‘RimWorld’ Developer Tynan Sylvester: Games Are for Player Experiences, If You Just Want to Tell Stories ‘Write a Book’


In part one of my interview with Ludeon’s Tynan Sylvester, he explained his design philosophy of evoking emotions to create engaging player experiences. In part two, he shares his thoughts on indie gaming, innovative design, virtual reality, and where he hopes gaming is headed.

Nate: Okay. So, before we dig down into RimWorld itself, are there any indie projects that you feel like are doing some of these things as well? Is this something that you think indie games are starting to do more of, or do you think RimWorld is still sort of an outlier? This sort of targeted emotional design, games that are made to tell stories?

Tynan: Well, I think games that are made to tell stories is actually sort of the wrong way to say it, right? I’m sorry, I hate to push back, but people say this and to me that’s like —

Nate: No, no, please, do correct me. What’s it about?

Tynan: You know, a game is made to generate an experience together with the player, and to say it’s there to “tell stories,” well, write a book or make a movie if you want to write a story.

Nate: Perhaps that was poorly worded, then. I was talking about the stories that are being told in concert with the player. For instance, RimWorld generates almost limitless “stories.” Every time I play the game, I have something interesting to tell people. It transforms from an experience to a story so seamlessly. Do you think anyone else is doing this, or moving in that direction?

Tynan: Certainly. There are people who are definitely trying things, who are definitely out of the “triumph,” or “looting” AAA assumptions, where everything has to be a World of Warcraft loot-fest, or a Call of Duty triumph-fest. I mentioned Abzu, which I think is a very in-your-face, “We are going to do this sort of dreamy non-competitive emotion.”

I think they’re great experiments and they’re worth playing. I think they push it a little far, they’re a little bit narrow in that sense, to be really mainstream, but they certainly have a place in the ecosystem of games. I think that’s great for an indie game to do. I would say, that there’s still mostly like the classic mixtures of exploring and fighting and gaining triumph, and absorbing stories that have been placed there for you with different variations. So, there’s definitely people doing experiments out there; but I think there’s still a ton of open ground or unexplored territory.

Nate: That’s what my poorly worded question was trying to get at. [laughs]

Tynan: Yeah, man. I mean, there’s so many designs for games. I have design notes written down for various games that I would love to try making, if I had time. But probably most of them wouldn’t work, because last time I had six designs, and only one of them actually worked in the end.

But, yeah, I mean you’re going to be seeing totally new genres, totally new styles, new things that work that you never would have thought of, for decades into the future at least. And that’s not even taking into account changes in hardware, interfaces with all this VR fanciness coming up. So yeah, definitely, there’s a lot of new territory to explore.

Nate: You have a very optimistic outlook on games as a whole. There’s always chatter about video games being “dead,” having tapped out the experience. I understand that people are growing bored with, as you’ve said, these “triumph-centric” experiences that have one or two emotions to offer. But I notice that you seem to have a lot of confidence that that’s not going to be the case in the long term.

Tynan: Well, especially from my point of view. If other people are just trying to do the same thing over and over, it’s great for me, because it lets me do all the new stuff.

Nate: [laughs] Touché.

Tynan: I’d love to see other people’s interpretation of these, of trying to come up with new designs. But no, I don’t agree at all with that sort of talk. I think that maybe the business will grow slower, or at least as fast as it has. In terms of the experiences are that are possible, I think that there’s a huge amount of open territory to explore. I have a bunch of ideas I want to explore, — and probably most of them wouldn’t work — but maybe one would, and I hope it would be original. I think it would.

Nate: Do you think something like virtual reality is instrumental to those possible experiences? Or is it just another way to interface with the same essential ideas?

Tynan: I think VR would definitely open up new avenues, but it’s not absolutely essential. We could do without it. It’ll open up new avenues, I mean, what else can I say? That’s pretty much it. It’s not going to be like “Oh my god, everything’s going to be VR.” No, not everything’s going to be VR for a while. Maybe in the future, when we’re plugging people’s brains in like The Matrix, that could kind of displace the other styles of experience. But for anything foreseeable, it’ll just add on a new facet.

Nate: What I’ve seen a lot are people initially being intrigued, and then almost immediately disappointed by VR offerings. I think what’s happening right now is VR is emerging, but it’s basically just being used as a tool to do the exact same things that everybody else is already doing. It hasn’t evolved beyond “gimmick,” yet. Does that make sense?

Tynan: The thing with VR is that it’s essentially a technology whose big strength is that it builds immersion, a sense of “being there.” But that’s something that has been really obvious, and sort of in your face, and it’s a buzzword that’s been around forever. It’s been pushed very hard.

So I would say that, in terms of — if you want to think about the avenues of game design, and the ones that are pretty well plumbed out, and the beaten paths, that is already one of them. So that is something that is going to, I guess maybe soften the impact of VR. Because people have been trying to make game that are so immersive, and so graphically intense, and “it’s just like you’re there,” for so long, and they’re having such great success with these fantastic genre first-person video games, that VR — in terms of what it adds — seems incremental in that respect.

For me, when I think of unexplored or interesting avenues of game design, it’s not in anything that has anything to do with trying to make you feel like you’re someone looking around in a room or doing something, right? For me, it’s all about abstraction. Abstract system interactions. I think that’s what’s sort of off the beaten path, because it’s kind of hard to pitch that. Like, “Oh, you’re going to look at sort of a different variation of spreadsheets and numbers and try to extract some experience from it, and look at icons and move around and do stuff.” But, I think that’s such an underrated mode of interaction because people underestimate the power of human imagination.

So, if you think about abstraction, you think about novels, you read a book, right? Some people are like, “Oh, I don’t want to play a video game where you just have to look at little symbols all the time, and like read stuff all the time,” — it’s like, have you ever read a book? …Sometimes the answer’s no. I mean not everybody reads books.

Nate: [laughs]

Tynan: [laughs] They’re not for everybody. But the power of the media is undeniable, right? Because it’s just squiggles on a page, but if you read a good Stephen King book, or Alastair Reynolds or whatever, the stuff that’s in your brain is going to be just as powerful, or more so, than anything you’re going to see in a movie.

So, you take the same principle and apply it to video games; maybe it’s not just about trying to make you feel more and more and more like you are someone else in this specific place in this continuous time situation doing a thing continuously. Because there’s so many interesting systems and stories that just can’t be expressed that way.

Nate: Right.

Tynan: And you look at a lot of successful indie games. You know there’s — ones you wouldn’t even think of, like Football Manager is obviously really compelling to people. Factorio, which is really a fantastic indie game about building this factory out of these little parts that move, like conveyor belts and little arms that move things and other things that mine things and things that combine other things. And it sounds stupid because its certainly not immersive, but it’s incredibly compelling.

Then there’s RimWorld, where I’ve targeted just the imaginative story aspect of it, where you essentially put these little chess piece humans in the game, and they’re each just a little 2D graphic and they slide around and bump into each other and they eat little food and they do the work that you tell them to do. And sometimes they freak out, and they each have a little label that says, “Oh, this person is a psychopath, this person is kind, this person is abrasive,” or something like that.

We put these little labels on it, and let them interact and the story that comes out of it is — once the player absorbs it and sort of imagines all of these interactions happening, it just blossoms into this story inside the player’s mind. And that’s completely at odds with the mode of interaction that is what you would call “immersive,” or anything to do with VR.

I think that’s the direction that’s currently unexplored, is in abstract systems. And AAA will almost never do it. I mean, there’s Paradox, who are a publisher that makes these sort of hardcore strategy games, and they’re a pretty big company, and they have pretty darn consistent commercial success with their games, and I think it’s because they’re willing to do that, while everybody else is like, “Okay, you’re Lara Croft. Okay you’re a soldier in the future. Okay, you’re a soldier in WWI. Okay, you’re a soldier in Medieval Times,” right?

We’re always putting people in someone else’s shoes and trying to make you feel like you’re someone else, but that’s, to me, that’s just one narrow pathway. So, that’s my opinion of VR; it’s going to do that thing we’re doing well even better, but it’s not going to have anything to do with any of this other stuff that I find fascinating and that I think is really unexplored.

Nate: I thought with something like the meteoric success of The Sims, we’d see a lot more in the vein of complex character interaction and simulation.

Tynan: Yeah, The Sims is like a surreal game for me. For some reason there are these certain classic games that just don’t get cloned. Like, you know how a game comes out, and it’s really successful and then other developers just start making copies or ripoffs or whatever, right? Flappy Bird

Nate: [coughs] Call of Duty. [coughs]

Tynan: Yeah, like whatever right? This happens for so many genres.

Like real time strategy games where a couple of them came out in the nineties, and they were successful, and now it’s a genre. So it’s fine; they’re not ripoffs, they’re not just clones of each other. It started a genre. But for some games, it just doesn’t happen. Like The Sims. Nobody made — what other games are in the genre of The Sims? There’s nothing. There’s like literally nothing there.

Nate: Perhaps RimWorld, to some extent?

Tynan: There’s some indie games. RimWorld is definitely in that vein.

Nate: It’s more closely related to it than others? I don’t know.

Tynan: Yeah, but RimWorld‘s still like a much more challenging strategy game struggle and survival, and it’s really quite different.

Nate: True.

Tynan: So, there’s something about this certain type of game that makes people just not want to follow it. Like, I would have imagined that a couple companies would have tried to copy The Sims, but no one does. To me that’s just something that’s funny about the game design sphere, and The Sims points to a whole area that still needs to be explored. Everyone’s all, “Well, how can we change the first-person shooter to make it cooler?” How much effort are we putting in to saying, “How can we rethink The Sims to do it more differently and cool?” You know? I think that should be done.



Part 3 of my interview with Tynan Sylvester will cover RimWorld itself; its past, present, and nebulous future. And don’t forget to check out my own thoughts on his grim space-western colony simulator in my Early Access review.

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