My once happy space colony has completely gone off the rails. People are fighting in the dining hall, prisoners are trying to break out of a small structure I’ve called the Friendship Room, and a bunch of robots just broke through the residential quarters. The entire situation is a monument to my hubris and arrogance, and at the end of the day, only the strongest will survive.
I’ve been coping with the chaos of the real world by sinking a ton of time into RimWorld, a colony simulation game and story generator that is also very chaotic in its own way. In other simulator games you can fully run the show, but in RimWorld base building is balanced by random events and quests. You might be able to save someone from raiders, and they’ll join your group — or a nuclear winter will set in, or a malevolent AI will make everyone angry and paranoid using psychic rays. Mondays, am I right? A colony of three people can quickly swell up until you have a couple dozen pawns running around, each carrying out their specific tasks.
To start, RimWorld assigned me a few randomized pawns, each with their own strengths and weaknesses. My motley crew of survivors included Trovatelli, a research wunderkind who grew up on a glamorous world, so she was great at anything intellectual or social but refused to do hard labor. She was joined by Sally, a spaceship tactician with anger issues, and Maverick, a former office drone.
These pawns need to survive, so I set to work building them a little base. They grew their own food and medicine, tamed horses and put them in a pen, and had beautiful little bedrooms crafted to their taste. It’s possible to play RimWorld entirely like Stardew Valley or an Animal Crossing, where the player focuses entirely on building a thriving community full of happy neighbors.
Or, if you’re like me, you can go into the difficulty settings and choose a narrative difficulty curve that throws challenges at you for dramatic impact. What could go wrong?
Things were going well. I had a thriving economy and trade caravans, and I was unlocking more sophisticated technology. I had automated my pawns’ daily actions, freeing me up to dream bigger. Trovatelli, at this point, was the engine driving our colony’s research forward, bringing us from a rustic agricultural community into a sci-fi base with spaceship engines and plasma weaponry. Sally was now the sheriff, and Maverick had fallen in love with Trovatelli and doted on her every need. They were joined by raiders who had been rehabilitated in the Friendship Room.
I was feeling pretty good about myself, but little did I know that the seeds of my colony’s disaster were already being sown by my own lack of planning.
I didn’t know my pawns would have so much agency. They’re fleshed out with childhood backgrounds, adult lives, and their own personal biological or personality quirks. Sometimes, this is fun — a tortured artist might throw a fit, then get a huge boost to the next item they make because they got to be angsty for a bit. Other times, it’s a little more dangerous. If you have a pawn who absolutely loves drugs, and you have drugs in the colony, that pawn — in this case, Maverick’s mother, who I rescued from a crashed escape pod — will take those drugs. Needless to say, her antics caused stress on Trovatelli’s marriage, which was less than ideal when I needed her to build spaceship parts and research cutting-edge technology.
These are big problems to deal with, and RimWorld is eager to offer you a whole host of solutions, only some of which are “moral” or “nice.” At first, the player has options to grow crops or build a new room. But as I created new facilities and trained my pawns to provide medical care or research new technology, I was rewarded with alluring new choices.
This was how I learned a dark secret: Every pawn is technically full of valuable cargo… their organs. And a raider attack might lead to a favorite pawn losing a kidney. When Rebecca Barajas, my colony’s number one artist and moneymaker, lost a kidney, I realized she was only one kidney away from death. Terrifying! As such, the makeshift prison dubbed the Friendship Room, which I used to recruit captured enemies, became more of a hospital. Or a morgue, if you want to get technical about it.
My crops were producing fewer potato plants and rice and more of the devil’s lettuce and cocaine. I felt pretty good about this decision — neighboring villages and towns loved buying cocaine. But I didn’t realize that a good chunk of my colony’s military, in between raids and fighting off robot invasions, was getting absolutely blasted on yayo. Making matters worse, they all got addicted to it.
Now, this might have been sustainable if I could keep producing cocaine — in RimWorld’s version of reality, at least — but on this hostile alien planet, a blight over my psychoid crops killed them all. That’s when things got really bad, because I experienced one of the worst possible outcomes for a RimWorld game: a cascade of mental breakdowns.
Every pawn has a stress level. If they’re well fed, comfortable, and surrounded by friends, they’re more than happy to work away and be productive members of society. But if they’re hungry or sad, they’ll need alone time. If you push a pawn too far, they can have a break and hide in their room or smash an item up in a rage.
These mood modifiers get more powerful for more extreme circumstances — for instance, withdrawing from cocaine, or finding out someone in the colony was “organ-murdered,” which is a specific category of murder that RimWorld tracks. And so, when one unlucky prisoner died after I took out his lung, things went straight to hell.
Everyone’s mood tanked. One pawn tried to start a party in the dining hall to lift everyone’s spirits. For a time, it worked… until one of the artists, upset about the whole organ-murder thing, dragged the corpse into the middle of the dance floor. This triggered several other successive breaks, including among the prisoners, who broke out of the Friendship Room and beat their guards to death.
It’s a whole thing, and it’s going to take a few days of work for me to repair all of this damage. Still, when things get hectic, it’s nice to disappear into a dense, narrative-heavy game. Yes, I might be dealing with a band of organ-murdering monsters — but they’re my organ-murdering monsters.