Lesbian Matriarchs, Smokeleaf Dealing, and Doomed Pyromaniacs: The Diversity and Zaniness of Rimworld

I’m a fan of story games. Deep RPGs with a lot of character development or walking simulators with well done environmental storytelling tend to be the ones I look out for. I also, however, have a huge weakness for good sim/strategy games; particularly space-related ones like Galactic Civilizations. But even games like the Civilization franchise (okay, mainly Civ V) often keep me going well after bedtime. I also generally want games with good representation (which unfortunately often just means some representation). Rimworld, though still in early access, hits most of these notes and has proven a pleasant surprise thus far.

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The town mothers have a sweet pad. Though I’m not sure who decided the Muffalo could sleep inside. (screenshot from Rimworld)

As a colony sim that plays with the amount of control you have over AI-generated stories that develop between colonists, the potential for complex and diverse scenarios to emerge is similar to that of a game like The Sims and one that provides some interesting opportunity for social commentary, tackling serious issues but not taking itself too seriously in the process.

To give you an idea what exactly I mean, I’ll tell two of those stories: one about a quasi-utopian space-weed dealing colony run by lesbian matriarchs, and one that got burned down by a stressed out pyromaniac and devolved to cannibalism.

TW: Discussion of (non-graphic) extreme violence, drug use, and ableist/sexuality/gender stereotypes after the jump.

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The three current AI “Storytellers.” (screenshot from Rimworld)

First off, a bit about the actual mechanics and gameplay. When you start a new colony, you choose or create a scenario. This mostly involves selecting what items you start with and what resources you start near. In the scenario editor you can control a huge amount of variables like stat bonuses/handicaps or forcing/disabling specific events/disasters or the allowed colonist age range when they are generated (kids and the very old can’t do specific jobs like hunt or haul things). After that you choose your AI “storyteller”, who controls random events and your difficulty setting. The combination of these two determines the overall challenge and how brutal or mellow the experience. The storytellers (Cassandra Classic, Phoebe Chillax, and Randy Random) set the tone of the events and their randomness while the difficulty almost feels like you’re setting the survival odds for your colonists.


This is where you can screw up the AI and make the colonists miserable if you want; otherwise referred to as the work tab. (screenshot from Rimworld)

After that you generate your random (infinitely re-rollable) settlers, paying attention to their specific traits and backstories along with their associated skill levels. You need to manage a wide array of needs including things like hunting, farming, cooking, research, numerous crafting types, construction, mining, art, etc., while also picking colonists that give you bonuses to key jobs and making sure you avoid (or seek out) particularly dangerous combinations of negative traits (like “misandrist/misogynist in a colony of aggressive men/women” or “cannibal in a society of pacifist vegetarians”). The bulk of the gameplay then consists of building and zoning things, then assigning work priorities and sometimes individual tasks to the colonists. You can also stop them from doing their current task or order them to a specific location unless they have suffered a “mental break”, in which case you will need to contain the damage and ignore, subdue, or even kill that colonist depending on the specifics and your play style. They will eventually develop their own social lives and you can check in on them. The combination of these social lives and the colony-wide events make up the stories.

Those stories are why the game stands out, like my first one with the pyro and the cannibals. Initially, my castaways (default scenario, moderate difficulty) seemed to be doing quite well. They built fast and seemed to have a solid farm going. But winter came sooner than expected and the crops weren’t growing fast enough to beat it. That stressed everyone out. At this point I realized I should have paid closer attention to those personality traits, as the pyromaniac trait means that the character randomly starts fires when stressed. Like… a lot of fires. Fires are bad, what with the burning things down and all. By the time my stressed out firestarter was done, half the colony was burned, stored food included. My miner killed the pyromaniac after he tried to start another fire, then she got ambushed by the teacher who had snapped and started firing her pistol wildly into the colony. Given that she was the only colonist left and there was no food, the miner killed and ate her former colleague and eventually froze to death as not enough resources remained to build survivable shelter. A cruel and ironic fate indeed: freezing to death in a burned down colony. Almost like The Thing, only without Keith David.


The crew, Round 2. They like hats. (screenshot from Rimworld)

Okay, clearly I didn’t RTFM before playing this, though the conclusion was oddly mesmerizing (like… they literally burned down half the planet, then ate each other). I needed to try again and put more thought into it. So I crafted a scenario, this time with 5 colonists. I decided my colony would be made up of disgraced scientists and “Smokeleaf” dealers who funded their colony with their drug empire. So yeah, I had them start with a bunch of weed, medical tech, and cash; like one part Breaking Bad and two parts Cheech and Chong with a dash of MST3K. I then spent a good ten minutes generating the colonists. After I noticed that one of those random traits was “gay”, I obviously had to colonize my new rim world with at least one gay couple. So I was able to roll a twenty-nine-year-old Hispanic woman named Anna Moreno, who was an exiled researcher and a skilled doctor. I then rolled her partner: a thirty-six-year-old Nordic woman called Heidi Hokka who was a gardener with a penchant for mild chemical dependency. For my other three colonists I rolled Phillip Mathis, a twenty-nine-year-old African-American information broker, Adam Cline, a sixty-year-old white European miner, and Paola Mercado, a forty-one-year-old Brazilian veterinarian.

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It actually took a really long time to roll a stereotypical man hating lesbian for this shot, but the combo of “gay” and “misandrist” is possible. (Screenshot from Rimworld)

Right now is a good time to admit that I made a crappy assumption. I assumed that anyone not tagged “gay” was tagged “straight”, though neither that term nor “bisexual” is in the current list of traits. I figured this would be a case of heteronormativity that slightly lessened the experience. It was not. Turns out that there is only “gay” and everyone else is tagged, essentially, as “sexuality not defined by player” which seems to have a slight bias towards heterosexual pairings that lead to quick pregnancy. Yeah, it’s “gay” or “don’t really care”. As a result, when the game generated random family relationships between the colonists, it made Hokka and Mercado a married couple, given that they had more shared interests and complementary traits, and left my other lesbian the only single woman in the colony. I have to say, though the prospects for disaster were large in my mind, the fact that the game decided Mercado was a better fit for Hokka than Moreno was pretty cool and demonstrates that (at least in its current state) the game will generate gay relationships even when not explicitly told to do so.

How did this play out? Pretty well actually. Moreno hit on Hokka a lot, but Hokka was faithful to Mercado; they remained close friends, however, and engaged in debate regularly. Mathis took to colony life quickly and used his brokering skills to become the camp’s Radar O’Reily. He hooked up with visiting caravans to curb his mild sexual frustration and became close friends with everyone else. Cline was super grumpy and I thought it was because he was a sixty-year-old miner but it turns out he just wanted his own room; hey, he’s earned it. They all smoked a bit of Smokeleaf (Hokka smoked a bit too much but not enough to impact her job or her relationship) and made a good bit of cash. They decided they liked bowler hats. They built a bunch of colored lights and gold flowerpots. Ultimately, it was a slightly matriarchal colony run by married lesbians where everyone smoked weed and got along pretty well most of the time. The women stayed friends irrespective of the sexual tension and the guys got along with them really well and used their caravan hookups to somewhat improve diplomatic relations (excuse the tired pun) with the nearby factions. I’d call that a success! I mean… that’s like the best colony ever right?

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A sample from Hokka’s social feed. Don is their pet Muffalo. (Screensot from Rimworld)

So far my third serious attempt at a colony is only just taking hold, but the doctor (a twenty-nine-year-old white European single mother) is in a relationship with the chief of the guards (a twenty-six-year-old Asian woman who was a war orphan and loves to cook). The chief crafting dude and the firefighting farmer guy (both thirty-three and white Americans) are flirting with each other regularly, but both also seem to be into the thirty-one-year-old African miner lady who is pregnant with one of their kids. They are all getting along well but are growing weary of the wood shortage after a wave of beaver infestations. While the research chief may give in to his more negative “psychotic” or “neurotic” tendencies and behave in unpredictable and dangerous ways, the facilities are in place to subdue and confine him to a medical bed rather than kill him (like those poor, ill-fated, delicious if overcooked colonists from my first attempt).

In all, while it’s still rough around the edges, Rimworld is shaping up to be inclusive on multiple fronts. In addition to the diversity on the race/ethnicity and gender/sexuality fronts, the game has body size/type options, multiple psychological and personality traits both positive and negative, and a fairly deep set of skills to utilize; they even differentiate between biological and chronological age given that there’s stasis and FTL travel. It’s a management sim with a widely adjustable difficulty setting and an interesting, if still fairly basic, set of procedurally generated stories. It reminds me of Prison Architect without the prison part… and in space. But given the general inclusiveness and the lighthearted vibe, I’m loving it. While the relationship stuff is not as complex as a game like Stardew Valley, it is LGBTQ+ friendly and allows for some interesting and fractally complex interactions where race, age, and gender are all factors in the stories. Even if there are some stereotypes that do cross over from “tongue in cheek exaggeration” to “actually a bit mean”, particularly ones surrounding mental illness, they do mostly fall into a pattern of trying to be as diverse as possible in as many ways as possible, giving the game an almost roguelike feel in terms of replayability. It focuses on story, even explicitly stating:

Rimworld is not designed as a competitive strategy game, but as a story generator. It’s not about winning and losing – it’s about the drama, tragedy, and comedy that goes on in your colony.” (Rimworld homepage, emphasis theirs.)

This is a game that could be a great addition to the inclusive gamer’s library. Though not totally free of issues by any means, it is a solidly diverse entry that generates some really interesting, if occasionally problematic, stories. Like this doctor in my current colony who has suddenly developed a desire to… uh, spend all day in the freezer… I… should probably go tend to that.

(Note: This is not a paid review and I bought my copy on Steam at full price.)

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