RAIN WORLD – PART III: On Rain World’s Narrative

(Part III is a discussion about the game’s narrative and content; here I will spoil the game’s story beats and locations. It is up to the reader to decide if they want to spoil themselves with Part III; the added understanding could either increase or decrease your enjoyment of the game, depending on the kind of person you are.

It should be noted that the below is merely my interpretation of what is a rather minimalist story. As such, it should not be regarded as being either definitive or authoritative.)

X. A Blind and Cruel Nature [Buddhism I]

[10.1] Rain World starts out in a natural, familiar post-apocalyptic setting. We are surrounded by great structures of unknown origin and unknown intent; overgrown by mosses, vines, and plants; eroded by time.

In this ecosystem there reigns a food chain of approximately four levels; you are on the second-lowest, able to eat small bats and fruits, but easy prey for lizards, vultures, and other creatures you’ll find on your path. You were safe, once, when you hunted with your family; but during a heavy downpour of rain, you were separated from your kin.

The rain.

The rain.

It comes in cycles, smiting down all those that have not found safe shelter when the time has come. It roars thunderously, distorts the world into stark vectors of death.

You are given only brief windows of opportunity; short sections of time, in which you must leave shelter, scavenge for food, and find new shelter to reside in. These short periods of life are fraught with anxiety: You are a creature of prey in an uncaring world, enduring endless struggles at the behest of your biological needs, seeking the comfort of your family.

Little do you know that you will never see them again. Instead you are led, by some anonymous, unclear, and nearly incorporeal creature, towards a broken entity. Through the Outskirts and the Industrial Complex, past the Garbage Wastes and beyond the Shoreline, after countless unfair, drawn-out deaths, you will find a mechanical being called Looks to the Moon. In her flooded, decrepit building, she tries to speak to you, but her voice is in a language that you cannot understand; indeed, our little slugcat speaks no languages at all.

Right now there is nothing to do here. Like many things in this game, the encounter is strange, unconventional, confusing, and somewhat frustrating, though undoubtedly evocative.

[10.2] Already you will have experienced much unfairness before coming here. But it is during the next part of your journey that you will be tested the most, where horrific structures and creatures will cause a hundred unfair deaths.

Now begins a fantastic upwards climb — truly amongst the most memorable virtual odysseys ever created: starting from the pitch-black Shaded Citadel (where carnivorous plants can sense your motion), up through the Memory Crypts (with its click-clacking scissor-birds, the eternal night sky illuminated by soft green echoes of lightning), through The Leg (a grotesque vertical structure, riddled with vertiginous chasms) and The Underhang (air crackling with electricity, replete with horrifying slithering tentacled creatures, blind cancers of life but sensitive to sound — this is a lonely journey, across the most uncaring environment imaginable), into the vast Memory Conflux (governed by broken zero-gravity generators, filled with enormous computing hardware, rendered here in incredible detail), through Unfortunate Development (a living cancerous overgrowth — raw, dangerous, extremely thrilling), and then finally — in General Systems Bus — we pass through a living organic computer, its calculations performed on live cells, its thoughts raw physical structures, superimposed on our environment in a spell-binding and utterly engrossing spectacle…

…We are an alien in an alien world.

To have come here, to the top of the world, we passed through a harsh and uncaring nature across a hundred deaths: a hundred moments of suffering inflicted upon us by famine, the environment, the rain, or by any of a dozen species. Are any of them our fault? Yet there is little we could have done: play too carefully, and time will run out; play too recklessly, and you will get caught; and always there is the chance of some ambush, some misfortune, or an accidental lack of time. Getting here in itself represents a great achievement: you must have learned to accept these unfairnesses. No other mindset could have gotten you here. If failure had the power to frustrate you, you would have already reached a breaking point before. If you had let your happiness depend on what rewards you reaped, then the game would have worn you out a long time ago. This harsh world sandpapers away at your hopes and desires, leaving you raw and hurt; and the longer you hold on to them, the more their erosion will hurt you. You will either have stopped playing… or you will have understood that when an attitude merely hurts you, it is best discarded. Coming here represents a radical acceptance of the world that Rain World would have you survive: rather than holding onto your ego and decrying that the world is unfair, you have shown a willingness to change your own frame of mind so as to better fit the truth of this world. Already you have understood that most basic Buddhist lesson: Your attachments may hurt you, but you have the power to reject them. Pain is ever ubiquitous; suffering, though, is optional.

It is within this context, then, that we now meet Five Pebbles.

XI. Like Sleep Like Death [Transhumanism I]

[11.1] Five Pebbles, like Looks to the Moon, is an artificial intelligence whom you meet in the form of an android. Unlike his unfortunate sister, the construct he inhabits is still running — though barely so.

It is he who performs surgery on us, rendering us capable of understanding his language. He, this god to our slugcat animal, who tells us of what we will realize is the game’s central conceit: The falsity of death. As Looks to the Moon might later tell the adventurous player:

I don’t know how familiar you are with the nature of life and death, but I imagine like all living creatures you have some intuitive knowledge?

Then you know that death isn’t the end – birth and death are connected to each other like a ring, or some say a spiral. Some say a spiral that in turn forms a ring. Some ramble in agonizing longevity. But the basis is agreed upon: like sleep like death, you wake up again – whether you want to or not.

It turns out that the slugcat’s cycles of suffering were all real and lived. The game did not restart its story after every death; instead it persists across all deaths, and the slugcat’s consciousness with it. Our memories of pain and suffering follow us everywhere, wear us down, rend our hopes to pieces. The player’s frustrations mirror the slugcat’s, who is trapped — body and spirit — within this endless and endlessly fatal recurrence. The creatures of this world cannot escape this cycle; but even the simplest of them possess some intuition of its existence, and the more intelligent ones have looked it dead in the eye. It is this latter group — the Ancients — who created Five Pebbles and his kind.

[11.2] The Ancients were a species so far advanced that they understood the meaningless of this endless cycle — of death, rebirth, and death again. What good a temporary victory today, if death comes tomorrow? What good a death tonight, if in the morning we wake again? Why struggle in life if the outcome is the same, always out of our control? And life is a struggle — a struggle within the competitions that evolution would have us play. To play along is to surrender yourself to Molochian systems greater than you. To defect from this game of life is to constantly struggle against your biology.

For a long time, this latter strategy was their only option: and indeed some of the Ancients became monks, eschewing the five sins of violence, lust, companionship, gluttony, and in the end — survival. In old rituals, some esteemed few would choose to ascend: after donating all worldly possessions to the community, and stashing away their memories in physically-encrypted data for future generations to cherish, they left all attachments to the world behind, and so managed to break the eternal cycle and die a true death.

But the ways of the old monks were hard, and required great personal effort. Moreover, even the monks themselves were stuck with the same paradox that plagued Kamo no Chōmei so. Looks to the Moon describes their troubling predicament:

This was an eternal dilemma to them – they were burdened by great ambition, yet deeply convinced that striving in itself was an unforgivable vice. They tried very hard to be effortless.

Many Ancients were left to roam the earth, in desperate search for an easier solution.

The miraculous thing about Rain World is that they found one.

[11.3] Deep into the earth of Rain World, below strata of dirt and old machinery, there resides a great sea of Void Fluid: a liquid substance that destroys all. Whatever touches it is dissolved; whoever touches it, is crossed out of life.

It was the discovery of a lifetime: a true transhumanist technology, capable of granting transcendence of profound ontological laws; a substance strong enough to overpower nature. Immediately the Ancients turned to this incredible resource: many bathed themselves within this fluid, and so found transcendence of life, a freedom from its brutal cycles. But there were rumours of a glitch:

If your ego was big enough, not even the Void Fluid could entirely cross you out, and a faint echo of your pompousness would grandiosely haunt the premises forever.
So even when the Void Fluid baths became cheaper, some would still starve and drink the bitter tea.

It was not just sufficient, then, to rely merely on this transhumanist substance. To break the cycle of rebirth, the safest choice was to first cross yourself out manually, as much as possible, through the traditional Buddhist methods — and only then to reach for liquid transcendence.

The technology was profound; but the fact that it was only guaranteed to work on beings that had already reached Buddhist wisdom, greatly limited its usefulness. The Ancients looked upon all the other creatures roaming their earth, and despaired for their enduring suffering. It would not do to bathe them all in Void Fluid and so create countless living echoes of life; but neither could these creatures, ruled by biological impulses, save themselves. There seemed to be no way out.

[11.4] Let the wise lift the hapless to Heaven. The solution proposed by Void Fluid was too tempting not to grasp; but before the Ancients bathed themselves, they took mercy on the world, and in this mercy they decided to build bodhisattva for all else that lived: synthetic superintelligences that would lead the living to transcendence. These computers, dubbed iterators, would iterate over all possible solutions to the problem faced by lesser creatures, until perhaps one day they would be able to validate the triple affirmative: That a solution exists, that it is portable (i.e. unlike Void Fluid, it would work for all creatures, not just those capable of wisdom), and that a technical implementation is possible and generally applicable. Thus they were to find true death for all — death, whose gift eluded all creatures in this world — and they were themselves bound to life, until they discover a way out.

Having left this final gift to all of life, the Ancients had done all they could for their lesser siblings in suffering. Now it was time for them to go. One by one, they crossed themselves out, until in the end there was nothing left — nothing, except the structures that they’d built, the bodhisattva they’d created, and a few unfortunate echoes. They’d orchestrated their own apocalypse, and it was a grandiose success.

And there comes our slugcat. Atop the bodhisattva Five Pebbles, a paradigm shift occurs: the struggle for survival, which we grew to know so intimately, becomes the struggle against existence itself — an attempt to find a way out of this cruel nature; a journey for transcendence.

[11.5] Five Pebbles can do little for your fate. The triple affirmative — ostensibly found by one iterator, who promptly managed to die, condemning all others to confusion as to what solution they found — remains unknown, and thus cannot be used to help you. But as a bodhisattva meant to lead others to enlightenment, he is willing to give you directions. Thus he gives you your goal: to seek out the subterranean temples of an ancient civilization.

“Not that it solves anyone’s problem but yours.”

In order to use the Void Fluid that lies past these temples, it is necessary to both be capable of, and have achieved, great wisdom — lest you leave an echo. This capability, like all small creatures, you do not yet possess; but Five Pebbles bestows it on you: a mark that will let you through.

With newfound wisdom and a concrete goal, we leave the bodhisattva’s grounds, and are led through a series of murals, reminding us of the five sins that tie us to life.

On our way out, we see the cities of minds far beyond our own…

…and we find an Ancient echo, who impresses upon us — as though in a dream — that our meeting with Five Pebbles was no nightly hallucination. The echo helps us reaffirm our goals: to escape the cycle of pain upon pain, to find for ourselves the one true death…

The struggle, the cycles…

… to ascend to a greater existence.

“It can all fade, like a morning mist beneath the glory of the sun.”
“We found a way.”

XII. Fluid Identities [Buddhism II]

[12.1] We descend down the wall flanking Five Pebbles’ mechanical body. Down from the heavens — where the truth is clear, great, and all-encompassing… Down through the clouds’ obfuscating haze; down, back towards the world that we know and fear: The world of creatures, of biological incentives, where all fights are physical, where a fake death torments all.

Do we go back, then, to the same world as before? No — something has changed. On our journey to Five Pebbles, we learned how to accept unfairness and not be frustrated by it; and Five Pebbles himself let us understand that we are to leave this world behind us. The cycles of rebirth still structure our lives, but they are not to last: we are meant to transcend them.

But then if we are without attachments to progress, and we understand that this world is transitory… A revelation slowly takes place: more than simply not suffering while we strive for our goal, the world is revealed as a playground: the victories don’t matter, but while it’s still here — for it won’t always be — there is so much to see, and so much to do. So much, indeed, to be.
Who were we before this? Who have we been? We started out as a creature of prey, forced into this cautious mindset by a bleak world and its harsh punishments. Now the punishments don’t matter, and the world, meant to be transcended, need not seem bleak, for we will soon escape it… But then what of the identity which we assumed? We remain small and fragile, but everything that made us prey has gone. Could perhaps this identity pass with it? The outcome doesn’t matter, so there is no need to live in any particular way. Without consequences to bind us, the space of our possible actions grows infinite. Profoundly, we are free. Death cannot stop us. Its punishments are temporary and may well be overcome. Why worry at all? While we are still here, why let our selves be constrained by this fleeting world?

[12.2] We journey downwards, back into an animal world — but an animal we are no longer; broken free from our biological incentives, no longer a creature of prey but instead a mind of possibilities, we make our ways through the gorgeous Chimney Canopy towards the lively Sky Islands.

Here the game meets us on our newfound terms: the lonely isolation of our climb towards Five Pebbles is replaced by an incredible ecosystem, full of creatures making their way through animal lives. There are the black dropwigs, waiting in hiding for a moment to strike; the scuttering eggbugs, anxiously carrying soft, juicy kin on their backs; the winged centipedes, shivering and slithering their way through the air; the majestic vultures that swoop down and snap their beaks at whatever still lives… Here walk the expressive orange lizards, which cooperate to catch you; bands of scavengers roam — curious, cautious, courageous; squidcadas buzz around in search of sustenance; and noodle-fly mothers whizz by, protecting their young by letting them hold on to her stinger, which extends ominously mere moments before she pins her prey down with fierce quick strikes. A cacophony of life worms its way through majestic competitions, each embedded in the other, all threaded together, awkwardly and cruelly enmeshed within a singular space and time — and you are there, you, amongst them, oftentimes below them, but through acceptance lifted up above them. None of this is scripted; every cycle provides countless surprises, the same systems running the same rules but always starting out from different states, producing vastly different outcomes every time.

It is brutal, punishing, in many ways frightening; profoundly frustrating and deeply uncertain; but from the right perspective there is a grand beauty to it all. With outcomes this interesting and varied, what a joy it is, that you needn’t filter all experiences through the narrow lens of your own needs and desires! On a playground like this, you might feel compelled to join in on these games, to fully engage with everything that comes onto your path: run with the eggbugs, do dangerous battle with the centipedes, play around with the lizards, fly everywhere with the squidcadas… All of this distracts from your central task of avoiding danger so that you can find food — but you know, now, that safety is secondary, and though you were born prey, you may live your life however you like. Any identity is possible; when the outcomes are no longer evaluated, any role on this stage of life may be played with the fiercest verve and joy, no matter how badly the costume fits…

…Until, one morning, you are done. You have drunk deeply of life, tried on all identities your frail body can express; and content though you are, the cycles have gone on for long enough. The joys have been felt; the lessons all learned; it is time to leave this world behind forever.

XIII. The Void and Beyond [Transhumanism II]

[13.1] So down you go. Down, through the Farm Arrays with its voracious grasses, in which you must learn to leave your fate entirely at the whim of another species — down through complex subterranean systems of darkness and old trackroads, where centipedes scurry through the narrow pathways and omnivorous plants seek out all life… 

Further still, now, into the earth, through stark red-white filtration systems, populated only by blind mole-lizards that stalk your echoes… Until you travel so far down that no living being remains. 

Here rest the temples of an old faith. As a safety measure, installed presumably as an act of kindness, your capability for ascendance is tested…

… but you, bearing Five Pebbles’ mark, are deemed sufficient, and thus are let through.

Here, several subtle and beautiful effects are on display: There is an intermittent yellow glow passing through the temple, illuminating the world around us; there are spectral images of other creatures, swimming towards some manner of wisdom; and after we’ve made our way through the temple, we pass through hollow earth: raw cave systems where our body shifts and floats, as though responding to some unknown stimulus, requesting sublimation into another, higher world. Our movement slows; flaming torches flicker; the world distorts around us, as physical reality itself veers closer to a breaking point…

…and as the earth pulses, we are joined by ghosts around us; a prelude to what will soon take place…

…as we arrive, at last, at the Void Sea, which separates soul from matter.

Here, in such close proximity to this force against nature, ontology itself is broken down. The fluid crackles with power; the world is bathed in a descending golden light, as though matter is disintegrating slowly, its constituent parts slipping off into the all-consuming void.

We enter the fluid and descend…

…and we encounter other creatures swimming here, ready for ascension:

Amidst this cacophony of bodies, a curious creature finds us:

…and with its hook unravels our physical form, separating matter and spirit:

It drags us along…

…until the process is complete…

…and, untethered, no longer attached through either body or mind to the physical world, we leave our natural earth behind us.

We are joined by sibling spirits; as different creatures but with minds aligned, we all act, approximately, as one:

A grand light calls us, growing brighter with a thundering roar as we approach…

…and we ascend.

Here is an unimaginable trans-natural world: a world in which all creatures are cut loose from their biological incentives, where the scarred identities that nature cleaved us into are enjoined, morphed, unified — rendered whole.

During the entire long and dispiriting journey that the game has made you undertake, other creatures were always prey, or predator, or uncertain, dangerous, fickle friends; all were (as we were!) at the behest of nature’s imperatives — and this is no warm-hearted force! It is a brutal nature, a cruel nature — cold and capricious, unkind and uncaring; a nature which pitted us against each other; nature, which had us tear each other’s lives from bloodied bosoms; nature, which set us on a path of endless survival for the sake of tortured lives, where minds capable of great glories are mercilessly reduced to slaughter and pain.

But here, in the depths of the earth, the savage vagaries of nature are far behind us, and the battle between consciousnesses ends; we see that our own mind is but one of many equally pure forms. The game offers us a vision: in a world whose systems are kinder than ours, all of us converge onto a singular path, devoid of suffering, together.

Continue with Part IV


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