Trying to make sense of Rime, through poetry, art, film, and the psychological texts of Elisabeth Kübler-Ross. Warning: There will be spoilers.
This is the third, and probably final, piece in our discussion on Rime, the (on the face of it) cheery puzzle platform game from Tequila Works. The first is Tom’s spoiler-free review. The second is his spoiler-ridden anti-review; a backlash, a maelstrom of all the things he desperately wanted to say in the review to explain why he wanted to recommend the game, but couldn’t.
And now, Josh’s interpretation of the game’s themes. Tread carefully, folks – spoilers lie ahead.
For he comes, the human child
To the waters and the wild
With a faery, hand in hand
From a world more full of weeping than he can understand
– W.B Yeats
Time is a flat circle. This phrase has crept into pop-culture, coming out of the Louisiana swamps cool and slow from the mind of Rust Cohle. Denis Villeneuve’s film Arrival treats this in a metaphysical sense, its plot starting at two opposing ends and meeting in the middle before coalescing into a shape without beginning or end. Rime skims stones across the face of this idea, but blurs the boundary between realism and magic – calling upon a Spanish artistic heritage stretching back to Borges and Garro.
Rime is like a painting, not just in its visual splendour, but in its narrative. Sparse, beautiful, and suggestive, its brush strokes inform a rich tradition of fairy-tale and tragedy, of the real and the illusory, and the homes we build in-between. The way our eyes move over a painting, from focal point to focal point in a circular swirl, is the same way in which Rime’s story unfurls. Its flatness is not linear, its imparted understanding rounded, gradual. A flat circle.
The game’s misdirection is astounding, a wonderful visual trick decorated with hints made powerful in hindsight. The game’s island is presented to us a glorious retreat, the sort of adventurer’s paradise that Rider Haggard or Daniel Defoe dreamt of, papering fear over with romance. It isn’t until much later that things start to unravel and you begin to approach it from more than one side. When this happens, even small touches are given new meaning. The boy’s flapping red cloak, at first a symbol of intrepid exploration and danger à la Little Red Riding Hood, is transformed to something more sinister and haunting, in the vein of the iconic horror of Don’t Look Now.
At first the tale of a young shipwrecked boy following the figure of a man, it shifts full-circle to the man following the boy. As Tom lamented in his take on the game’s sense of despair, it gets very dark indeed: hooded, whispering figures that inhale the boy’s life force like cigarette smoke; a furious, skeletal bird intent on hoisting him up into the sky; and forlorn statues hinting at deep wells of sadness.
What, we might ask, is happening here? Is what we have seen the afterlife? Is it the pained dreams of an old man, unable to let go of the ecstasy of grief? It’s both. There are symbols throughout that point the way to an inseparable weaving of threads between the old man and the boy. Consider the names of the game’s chapters (accessible only after completion): Denial, Anger, Bargaining, Depression, and Acceptance.
This fantasy impasto – the wraiths, the demonic bird of prey – is grief manifest in fairy-tale form. Denial: the father refuses to confront what is happening, and so the boy washes up on a haven of warm, white sand, fecund earth giving way to verdant ruffage and abundant wildlife. Anger: a scavenging, vengeful bird dives down and seeks to rip the boy away from this place, just as his father might wish to. Bargaining: perhaps the most beautiful, statues of men crumble to release covetous wraiths; do they seek to make an exchange? In dank halls there are gigantic statues of a crying king sitting lonely atop a grey throne.
This land lies between our world and the next; connections must be severed before the boy can advance to whatever lies beyond. The keyhole-shaped motif that crops up again and again, like a haunting refrain, is what tethers the old man to the boy. As each stage is complete, you run down a long hallway toward the keyhole, blinding light streaking through. The final keyhole you run through is reached through a hall marked with the grooves and tumblers of a lock. The locks are undone, and the boy is free. But so is the man.
David Lynch talks about how music is abstract, and so are his films – images and visual abstractions can be emotionally affecting like riffs and drum beats. He said in an interview for Lost Highway, “I don’t know why people expect art to make sense when they accept the fact that life doesn’t make sense.” There are ideas in Rime that don’t make sense, as far as rigid logic is concerned; these things mean different things to different people.
Juan Antonio Bayona’s film The Orphanage (El Orfanato) deals with similar pain. Ostensibly a horror, the films centres on Laura, her husband Carlos, and son Simón, as they buy and occupy the orphanage she grew up in, with a view to restoring it and running a home for children with special needs. I shan’t ruin it for you; suffice to say, chilling terrors creep in the shadow of heart-rending emotional turmoil. With an intricate script penned by Sergio G. Sánchez, things that go bump in the night are re-contextualised later on, and imbued tenderness and humanity. It’s a film, much like Rime, designed for repeat visits; its narrative all-encompassing, the story is complete only on the back-swing.
It is in Bayona’s film, too, that some of Rime’s smaller ideas are reflected: the wraiths drain the boy’s colour when they snatch his life-force, making him appear ghostly white. That speaks, by way of a meaningful mechanic, to what Rime is about: ghosts and grieving. For what are ghosts if not vestiges of our inability to let go?
The entire time I was playing I couldn’t get that poem out of my head, The Stolen Child by W.B. Yeats. He was fascinated with Irish legend, and the ideas behind the poem, of fairies leading children away to lands of wonder and permanence, have their imprints on Rime. But so too does the haunting refrain, because though they may escape to a fantasy, our world of weeping is that much more drab that we must let them go.