Keeping up with my long and not-so-proud history of being years late with trendy games, it was only earlier last week, with the official launch making headline news, that I actually took the dive and got myself Rimworld, otherwise known as “Dwarf Fortress for humans”. And I have to say, I’m quite enjoying it so far. I’ve got a nice colony next to a shallow river, walled off with stone to prevent (another) wildfire from destroying my little village. Steam vents and waterwheels power an enormous storage space/kitchen/butchery (not a great combination for cleanliness but I’ve got someone mopping up 24/7), I’ve got an entertainment lounge strategically attached to the brewery, a dedicated research laboratory and pharmacy, which is a stone’s throw away from the hospital, which is actually the cool place to hang out since that’s where the TVs are.
And now, I’m working on a launch site for transport pods (but a dangerous shortage of steel is slowing that down significantly) while also prepping to split the party and establish my second colony. There’s just too many people in this tiny space, and I’m running out of spots to mine, anyway. But branching out does make me a little worried, as my long-time enemies the Bladed Imps are getting bolder with their raids, and just a few days ago I had to fight off a virtual army of bladed maniacs, which terrifyingly managed to get past my first defensive line of turrets before retreating.
As you can see, it’s a rather gripping experience. Almost dangerously so, in fact, because I can’t help but notice that the moment I boot up the game I seem to slip into some kind of time machine. I think I’ve been playing for five minutes, check the clock: nope, it’s nearly midnight. And it’s been a long, long time since a game has engaged me so deeply, and sucked me in so unapologetically.
And the last time a game managed to eat up my time and attention so efficiently was Cookie Clicker.
Now, if you’ve never heard of the “clicker” genre, you might want to do yourself a favor and stop reading, because it’s basically the crack cocaine of the gaming world… although to call them “games” is a little unfair, as the gameplay is restricted to exclusively clicking. As a premise, they’re pretty simple: you click, and some number (let’s say cookies) goes up. Keep clicking, and you can spend those ‘cookies’ on a way to make your clicks earn you two cookies per click rather than just one. Keep clicking, and you can spend some cookies on a way to get cookies passively. And you keep clicking, keep upgrading, until you have an enormous machine earning you thousands of cookies every second, which you’re accruing for no other reason than to buy another object to get even MORE cookies even FASTER, for absolutely no reason other than to watch a number counter go up faster and faster.
They’re enormously popular as workplace time wasters (since you can run them in the background), extremely casual RPGs, and even adult-themed flash porn. And they gain popularity by shamelessly celebrating the psychological ticks that make any RPG (or video games in general) enjoyable: people like winning and seeing numbers go up. They like when things get “better”. These clicker games are just distillations of that, and with our primitive lizard-brains, it’s possible to wander into one and get your whole evening drained away in the taps and clicks of your mouse.
And at the risk of offending Rimworld fans, I would postulate that Rimworld is so addictive because it’s just the hardcore version of a “clicker” game.
Now, let me explain, because you could pretty much argue that literally every game is a ‘hardcore’ version of a clicker game, given that the gameplay mechanic (clicking) is shared pretty much universally. And you could also argue (not unfairly) that there’s already a far more direct hardcore “clicker” game in One-Finger Death Punch. But I’m not talking about the mechanics themselves: I’m talking about the spirit of the gameplay, not the mechanics.
Namely, in Rimworld, you spend a lot of time waiting and hoping.
Need wood? Order some trees chopped down, but be prepared to wait for your designated logger to finish whatever else they think is more important before they get to it. And then, while you can speed up the pace of the game quite a bit, it’s still about spending time waiting for that little sprite to cut down all the trees, haul the wood into storage, then run back. Want something mined? Do the same thing, but if you’re hunting for something specific (like steel, which I mentioned I was running low on) best you can do is plow through an entire chunk of granite and hope there’s some steel veins hidden in there somewhere… and hope that the damn thing doesn’t collapse on the heads of your miners. Food is always a problem, because while game is plentiful, there’s always a chance (usually between 2% and 35%) that the wildlife will turn on you and your hunter will be down for the count. You can grow things, of course, but if you’re slapped with a cold snap, then you might find your harvest season cut short.
All of this takes time, and relies on luck. And everything you do as a player - from dictating what to build, what to research, what to hunt, and where to send your trade caravans – mostly exists to capitalize on good luck, mediate bad luck, or reduce time spent waiting and/or hoping. So it’s a clicker game with that extra sheet of strategy layered on top, even at the end of the day you’re just clicking and waiting.
Now, you could probably argue – and I’m going to assume you are – that when you break it down like that, just about every strategy or building management game is a clicker at the core. But while my experience with these genres is fairly limited, I can say that for the ones I’ve played (Civilization, the Age of Wonders series, Pit People, Age of Mythology/Empires, ect), there were some keen differences.
For one: none of those games really rely on waiting. Each turn and moment is a challenge asking you how to best optimize your strategy and use your time effectively. If I spend a turn of Age of Wonders not moving units, taking territory, or building, it’s basically a turn wasted, and puts me at a disadvantage. While in Rimworld, there are small optimizations certainly, the ‘wait’ is unavoidable, and furthermore, since you’re only really ‘fighting’ the environment, there isn’t any sort of moment-by-moment emergency. Pending fires or invasions or infections, things of that nature, you’re not racing anything: it’s a far more casual affair, like playing a clicker.
Second of all: in most of these strategy games, while numbers do go up (numbers of armies, number of cities, ect), it’s not the satisfying kind of power creep that comes from clicker games. In a clicker game, everything you get and improve on is basically just to build off itself: better passive cookie farming means more cookies to buy an even better passive cookie farming. In most strategy games, though, you need that city so you can gather the horses you need to trade with that one other city so you can secure their friendship and get the granite you need for your cultural victory. What you’re following are steps to some ultimate, and game-ending goal.
Rimworld is kind of trapped between. It doesn’t call itself a game, it calls itself a ‘story generator’, because while there is a “goal” in building a spaceship and escaping the planet, not everything you do is to that end, per say. You could focus on recruitment and conquer your neighbors, expand to an empire, torture some people for no reason in particular... you can do any number of things, but the main gameplay thrust is still making numbers bigger. The number of colonists, buildings, and supplies you have, namely.
Now, that’s still one huge difference between Rimworld and the classic clicker: in a clicker game, there’s not really a way to lose, and you never go backwards. Progress is linear and progression is more-or-less steady. Do you technically “lose” cookies when you spend them, but that’s always a super temporary setback whose cost will always outweigh the benefits. While in Rimworld, there are absolutely ways to lose progress or set yourself back, perhaps to the point of no return. One bad animal attack on the wrong person can lead to a cascade of death. A bad growing season means no food, which means starvation. And of course, there’s always the chance that those Bladed Imps will push through my defenses the next go around and get the last laugh. And I’m playing on the absolute easiest difficulty.
And even if you’re not convinced, I can’t help but step back and look at Rimworld and remember all those clicker games I wasted my time on.
And I was every bit as addicted, at least until Deltarune came out. And you'd better believe I'll be talking about that next week.