Spoiler Alert: This feature will discuss RiME’s unforgettable story at length. It’s absolutely best enjoyed by playing it first. If you haven’t played it yet, bookmark us, and come back only once you can read through your tears. Seriously, play it first!
As I type this, we are days away from the birth of our second child. A girl, we’re naming her Eleanor, Ellie for short, and with her arrival, everything from our daily routine to our overarching worldview is liable to undergo major changes. Our bedtimes will bend and ultimately break to her will. Our pauses at stop signs will get that extra moment of caution when she’s in the backseat. And we’ll start realizing what it means to raise a daughter in this world, which often has its own unique array of problems that sons won’t grow up with. When your baby someday morphs into a little kid — it can certainly feel as sudden as a day — you eventually grow accustomed to having them around, keeping them safe, healthy, and happy.
Meanwhile, our six-year-old son, Nathan, lives a wonderful life. He’s been our best friend forever, and he’s elated to become a big brother very soon. But years past the infant and toddler stages, we, like most parents, probably take for granted just how vulnerable he still is. When he was climbing on the couch at two or three, we’d panic that he’d fall and hit his head, but nowadays he can master jumps from couch to couch, bike with me around the city, and practice his very novice form of parkour outside and it all takes on the appearance of activity rather than anxiety.
With Ellie on the way, we find ourselves returning to the role of protective parents, babyproofing the house, changing detergents, and making sure everything is in order for her first day at home. In reality, Nathan is extended a similar protection, it just changes its appearance over time. Even if we aren’t always hyper-aware of it at every moment, you never lose that innate feeling that their life depends on you.
2017’s RiME, from Tequila Works, takes this theme of parenthood and paints it in some of the most vibrant yet devastating colors I’ve ever seen in my life. In the process, it reminds me how the perfect beauty of parenthood is powerful enough to mask the everpresent undercurrent of fear that something terrible could befall your child.
RiME begins as a puzzle-adventure game some have likened to Journey. While it does feel a bit like thatgamecompany’s award-winner at first, it quickly takes on its own identity. In it, you play a boy, dressed in simple attire other than a gorgeous and torn red cape. Over time, as you solve platforming puzzles and explore a world full of fantastical creatures like giant birds of prey and ambulant friendly statues, you also give chase to a mysterious character dressed in all red, a hue similar to your cape, in fact.
Near the end of the game’s fourth of five chapters, RiME reveals its most crucial detail. The man in red you’ve been chasing for several hours is your father, which many could’ve predicted. But the devastating twist helps solidify RiME as an all-time accomplishment in the medium. An earlier flashback of your father falling overboard a sailboat during a storm is revisited, only this time the truth is revealed. The memory as you first saw it was backwards, and it was the boy who disappeared into the dark depths of the ocean amid a brutal storm, not the father. For four hours, the game has you chasing what you may expect is your father’s ghost, only to learn you are the apparition in a world struggling to move on without you in it.
The boy then wakes in a purgatorial ether where he tries to motion to his grieving dad in their home. He fails and ultimately jumps into a bottomless dark well with other souls bound for whatever is next. Now playing as the boy’s father, he weeps alone in a simple home overlooking the shore where his boat still sits docked. Before he even gets up, most people will tragically understand the significance of the key in his hand. It unlocks his dead son’s room.
With grief visibly consuming the father’s demeanor, the player then must approach the silent room and bear witness to its now museum-like quality, a shrine to a life taken much too soon. As a father, this moment hit me like a piano from the sky, but you need only to be human to feel the weight of it all. You can play with the boy’s stuffed animal left on his bed, that which looks like the fox the boy explored beside during the game. You can move the wind chime to play a melancholic few notes, and take notice of its striking resemblance to the monolithic towers that imposingly moved about the fantasy world.
Then, when you’re ready, you motion to exit the room, but one last debilitating deed still needs to be done. You have to let go of the red cape. It’s the only piece of the boy you still have from that fateful night. His shirt tore as you clung to him, desperate to pull him to safety. The father takes the cloth to the open window and, after a pause of a length determined by the player, he lets it go. It swirls in the wind and gets carried out to sea, maybe to be with the boy again, but certainly never to be seen in that home anymore.
The fantasy that plays out for roughly five gameplay hours before that moment is then finally in full view. It represents the five stages of grief: denial, anger, bargaining, depression, and, acceptance. Every boulder breathlessly shoved, every predator narrowly evaded, every puzzle solved, they were all metaphors for the father’s movement through psychiatrist Elisabeth Kübler-Ross’ five stages. The game withholds exactly how long it took the father to move through the stages, but however long it took, I felt like I had taken that journey with him. We don’t see the nights when he pounded the table with his fists. We aren’t there when he sinks into bed for weeks on end and hardly eats or sleeps. But we know they happened.
RiME’s central theme, even more than parenthood, is grief. How we respond to it. How it can consume us for so long and in so many ways. It also reminds us that acceptance is the final stage according to Kübler-Ross, but it’s a lifelong process from then on. As the end credits roll, the game sits quietly looking out the boy’s window. His cloth is long gone, but the boat remains. One could imagine it will never move again. The father’s memory is too painful to take it out to sea again, and he wouldn’t likely find it any easier to give it away or even sink it. It will sit quarantined on the dock like a plague victim.
RiME shows us the father coming to terms with his son’s death after his hauntingly impotent attempt to save him, but it refuses to say he’s all better now. Grief doesn’t quite end at acceptance as some may infer from the way the stages are taught. Acceptance just means exactly that. You’ve at long last swallowed whole the reality of a terrible situation, but it will forever sit in your belly, undigested. You don’t learn to move past it and live again. You just learn to live with it.
The grieving of a child must be a special type of anguish. It is one I hope I never have to experience myself, and RiME reminds me just how fragile our children’s lives truly are and always will be. My parents have told me that no matter my age, I am their baby, and I think all loving parents would say the same to their kids. No one is meant to outlive their babies, and even as parenthood is the single most rewarding part of my life, it takes some part of me to not sink into existential dread knowing that some kids do get terribly sick, some cross the road at the worst possible time, some fall off boats and are swept away in storms.
We all choose to face or ignore this existential dread every day in our own lives, but as a parent, you elect to put your child’s safety before your own, and it is their wellbeing that will forever take precedence. Thus, when tragedy befalls some parents, as it inevitably does every single day on earth, the hole in your heart is not one that can ever be replaced. Grieving the loss of a child is a unique instance of emotional chaos, and it’s not entirely reparable. I find I am not one that takes being a dad for granted, but if ever I wondered whether or not I was, I need only look to RiME to remind myself how lucky I am to be a parent to two beautiful children, how they will always be my fragile children no matter how old they get or how strong they seem, and how grieving lasts a lifetime, but so does love.