Friday, 24 February 2017



The light at the and of the tunnel. After years in the shadows, Rime finally reveals its true nature.

“When you are responsible for other people – for the wellbeing of their families – sometimes you can get a lot of vertigo. But the sooner you get used to the feeling of always falling the better, because in life you often find yourself falling forever.”

Tequila Works’ CEO Raúl Rubio knows that the development of Rime is like no other. For the better part of four years, his studio has been home to one of the most anticipated independent adventure games of recent memory. But for the longest time it has also existed only on the periphery, as a project that found itself plunged into darkness as quickly as it was pushed into the light.

For many years there have been plenty more questions than there were answers for us to give, though Tequila Works has finally opened up the doors to its mysterious, mesmerising island, inviting games™ to Madrid to play Rime for ourselves – persistence pays off in the end, don’t let anybody tell you otherwise. That, clearly, was a daunting prospect for the studio, particularly for one so devilishly committed to seeing this particular passion project through to the end.

“As an independent developer, there are many things that leave you sleepless at night,” admits Rubio, who also serves as creative director of Rime. For Tequila Works, surviving on the success of only one title for four years – Deadlight, marking the studio’s debut in 2012 – could well have been one of them. It’s easy to understand why many of those years may have felt like a lifetime for the team, a small staff that has fluctuated between 15 and 30 throughout development. It’s enough to keep anybody awake at night. But Rime is special, worth fighting for. Much like the mystery that surrounds its protracted development, Rime is, by its very nature, dreamlike.

“I’m pretty sure that if mankind one day discovered time travel it will be because of game designers,” laughs Rubio. “You know, there are many things we could [have] done differently, but we cannot go back in time… there were so many times that we were tempted to do something different [but], in the end, I’m really happy that we stayed true to our vision.”

At its simplest, that vision is thus: there is always an island, there is always a tower and there is always a boy; what occurs after these three elements converge is for you to discover, to parse and unpack, taking as much or as little from the experience as you desire. Rime has undergone a huge transformation in the last two years, the period in which it disappeared from the spotlight – prompting fears it had been cancelled before the studio was able to reacquire the IP rights from Sony and earn its multiplatform freedom – though much of this is understated. Tequila Works has delivered on its vision, even if that path wasn’t always clear.

“It’s like I want to climb to the top of the Everest but I do not know which route I want to follow. Sometimes you feel like you are not going to make it at all, but then the next day it’s like ‘oh yeah, we got it!’ and then you can finally move forward,” he says, later adding, “if we could go back in time we would probably release this game in 2015 instead of 2017. But, yeah, that’s a different story.”

He laughs this comment off, but what if that is the story? Rime has followed an unconventional development path because it is an inherently unconventional game. A uniquely spirited adventure, Rime has been purposefully designed to evoke an emotional response from the player, authentic in its ambition to tell a personal story – though what that may be will differ from player to player. So, where has Rime been since its debut as a PlayStation 4 exclusive at Gamescom way back in 2013? Tequila Works has been building it up and tearing it back down, and the result of that process – and how it got there – is really quite fascinating.


Following a mesmerising reveal, Rime drew immediate attention. With little information to go on, it was quickly assumed that Rime would bring together the intimate, emotive storytelling of Ico with the charming, spectacle of The Legend Of Zelda: The Wind Waker. As it should happen, aside from the gorgeous sun-soaked celshaded visuals, those comparisons were well meaning but entirely misplaced. It has more in common with the likes of Journey and The Witness, but even that doesn’t quite give you the whole picture.

When Rubio describes Rime as ‘risky’, well, he isn’t wrong. From the moment you first drift ashore on the island, what you see is what you get. There are no HUD, tutorials or objective markers to be found, instead players are guided through to points of interest by smart visual navigation tools; the circling of birds in a Dreamcast-blue sky, the discolouration of grass to denote exploration opportunities or the distant motions of a character shrouded in a vivid red cloak to get you back on track. This, the visual language, was something Tequila spent “literally years working on” as, despite looking beautiful, there were frustrations within its early design.

“The game looked beautiful but people got frustrated for two reasons: Firstly, people love exploring but there was nothing for them to find, and secondly, they were exploring and they forgot what they were doing and where they came from. Just solving that took years. It’s been something we gave a lot of attention to. This is a game with no dialogue, no HUD… so doing that has been hard”

The nameless protagonist does not speak, but they can shout at the press of a button - the warble of the small child activating mysterious runes and objects scattered around the island, the backbone to many of the puzzles. A narrative runs silently through it all, told through broad, beautiful musical keystrokes and subtle environmental storytelling cues. Rime is often beautiful and affecting, we spent much of our time with it caught in silent appreciation - in awe at its masterful construction. Navigation was intuitive and engaging, we never felt lost for direction whilst still being caught up in the wider adventure. The challenge here, of course, will be maintaining that feeling throughout the entire adventure.

Rubio notes that to achieve this feeling, Rime has undergone careful (sometimes sweeping) iteration, a process that could have only occurred in the time Tequila Works has given itself to breathe. The game that existed all those years ago, while thematically and visually identical, seems to have warped and evolved into something greater. “Even if it sounds weird, the last two years have actually been removing stuff from the game,” Rubio chuckles. “Streamlining it to make it more elegant and minimalist.”

“We like to joke around and say that making games is hard, but the reality is that making games is hard. These last two years have been polishing and sometimes fixing things that we didn’t believe was true to the vision. For starters, I think we had far more puzzles two years ago. But Rime was supposed to be an exploration adventure; we wanted the player to discover what was beyond the surface. But two years ago it was more like: get into the room, have a puzzle, get into another room, another puzzle. All the game was like that but it was not what we wanted… now we are very close to what we originally wanted to do with the game in the first place.”


The result is puzzles that are carefully woven into broader areas of the world. Rime’s island has a day/night cycle, which can later be manipulated at towering shrines; the puzzles play with perspective, the use of shadows, the focus of light and sound, with many of these elements shifting with the setting of the sun.

“There is a thin line between creating a compelling and challenging experience, and making it frustrating. Frustration was something that we wanted to avoid in Rime, that’s the reason that you cannot die in the game,” says Rubio, noting a design philosophy that has carried far past Rime’s puzzle design, affecting everything from the size of the island to even the animation of the child’s movements. “We had pretty complex puzzles, but now they are on a curve,” he continues, noting that – while he was forbidden from playing The Witness during development by other staff – he can now see how comparisons would have been drawn by the community.

The puzzles that now exist in Rime are simple but satisfying, at least through the opening hours, designed to impede progress and immerse you in your surroundings. Later the challenge will increase through the introduction of dangerous predators, large enough in size to break puzzles and crush you. But underneath all of this – outside of the obvious puzzles – a more difficult challenge presented itself. “I must be a sociopath or something, because I love hiding small hints and details in there for people to discover,” says Rubio, as we lamented the discovery of certain objects within particular spaces with seemingly nowhere to place them. For those that want to get everything out of Rime, intuitive exploration will be a must.

“Paying attention to the little details is essential to understanding it. You can play it and don’t pay attention to the story if you want, but you get these glimpses into something deeper. You aren’t supposed to be there in the first place; you are always, as a player, assuming that you are the ones trespassing these forbidden, unseen civilisations. That you are normal and they are the weird ones, right? But they are as puzzled as you by your presence and that’s the beginning of something.”

The “they” he refers to we wouldn’t like to spoil, but Rubio is quick to suggest that everything isn’t as it seems on the island, sweeping between beautiful Mediterranean vistas, deep bleak labyrinths and barren desert planes. “The world is reacting to your presence… you just wait, you’ll see how weird the game gets.”


Tequila Works is quick to talk about its ‘vision’ for Rime. Pressing a little deeper, everybody we spoke with at the studio was happy to reflect on how personal the project has been for them as individuals. It’s natural to assume that this is in reference to the time and tears poured into development, but they are in fact speaking to something much deeper that simmers beneath the surface.

“When we started Rime we wanted to do something that had a simple story that anybody could understand, but it has a deeper layer that is very personal. We are doing something that is finding what you have inside your self – in your heart – and projecting it outside, that’s why it is so personal… we have literally put personal things, stories and memories in there.”

“There’s a part towards the end of the first chapter,” recalls Rubio when we press for an example, “where you enter a tower and you find this labyrinth that is in darkness and you use light to guide yourself through. That is inspired by a personal experience that I lived when I was a child, when I got lost in a cave; I had to use the flash from a camera to get out.”

It’s easy to see examples of this scattered all throughout the game. It adds new context to the smallest pieces of detail, to the design of particular puzzles and sombre swells of the audio in certain moments. In one secret area we happened across, the boy’s powerful shout was suddenly changed to a whimper; we had stumbled across a room adorned with red roses that led towards a grave. It’s an upsetting, powerful discovery when armed with the knowledge of its design and purpose, although it’s left purposefully oblique in order for us to be able to draw our own conclusions.

“That’s the beauty of Rime, we don’t have a narrator telling you everything; it’s something that you have to figure out for yourself. You can find your own interpretation and it doesn’t need to define your experience and that’s okay,” says Rubio. “When you play the game from beginning to end, one thing we noticed is that each person comes away with a different understanding of the ending. That was never intended," he says, laughing, “but I’m really glad we achieved that.”

Rime is an understated adventure. It is quiet and sombre, with those feelings offset by excitement and thrills as you begin to solve puzzles and pull back the layers of mystery. The gameplay itself is simple, but ultimately effective. Rime knows exactly what it wants to do and achieves it in style. It’s a testament to Tequila Works’ unwavering creative vision. At times, that vision led the studio down some dangerous paths but it is, as Rubio said earlier, akin to wanting to climb Everest but not knowing which route to follow.

“With Rime we knew we wanted to create an emotional response from the player but the thing is, how? How we were going to do that was not clear and we had to experiment a lot. We did hundreds of prototypes, and countless experiments on what kind of gameplay we wanted,” admits Rubio. “Certain areas we have redone eight or ten times, huge areas of the world, because it didn’t work for some reason – it was too difficult, you got lost. Some areas were fully open world but user tests show that people got lost, because literally you have no map in this game. Sometimes reducing is better. It can sound odd for gamers, but sometimes you have to deconstruct and build it again, with fewer pieces.”


This is a process Tequila Works is intimately familiar with. You may recall that – during the dark days of lost contact with Rime – it was long rumoured that the game could have been a Microsoft exclusive, but the company passed on it, allowing Sony to pick it up. In a parallel world, Rime would have been Gauntlet meets Minecraft meets Jason And The Argonauts; a survival sim with light crafting elements and tower-defence combat. This, in fact, was only partly true.

Before Rime, there was Echoes Of Osiris. Rubio is quick to make a separation between the two projects: “just for clarification, Osiris and Rime were not the same game. They shared elements but they were different concepts. Literally, that game was about survival and tower defence, while this one is about exploring and not fearing the dangers hiding around the corners of the world. That’s why, based on what people have seen so far, it’s a very colourful and light world, but the deeper you dig – just like life – the world is not a perfect theme park.”

The elements that the two games share – outside of the island and tower – have now all largely been removed. Some sounded like interesting ideas, such as a “super complex spoken system, where you could talk and you could scream.” While this action is now contextual, back in its PS4-exclusivity days, Rime was to make full use of the imminently arriving PS4’s features. “Back in the day, you could even modulate your voice with the touch pad [on a PS4 controller] and create songs; that was fun, but it was super complex and really hard to master. We wanted something that was far simpler… and so [we] experimented”.

We heard plenty of stories like this while we were with the team, and you can see it ricocheting all throughout the design. Some were as simple as sticks being removed from the island, Rubio tells us, because “if we started adding items that can be used as weapons well the next step is giving you a sword. You are supposed to be helpless… it was interesting but it added a lot of complexity [and] that didn’t really benefit the game.” While other elements from the Osiris vision were simply cut away as Tequila found its feet with Rime as a project. “[As] for the survival elements; yeah okay, you are stranded on an island and one designer would say that one of the mechanics is that you need to eat and find water to survive. Well first, Don’t Starve was released and we said that we not going to do something as good as this, at all!” Rubio once again laughs, adding, “and second, this is distracting us from the kind of experience that we want to have in the first place, so lets remove it.”

All of this, from the outside looking in, sounds pretty chaotic. But the reality of the situation is that Rime needed the extra development time, away from the spotlight, to really find its purpose and discover its soul. After walking away we were desperate to dig further into its world, and to uncover its hidden mysteries. There’s a playful innocence to it we have rarely seen achieved with such poignancy and clarity. In May, the years of waiting will come to an end. PS4, Switch and Xbox One players will all be able to take part in this adventure, and – if our time with the game is any indication – each one of them will walk away with a different impression. After almost four years of waiting, Tequila Works’ mesmerising adventure game will finally be yours to enjoy, a fact that clearly delights the studio.


“We are [finally] free to talk, to tell people what we have being doing all of these years. That’s probably been the hardest part. Not because we have had to keep secrets, that isn’t a big deal, but as an artist you want always to share your creations; working in this creative environment that’s the object of what we want to do.”

“Now we are finally seeing the light at the end of the tunnel,” Rubio says with a sigh of relief. “This was a project that we all wanted to do, this was very personal for the studio and being able to be there for all of the journey has been quite an adventure.”