Not yet released (on early access), First Person Management Game
Developed by Monomi Park
This week, let’s relax a little bit. Not all games are war games, and not every mechanic need be a simulacrum of industrialized death dealing. However, just because a game is not all staring into the abyss, and the abyss staring back, does not mean that it does not do interesting things with its mechanics. In this vein, one of the things I have always found personally difficult, is relaxation. I do not really know how it is undertaken as an activity; overthinking comes as second nature to me (human life would be easier if the brain came with a -temporary- power off button). Therefore videogames are not— in the main— an activity I go to for relaxation, so it was surprising to me when I found a game that left me feeling rested and fresh after a long gaming session: Slime Rancher. This game provides one of the most genuinely relaxing experiences I have ever enjoyed in gaming—and I would like to dissect that experience and ask how and why it does so.
Slime Rancher is a first person management game of threefold aspects. The central aspect is picking up things, and putting those things in a bucket. Of course, one cannot expect a reward from the game for putting merely anything in a bucket, rather the items which one must collect and deposit are called “plorts”. A “plort” is slime excrement (which they happily expel with a pop after eating). This brings us to the second aspect, the adorable blobby creatures called slimes. These creatures are spheres with faces, who come in a variety of bright colors, all of which have their own unique plorts and behaviors. They are rounded up into player-constructed pens, and then plied with food so their plorts can be better harvested. They must also be cared for, or otherwise they will try to escape, and will run riot over one’s little ranch. The third aspect is exploration out into the wild in search of new and exotic types of slime, food and plort. All of these three aspects bend back to the central loop of the game— putting shit in a bucket for currency. Somehow this game manages to be one of the most relaxing management games I have ever played.
Like all management games, Slime Rancher is in many ways a “job simulator”. There are a number of fairly menial tasks that must be performed almost by rote in support of the overarching goal—sweet, sweet currency (and the upgrades to pens and one’s person—like a jetpack—which that currency brings). In a game like Anno 2070 all this economic activity has a pretty hard edge, and there are challenges that really put one’s economic nous to the test. What Anno wants to evoke is the feeling of being a badass cyberpunk CEO, juggling a set of island economies in a delicate balance of supply and demand. Slime Rancher on the other hand is a kind of get-away-from-the-rat-race-and-return-to-nature “dream job” simulator. Almost all of the actions in the game are a joy to perform, including the meat of your job, firing shit into a bucket which spits out money. This is because the player manipulates the world primarily with the use of their suction gun (which is a bit like a super-powered Dyson). This is the gun that one uses to suck up plorts from the slime pens, and fire them out again into the “plort exchange”- the aforementioned bucket. The process is imprecise, but that is exactly the point. Instead of virtual hands, the only way the player can move the objects of their work around is by moving them toward or away from them at a breakneck pace. This is not a mode of interaction that one can take particularly seriously. The player is therefore made to feel at least somewhat slapdash in all their actions—always reminded that they are here for fun, rather than for a serious, cutthroat, game of economics. This achieves a sort of alienation which prevents the player from really immersing themselves completely in the game. Instead one skims on the skein of gameplay. I find this fundamental in a relaxing game; if I cannot lose myself entirely in the experience I cannot come to conflate the challenges that the game presents with actual real life stressors. I can in effect, treat the game as a pure space of play (the on-the-face weirdness of something like Katamari Damacy has the same effect on me)—your mileage may vary.
One is kept aware that one is pretending to do a job, while actually at play. The job that one is pretending to do is also a lovely one. One is, at the start of the game, given a small ranch with a number of open plots. These plots can be developed into pens, chicken coops, gardens or a variety of utility buildings. There is an elementary balance to be struck between these different elements of the business, making sure that one is always making the best use of the limited space available. One will come to appreciate over time that putting pens for carnivorous slimes right next to a chicken coop is a bad idea, while the same is true for veggie slimes and one’s carrot filled allotments. All this requires a deal of forward planning, none of which is particularly difficult, but all of which gives the player something to aim for. Slime Rancher is, on the strategic level, a game of working one’s way slowly towards completing one’s goals via honest work. From dawn till dusk, there is generally something that needs doing on the ranch, whether it be re-planting a garden with some new fruit, or making sure that all the slimes have been fed and are in the right pens. These are small and satisfying tasks and their payoff is generally not deferred for very long, meaning that the player can immediately appreciate the effect their efforts are causing on the game-world. This is busywork really, but it is easy busywork in aid of a larger goal. That is precisely the kind of thing that structures most creative hobbies, small acts which built to a larger whole in which one can see the work one has put in paying off. In games this process is, generally speaking, represented by a grind—the repeating of rote actions over and over again in order to move the game state towards some desired end. However, perhaps because it is still at an early stage of development, Slime Rancher avoids the grind to a certain degree. The tasks one performs are to a certain extent rote but one only needs to perform them a handful of times in order to achieve whatever it is that one wants to achieve— not so much a grind as a soft sanding down.
One of the pleasant little tasks one performs in Slime Rancher is going out and harvesting slimes for the ranch. Slimes are harvested from the wilderness, sucked up into one’s storage tanks ready to be fired into pens. This requires exploring the island upon which one’s ranch is located in a relatively laid back sort of way. Wherever one goes on the islands that constitute Slime Rancher’s map, there are things that one wants to pick up, look at, or simply observe. There are a few different kinds of fruit and veg (all of which can be planted and grown in one’s gardens) as well as different flavors of chicken to pick up and breed. Most importantly of all are the various kinds of slimes that one encounters on one’s travels, from the absurd to the dangerous. These all have different needs and diets. The phosphorescent slimes only come out at night, and they fly, so they need a pen with a roof and a sunscreen. Water-bound pond slimes on the other hand can only survive in water, and therefore must be placed in pool. Creating the conditions for life of the various slimes is not difficult. Mostly this simply requires building something new or upgrading an existing pen, but there is a gentle satisfaction to preparing to house new kinds of slime. Pushing further out into the wilderness is made a joy by the presence of a purchasable jetpack, as well as some light puzzling (trying to work out how to get into locked areas). Being in Early Access, the top reaches of the game’s outer walls are free to be climbed with the jetpack, and the views are really quite cool. I found myself pottering about simply looking for parts of the map I had not yet seen, gleefully jetting from peak to peak. Currently the wilderness is not really large enough to get lost in, and I hope that restricted scale becomes a standard of the game’s design. The limited space makes the experience much like exploring a back garden as a child, looking under rocks for bugs. There are always more nooks and crannies to look into, but home, comfort and hot tea are never far away. All this poking about is kept from feeling aimless by the fact that leaving one’s Ranch alone for too long will probably cause things to get a bit messy—you have to harvest the garden and make sure that the slimes are still in their pen. Thus there is an element of time pressure, and an incentive to come back to the ranch with one’s storage tanks full.
Although there is, as I have said, time pressure, it is never really pressing. Rather, it is a bit like knowing that one must, at some point, go to bed in the evening—it serves as a pleasant bookend for the activities of the day. There is, however, danger in Slime Rancher (or should I say “mild peril”?), and I expect that as the game begins to move out of early access there will be more difficult tasks added to its roster. Currently its map is only a couple of islands, but it will expand. Its expansion will bring new types of slimes, and those slimes will bring more danger into the game. Or at least they might. The slimes, while being your primary source of income, are also an environmental danger. My favorite slime so far is the exploding slime. There is never a dull moment around an exploding Slime. Trying to feed a full pen of them is an adventure in itself, and finding oneself at the center of a pen of them is the closest that Slime Rancher comes to a pulse pounding experience. The player cannot die per se. Instead, they are knocked out and have to go home and have a little sleep for a day. This leaves one’s ranch untended, and will, generally, leave one’s ranch messy in the morning.
This is not much of a set-back to be honest, as there are no real deadlines to meet—all it means is that the player will have to spend some time picking things up and putting them in the right boxes. Even with this “danger” however, everything about the exploration is relentlessly pleasant. There is only the occasional, natural, outbreak of evil goo monsters to perk things up. Slimes can, and will, eat plorts of slimes of a different colour (look, I know what you are thinking, just try not to focus on what the plort is). When they do eat some plort, slimes hybridize, and what you get is a bigger slime who produces plorts of both branches of their hybrid—thus is more efficient from a food-per-plort perspective. However, should these hybrids take it into their head to eat another plort, they have some kind of awful DNA breakdown and turn into evil “tarrs”, which bounce around chomping merrily on other slimes, turning them into more evil goop. Even with these monsters however, Slime Rancher never breaks its mechanical character. In order to deal with them, one has to pick them up with the suction gun and fire them into the sea—and this is always hilarious.
As for how the game looks, the sun is bright and the land is starkly drawn. The slimes are, of course, adorable and the bright colors in which everything is painted gives the feeling of wondering about in a cartoon, without the need for the heavy handed tool of cell-shading. Did I mention that the slimes are adorable? All of the slimes are bouncy balls with faces, but their bouncing and bumbling around, say chasing after an errant carrot that one has just thrown, is genuinely reminiscent of interacting with animals. I wonder if that is what makes the game so relaxing in the end—the fact that one is essentially seeing to the welfare of a bunch of adorable, blorpy, animals.
Relaxation is a difficult state to achieve in a medium that prides itself on intense experiences and complex, challenging puzzles. The important thing about relaxation is freedom from stressors, sources of what one’s brain recognizes as sources of possible danger. However, staring at a non-threatening, blank, white, wall is not a necessarily relaxing experience. Boredom is also a kind of stressor. So a game that aims to be relaxing has to walk a tightrope between engagement and boredom. Too engaging and the task will start to draw in all the resources that one’s body can deploy in solving the problem that the game presents—making the game fun perhaps, but not relaxing. Too boring and the player will feel unfulfilled, annoyed; also not relaxing. Whether by design or by chance, Slime Rancher falls neatly into the Goldilocks zone of not-too-engaging and not-too-boring. The key here is that there are always things that one should be doing, but none of them are very pressing or difficult to do. Further though, there has to be some pay off at the end that one actually cares about. I suppose this is why people love games like Stardew Valley, Viva Piñata and Animal Crossing. None of which, to my shame, I have ever been able to play for any length of time.
Being somewhat mechanically focused I simply do not care too terribly much about decorating my virtual house. However, I understand now, to a certain extent, how the low tempo rhythms of long gameplay arcs allow the player to plan their virtual day—and how the completion of those arcs brings such satisfaction. The great thing about planning a virtual day, is that one can get everything that one wants to do done in it. The thing is, I do care about doing things efficiently, and I do like collecting slimes and their food. At the closing of every long loop of Slime Rancher’s gameplay, one will, generally speaking, end up with more slimes and more money than one started with, and I find that deeply satisfying.
While still in “early access” Slime Rancher has hooked my interest because it is so simple, clear and (dare I say it?) fun. However, it is still a game that is in the throes of early access, and there are still a number of gameplay concepts that do not entirely work, and of which I do not entirely understand the inclusion. The player in Slime Rancher has no inventory in the traditional sense: instead they have four different “tanks” in their suction gun, each of which can hold (to begin with) 20 of any given item. This makes sense because it forces the player to make choices in what kind of slimes, plorts or food they want to go out and gather from the wilderness. This stops players from simply spending their whole game gathering resources, while putting a natural limit on the time that one can really spend going out and exploring. However, the lack of a player inventory extends into a general fear of inventories present in the rest of the game. For instance, on one’s Slime pens, one can build autofeeders. These are incredibly useful as they allow the player to range further from the ranch, while still keeping the Slimes happy. These autofeeders are filled up by firing the food that one wishes to dribble out to the slimes into a portal in the side of the pen. This portal is linked up to a tank which can store 50 of one item, and only one kind of item until the supply has run out. It is unclear why this should be: slimes can often eat more than one kind of food. It is also unclear why the player should have to fire each and every single food item into the magic portal in order to get it into the autofeeder. This is not a great burden on the player, but it is a mechanic in want of a purpose and feels strangely out of place.
Similarly, one’s suction gun does not discriminate between slimes, plorts and food—whatever is caught in its vortex is ushered quickly into one’s tanks. This creates a large number of minor annoyances when clearing Slime pens of plort, as one runs around trying to get at hard-to-reach plorts without hoovering up everything else in the pen. This, I suppose, introduces some challenge in the wilderness where one is attempting to get one’s hands on one particular item, but again seems out of place on the ranch, where one is trying to manage one’s flock of slimes. Again, this is not a problem per se, merely a mechanic that needs to be tuned in order to properly achieve whatever goal it is trying to pursue.
Neither of these issues will make me discard the game, and they have easy fixes which I remain confident the developers will eventually apply. Things will eventually work; the game is only in early access so far. I cannot recommend that one run out and buy it right now (I should stress that I do not regret my own purchase but one does burn through the available content in about six hours). I hope that the eventual updates and release will bring more depth, but I would honestly be happy at the moment if they simply brought more breadth. Not every management game must be Factorio, and sometimes it is nice simply to relax with one’s slimes. From a mechanical perspective I find Slime Rancher fascinating not only because it manages to be a relaxing game, but because it managed to keep the player engaged, but at a distance. The game wants the player to interact with it, and get an handle on how its systems interact with each other—but it does not want the player to lose themselves completely in it. In doing this it manages to respect the player’s time—it allows one to walk away whenever one wants. This is a valuable lesson to learn in our current time, where games like Fallout 4 pretty much want the player to disappear completely into their dense mechanical mazes.