Concept art for Risk of Rain (Chucklefish, 2013)

Hunted by the Clock in ‘Risk of Rain’

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.

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