RiME or Reason: On Narrative Perspective
Much like ThatGameCompany's Journey, RiME by Tequila Works puts the player in a particular state of mind. With a gorgeous visual style, mesmerizing sound design, and an intriguing, mysterious game world, RiME induces a relaxing, trance-like state in the player that too few games try, or are capable, of achieving.
I just love this type of game and I wish there were more of them.
But there was one aspect of the game that felt a little... off. Something was missing, and it was enough to keep me from feeling fully immersed in RiME's universe. The problem I had with RiME was that throughout the game, I had no idea who I was, where I was, or what I was doing there.
There's plenty else in the game to critique, but I don't want to pile on what was really a case of
Instead, I just want to focus on that missing piece - that lack of contextual knowledge which kept me from appreciating, or even guessing at, the deeper meaning of my actions in the game.
I want to share some thoughts about the role of Narrative Perspective in games.
What is Narrative Perspective?
In writing and literature, Narrative Perspective is a term that refers to Point of View. Who is telling the story? Is it the main character referring to herself (1st Person)? An all-knowing narrator explaining the inner thoughts of multiple characters (3rd Person Omniscient)? Something else?
In this context, Narrative Perspective is about how the author chooses to tell the story to the reader. For the purpose of this post, I would like to use this term in a different way. I want to apply a meaning that is specific to games, not to the way the author is telling the story, but to the way the player experiences it.
I want to to use the term Narrative Perspective to describe how a few narrative cues can enhance a game's core experience by adding purpose and context to every action the player performs.
It's not so much about what the story is, or how it's told. Narrative Perspective in this context is about what's in the back of the player's mind as they're performing the primary actions of a game.
You may recall an earlier post where I proposed two terms, the Agent and the Actor, to describe different ways for a player to experience a player character.
Agent - A term for the Player Character (or avatar) as a governable entity within the space of the game's mechanics and game-play experience, irrespective of any contrived narrative structures or circumstances.
Actor - A term for the Player Character (or avatar) as a character within the space of the game's narrative, with considerations for the game's story-line and character relationships.
The term I want to coin here follows a similar vein. It is the way that the player views the game character and the game world. Here's a stab at a definition:
Narrative Perspective - The frame of reference players draw on to put the characters, world and events of the game into context with the player and the player character's motivations.
It's all about answering some basic questions: Who is the character? Where is the character? What is the character doing there?
Or, from the player's perspective: Who am I? Where am I? What am I doing here?
This is not to say that the player should always have perfect information about the nature of the game, character, or game world - uncovering mysteries is part of a good story after all.
Instead, Narrative Perspective is the crucial information that establishes a contextual foundation for a game's primary actions and mechanics. It just needs to be enough to give the player a clue as to why the player character is doing... whatever it is the player character is doing. Killing enemies? Solving puzzles? Searching for collectables? Whatever it is, the player needs some kind of context as to the meanings and motivations behind these actions in order for the narrative experience to feel complete.
Without Narrative Perspective, all the player can do is read the world as an Agent and not an Actor: What can I interact with? Where are the walls? What is my move set? Is that thing dangerous?
In this case, the game mechanics have to speak for themselves, and that's fine for games that do not rely on narrative (which, let's be honest, is most games). Game mechanics, of course, should be solid enough on their own so as not to rely on narrative elements in order to be fun (if fun is what the developers are going for), but a little bit of context goes a long way in adding depth and meaning to a game experience.
This is especially true for a game like RiME, one that is specifically trying to engender an emotional reaction in the player. Unfortunately, RiME didn't effectively establish Narrative Perspective, and the game experience suffered for it.
Before getting back into RiME, let's take a moment to look at similar game that utilizes Narrative Perspective in a more effective way.
Narrative Perspective in Papo and Yo
Papo and Yo by Minority Media Inc. actually has a lot in common with RiME. Aside from narrative themes (which I'll describe below when I spoil the crap out of both games), they are both atmospheric, 3rd-person puzzle-platformers starring child characters who solve puzzles with the help of nonhuman NPC allies.
The key difference that makes Papo and Yo more successful as a narrative experience was that it used Narrative Perspective to give context to the gameplay and imbue every moment with meaning.
How did they do this? It was simply a matter of establishing a few key pieces of information at the beginning of the game.
First, the game's title. The full title of the game is Papo and Yo: The Monster in my Father. Immediately, the game establishes that the story is about monsters, fathers, and how they can sometimes be one and the same.
Second, shortly after the launching a new game, the player sees this dedication:
The dedication reinforces what the player learns from the title, and ties the game into the real world. Apparently, this game is based on real experiences from someone's life.
Third, the player sees a short cinematic sequence. A young boy (Quico is his name) cowers in a closet as something big and scary lurks outside. Suddenly, a spiral appears on the closet wall, and starts to glow. Quico approaches it, and is transported to a different place.
At this point, the player has enough information to put the events of the game into context. The player can answer basic questions about the game's narrative without needing to know absolutely everything.
Who am I? - I am the boy from the cutscene.
Where am I? - I'm in my own imaginary world.
What am I doing here? - I'm trying to escape my trauma, and rationalize it through fantasy.
In just the first few seconds, Papo and Yo told me enough about the game's story, characters, and world for me to put everything into context. By establishing Narrative Perspective, I get a frame of reference that adds meaning to every moment of gameplay that comes after.
Hours of gameplay, puzzle after puzzle, and the plot and story stay largely the same. Go here, figure this out, move on to the next one, etc. No sudden reversals or side-stories here, just me and my monster and more puzzles.
But the Narrative Perspective the game established early on gives meaning to my actions in this environment. Even as my 's "Agent brain" is at work solving puzzles, my "Actor brain" is content. Why? Because I have an understanding as to the meaning of my actions, and I can use that knowledge to anticipate what might happen next.
Thanks to this context, when I look at the world of Papo and Yo, I don't just see a surreal environment. I see a world built by the player character's own subconscious. This gives me insight into Quico's life in the favelas of Brasil, and reminds me that children experience the world in a their own way. What's more, because I know this is all a dream, the world is free to bend and twist in impossible ways that will not affect my suspension of disbelief.
When I encounter characters in Papo and Yo, I have a frame of reference to put them into context. The robot toy, the mysterious girl, and the monster are more than just NPCs that help me solve puzzles. They are abstracted versions of Quico's favorite toy, sister, and father. My understanding of these relationships makes everything they say and do meaningful.
When the friendly monster turns into a raging beast, I don't just see it as a new gameplay challenge. I see it as a powerful metaphor for the double-injury of parental abuse. It's not just the rage of the attacker, but the loss of the loving protector that make this form of trauma especially damaging.
At the end of the game, when I let the monster go and watch it disappear into the distance, the experience is painful and difficult. I experience a strange mix of emotions: love, fear, and hate all at the same time.
The monster doesn't die. It's not defeated or permanently changed, it just recedes. It's always going to be there, but with persistence it can be diminished. Is this not how people get over trauma?
The Narrative Perspective that Papo and Yo establishes so effectively takes what would have been a fairly unremarkable puzzle-platformer and turns it into a profound emotional experience. All it took was a title, a quote, and a short cut-scene.
By the end, I didn't much care that Quico's jump action wasn't super satisfying in comparison to other 3D-platformers.
RiME Trades in Mystery
Papo and Yo proves the effectiveness of Narrative Perspective in adding emotional weight to what would otherwise be a straightforward puzzle-solving game. RiME, on the other hand, attempts to trade in mystery.
The game begins with a stormy sea at night followed by a scene of a young boy waking up on an empty beach. Connecting the scenes is a red scarf - a visual symbol that will recur throughout the game. The red scarf means everything, but unfortunately I have no way of knowing that just yet.
Unlike Papo and Yo, RiME doesn't give the player context as to the specific circumstances of the story or the nature of the world as the game begins. This leaves the player to take the game world at face value.
At this point, I was thinking: I guess I'm just washed up on an island? After a storm?
I, as the boy, am marooned, but not alone. Almost immediately, I encounter a fox who guides the path and a mysterious "father" figure who appears and disappears periodically. Throughout the game, I encounter companion and enemy characters, explore the island, warp to what seem like different landscapes, and climb a spiraling tower.
It's really cool. There are some great puzzles. A highlight for me was a mechanic where I pushed a golden orb around in a circle to adjust the time of day. I couldn't believe I hadn't seen that in a game before!
The fox was cute, there were scary wraith-like enemies, and even a robot of sorts. The visuals and designs were just stunning, and I was engrossed by the sounds and music of this world.
It all felt like it should mean something, but I had no real idea of what was going on. All I had were questions: What's up with this island? Is this a real civilization? What's with the fox? Who are these demons? Am I still on the same island? Why do I have magic powers? Oh crap, a demon bird!
The vast majority of my gameplay took place without an sense of context, without Narrative Perspective. I did not have enough information to know what my actions were meant to accomplish: Who am I? Where am I? What am I doing here?
The greatest question I had was simple: Is this the real world, or some kind of dream?
RiME's narrative approach is simply not to tell the player anything, and to use that sense of mystery to motivate players. I understand what they're doing, but I don't think it led to their desired outcome. Instead of appreciating this world, I was blowing through the content as fast as possible.
Oh, and people hate not knowing whether "it was all a dream" is going to be a thing.
Too Surreal to be Real
Having played Papo and Yo, I began to suspect that the world of RiME was more than met the eye. It's presented in a fairly surreal way, after all.
After completing the first series of puzzles, I was warped to a barren landscape with a ship stuck in white sand. I climbed the bow of the white, glossy ship, and saw a storm front of black clouds overtake the scene. Suddenly, I was on the ship in a storm, joined by the red-cloaked "father" figure.
Again and again, as I completed major sections of the game, I was warped back to the shipwreck landscape. The storm scene replayed, but a little differently each time. With every iteration, I got more information about the scene's true meaning.
Eventually, as the storm flashback repeated yet again, I was finally given enough information to piece together a story of loss. Apparently, the "father" figure was lost at sea, and the boy was left to go on alone. That's something, at least!
It also matches the supposed storyline of the beginning when I woke up on the beach.
But this is where things also start to come apart. If I washed up here after the storm, why is everything happening around feel so... weird?
At the end of each storm flashback, I woke up in a different section of the game world. There was no explanation of how I got there, no path back. Weird.
Each new area was so distinct, and invisible from other sections of the game world, that it really did seem like I had warped to a different island. Weird.
Oh, and there's voice magic and weird ghosts and I can push golden balls to change the time of day. This wouldn't be weird if this was established as the magic inherent to this world... but it's not established at all!
RiME's lack of internal logic is very much in the vein of Papo and Yo, but the game made no attempt to establish that its world was, indeed, not actually "real."
What's more, by taking pains to make me "think" that I had washed up on this island, it felt like the game had given me false information. RiME never actually "lied" to me per se, but by obscuring the nature of its own plot it made the act of understanding its narrative that much more difficult.
While I was still intrigued by the mystery of it all, my primary emotion was a low level of anxiety that prevented me from really enjoying myself. Here I was, progressing through hours of content, but my action lacked context or meaning. My "Agent brain" was buzzing, but my "Actor brain" was silent.
Even clues relating to the loss of a "father" figure came late into the game.
Without context given through Narrative Perspective, my actions felt shallow and meaningless. Through most of my play experience, I just felt like a player completing puzzles.
The shame of it all is that these actions DID have meaning, I just lacked the crucial information to know (or guess) what that meaning really was. You see, RiME has a fantastic premise, it just doesn't tell you what it is until the very end.
- - - - SPOILERS AHEAD - - - -
RiME's Story of Loss
You now, it's funny, and a little unfair, how audiences feel about dream stories. Tell me I'm in a dream at the start, and I'm totally game. I'll be looking to psychoanalyze the whole experience. Wait until the very end however, and it's hard to feel like any of my actions up to this point had any meaning at all.
At the end of RiME, the player is finally given the answer to two major questions:
Who died in the storm?
Is this game world real, or what?
As a player, I had guessed that I was a boy in a Papo and Yo-style trauma-induced fantasy. I figured I was trying to get over this loss by escaping into a fantastical world until I was ready to face the truth.
This is probably a good time to point out that the game's five chapters are named after the five stages of grief.
1 - Denial
2 - Anger
3 - Bargaining
4 - Depression
5 - Acceptance
I totally missed this! Having played the game using the "continue" function, and without any title text in the game itself, I had no idea that this was the case. The PS4 version, at least, doesn't have any title text to show the transition between chapters.
The game hadn't made it clear to me that my experience as a psychological one, and thus I was still mostly in that state unease.
I went through almost the entire game in this state, and it wasn't as satisfying as it could have been.
Again, this isn't to say that "unease" is a bad experience to instill in players, but it's all about the designer's intent. I don't think the developers of RiME intended me to feel quite this frustrated.
Then, at the end, I get the final confirmation that this is indeed, not a "real" world.
And I also get a twist.
The final storm scene reveals that it was not the father who was lost in the storm, but the son.
I suddenly see a flyover of the game world's tower, and the keyhole-shaped opening at the top. The camera flies through, and I wake up as the boy in what appears to be my bedroom. I open the door, and approach a statue sitting at the end of a hall, this is the father figure. The house is coated in a sparkling white crust. Perhaps a layer of ice?
The boy touches the statue, and the layer of ice - also known as rime - is broken. I flash back to the game world to see the demons and boy leap into the void. Death's finality has been accepted at last.
The game's last moments take place in the "real" world. The father has been sitting in his chair, examining a golden key.
With the player controlling, the father walks down the hallway to the boy's room, and somewhat reluctantly opens the door with the key.
Here's where the game's symbolic language finally start to take on meaning. The room is full of visual signifiers that tie back into the game world, but only if the player has gathered collectables during the playthrough. The fox companion was a stuffed animal, the robot helper a toy, a pinwheel sits by the window just like the windmills in the Anger stage.
The father moves to exit, only to see an image of the boy on the bed. They share one last embrace, and the boy turns into a scrap of red cloth. The same red cloth we saw at the beginning of the game.
The father walks to the window with the cloth, and with a final nudge from the player, he lets it go. The red cloth drifts off into the distance.
Okay, I was totally floored by this scene. It made the whole game for me, but a lot of players seemed to hate it. Whatever, it worked for me. It took me a while to piece together all I had seen in this final sequence. I just wish the rest of the game, the vast majority of my play time, had included a fraction of the Narrative Perspective I was given in these scenes.
These final moments are so rich with the type of context and meaning that I had been missing this whole time, but they only come at the very end. The value of Narrative Perspective is that it adds meaning to the gameplay. By the time I knew enough about the narrative to appreciate it, the game was over.
This is a beautiful story, but it could have been told in a more effective way.
And lot of players were totally confused by it.
Wait, What Was the Story?
"I didn't like the ending, but not because of the twist - because it was wrapped in confusion. ...
"The music was great, the art style was great, but the story fell apart because it tried to force a "mysterious" narrative that, instead of leaving me with a feeling of profoundness, left me with a feeling of '...what?'. I think the game would've made more sense if you played the man and saw statues of a boy, and the boy's silhouette was there trying to aid you through the stages (game levels) of grief. "
- Gregarious [Steam Forum]
RiME's twist ending left a lot of players confused. They didn't understand why they played as the boy when it was the father who was grieving. Was the boy a ghost? Why play as the boy if it's the father who's the character.
My understanding, based on the ending, was that this wasn't a story about a boy at all. It was a story about a man trying to regain his soul. The trauma of losing his child, and the guilt that came with it, was so painful that the father became completely divorced from his own identity.
He was unable to accept the reality of his child's death. He locked the boy's bedroom door, where everything would stay just as it was before.
Unable to move forward, he froze.
He froze not just himself, but everything around him, in a thick coat of "ice." Another word for a coat of ice, by the way is "rime." Hey, that's the title of the game!
Having cut himself off from the world, the father adopted a comforting fantasy to escape his trauma.
In this fantasy, his son was still alive - washed up on some faraway shore on an island of magic. All his favorite things were there, his stuffed fox, his robot toys, everything.
This was Denial, the first stage of grief. But it wasn't enough. The father, personifying himself as his lost son, still caught glimpses of his true self, though obscured, off in the distance (the cloaked father figure).
After Denial came Anger, with a raging beast attacking the father-as-boy at every turn.
Then, Bargaining, with it's endless hallways, false walls, and other illusions.
Depression was somber world full of darkness and inner-demons.
And then, finally, Acceptance.
As the father played out his fantasy, the reality of the situation would inevitably interfere. It blew in like a storm and revealed the truth bit by bit.
Eventually, there was nothing left but to face the truth. Having completed his fantasy, the father-as-boy returned to his "home," a house coated with a thick layer of rime.
It was only when father-as-boy finally confronted the father's frozen self that the final truth was revealed and the crust of ice finally thawed. The father needed to feel the forgiveness of his son to truly accept his death - even though in truth he was only forgiving himself.
The island, the entire game world, was all an avenue for the father to progress through the stages of grief. The final challenge, the top of the island's central tower, would be to unlock his son's room and confront his loss.
Having broken through the rime, the father is finally able to use the key on the lock. From here, we see the game's final moments play out. He lets go of the red cloth, and stares into the sunset, a sadder and wiser man.
Okay, that's some poetic stuff right there, but clearly seems to have been lost of most players.
So Why Didn't the Story Work?
RiME's confusing story was only part of its critical reception. There was also it's contentious development. It was first shown to the world as an integrated, open world experience complete with survival and hunting mechanics. The final game's linear nature was clearly dissapointing to a lot of players.
RiME isn't without faults in other areas, either. The platforming mechanics are a little basic and unsatisfying, the puzzles were often overly simplistic, frame rates were uneven, and there were times where the level design failed to communicate what was climbable vs. what was just scenery.
But I think RiME stumbled the most in the way it tried to tell its story. This failed in two ways: by giving the player false impressions, and by waiting until the end of the game to establish Narrative Perspective.
First, although a sudden twist can make for a great gameplay moment (Bioshock is a good example), there is a difference between a twist and giving the player a false impression. When a game establishes a falsehood, players have to then understand that falsehood and realign their understanding of the game and its world. This is a lot to ask.
RiME left the player with several false impressions: that the player was a marooned child, that the game world was a "real" place, and that the father was lost in the storm. Every false impression added to the player's cognitive load.
The final twists that revealed the truth of the game and its world seemed to have backfired. Players were left too frustrated and confused to appreciate them.
Second, by waiting until the last second to give the player the real truth, RiME cheated itself out of a satisfying play experience. Players lacked Narrative Perspective, and treated what could have been a intriguing psychological exploration as a simple puzzle game. How could they not? They had no idea what was going on.
I think the intent of the developers was for players to play the game more than once. The first time to experience the game, and the second to see everything in context.
This idea is reinforced by the addition of glyphs and trophies found in secret places throughout the game. These items unlocked additional outfits for the player character, and caused childhood toys from the boy's room to appear there at the end of the game.
This was truly a strange decision. Additional outfits for a father's manifestation of his dead son? Creepy. And why not include those childhood toys in the bedroom no matter what? Aren't they key to players understanding the meaning of the game?
Unfortunately, the RiME's gameplay wasn't quite strong enough to hold up a second time. I definitely felt satisfied with one playthrough.
I think in games, subtlety often loses. If you want players to feel real emotions or understand a complex subject, you have to hit them over the head with it. RiME was too clever by half in its use of signs and symbols. There was a lot there, but there was no way to appreciate it. It's as if the game went out of its way to hide its true self. What a shame!
RiME's narrative approach is to use the game's mystery as motivation, but it came at the expense of the moment-to-moment experience. In a game like this, I should have savored every moment to take in the gorgeous world. Instead, I rushed to the end to get the answers I sought. If I had known, or even been given a clue, that the world wasn't "real," but the fantasy brought on by grief, I would have had a better play experience.
RiME's Lost Opportunity
All in all, I really did enjoy RiME. It was a beautiful sensory experience with a profound message. The concept of rationalizing trauma through fantasy, and communicating that fantasy as a playable game experience, is a very powerful way to utilize the medium of game design. I don't think we've seen the last of this type of game.
Unfortunately, RiME's message was lost in it's attempts to conceal its own nature, but it could have made its message more clearly by taking a few cues from Papo and Yo.
First, where Papo and Yo started with a dedication, RiME could have started with a definition:
Rime: A coating of ice.
The definition might have helped establish that most of the game world of RiME is coated in a shiny white substance. I had thought it was pale limestone, but may have been ice the whole time. By establishing this early on, the player would have had a useful clue in figuring out the true nature of RiME's world and message.
If they named the game after it, why not make that meaning clear to the player?
Or, if the definition isn't enough, perhaps a quote:
Oh! Dream of joy! Is this indeed The light-house top I see? Is this the hill? Is this the kirk? Is this mine own countree?
- Samuel Taylor Coleridge: Rime of the Ancient Mariner
This is a quote from the Rime of the Ancient Mariner, a long poem about a sailor tormented by his regrets of the past (he killed an albatross, which was like... a big deal back then I guess). In the poem, an old sailor tells a soon-to-be-married man a long, sad story that takes the listener through multiple stages of anger, frustration, sadness, and joy. It has a sea theme, and it even has the word "rime" in it!
The listener wakes up the next morning a "sadder and wiser man." Doesn't that sound like the father at the end of the game? Oh, and there's a damn lighthouse in the game's final image. I have to believe this is more than coincidence.
The definition, the quote, or both, at the beginning of the game would have been helpful in establishing Narrative Perspective for players, but the most helpful move of all would have been give the player a clue that the game world wasn't actually the "real" world.
Just like in Papo and Yo, this could have been established in a short cutscene. We needed to see the "real" world, and then a transition into the grief fantasy to understand what was going on. Perhaps we start with a view from the bedroom window, the same view we see at the end of the game.
From here, the camera could have dolleyed backwards through the window into the bedroom, and panned over the many objects the boy left behind. By establishing these signifiers beforehand, players would have had a chance to recognize them later.
The scene could have ended with the camera flying through the keyhole of the bedroom door, and emerging through the great keyhole-shaped opening in the top of the game world's central tower. This wouldn't have been so obvious as to say "this is not the real world" but it may have been enough to pique the player's curiosity.
RiME could have gotten away with its final twist if it had made it more obvious that this wasn't a "real" place.
The stormy cut scenes could have remained as they are. The player could have been "tricked" into thinking it was the father who died. Yes, the visuals at the beginning would point to a child, but it would have been subtle enough to maintain some uncertainty in the player.
Regardless of whether they would have ruined the surprise, I think these scenes would have established Narrative Perspective for every player of the game. This would have made my play experience more meaningful and less confusing.
I'm still really glad I played RiME, and I'm looking forward to more titles from Tequila Works and the game's Creative Director, Raul Rubio.
I guess the final lessons for all of us are that a little bit of context goes a long way, subtlety is difficult, and (if you're a developer) don't read NeoGAF reviews of your game unless you want to feel bad!
RiME - Review [Progress Bar]
RiME > Spoilers [Steam Community]
RiME developer CRIED for TWO DAYS after reading NeoGAF comments [Pretty Good Gaming - YouTube]
Rime of the Ancient Mariner [Wikipedia]