Hunted by the Clock in 'Risk of Rain'

Concept art for Risk of Rain (Chucklefish, 2013)

Risk of Rain's most dangerous enemy is that ticking noise you hear in the back of your head.

I didn’t have a chance to play Risk of Rain when it first came out, which is probably a good thing. It’s been exceedingly hard to be productive since discovering how much I like it. It has a catchy name that’s also a metaphor for the gameplay. It’s a crisp action game with harsh consequences and randomized item drops. Most of all, it’s a game full of various timers that force you into making tough decisions.

Let’s start with the name. In a world, where everything is some variation of “[Noun]: [Origins/Rising/HD/Numbered Sequel],” Risk of Rain is a poetic outlier. More importantly, it is a metaphor for what happens when you play the game. Exploration and leveling up is important, but you do so at the risk of being caught in a downpour of trouble.

Risk of Rain is a side-scrolling shooting game with randomly distributed power ups and enemies. The game gets more difficult as you play, but not in the traditional manner. There are discrete levels that introduce new enemies, but the real danger is the timer. As the game wears on, the difficulty slowly increases. Sticking around on any given level to stock up on money or experience points before initiating a boss fight is an exercise in courting danger.

The overall difficulty timer isn’t the only thing ticking in the background. On almost every level, Risk of Rain forces you to measure and manage time-based tradeoffs. Some abilities take 10 seconds or more to recharge after using. In order to finish a level, you have to survive a 90 second onslaught of rapidly spawning enemies and then destroy each one of them. If you get injured, you can run away and try to let your health regenerate, but some enemies can do the same. Coupled with that is the persistent difficulty meter that only ever travels in one direction: up.

This type of micro and macro time management is one of my favorite dynamics in games of any kind. It’s one of the reasons that I like football so much. It’s a game of time management on almost ever level. You have 40 seconds to decide on and then run a play. If you’re a quarterback, you know that you have a few precious seconds before you need to get rid of the ball because, even if you don’t see him, there’s a defender just waiting to destroy you. You have a set number of time outs that can be used to stop the play, but there’s a mandatory stoppage once every 15 minutes. Ultimately, all of this adds up to 60 whole minutes, every second of which needs to be carefully analyzed in order to win.

These are the dynamics that lead to high pressure situations and huge mistakes like this:

While none of my losses will ever sting as much as that one, games like Risk of Rain constantly offer up similar scenarios. The Seahawks seemed to feel the pressure of a couple of the timers. The play clock was running a bit low and the overall game clock was ticking down. However, they had a chance to run a couple more plays, and also, they needed to stop the clock at least once. Hindsight makes these things so clear.

Every loss in Risk of Rain comes down to some sort of time crunch. You might have been scared to use an ability because of its cooldown and failed to act. Maybe you overestimated your health and ability to withstand a 90 second enemy onslaught. Perhaps your search for items distracted you from the overall game clock, forcing a slow march towards ridiculous difficulty levels. Whatever it is, at the end when you’re looking at your battered corpse, it seems obvious. If only you had been more observant of that enemy or that item’s recharge timer, you would have lived to fight through another hectic minute.

Of course, having that realization requires time to sit back and analyze the situation in a relatively tranquil setting, something that you’ll never be fully able to do during the storm.






Buridan's Ass and the Problem of Free Will in John Sturges' 'The Great Escape'

Escape in John Sturge's The Great Escape is a tactical mission, a way to remain in the war despite having been taken out of it. Free Will is complicated.


The Redemption of Elton John's 'Blue Moves'

Once reviled as bloated and pretentious, Elton John's 1976 album Blue Moves, is one of his masterpieces, argues author Matthew Restall in the latest installment of the 33 1/3 series.


Whitney Take a Master Class on 'Candid'

Although covers albums are usually signs of trouble, Whitney's Candid is a surprisingly inspired release, with a song selection that's eclectic and often obscure.


King Buzzo Continues His Reign with 'Gift of Sacrifice'

King Buzzo's collaboration with Mr. Bungle/Fantômas bassist Trevor Dunn expands the sound of Buzz Osborne's solo oeuvre on Gift of Sacrifice.


Jim O'Rourke's Experimental 'Shutting Down Here' Is Big on Technique

Jim O'Rourke's Shutting Down Here is a fine piece of experimental music with a sure hand leading the way. But it's not pushing this music forward with the same propensity as Luc Ferrari or Derek Bailey.


Laraaji Returns to His First Instrument for 'Sun Piano'

The ability to help the listener achieve a certain elevation is something Laraaji can do, at least to some degree, no matter the instrument.


Kristin Hersh Discusses Her Gutsy New Throwing Muses Album

Kristin Hersh thinks influences are a crutch, and chops are a barrier between artists and their truest expressions. We talk about life, music, the pandemic, dissociation, and the energy that courses not from her but through her when she's at her best.


The 10 Best Fleetwood Mac Solo Albums

Fleetwood Mac are the rare group that feature both a fine discography and a successful series of solo LPs from their many members. Here are ten examples of the latter.


Jamila Woods' "SULA (Paperback)" and Creative Ancestry and Self-Love in the Age of "List" Activism

In Jamila Woods' latest single "SULA (Paperback)", Toni Morrison and her 1973 novel of the same name are not static literary phenomena. They are an artist and artwork as galvanizing and alive as Woods herself.


The Erotic Disruption of the Self in Paul Schrader's 'The Comfort of Strangers'

Paul Schrader's The Comfort of Strangers presents the discomfiting encounter with another —someone like you—and yet entirely unlike you, mysterious to you, unknown and unknowable.


'Can You Spell Urusei Yatsura' Is a Much Needed Burst of Hopefulness in a Desultory Summer

A new compilation online pulls together a generous helping of B-side action from a band deserving of remembrance, Scotland's Urusei Yatsura.


Jess Cornelius Creates Tautly Constructed Snapshots of Life

Former Teeth & Tongue singer-songwriter Jess Cornelius' Distance is an enrapturing collection of punchy garage-rock, delicate folk, and arty synthpop anthems which examine liminal spaces between us.


Sikoryak's 'Constitution Illustrated' Pays Homage to Comics and the Constitution

R. Sikoryak's satirical pairings of comics characters with famous and infamous American historical figures breathes new and sometimes uncomfortable life into the United States' most living document.


South African Folk Master Vusi Mahlasela Honors Home on 'Shebeen Queen'

South African folk master Vusi Mahlasela pays tribute to his home and family with township music on live album, Shebeen Queen.


Planningtorock Is Queering Sound, Challenging Binaries, and Making Infectious Dance Music

Planningtorock emphasizes "queering sound and vision". The music industry has its hierarchies of style, of equipment, of identities. For Jam Rostron, queering music means taking those conventions and deliberately manipulating and subverting them.


'History Gets Ahead of the Story' for Jazz's Cosgrove, Medeski, and Lederer

Jazz drummer Jeff Cosgrove leads brilliant organ player John Medeski and multi-reed master Jeff Lederer through a revelatory recording of songs by William Parker and some just-as-good originals.


A Fresh Look at Free Will and Determinism in Terry Gilliam's '12 Monkeys'

Susanne Kord gets to the heart of the philosophical issues in Terry Gilliam's 1995 time-travel dystopia, 12 Monkeys.


The Devonns' Debut Is a Love Letter to Chicago Soul

Chicago's the Devonns pay tribute the soul heritage of their city with enough personality to not sound just like a replica.

Collapse Expand Reviews

Collapse Expand Features
PM Picks
Collapse Expand Pm Picks

© 1999-2020 All rights reserved.
PopMatters is wholly independent, women-owned and operated.