Rime: PS4 Adventure Game - Games Weekly

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Friday, October 31, 2014

Rime: PS4 Adventure Game

When he was eight years old,  Raúl Rubio  got trapped in a cave. He grew up around the mountains of northern Spain, and at the time was exploring a system of caverns near the town of Zugarramurdi, where witches supposedly once met for occult rituals. (True or not, several of the accused were put to death by the Inquisition in the early 17th century.) Rubio too young to be scared by a place with such a murky, bloody history ventured deeper and deeper still. Then it got dark, and he realised he was lost.

“I was in the middle of a cave, it was pitch black, and of course when you are a child you are not aware of how dangerous things are,” he tells us. “I tried to get out, just because I thought I could. I had a camera a typical roll camera from the ’80s. I used the flash to take a picture, so for a brief second I could see the cave, and then I walked blind until I could take another. I got out, but I can tell you, the stalactites hurt a lot.”

It is little wonder that Rubio would grow up to make videogames. He found himself faced with a tricky problem in an unfamiliar place, and used the tools at his disposal to devise a solution. It is even less surprising that now, as CEO and creative director at Madrid-based studio Tequila Works, he is making Rime, a staggeringly pretty game about a young boy who is stranded on a mysterious island. It is a deeply personal project, and not just for Rubio. Its setting is inspired by Spain’s Mediterranean coast, where art director José Luis Vaello grew up and many of Tequila Works’ staff would holiday as children. Its protagonist is universally relatable; we were all eight years old once, after all. But Rubio is the driving creative force, and there is much more of him in  Rime  than just his cave story.

It is oddly, given its sunshine-drenched look a game about loss. While it’s a concept to which everyone can relate in their own way (“To a child,” Rubio says, “losing a ball is a tragedy”), the musings on it here were sparked off by Rubio, a poor swimmer, almost drowning at sea many years after his Zugarramurdi misadventure. He thought not of his impending death, but of what he was leaving behind, and he worried briefly about who was going to get the car out of the garage, because only he knew where the keys were. It is also a game about fatherhood, about guiding an innocent child through a strange world; when we meet, Rubio’s first child has just turned nine months old. Some of  Rime's more outlandish ideas have come to him in the hazy delirium of newborn induced sleep deprivation. The team will tell him it can’t be done, then works tirelessly to figure out how it can.

Even without Rubio’s frazzled design dreams,  Rime is a problematic project. The scant few minutes of footage shown in the game’s only two trailers to date have seemed rather light on detail precisely because this is a minimalist concept. There is no combat, no tutorial, no dialogue or helper text. You are an eight-year-old boy on a strange island, and what happens next is up to you.

“From the very beginning, we wanted to make a more free experience,” Vaello tells us. “The games of today usually try to be over-helpful, to tell you where to go, what to do, what buttons to press. The feeling you get when you solve a puzzle without any kind of guidance or suggestion from a game is much more satisfying than when you’re given too many clues.”
That kind of game is a lot harder to make than it sounds. “As a designer, you're always thinking in terms of rules, and mechanics,” Rubio says. “Even if your game has no scoring system or levels or completion statistics, you are always trying to make mechanics… But in this game, the rules are not the rules that you know [from the real world]. Everything in the game can be explained; we’re using concepts you can understand, like sound, or how light works. But you need to learn the island’s rules. We don't want to put a restrictive story in front of your eyes and make you feel like an actor. We want you to be the one that is discovering the island, right?”

It’s an ethos that requires meticulous, unrelenting control over the kind of signposting that other games tend to reserve for specific moments. The game’s visual and audio language have to be perfect, with the environment, its framing and Tequila Works’ dynamic score gently nudging you along without being too obvious about it or fracturing the island’s mystery and sense of place. When we first pick up the pad and guide the boy inland from the beach, it’s the flight path and call of a seagull that draws our attention. We follow, the music building, pressing DualShock 4 buttons as we walk to get a feel for our moveset. It doesn’t take long. Cross makes the boy jump.

Triangle makes him shout, a domed outline flowing out a few feet around him to show its range. That’s our lot. It’s sparse, sure, but the closest we’re getting to a tutorial. So when the seagull leads us to the demo’s first puzzle, we know that the solution lies in one of those two buttons.

It’s the shout. A large, golden sphere is embedded in the ground, glimmering in the midday Mediterranean sun. Around it, half a dozen monkey statues are placed in circular formation, facing the sphere. The seagull has landed on one; we approach, shout, and the statue glows. Shout at the sphere and it bounces off, lighting up all the monkeys at once, a tower twisting up out of the ground. We start to climb, jumping for the first few handholds until we realise there’s no need to. “Unlike a typical open world where you run and jump everywhere, in this game you climb a lot,” Rubio says. “We don’t want the experience to be frustrating quite the opposite, since we want you to have fun. And this is the beginning of the game, so it wouldn’t make any sense for us to kill you. You’re a child, for God’s sake.” Later, when the boy’s hands are pecked loose from a ledge by a suspiciously protective seagull, our fall is broken by the sea, and we’re but a short distance from the beach.

When we do reach the summit of the first spire, the camera pulls around and out to show a tower jutting high up in the sky, and we know where we’re supposed to be heading next. This is a 3D open world, and while you usually have control of the camera angle with the right analogue stick, it's time to pay attention whenever the game briefly takes over your view. The camera isn't just one of Tequila Works’ most important tools for revealing the path ahead, however, but also yours. For instance, a fox leads us through a thicket of trees and we notice carvings on their trunks. By tweaking the camera, they combine to form an outline of a fox, which also happens to place the view at the perfect angle to locate the next puzzle.
So far, we’ve discovered two of this island’s rules: the importance it places on sound, and on perspective. What comes next combines the two, though with a mind-bending twist on the latter. We find a camera angle to line up the pieces of a small gold sphere that, when completed, generates a much bigger one farther away in the middle of another ring of simian statues.  One shout later and we’re climbing up towards a bridge leading to a truly colossal tower, but there’s no way of getting inside. “Remember, you are seeing this world as a child, and children have no logic,” Rubio says. “They believe they can move the sun, right?”

So it proves, with further otherworldly subversion of real-world logic. We spy a long circular track on the ground. As we run around its circumference, the midday sun begins to set, then disappears entirely, the boy soon jogging beneath a canopy of stars. Turn and run the other way and the sun rises again. It’s been daylight since we got here, so the solution surely lies in the darkness. The moon illuminates the tower at the end of the bridge, and a doorway appears from nowhere. Inside, the boy finds a strange object, deep blue and sparkling, and reaches out to touch it. The camera pulls away, the game’s logo appears in the sky, and it is at this point that Rubio clams up.

You can understand  Tequila Works being somewhat reticent to give too much of  Rime  away. This kind of game does not lend itself well to the traditional marketing blitz: there can be no blog post about the combat, no trailer reveal of the questing system, no supercut of the expensive CGI dialogue sequences, and no screenshot dump detailing the island’s secrets. It is a game to be unpicked and explored, not explained, and that applies to its marketing as well. It is telling, for instance, that its Gamescom trailer was not introduced or discussed, just shown. It was a very Rime  way of showing Rime.

Rubio says the team was blown away by the reaction to the Gamescom 2013 unveiling, but has since found that its lack of suitability for the PR circuit prompts awkward questions. “This year, people were like, ‘Hey, it wasn't at E3. Is it delayed? Did you cancel it? What’s the release date?’ Things like that. ‘OK, what’s the game?’ People want more.”

Rubio and company can be as guarded as they like, but they’ve chosen not to take down the printouts on a studio wall that together form a storyboard for the entire game. The island we’ve seen is just the first of five levels one, Rubio says, for each of the five stages of grief. These will be linked by ‘dreams’ to put events into context. There are multiple islands, some with many areas, the colour palette and set dressing changing while remaining true to the team’s influences Joaquín Sorolla’s use of light, Dali’s negative space, Giorgio De Chirico’s surrealism, and Studio Ghibli’s believable otherness all shaped around Vaello’s desire for a consistent visual language. “It all has to be perceived as a whole,” he says. “You have to achieve some kind of balance, because of course it’s a fantasy game, but you can’t have, like, some old ruins looking extraterrestrial. They have to be fantastically themed, but not so out of this world that it would be something out of place. It has to feel close, to be something you can relate to, to be believable as something that could have existed previously.”

The project is driven by art, but requires that all disciplines work closely together in a way that simply wouldn't be possible in a colossal studio on a big-budget production. Tequila Works’ 20 staff work in close quarters on a single floor of a converted town house in central Madrid. Rubio calls it a “tango a tres”, a three-way tango. Artists, designers and coders are all within shouting distance and must work together to solve the game’s uncommon problems: how to teach without text, to guide without signage, to narrate without speech. Then Rubio comes in with one of his sleep-deprived fever dreams and complicates things still further.
Indeed, one of his more recent ideas encapsulates the extent to which Rime deviates from the norm. It’s a scene shown in this year’s Gamescom trailer, in which the boy runs through an area at night with rain tipping down. His surroundings are invisible, the world given form only by the falling rain; this, it turns out, is something of a problem when you’re working with Unreal Engine 4.

“The engine is basically deferred, so everything has to be physically correct,” Rubio explains. “We are trying to create something that’s very Ghibli. We have to do something that is real, but at the same time doesn't look real. It’s a problem.” Everything in the scene is faked somehow, reflections of something the engine doesn't believe exists, the scenery drawn with shaders instead of textures. That has its benefits: once the artists had scratched their heads enough to reach a solution, it became one of the easiest scenes to produce in the entire game. The footage shown in the trailer took just an hour to set up just as well, given that the team had to put its showreel together in just three weeks.

It’s just as well, too, that Rubio’s is not the only voice that matters. “Most of our ideas change and mutate all the time,” he tells us. “They are everyone’s ideas to manipulate. We’re like a football team. You don’t need to tell people exactly what to do. You know how the others play, what their strengths are. I totally trust the team, and I feel they can trust me, even though I’m super crazy.”

For  Sandra Christensen , this rather unusual way of working is something of a revelation.  Rime’s lead animator is the closest thing Tequila Works has to a superstar, her career taking her to the likes of LucasArts, EA and Double Fine before she joined the Madrid studio a year ago. “It’s one of the most fulfilling projects I’ve worked on,” she says. “The smallest company I was at before had ten
animators, which is great for reaching a specific goal, with everybody specialising in one thing, but the great thing about this is that we’re all collaborating so closely. Everybody listens.”

Christensen’s job is vital, too, because it is up to her to ensure the player develops a relationship with a protagonist who cannot speak. “We have to capture not only childlike [movement], which is really difficult to do, but also how he evolves and changes. It’s a very high-level goal that his emotions are readable when you play.” At the outset, the boy moves like an excited child, scampering up pathways, eager to see what lies around the next corner. Later, as the tone shifts, as he unravels more of the curious tale behind this puzzling land, that will need to change. “We have four or five different variations of up- and downhill animation, and climbing, and cliffs… It’s actually quite a bit for something small. It’s great that we can focus on the main character, and not get bogged down by a lot of NPCs or combat. We’re trying to do a lot for a ‘small’ project, and I say that in quotes it’s really blossomed into something quite sophisticated.”

For all that Rime’s look catches the eye that, after all, is what has made it one of PS4’s most intriguing prospects it is the work that goes into making something so apparently simple that really sticks with us. What seems like a story of a boy on an island is about so much more than that, and there’s a tremendous amount of craft involved in making something that many have assumed, from the little Tequila Works has shown, is going to be small. “We were discussing yesterday how we thought the first island was the biggest,” Rubio says, “but the second is double the size, the third is double that again, and I can’t say any more without spoiling the game. We have two rules here. One, we make unique universes. Two, we make simple games.” The studio has certainly nailed the first, but the second? As Rubio admits, “It never happens.”

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