THE YEAR’ S NEXT ESSENTIAL ADVENTURE IS FINALLY HERE
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.”
Rime’s striking protagonist is a pleasure to control, though the deliberately slow speed of movement takes some getting used to initially
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...
# 305 MAY 2017
04 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...