“God save thee, ancient Mariner!
From the fiends, that plague thee thus!—
Why look’st thou so?’—With my cross-bow
I shot the albatross.”
-Samuel Taylor Coleridge, The Rime of the Ancient Mariner
The tranquil and emotive game known today as RiME by Spanish developer Tequila Works wasn’t originally christened such. In development, it took the form of an isometric action RPG that was proposed to incorporate tower defense and survival elements set to a day-night cycle. The initial concept title was Echoes of Siren. However, the game did not jive with Microsoft’s policies emphasizing social gaming and so the project moved to Sony where it took on a much more streamlined form. The complicated gaminess was stripped away for a raw experience, the open-world of the island with its potential crafting and hunting mechanics giving way to a more linear and pointed approach to telling its mute story.
The result was a game unconcerned with menus, numbers, and user interfaces. RiME became transluscent and simple, a title with one core idea to convey, its influences on its sleeve. In a post-Journey world (RiME’s first trailer was shown in 2013 and Journey was released in 2012), the temptation to draw comparisons between these two games is irresistible, for better or worse. Beside that travel-themed game by thatgamecompany, other influences upon RiME include The Legend of Zelda: The Wind Waker (art design and setting) and Ico (structure and gameplay). Creative director Raúl Rubio also commented upon RiME’s inspirations taken from certain films in the Studio Ghibli canon and the artistry of Joaquin Sorolla, Giorgio de Chirico, and Salvador Dali, which explains the game’s attentiveness to surrealism.
Light SPOILERS ahead.
RiME became about a boy exploring an island through the lens of the Kübler-Ross model, the five stages of grief. In psychiatry, the model describes the typical series of emotions someone may experience after undergoing unspeakable tragedy such as the loss of a child or spouse, incarceration, addiction, rejection, or being confronted with a fatal disease near death. Postulated by Elisabeth Kübler-Ross in On Death and Dying in 1969, the five stages were pieced together based on her work with terminally ill patients, in interviews and research based on the final moments of their lives.
While useful in psychiatry, the model is not fully predictive of the exact emotions such any and every sufferer faces, or in which order they will experience them. Kübler-Ross’ stages nonetheless secured themselves within general consensus and popular culture, where ideas rarely ever become detachable after being accepted. The psychiatrist who invented the model herself later attested to their non-linearity and non-predictability. Her intent was to present the model as a collection of common experiences. However, RiME itself is one example of the Kübler-Ross model in pop culture as originally described.
The five stages are laid out thusly. Denial is the first stage which describes the subject clinging to an alternative view of reality that prevents them from accepting their fate. Once denial becomes unsupportable, anger is the second stage wherein lashing out at the unfairness of life and rage become dominant. After anger comes bargaining. The subject begins to cleave to the false hopes of trading away suffering for something else; negotiations with their deity would take place here. When denial, anger, and bargaining fail to remove the subject from suffering, the fourth stage is meant to appear which involves depression, an overwhelming and debilitating sadness, a resignation and form of mourning, despair which leads to acceptance. The fifth stage, acceptance, is when the subject prepares themselves for their lot, no longer fighting back against mortality. This final state depicts the stable state of emotions that some enter prior to death.
RiME employs these five stages in five linear sections that the boy journeys through on the island. Bearing in mind that RiME is a story told without dialogue or narration, the responsibility for conveying these stages of grief lies with the actors moving through this world, yes, but on the art design primarily. The boy and some other minor creatures capable of expressing emotion as we recognize it are supplementary to the environments designed to portray the human qualities of anger and depression, denial and acceptance. The developers brandished a masterful use of color palettes and lighting, ensuring that RiME has as much emotional resonance as possible.
The game’s brevity works against the sharpness of this blade, as does its meandering and occasionally confusing presentation and progression. Certain sequences may baffle until considered in retrospect, risking leaving the player in the moment wondering what’s going on. The final twist, (spoilers: highlight to reveal) that the game is played in the memories of the father who lost his son, not the other way round, is so close to the end that the game is practically over.
Additionally, it comes off as directionless in contrast with Journey. I’m sorry but as I said, such comparisons are inevitable, as inevitable as they must have been to the developers when this game was being developed. Whereas in Journey there is the central mountain in constant view, an omnipresent goal to attain, the central tower in RiME only appears in sight in certain areas and only forms the focal point of certain scenes. Exploring the island, I never sensed that I had to reach the tower, that I was growing closer to it. It wasn’t until later in the game that I realized the spiral platform that carries the boy from one area to another is within that tower, making the distinction of being within or without, or of reaching the tower or its peak, immaterial.
This combination of art design and directionlessness dawdling makes RiME a beautiful but simplistic game, its details facile and misleading, pointing a gaunt finger encrusted with rings of gold toward deep pools of emotion which turn out instead to be predictably shallow. While that may seem too harsh a critical statement for RiME to have to bear, I don’t mean to demean the gentle enjoyment of playing through RiME or experiencing its gorgeous qualities.
Don’t expect too much from it in terms of any great richness or insight into human coping processes, nothing that hasn’t already been said before, and merely take in the dreamscapes of RiME and savor the game for what it is.
The 8-bit Review
While the art philosophy of RiME is quite good, at times capturing the painted appearance of works by the various artists it aspired to, there a few things which bar the game from soaring to true visual heights. Cel-shading is a bold choice and one which proves divisive now and then, but that’s not my complaint with it. Cel-shading as with any other visual style possesses its own spectrum of terrific to terrible, and with a video game there is the added pressure of having to maintain and support interactivity with the player. If the player cannot properly or easily interface with the game because the visuals themselves, regardless of style, become more than an annoyance but an interference, then that’s a tangible problem.
So while cel-shading has been shown in previous works to provide a distinctive alternative to the visual theories of realism, here the cel-shading happens to work negatively in tandem with lighting to affect how well the player can navigate the island. I experienced this most in the Depression area of the game, an ebon labyrinth under a perpetual downpour. Because the sector was so black and dark, with light only reflecting off of a few surfaces, and because the boy himself (spoilers: highlight to reveal) had become a shade at this point, there were platforms I fell off of or obstacles I found momentarily difficult to circumnavigate because I was literally passing through what appeared to be flat blackness. Only through trial and error, taking in slow, and twisting the camera at all angles did I progress but it seemed like an unnecessary speed bump, and one that was not intentional.
Dismissing even the blackness of Depression, there were other regions involving the boy climbing up ivory precipices. These too tended to blend into a flat and featureless whiteness.
I played RiME on PS4 because, while I intended to originally play it on the Switch for portability, I avoided that version due (at the least) to reports I heard of poor performance and significant frame rate issues. Imagine my surprise then when playing RiME on PS4 and bumping into these same issues. They were especially apparent when taking in a wide vista of oceanside cliffs or ancient architecture. It was enough to tarnish the majesty of these otherwise beautiful environments.
RiME is a feast for the eyes with a few bad apples on the dining table.
The score of RiME composed by David García Díaz is laden with emotion and more than passingly beautiful. One thing I really enjoyed hearing in this score was the Spanish. I noticed it at least in the following song, and it was refreshing where the typical languages in gaming (at least in NA) are English, Japanese, and Latin.
The presence of the language carries with it its own cultural significance but looking up the lyrics to “The Song of the Sea”, I discovered that it’s about the hope of being together again, presented as a sort of lullaby with recurring imagery of the ocean.
The only way I could personally envision an improvement to this soundtrack were if it had a more palpable musical theme that carried on in motifs throughout the soundtrack. It may indeed be there but it wasn’t noticeable, and I was listening for it. As it stands, that may not have been the composer’s direct intention, and the score is magnificent as it is.
RiME combines elements of adventure games with puzzles and platforming but given the length of the game it is all fairly basic. While predictable cube-pushing was enough to make me sigh at first, I was delighted to find that the game had much more to its puzzles than watching yet another character grunt while shouldering heavy objects around.
The boy has no mode of attack but can wield the power of his voice in song to activate statues and arcane devices. These trigger effects such as amplifying the sound of his voice or opening doors and raising pedestals. To me the most interesting use of this mechanic was in combining it with light-based puzzles. These involved carrying glowing orbs to specific nodes or casting shadows across solar icons to change them into lunar icons, but when the voice mechanic came to bear the combination resulted in some very unique environmental riddles, and that’s beside mentioning the perspective-changing puzzles which are also interesting.
One such instance involved calling out to a statue that would then turn to look at the boy, causing the source of effulgence affixed to the statue’s noggin to pivot, casting new shadows and new rays to help you solve the puzzle. I felt that these were fairly well thought out and allowed you to think outside of the proverbial box. The boy’s own shadow could even be used and in some cases there seemed like there could be multiple solutions to proceed, which I generally appreciate.
Other than that, there is little else to RiME‘s gameplay. There are a handful of collectibles to try to get your hands on, which encourage exploration across the island. Among these are emblematic shards and toys which later become meaningful in a representative way at the end of the stages.
This section is bound to contain some SPOILER talk about the thematic fundamentals of RiME, so if you’d like to skip it then Ctrl+f Accessibility.
So RiME as we’ve seen is structured around the five stages of grief, the Kübler-Ross model, and while this provides a framework for the game that is interesting and allows for interesting symbology through its actors and visuals, my issue with it is that it doesn’t say anything extraneous to the five stages themselves. In other words, it is merely visually and interactively restating the model. It doesn’t challenge the idea and it doesn’t give an impression of how to overcome the idea, or what comes after. The game essentially boils down to the presentation of a theory, the making of a claim or an assertion, without much breadth for consideration of anything else.
So while RiME is tragic and sad enough to give me a momentary lump in my throat at its conclusion, it doesn’t give me a whole lot to ruminate on. After finishing a few other games in similar veins, I was left to wonder about things like timelines and the nature of what I just experienced. RiME does bestow a kind of lasting emotional impact which makes me look at its art with a certain wistfulness now, but once the game is complete and the final reveal is unveiled, there’s not much else behind the curtain. The twist at the end is that it wasn’t the son who lost his father but the father who lost his son on that ship in the storm, and either the game is played out through the father’s fantasies in undergoing the five stages of grief (which I find most likely) or the boy was progressing through a kind of afterlife to appear before his father again, somehow experiencing the five stages himself after his own death.
Either way, the conclusion is still the same: Acceptance. Once you catch onto the format of the game based on the five stages (and the PS4 trophies let the cat out of that bag rather early), then this finale can already seen coming afar off. Unless you consider reaching this fifth stage a surprise then there is nothing else awaiting. It is as if the developers said “let’s make a game about the five stages of grief” and that’s all.
Now it is a poignant moment when the father embraces the apparition of his son in the boy’s room and then symbolically accepts his death by letting go of the boy’s cape into the winds. It is enough. The game finishes on a high emotional note, and while I could’ve wished it’d somehow go further, that’s clearly beyond the intentional scope of RiME.
There seems to be a variety of symbols throughout the game which lend themselves to puzzling over interpretations but this is where it enters shaky ground. These symbols lack emotional impact because they are abstruse, though in that sense they’re the opposite of the game’s five stages which are obvious though possessive of emotional impact. The fox, the walking machine, the specters, the tower, the spiral, the bird… subjects like these are where perhaps RiME may welcome prolonged scrutiny, though these didn’t invest in me the curiosity necessary to scrutinize. I presume only that the game uses typological symbols like the fox in ways familiar to Western society, since there didn’t appear to be information within the game itself to aid in interpretation.
The boy’s loss of these symbols, really companions, the fox and the walking machine specifically, in the Depression area were very well-presented and in cinematic fashion. Again, this spoke to me of the attention that the developers gave to ensuring RiME could play power chords on the player’s heartstrings. I would hesitate to call RiME thematically rich, therefore, but I would certainly say that makes good use of its thematic framework even without covering new ground.
RiME has easy to learn controls and is laid out in such a way that you get plenty of opportunity to experiment with those controls through exploration.
Though RiME expects you to make interesting use of the faculties available to the boy, there’s not a whole lot going on in terms of how you can interact with your environment. This limited choice makes every puzzle eventually solvable and I actually found more difficulty in navigating the world than in solving the puzzles thanks to the cel-shading I mentioned under Visuals. Considering the game is essentially structured around progression through five stages, this shouldn’t be surprising. The emotional experience is more important in RiME than getting stuck. Maybe the maze-like forest region was the toughest spot for me in the game, puzzle-wise.
Again, in a post-Journey world, RiME may appear too derivative but those who would want to make the not entirely founded claim that it is some kind of rip off should keep in mind the thematic differences between those two games. I am comfortable talking about RiME‘s influences and inspirations but I don’t entirely think of it as a clone. It may not exceed the boundaries of the five stages of grief in its storytelling but it is well-thought throughout the confines of those stages themselves.
My Personal Grade: 7/10
RiME is a short
journey adventure through a range of emotions and exploring these through associative visuals was fascinating. I could wish there was more to RiME than that but those looking for an emotionally impactful and brief gaming experience may find enough to love here. RiME appears lovingly crafted in the purity of its art design and it feels like playing through a dream. While it didn’t climb as high as I expected it to, neither did it sink as low as I feared it would. I enjoyed my time on the island.
Aggregated Score: 7.1
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Categories: Game Review