RAIN WORLD – PART II: On Rain World’s Gameplay Design

(Part II contains only gameplay spoilers, which are minor. It is safe to read for anyone except those who want to go in completely blind.)

V. Introduction

[5.1] Most games’ primary goal is to keep the player from experiencing unfair gameplay situations. These games are concerned with things like agency and freedom; they try to give the player as many options for self-expression as possible, through dialogue choices, character customization, allowing for different styles of play, nonlinear game design, powerful player characters, and so forth. Furthermore, the worlds of these games are often set up for the player to influence; they are not naturally formed, but instead are designed, down to the smallest details, to give us fun experiences.

Rain World, however, situates us within a fully natural world and makes us suffer from unfairness by robbing us of our agency — the most anti-videogame idea there is. Starting out from this central idea where it is the realism of the world itself, rather than the player’s happiness, which takes central stage, Rain World takes us on a personal journey through Buddhism and Transhumanism.

VI. Buddhism in Rain World

[6.1] Rain World’s greatest strength lies in its imbuing the player with a specific kind of mood or attitude — a single mode of being. It is an attitude that centers around the player’s lack of agency in an unfair world, and the acceptance that they must wield if they wish to persevere nonetheless. This attitude is the product of four inter-related Buddhist lessons that Rain World attempts to teach through play:

  1. Live in the present, not in the future. If, instead of going out into the fray with a hopeful mindset, you simply take on an attitude that focuses on discovering what is here and what will happen today, you can have a vastly better experience in life. Do not be attached to expectations or hopes of some future event; instead, merely exist, and see what comes your way.
  2. Failure is damaging but temporary; there always remains a way. Failure will bring you down, and it will absolutely feel like it takes you further away from your goal. The next time you will attempt where once you failed, it will be even harder to succeed. But so long as you keep trying, there is no way that you won’t eventually get there.
  3. You do not control the world; so do not let the world control you. External events are out of your control. Blaming yourself for them is useless; but so is blaming the world. The only thing you can do — the only option that you have — is to make peace with the vagaries of nature, and to persevere for yourself.
  4. Do not hold fast to your identity. It is important that you understand your role in the world; but it is more important that you understand the ways in which the world makes you assume that role. Your identity could be formless, the role you play merely one of its multifarious expressions. You should be mindful of the identity you create for myself, and understand that it is only ever made and remade, but never set in stone, never an inherent, necessary quality of your own being.

To understand how it teaches these four lessons, it is prudent to first examine how many other videogames teach the opposite ideas.

VII. Anti-Buddhism in other games

(Pictured: Into the Breach. This section is not a dig against this game; it is a shining beacon of fair gameplay design and an all-around excellent work. However, its focus on fairness, visible information, and clear communication of said information, make it a good example of some of the design philosophies described below.)

[7.1] Let’s take a closer look at four antonymous ideas that most regular games hold, and how exactly Rain World differs:

  1. Play for some future reward. A the end of your run, there await: new upgrades; new skins; a prince(ss)’s kiss. Higher numbers, story progression; the joy of increased mastery. And — new levels! Unlockables! Learn more about your party members. Maybe get a highscore?
    Even in games that share Rain World’s roguelike structure, the types of rewards that may be achieved in any run are often clear and highly emphasized.
    In Rain World, the rewards are unclear — the only directive you’re given is to find food and shelter — and though a drive for progress is naturally inferred, Rain World meanders between tolerating such an interpretation and, through Karma gates which only allow access to new areas once a certain number of cycles has consecutively been survived, rejecting it. Progress is not the goal here. With one special exception, there are no upgrades; no new weapons that you may carry with you; no levels or skill points that you may forever retain. You will always be the creature that you are.
    (There does always exist a basic goal in any cycle, which is to find food. This might, at first glance, contradict the notion that Rain World makes the player live in the present. We will look at this point more closely in due time.)
    More explicitly: the game’s intense difficulty and inherent unfairness means that many of your runs are simply doomed to end in failure. You have little control over this, and anyone who tries to get through the game on the basis of hope, will find this hope betrayed so often, that they will barely be able to finish the game without changing their attitude.
  2. Failure is forgotten; success is rewarded. Some games keep track of your deaths, but almost never will failure be anything but a chance to start anew, afresh from where you last began.
    In Rain World, failure decreases your Karma level, making future progress harder. It understands that failure, in real life, is rarely a momentary event; it sticks, and requires active effort to overcome. Other games make a mockery of failure; Rain World respects it and its consequences.
  3. Everything that happens, happens because of you. There are no other truly important beings in most games’ worlds; no antagonist who acts on their own accord and changes the world while you play. Everything that happens, happens in response to you. And — a lot happens: large story beats play out because of your actions; the world is changed through your actions. But more meaningfully: It is your volition to upgrade yourself; your volition to make choices; and it is your volition to progress through the game. You may at times be stopped because you lack the skill to continue; but even here you retain control, because games give you the tools to succeed, and this enemy will still be right here next time. In fact, the better the game design, the more clearly and generously your foe will telegraph its behaviour to you, so that you may take control of your situation by learning from its behaviour, adapting your own behaviour accordingly, and, finally, you succeed, you may stand victorious.
    In Rain World — you die. Sometimes an enemy far above you in the food chain will spot you, follow you, strike, and end your life. You may be unable to kill it; and if you avoid it, you might plummet into untold depths to your death. You will struggle, you will flail, you will panic. You die all the same. Sometimes you wake up and your cycle progresses peacefully; what few enemies you encounter are easily avoided, and it is simple to find food and to return to your shelter. Karma up. Other cycles, your path will be beset by foes; or, barring that, the torrential rains come early, prohibiting you from finding food and shelter in time.
    You cannot influence this. You cannot change this. You can only play the cards you’re dealt, and accept that sometimes the fates will simply cut your life-thread short.
  4. Your role is clear, and the point of the game is to inhabit your role with the most immersion. You are a hero. You are a fighter. You are a strong warrior; a powerful mage. Or sometimes, you have little might, and instead your intelligence and strategic thinking are required. But the idea is that you buy into the role completely, and that your actions flow naturally from there. The gameplay systems are such that you are invited to inhabit this role as best as you can.
    Rain World presents a universe in which you are a vulnerable creature of prey. This is, in itself, already quite unique (especially outside of the horror genre). But Rain World furthermore subverts the idea of identity in a much more subtle and far more powerful manner. I will discuss how the game does this in Part III.

VIII. Realism in Rain World

[8.1] Each of Rain World’s lessons can be traced back to a single monolithic design choice: the decision to position the player in a living, breathing world, one which exists entirely on its own, completely separate from the player’s influence and desires. The strength with which the game can communicate its lessons, is directly dependent on how well it sells this illusion of its world being made not for the player, but rather existing on its terms, following its own inscrutable rules. After all, the better we can believe this, the more deeply we will understand that the world is neither made nor meant to give us what we want, and the more readily we will begin to accept that the world will not listen to us, that it will not hear or heed our desires — and it is this acceptance which turns the playing experience on its head.

It’s hard to overstate the extent to which the designers succeed in regards to its world. I have already hinted at some of the ways in which Rain World’s world achieves this amazing effect; here I will (very briefly and non-exhaustively) name fourteen tools — many of them new, fresh, and unique — that Videocult employs in order to render the game’s incredible world believable as an independent entity that was not designed solely for the player’s benefit:

  1. Rain World’s world was explicitly designed in such a way so as to evoke the idea that you are a being intelligent enough to perceive intelligent patterns, symbols, and structures around you, but not intelligent enough to derive their meaning or purpose; the world itself very clearly recreates this sensation in the player’s mind, crafting a tale that is always just out of the player’s reach. Thus the world is not made for you; its patterns are explicitly not meant for you to decipher.
  2. Death does not end the game. Whenever you die, you are free to start up a new cycle; but you may also watch the game go on, see the world turn. Creatures may pass through the place where you died, and they may interact in various organic ways. All the systems governing enemy and world behaviour are still in place; but you no longer factor into any of these rules. More meaningfully, you are given a framework of the world that does not rely on your biological incentives. After every death, you are given a chance to gaze upon the world bare: no longer is your sight framed by your own desires and attachments; instead you may see and examine it clearly now, unfiltered through your subjective, goal-oriented mind.
  3. The game’s procedural animation — an absolute highlight in its medium —  makes the world feel organic; but moreover, they make every possible state of every single creature in the game feel natural, rather than as being one of a discrete, pre-designed set of possible states. Furthermore, it allows for enemies to use actual body language to reflect their inner emotional state — something that’s truly unique in gaming!
  4. The game contains many secrets which are not revealed to the player; large parts of the game can be skipped, many items have surprising uses or combinations, the player’s controls allow for many advanced movements that are never explained, and so forth.
  5. You are motivated, through the game’s advanced AI systems, its procedural life-like animation, and the creatures’ individual personalities and incentive-driven behaviour, to view other creatures in the game not as mere obstacles, but rather as individual entities inhabiting a world in exactly the same way that you do. Lizards may be befriended, but most players will merely avoid them; however, scavengers — a tribe of intelligent, humanoid creatures — must be interacted with, and negotiating your way through these wonderfully awkward and uncertain meet-ups is always such a unique joy.
    This enforced recognition of other entities around you as, firstly, possessing power over you but (crucially) being uncertain about their relationship towards you, and secondly, of possessing their own minds and personalities, is nearly unprecedented in gaming; never have I been in the position of prey, faced with creatures who are not sure if they should attack me, or help me, or fear me, or what. It’s delightfully unique, and quirky, and awkward in that very special realistic way; like never before in gaming, here is a game that is like real life.
  6. Through the game’s Karma gates, the player is motivated to not just race through the world in search of an always-elusive goal, but instead to make temporary homes in the game’s areas; to accept that this is where they will be for a while, to try and live there, to get to know each place, the world around them, before moving on. Everything is temporary, but still worthy of your attention! Because of this, the world is viewed as not just a series of levels to progress through, but as an actual world to occasionally inhabit from different viewpoints, a world to learn and to live in.
  7. The fluid, semi-randomized enemy placement means that levels and combat situations are never designed for the player; they are all happy coincidences of the game’s systems, flowing naturally and organically from some unknown collision of entities’ incentives in the game’s world.
  8. Killing large foes, a feat which would in other games be rewarded with great loot and high exp., in Rain World yields nothing but their corpses. There is no fanfare, no reward; there is no overseeing system that doles out remuneration in recognition of your achievements. The world is bare; there is no justice; no karma, no other balancing system. Whatever you achieve in this world, there remains only the memory and whatever temporary safety your actions yield.
  9. The game’s weather progression systems — first a wet dripping while the world wakes up; then day, followed by overcast clouds, and eventually, the rain — help give the impression that the world has natural cycles, rather than being a stationary thing.
  10. The game’s artstyle is incredibly and unusually detailed. Its static 2D camera allows for each screen to be full of small, carefully considered details, from the materials of which everything is made, to the industrial structures left by — by whom? — and all the trash, and all the junk, and all the wear and tear… Every screen has been lovingly rendered, containing structures upon structures until you can barely make out the individual elements.
  11. Throughout your journey, you leave the world and most of its creatures completely unchanged, and (with one oblique exception) it only affects you through its passive systems (rather than, say, through upgrades which were clearly designed exactly for you). It does not bend to your will in any fashion; you merely progress through it. Never does it stoop to acknowledge your incentives.
  12. The game does not show you clearly which path to follow. There is a story, but there are no clear directions to where it takes place or where it even begins. It is entirely possible to find an end-game location (though not to clear the game) without coming across anything story-related. The game’s world cares so little about you that it barely even guides you through the game’s story; it is not designed for the express purpose of giving you a narrative; you’ll just have to stumble upon it yourself.
  13. The game focuses on clear, realistic, evolutionary incentives for both yourself and the creatures on your path. The player must find food and safe shelter every cycle; and the same goes for all other creatures. Specifically, this means that the creatures in Rain World don’t just mindlessly throw themselves at you until you kill them; oftentimes, they might flee from you when they become scared or hurt enough, or they might try to avoid you altogether on the way to different food. In this manner, the game emphasizes that the game’s world does not revolve around you: You’ll often see predators hunting different prey, each leading their own life without your involvement. Rain World’s creatures, including yourself, act not like videogame goons, but like realistic animals following realistic incentives. You are a creature of prey yourself; but on a greater scale, all these creatures are. Your suffering is known by them as well. This nature harms you all.
  14. Finally, and most importantly: Rain World is absolutely and profoundly unfair. There will be chasms whose unclear lengths you will misjudge; areas you will enter far before your skill level has risen to meet the challenges that they offer; journeys without reward; and so many enemies that will kill you without giving you a fair chance of survival. There will be accidents, missteps, and mishaps, and you will lose, and lose, and lose, through no fault of your own, merely because the world’s byzantine structures and rules went on processing, and somewhere, through sheer misfortune, these blind processes had the side-effect of completely screwing you over. This is a harsh world; more than any other virtual world that I know, it does not care about your survival or your fair treatment.

This final point is important; it is what all reviewers latched onto, and of course it is this factor that will be at the heart of your experience. It’s hard to come up with criticisms of Rain World that are not in some way “Instead of doing this, you should have done a different thing,” but the main criticism from Rain World’s players is exactly this: It sure was good at being realistic and unfair, but instead of being those things, it should have been fair and consistently enjoyable.

[8.2] But there is meaning here; firstly because the story (as I will discuss in Part III) engages with this unfairness in a genuinely profound manner; and moreover because the game does something quite special: On the one hand, it strongly emphasizes (through its gameplay; through its mechanics; through its creatures; through its rain timer) the player’s biological incentives; but on the other hand, it makes following them a harrowing journey of suffering.

Later, in Part III, I will talk about my experiences with coming to terms with this game’s unfairness; for now, I will summarize them by saying that the game, through these two opposite forces, creates a fantastic tension that may cause a realization in the player: That in order to complete their journey, they must learn to cut their attachments to their natural incentives, and meet the world on its own terms.

(Of course, a corollary of this is that many players, upon realizing this, simply decided that they wouldn’t complete their journey, and dropped the game.)

Once the world is viewed through this distant lens — as a place merely to exist in and to observe, rather than a series of situations that each hold your emotional state hostage — the game becomes a profound joy to play. The player may wander through this dangerous, hostile world without any expectations, stepping out merely to see what the world will bring this time. Perhaps you will die; then the manner of your dying might contain some wisdom, or some humour, or some drama, the textures of which you may freely taste. Perhaps you will at times be successful and survive; this then is a gift that the world gave to you, which you in no way deserved but which you gained through your sheer perseverance. The world is biased against you; but cycle through it often enough, and you may enjoy its fruits and its punishments alike.

IX. Accepting Unfairness

[9.1] But wait a second: Unfairness is the epitome of bad game design! And bad game design is cheap: anyone can make a bad game. It’s all nice and well to say that the game becomes good once you accept that it is unfair; but that’s like saying that any bad game is actually good, if only the player could accept that it is bad! What gives? Why this fallacy? Why excuse Rain World for what is in reality a massive, experience-breaking flaw?

There is a two-part answer to this.

  1. I think it’s absolutely worth it to learn how to deal with design flaws in games (or, you know, how to deal with, uh, bad things in, like, life), if this opens you up to experiences that are far more interesting, meaningful, or joyful than the smooth, endlessly polished things you would normally explore. Rain World, with its unique artstyle, its gorgeous animations, and its pure vision of an uncaring world, has a lot to offer that you won’t get anywhere else; this experience is worth its flaws.
  2. There exist games that acknowledge their own unfairness, but by and large these only turn this aspect into a punchline around which the entire game, as if it were a joke, is structured. (Think ‘I Wanna Be The Guy’, ‘Trap Adventure 2‘, and so forth.)
    Rain World, on the other hand, is that very rare game (besides, ah, Getting Over It with Bennett Foddy) which acknowledges its own unfairness by integrating it into the game’s lore, its narrative, and its themes. Rather than ignoring unfairness, positioning it as a kind of blind spot, the game engages with unfairness fully on an intellectual and emotional level, exploring with great elegance what it means to be subject to unfair circumstances and endless suffering.
    As human beings, we are at the top of the foodchain — and still the lives of so many people around the globe are wracked by invisible structures, Molochian systems of corrupt and cruel but oh-so-natural incentives which, upon clashing, leave everyone worse off. Rain World takes this experience and translates it into physical, biological terms — you are a creature of prey, caught amidst a world of dangerous animals that you are mostly powerless to fight — but it’s the same Molochian story at the end of the day: evolution shapes our incentives such that none are capable of unilaterally escaping the horrendous systems that naturally arise, even though everyone suffers from them.

To understand how Rain World deals with these themes, we must take a closer look at a number of aspects of the game that I have evaded until now: Namely, its incredible lore, and its fantastically out-there setting.

Weather the game’s unfairness for long enough, and you might accidentally stumble across Rain World’s central narrative. So let’s talk about Rain World’s story, because it is the wildest tale I’ve ever seen a game tell. 

Continue with Part III

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