Review: Rhem

Rhem (web site); Knut Müller (creator)

Review written by Andrew Plotkin

Not bad
Almost none
Writing and dialogue
Almost none
Excellent, although there's a lot of walking around
Not too hard, if you pay careful attention
Forgiveness rating
You cannot die or make a fatal mistake.

I have now played two self-published game in a row. You will recall that I said of Dark Fall that it was an excellent game; very detailed; requiring great attention to solve, with careful note-taking and map-making; and that the commercial adventure game industry just wasn't publishing games like that any more.

Now I have played Rhem. You wonder (I hear you wondering) whether all these things are true of Rhem as well?

In a word: yes. Two more words: in spades.

Rhem is the most intricate pure-puzzle adventure game I've played in years. I don't mean the most difficult -- although it was difficult. Nor do I mean the game with the most puzzles -- although there were plenty of puzzles. I mean the most intricate.

In a way, the entire game is a single puzzle. Oh, that's not absolutely true; there are smaller separate puzzles, and areas which stand off on their own. But to a large extent, Rhem is a unity. You begin at the center, and explore parts of the maze... and then you find ways to change the maze. You're not simply opening doors. You're rotating walls, raising and lowering pathways, sealing and diverting channels of water -- and these actions transform the maze.

You must constantly re-consider areas you've already explored. You might be able to go back and take a path previously closed to you. You might be able to go back and enter an area that was previously open to you, but by a different route -- a difference which has implications for what you find, or where you can go beyond that.

Keep in mind that all these transformations are physical. Not magical, I mean. This is an important point. You will find no teleporters, no runes to make a distant wall dissolve into air. You will find pipes, levers, cables; sliding panels; bridges floating in water. The connections you must make are visible, right in front of you.

And you'd better see the connections, the pipes and levers and cables. That tangible cause-and-effect is not background detail; it's part of the game. You'll find the familiar combination locks, symbols and numbers, yes -- abstract connections between different parts of the game. But you must pay as much attention to the physical mechanisms as to the symbols that trigger those mechanisms. If you want to raise a bridge, you'll have to look at it -- what raises it? What does that connect to? Clues may be anywhere, but you can deduce where to look first.

You will want to know where to look first. Rhem is huge. No, really. The first evening I played, I wandered around this expanse of catwalks and pathways -- not mapping, just getting my bearings -- until I was blocked in all directions. Then I drew some maps, figured some stuff out, and got through a barrier -- into an entirely new expanse. It was too much. I went to bed. The next day, I explored that area, drew maps, solved puzzles... which let me into yet another huge area, too much to take in. I went to bed. And the next day, honest, it happened again!

I filled six pages with notes while playing Rhem. Okay, so Dark Fall reached seven. It's a fuzzy comparison. Dark Fall had a lot of text. My Rhem notes are mostly maps and diagrams, which are more compact. It's still a hell of a lot. And unlike Dark Fall, a lot of my working knowledge of Rhem never made it onto paper. I had to keep large swathes in my head, because it was so... abstract. The overall shape of the maze; how to get from here to there, while not closing off access to there or that. Yes, I could have notated individual switches and what each one controls -- but that wouldn't give me the whole picture. Rhem really required me to construct a visualization of the Cosmic All. (Well, the Cosmic Three CDs, at least.)

I appreciated that. That high-level knowledge is another thing that commercial adventure games are all too afraid of. It's a brain workout. How many gamers really want that? If you don't -- if you want the Next Thing to be right in front of you, always -- avoid Rhem.

Feel free to consider this a challenge.

You'll notice I'm not talking about the plot. There is none. I said "pure puzzle adventure" and I meant it. There are exactly three pieces of prose in Rhem -- a monologue at the beginning, an encouraging message near the middle, and a winning message at the end -- and they're all short. Yes, they give you some backstory (and a hook for a sequel) but they're not what the game is about. The game is about the puzzles, which form the area you explore, which is Rhem.

And I should dispense with this objection now: of course I like plot. I am interested in interactive fiction, and the "fiction" part is important. However -- that doesn't mean I hate plotless games. Plot exists on large scales and small. The small scale is concerned with single scenes, single objects: how you learn about them, how you interact with them. How they make sense in the world of the game.

Rhem doesn't have much large-scale plot. You're in the world, and you're trying to get out. You don't learn much beyond that, and (as I said) what you do learn isn't that big a deal. But on the small scale, you must be incredibly engaged with everything you encounter. You never learn why someone built a pipe with a valve; but you must notice that it's a pipe, that it connects with that pump over there, flows through this valve, splits into those two branches, and empties into that reservoir. That understanding of the world is critical to your advancement; moreover, it will be critical again, in the future, after you learn more.

Remember, this comprehension of the world is one of the defining notes of the adventure game. You are not just looking at hotspots on a monitor, but at objects in a world. The techniques of design that achieve this -- are the building blocks of storyline. For that alone Rhem is worthy of study.

The graphics are serviceable. This is not a realm of mystical wonders. The modelling isn't barren, but it's pretty simplistic when compared to most commercial adventures. But then, it gets the job done. And there is certainly plenty of variety, and some nicely-rendered moments in there.

If the artistic quality is a bit weak, it's more than made up for -- for a game-player's purposes -- by the sheer number of images. This game doesn't use a free-rotating panning engine; but the author has gotten to nearly the same effect, simply by rendering a lot of views. You move in fairly consistent steps -- not jumping huge distances down a corridor or pathway. And, while rotation is in 90-degree increments, you can often look upwards, and nearly always look down over a balcony or railing. Not always; but when there's something to see, and you want to look upwards or downwards, you usually can. This immeasurably aids the sense of space. Which, as I said, is important.

The interface is very simple. It's the bare-minimal click-to-move, click-to-use. (I think there was one control you could click and drag.) You have almost no inventory. You do find a few objects, but they're only used at the end of the game, and it's very clear where to use them.

One peculiarity: there is no distinct cursor for travel hotspots. You have to actually click to see if you can move in a given direction. This would be a problem in most games, but Rhem has a very straightforward environment, as I've said. It's all paved pathways and catwalks. You're never uncertain as to where you can walk.

Actually, there are some travel hotspots with a distinct cursor: these are "move and turn" actions, indicated by a hand angled left or right. I haven't seen this idea in other games. It's quite handy, actually. In most fixed-image games, you walk down a corridor until your nose bumps the wall, turn 90 degrees, and continue. In Rhem, you can walk until just before you reach the end of the corridor, move the mouse to the side, and click to move-and-turn. Not only does this save a mouse-click, but it prevents the "blindsided" feeling of directly facing a wall. You're always looking down a pathway that extends some distance ahead. It's much more like the actual experience of walking.

This may seem a minor improvement -- saving one mouse-click, after all -- but again, Rhem is huge. And intricate. You will spend a lot of time walking around. You'll walk from one side of the map to the other... frequently. Sometimes you'll walk entirely around the map, adjusting a switch here, a door there. (Sometimes you'll do this, get it wrong, and have to do it again. Heh.) So simplifying travel is important; and the clever hotspot design helps.

Another trick which helps is installing all three CDs onto your hard drive. Rhem explicitly supports this (see the end of the game's ReadMe file). I recommend it a lot. It eats nearly two gigabytes; but I can't imagine all that travel if I had to swap CDs. That trip around the map took me no more than two minutes -- it would have been faster if I'd turned up the image transition speed. I didn't mind doing that every so often. But it crossed at least two CD boundaries, inevitably, and the swaps would have killed me.

Particularly when I got it wrong and had to go around again.

Conclusion: Rhem took me several evenings of concentration to get through. I didn't need hints or walkthroughs; but if I hadn't been paying careful attention to everything, I would have gotten way stuck. And that's good. Rhem doesn't have everything I might want in an adventure, but in constructing a challenging puzzle-environment, it's the best work I've seen in a long time.

This series: Rhem, Rhem 2

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