'Risk of Rain' and the Terrors of Immensity

Risk of Rain fanart by LordKaniche (DeviantArt, 2015)

In Risk of Rain the presentation of space and size is a constant reminder of the vulnerability and limitations of the player in a vast, unforgiving universe.

To be honest, I just don't think that Risk of Rain is much to look at. Screenshots simply don't do the game's aesthetics any kind of justice (hence, my decision to go with fanart for the splash image above that captures the scale of the game, if not it's exact look). The graphics in the game are pixelated, muddy, and old fashioned, featuring a tiny little spaceman in a great big, ugly world.

However, that doesn't mean that the choices made in the art design for this game are mistakes, though. What Risk of Rain gains at the expense of slick, stylish visuals is a sense of scale, and scale is probably the most important visual quality in conveying the game's mood, tone, and interest to the player.

A sense of fear is more important to the game, and it generates that fear through immensity, the immensity of the opposition in comparison to the player's avatar and the immensity of the space surrounding that character.

As the survivor of a downed starship, the protagonist of Risk of Rain emerges from an escape pod in a randomly generated world. There are no other signs of life in the immediate vicinity, and the view of one's immediate vicinity is quite vast by comparison to most other video games.

Taking up what are probably only millimeters of space on most computer screens, this survivor exists on a side scrolling 2D plane that is enormous by comparison to this character sprite. Antagonistic alien life forms will not spawn on this level for a little while, and as a result and due to the size of the cliffs and other platforms that surround the survivor, the player gets an immediate sense of just how alone and lost that this character is. The only thing that seems to surround him is space, more space, and more space.

There is a passage in Jack London's story “To Build a Fire”, in which the story's single human character runs in order to keep warm in a blasted frozen tundra:

His pace of four miles an hour had kept his heart pumping blood to the surface of his body and to all the extremities. But the instant he stopped, the action of the pump eased down. The cold of space smote the unprotected tip of the planet, and he, being on that unprotected tip, received the full force of the blow. The blood of his body recoiled before it.

London achieves an almost cinematic effect in this passage as our perspective as readers shifts from the immediate environment that the man occupies as he runs and then seemingly “the camera” pans out to show that reader the tininess of this individual in the whole of the universe, as we see him on the “unprotected tip of the planet,” an unprotected tip located in the even more vast “cold of space.” In some way, the opening of each game of Risk of Rain visually echoes what London is doing in his text, emphasizing to the player the smallness of a man in the universe and the terror of recognizing just how immense and with what pressure the vast universe surrounds him. It creates fear out of a sense of our own finitude.

The dangerous nature of the location itself seems important to me given the genre of Risk of Rain, a roguelike, a genre associated with terrifically steep difficulty and the knowledge that if you die, you cannot continue. You will always have to start over in the game, so death is made much more real in this style of video game because it has actual consequences. Risk of Rain is simply being fair to the player in its presentation, letting the player know that in all likelihood that player will fail to survive over the course of the game. After all, the survivor is so small in comparison to the space that he is lost in.

When monsters do finally begin to spawn to threaten the survivor and now explorer of what seemed like an immense and barren planet, they aren't too far different in scale from the player's own avatar. Some are an identical height, some are perhaps twice his size at the easiest level of difficulty (and the difficulty level rises and can be read on an ever present counter in the top right hand side of the screen as the player spends longer and longer on a level, ranging from “Very Easy” to higher and higher difficulties to eventually the highest difficulty “HAHAHAHAHAHA”). However, given the scale of the world, even creatures twice the survivor's size are not immediately especially terrifying because they, like him, are pretty tiny when seen in the context of the scale of the rest of the game world.

It is only as the level of difficulty rises that the height and mass of these monsters escalates, representing beings that are, perhaps, four to eight to 10 times the survivor's size. As these creatures are represented by larger and larger character models, the sense of the survivor's smallness once again is made clear to the player. Since this increase in size corresponds to the increasing difficulty of the game, once again the game simply adopts an honest visual sense of the players relative safety in the world, which is pretty much nil.

When boss characters spawn at the close of a level, though, true immensity becomes breathtakingly apparent. Our survivor is insanely small by comparison to the stone golem pictured above, whose height and mass are probably hundreds of times that of the survivor's. They should be feared, though, their immensity once again represents a clear sense of a ratcheting difficulty and the possible immediacy of death and failure.

This is not to say that the scale of Risk of Rain doesn't serve practical purposes as well. Given the grandiosity of the levels and the consequential nature of each alien encounter (because the monsters here do some significant damage if the survivor doesn't skillfully avoid attacks), the extremely enlarged sense of space in the game world is important to see what monsters are coming at you, their relative speed, and how to potentially plot an escape route away from them or how to locate a safer spot to engage them from. This is especially true because traversal of the frequently vertical world often involves complicated actions, climbing from one platform to reach another that allows one to descend to a slightly lower level in order to ascend once again to where you really intended to go. Rarely are goals when moving in the game a simple matter of running in a straight line from point A to B.

However, the level of awareness of the environment made available to the player by scaling the avatar down to such a small size and scaling the environment up to such an immense size for the sake of tactical planning aside, once again the dominant result of the stark juxtaposition of the player's avatar's size and the size of the world that he explores still largely remains one that conveys the tone of the game, one that emphasizes the vulnerability of the survivor from moment to moment and often intensifies that awareness regularly over time.

Last week, Scott Juster wrote about how time is the true enemy in Risk of Rain because of the ever present knowledge that the longer you remain on a level, the more dangerous it becomes (”Hunted by the Clock in Risk of Rain, PopMatters, 2 April 2015), and I don't think that he is wrong in that assessment of the game. However, if time is the limiting factor to progress in Risk of Rain, space in Risk of Rain is the reminder to the player of his or her own limitations and his or her own precarious position in a world that is much, much larger than any man or woman.

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