If you had to pick a single game to represent the strategy that has seen PlayStation 4 take the lead in the ongoing console battle, it might just be Rime.
First revealed at Gamescom 2013, this beautiful PS4 exclusive is about as indie as they come, telling the story of a lone boy who washes up alone on a strange island, where he must explore caves, forests, and mysterious architecture to uncover its secrets, all rendered in visuals like a moving painting. Yet it’s backed up with the experience and production values of a big-budget title.
Rime's Gamescom 2014 trailer
The result is emblematic of how Sony has worked harder than its rivals to empower independent developers on its platforms so that it can offer fresh, exciting experiences to console users, a competitive advantage thrown into stark relief by the fact that Microsoft turned Rime away at the door.
When Microsoft saw the prototype it was then known as Echoes of Siren. “When Xbox One’s (Durango at the time) plans were revealed, we were requested a series of changes and modifications that were against the spirit of a more traditional single-player exploration experience. It didn’t work", says Raúl Rubio, creative director and CEO of developer Tequila Works. “Both parties departed in good terms and we showed the project to Sony. They loved it. End of story.”
It was only the beginning of the story for Rime, and Xbox One’s loss may well be a coup for PS4; another successful showing at Gamescom 2014 has seen Rime become one of the console’s most anticipated titles. “We already have a lot of pressure here!” laughs Rubio.
Much of this expectation stems from how the game’s graphical style and overt artistic sensibility has drawn broad comparisons with well-loved classics like ICO, The Legend of Zelda: The Wind Waker, and Journey. Those are big shoes to fill. “We feel really, really humbled (and slightly terrified) for being compared with those masterworks, even if we sincerely didn’t have them in mind when we started working on the game design”, says Rubio. “It actually came as a surprise to us to hear Rime was considered reminiscent to those titles.”
As if walking in such a long shadow wasn’t difficult enough, Rime’s status as a PS4 exclusive has seen many adopt it as a surrogate The Last Guardian, their hopes shifting from Team ICO’s now legendary missing-in-action giant-cat-bird simulator to a project they regard as similar. Rubio is flattered but quick to play down the hype. “I think that since almost nobody has played neither The Last Guardian nor Rime, that’s a really bold comparison.
“We guess what all those games and Rime have in common is that all are art games, evocative experiences, tales with a simple structure but a deep meaning.” This idea is the true inspiration for Rime: Rubio cites The Little Prince by Antoine de Saint Exupéry, on its surface a simple and colourful children’s book, but at its core a reflection on love, loss, and loneliness.
This duality informs Rime at every turn. Its captivating, vibrant exterior is designed to belie something far more serious. “In Deadlight [Tequila Works’ previous game] we wanted to explore darkness to find the light within”, explains Rubio. “Rime is quite the opposite: the light is predominant, but there’s something below that surface.”
Rime wants to evoke a childlike curiosity in the player so that they might recapture the sense of wonder that is often lost in adulthood. “Rime’s inspiration is the light of the Mediterranean and how the master of light, [Spanish painter] Joaquín Sorolla, captured it in his paintings”, says Rubio. “We combined it with the ambition to recreate the feeling of discovery and wonder from our childhood memories of summer vacations on the Spanish coast – when everything was a new and exciting adventure. We want the player to feel that again.”
But being a child goes hand-in-hand with growing up, and that natural urge to explore and discover ultimately opens the door to the bitter truths of life that can be difficult to understand. “Above all, Rime is an experience about loss and acceptance”, says Rubio, “how an ending also means a new beginning, and how understanding that is an essential part of transcendence.”
The boy will not quite be alone on the island. The trailers have shown benign inhabitants the likes of pigs and birds, alongside otherworldly behemoths that can seemingly be employed to help the boy on his way. There are also malevolent beasties that lurk in the darkness. Still, there will be no interaction with other humans, and although the boy is not mute, he does not speak a language we can understand. This requires Rime to find other ways to unfurl its story.
“Visual language and environmental narrative are essential when it comes to transmit feelings to the player, not to mention what he needs to do in order to progress through the adventure”, says Rubio. “We want the island to be more than a beautiful background; it needs to tell a story with no words.”
Which still leaves the all important question: what will players actually be doing in Rime? The closest Rubio comes to categorisation is to describe it loosely as an “action puzzle adventure”. The game’s island is designed as an open environment that players can explore at their own pace, but not all of it will be accessible from the beginning. “There will be a sizeable portion of the island to explore from the moment the child appears stranded on the beach", confirms Rubio, but whatever else the island holds will be revealed as the player progresses through the story.
“The island is a character on its own right and, as such, it has its own humours and personality. Wildlife, weather, and architecture are reflections of that personality”, says Rubio. “It’s important to understand that the kid is a trespasser who shouldn’t be there, and can be made felt unwelcome because of that.”
The island may be hostile, but the player will not be striking back, at least not directly: “There will be no combat in Rime. Our character is an eight-year-old child with no fighting or military skills”, says Rubio. “Of course, that doesn’t mean that there won’t be action or conflict, but that action will have to be tackled using a different approach, including running away!”
The overarching theme of light and darkness is extended by the island’s day-night cycle, something that can have a significant impact on the environment, and not just in the guise of whatever monsters hunt after nightfall. The climax of the recent trailer shows the boy heaving on an enormous switch that turns the sky and pushes the sun below the horizon. “Light and shadows play a pivotal role in Rime. Thus, the dynamic day and night cycle will be an important part of the gameplay mechanics. There will be areas or events that would be accessible depending on the time of the day.”
The apparent extent and ambiguity of Rime’s light and dark makes it all too tempting to reach for a now-familiar comparison: Team ICO’s Shadow of the Colossus convinced us that we were the good guy and then pulled the rug out from under our feet. “Players shouldn’t take for granted the black-and-white concepts they are used to”, says Rubio teasingly. “There’s a very grey area on what’s good or evil in Rime, and that’s very intentional.”
Some have looked cynically upon Rime as an all-in-one amalgam of indie staples, an attempt to ride the wave of ‘art games’ as they flood onto consoles to reach an audience typically less accustomed to their wiles.
“Honestly we only want to create with gusto, we don’t feel the pressure of the ‘indie’ label”, answers Rubio. “We are artists exploring the questions the world put in our minds and hearts. We are not looking for social recognition or validation. We are doing this as a way of expression.”
This is the kind of experience Sony has strived to nurture when courting the indie scene, and uncovering the secrets of Rime on PS4 in 2015 might just rekindle the sense of wonder that has so far been missing from the new generation of consoles.