process of get­ting it to this point hasn’t been easy, and it’s taken its toll on Ru­bio and the team, but with the dark­est times now be­hind them there’s no longer the sense that the game has lost its way. With­out that ex­tra time, Rime would have been built from more pieces, but likely would have been much less of a game. Ru­bio is pos­i­tive about Rime’s fu­ture, and ex­cited to see it fi­nally re­leased, but he can’t help but re­flect on the dif­fi­cult years that led up to this mo­ment.

“If I had to change some­thing about devel­op­ment I would prob­a­bly have been more open with the pub­lic and ex­plained the sit­u­a­tion,” he muses. “Caby­bara did a great job when they had to ex­plain that Be­low wasn’t ready. We should have done some­thing sim­i­lar, but we were too em­bar­rassed and we felt so small, so we didn’t feel that peo­ple were go­ing to un­der­stand the rea­sons. I don’t have a clear an­swer to that other than of­fer­ing my apolo­gies to any­one who has been up­set by the amount of time it took to get done. The only thing I can say is that next time I re­ally hope that it will take less time. But game devel­op­ment isn’t a science – it’s more like an art, or cook­ing. Some­times you are cook­ing a souf­flé, and it’s not ris­ing. But other times it rises so much that it ex­plodes.”

# 305 MAY 2017

01 The ori­gin of the struc­tures found on the is­land is un­cer­tain, but mu­rals through­out the world of­fer clues as to their prove­nance. 02 There’s a sur­pris­ing amount of en­vi­ron­men­tal di­ver­sity as you move be­tween chap­ters. 03 While puz­zles gate off some of the en­vi­ron­ment, you’re al­ways free to run off and ex­plore other ar­eas. 04 The game’s mossy, over­grown in­te­ri­ors con­trast with its bright out­door spa­ces 04

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Rime’s strik­ing pro­tag­o­nist is a plea­sure to con­trol, though the de­lib­er­ately slow speed of move­ment takes some get­ting used to ini­tially

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01 This key-hole mo­tif is re­peated through­out the world. 02 The lo­ca­tion of this friendly fox is of­ten a hint as to what to fo­cus on next. 03 Rime’s crum­bling world is in­tox­i­cat­ing. Reach­ing some of its more pre­car­i­ous lo­ca­tions will re­quire some risky climb­ing, how­ever. 04 While you’ll spend more of your time look­ing at the boy’s back than his face, his move­ments are equally as char­ac­ter­ful and ex­pres­sive

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