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Rumu is a cleaning robot with a big heart and a bottomless dustbag

Rumu felt very low-key at first. It's a game about being a sentient vacuum cleaner, a robot whose job is to trundle across floors dealing with little household accidents. But as the household AI Sabrina fills you in on more and more of the details beyond your tiny world, as you start to learn about your absent owners David and Cecily, a sense of guilt and dread builds up. Something's wrong here, and it's not the toast on the floor.

Rumu might not have been on your radar, but it’s definitely worth checking out. This is the first feature-length title developed by Sydney studio Robot House,  one that caught our eye at PAX Australia this year. I checked in with gamerunner Ally McLean and game director Dane Maddams to ask them about the launch and their future plans.

PC Gamer: How's it feel for both of you now that Rumu has finally released? 

Ally McLean: It's been a real rollercoaster for us. Rumu has been such a passion project for everyone on the team—from the executive level down to the contractors who worked on some of the 2D art. It's been such a labor of love and so we weren’t quite sure what to expect when we released it. We knew we had a lot of support. We knew a lot of people responded really well to it when we announced it. But I don't think we were prepared for just the outpouring of emotion that people had for it. Watching people stream it on launch day and seeing people cry...

Dane Maddams: Yeah, a lot of people cried. Ugly cried too. It was something that we knew because we kinda did when we played it, but we didn't expect the level of emotion in the response. It’s our baby and we're so closely tied to it so that’s expected for us, but when it happened like that it was all the more special. 

What were the main goals you wanted to achieve with Rumu?

DM: Structurally, we initially discussed the idea from the outset of it being influenced by a lot of the games that we’ve played that we were passionate about—from the point-and-click adventures of the early days, all the way through to recent indie successes that are very narrative-driven.

AM: Kind of like Gone Home and Firewatch.

A big part of the design thought for us was believing your audience is smart, believing that players are smart and that they’ll figure things out.

Ally McLean

DM: We started to realize that Rumu set out its own destiny in front of us as a story-driven, narrative game. Initially, we knew how we wanted to tell the story but we didn't know how to best experiment with a lot of different structural mechanisms like puzzles or push-and-pull mechanics. At a certain point through finalizing the story, it told us what it wanted to be.

AM: That's a huge testament as well to Dan McMahon. His script was really so beautiful and he really crafted the characters in collaboration with the whole team. He came in house and worked with us all one-on-one to create something that gelled really cohesively with the way we wanted to tell the story.

Did it change much from the original vision? Did feedback from PAX Aus or other events shape how the game ended up looking?

AM: Not so much with the story. The vision of the story was quite clear by the time we announced it and showed it at PAX. But we definitely really benefited from playtest sessions and PAX was incredibly valuable for us. Being able to see an audience of people drawn to indie sections and are really passionate about the same things as us come and play the game and go in blind, we learned a lot about the way people approach the game. We learned where they might need a little more or a little less prompting.

A big part of the design thought for us was believing your audience is smart, believing that players are smart and that they’ll figure things out. You don’t need to specifically tell them what’s going on. Shows like PAX were really encouraging for that. We found a lot of people were figuring out the gameplay things out themselves but also came away from it with their own theories and guessing what the story could be.

DM: One thing I think Ally and Adam [Matthews, design lead] did an incredible job of presenting at PAX as well was having thoughtful and considerate conversations with people that played the game and finding what boxes are ticked, how it spoke to them and where they encountered issues. A lot of that initial playtesting and responses has been directly implemented into the game.

Were you wanting to make a branching storyline with varied opportunities for players or was it more about maintaining momentum?

AM: When we first pitched Rumu, it had a huge, sprawling, branching narrative. I think—as all indie pitches are when they first pitch something—we were overly ambitious. But when we brought Dan on, he really convinced us that the most important thing was to tell the best version of the story. That’s really what I think we’ve strived to do in the choices that you make in the game as it is. 

Rumu was really the spirit of what Robot House wants to create, distilled right down. This is something that looks different, plays different, it surprises people and it has a lot of heart.

Ally McLean

It all reveals the same narrative to you but it can be revealed in many different ways and through many different lenses depending on your playstyle. If you’re more suspicious and inquisitive, then you might inspect every item. You might get more insight early on to David and Cecily’s relationship. You might trigger some responses from Sabrina that you usually might not get until later in the game. Ultimately, it’s the same narrative, but it will be revealed to you in different ways. 

DM: We did a lot of playthroughs and one of the things that we focused on was having individual playstyles and potentially different areas of exploration that you may not follow if you answer a certain thing in a certain way. The decision was made that we’d follow one storyline and branches of it, within reason, but do it really well versus spreading ourselves across many different narratives and not be able to focus and give it the love and attention that each of them deserve.

Now that Rumu has released, is the studio likely to work on additional content updates and tweaks for support post-release or do you feel it is out in its entirety now?

AM: One of the things we’ve been really blown away by is the sense of community around the game. It’s just a positive, supportive community. We want to be here to support those players in the best way that we can. The reality is that we are a small team and what we get to do in the future really depends on how well the game is received right now. In an ideal world, we would love to be able to create more content or something new within the same realm. But it does depend on the reality of how the game performs, and it is performing well.

As far as Robot House goes, has working on Rumu influenced what the studio wants to work on? What direction do you think you’re heading in the coming months and years?

AM: Not that I can speak on behalf of everyone that works at the studio, but I think Rumu was really the spirit of what Robot House wants to create, distilled right down. This is something that looks different, plays different, it surprises people and it has a lot of heart. I think that is the trajectory we want to stay on.

Rumu is available now on Steam.