“Video games can’t be art.” It was hardly only Roger Ebert who believed that, and many still believe that interactive entertainment will never qualify as “art.” Of course, those in the know are quick to point out progressive, highly thoughtful, and ultimately beautiful productions that could only be deemed artistic. Journey is perhaps the best recent example but Japan Studio’s new game, rain, falls into that same encouraging category. It’s not as clean, as cohesive, or as mechanically sound as Journey, but it still epitomizes beauty in motion.
The rain is relentless. It darkens the skies and washes out one’s surroundings, dampening the spirit and making heavy hearts feel even heavier. That’s the enduring atmosphere, as you might expect given the title. Technically, the graphics aren’t all that impressive and in fact, I’m slightly disappointed at the somewhat dated visual presentation. The level design isn’t perfect, either. That all being said, this is a mystifying, enchanting world that is immersive and oddly romantic. The empty, rainy streets remind me of Paris and the motif is that of a charming painting brought to life. It works on a spiritual level, and that’s what counts.
The highlight of rain is undoubtedly the music. The haunting strings and quiet yet wonderfully effective piano allow the game’s concept to shine. Honestly, without the gorgeous soundtrack, we’d lose a significant chunk of the game’s highly artistic whole. You will hear gorgeous original compositions that continually enhance the experience, and there are also variations of excellent classical pieces, such as Clare de Lune. The effects, which are admittedly limited to different splashing sounds, fit in nicely and aren’t overly insistent. For me, being a huge follower of classical music, that soundtrack will have to be mine.
Upon waking, a boy finds he is in a seemingly empty world. Empty, that is, with the exception of the rain and mysterious, dangerous creatures that patrol the night. Perhaps it’s a nightmare but if so, it has a strange twist: The boy is only visible in the rain. If he steps under an awning or a bridge of some kind, he disappears. The creatures of the night can’t see him and the player can only see his wet footprints when he moves. He spots a young girl, who appears to be trapped in the same odd dimension; she too can only be seen in the rain, and she is continually on the run. The boy sets out after her, hoping to save her from the creatures on her tail, hoping to escape the night, and hoping to find answers.
The story is mostly told through text that pops up in the environment as you progress. However, at the start and end, we see a series of individual paintings, which consist of bright, pleasing pastel colors. There is no narrator and for the most part, the entire rainy world feels subdued. On the one hand, I wish the music had played an even bigger role, because many times, the game is simply too quiet. On the other hand, if one considers the setting and concepts, it only makes sense for silence to often dominate. Rain is subduing, is it not? If you appreciate what the designers were trying to do, you’ll very likely adore the overall presentation.
In terms of gameplay, it’s a pretty straightforward adventure. You have to hide quite a bit and don’t be surprised if you die a lot. The boy is fragile and one strike from one of those nasty creatures (which can also only be seen in the rain), and he’s done. Maneuvering about is simple but the control isn’t flawless. The fixed camera works well, though, and you’ll rarely die due to faulty mechanics. It’s just that jumping isn’t a perfect science and when the camera is positioned a ways off, you can easily lose the wet footprints of the boy if he escapes the rain. But what I didn’t realize is that the game is very co-op oriented and in some ways, it reminded me of ICO.
This is because you eventually catch the girl and when you do, you must work together. She’s not quite as agile as the boy, but you don’t have to worry about leaving her behind. She can go wherever you can go, but sometimes you get split up. That’s when you have to free the other from the scrutinizing eye of a wandering demon, which could involve creating a bridge for hiding from the rain, or carrying a doll to distract the monster. There are other puzzles as well, and there are other elements to the gameplay. For instance, walking through muddy puzzles will soil your shoes and pants, which will make you visible even when out of the rain. Plus, later on, you’ll come across parasite-like creatures that can eliminate tough enemies for you (if properly lured).
These are all good ideas but here’s where we come to the game’s biggest downside. For whatever reason, these ideas are never fully developed. The co-op aspects are fun and solidly created but in general, the puzzles feel somewhat repetitive and a little uninspired. In my estimation, a lot more could’ve been done with the muddy puddle problem, for instance, and working together could’ve been much more complex. Furthermore, as the story is very abstract, in that you only have a few specific hints as to what’s actually happening, you can start to feel a little bored.
There’s not much in the way of exploring (which I don’t mind) but when you have a largely linear progression, an intriguing but undefined narrative, and a series of missed opportunities, the result is moderately underwhelming. This is why rain misses elite status in my eyes. However, while the game only takes about 3-4 hours, depending on how quickly you move, there is incentive to play again. Completing the story once opens up new memories that can be found in each chapter, which expand upon the abstract story. You learn a bit more about the boy’s situation before he fell asleep, for example, and you’ll glimpse reasons as to why the girl coughed often. All you really know is that both were sick; the boy had a fever.
Above all, this game is a lot more than the sum of its parts. It's about feeling emotionally attached to the situation and while that can fade at times, you always return to the charm and appeal. It’s subtle beauty rather than insistent beauty. It imparts a sensation of relaxation and strangely enough, comfort. There is indeed something oddly comforting about helping this boy and girl on their shared quest. I think it’s because beneath it all, at the core of the tale, is an idea with which all of humanity can identify. When we sense that, we feel an almost irresistible draw to fulfill the goal, to see the adventure through to the end. In short, it makes us smile.
rain isn’t a monolith of technical superiority, nor is it devoid of shortcomings. The story loses us every now and then, the control isn’t always spot-on, and there were missed design and gameplay opportunities. But the result is what matters. What matters is that we feel as if we’re part of something attractively surreal, an interactive endeavor with intrigue and a bit of philosophy, a distinct style and ambiance that is simple yet memorable. Once we accept that an interactive experience involves more than merely pressing buttons, we realize that video games like rain are extraordinarily important in more ways than one.
The Good: Effective atmosphere. Beautiful, critically important soundtrack. Intriguing, mystical narrative. Co-op elements and most puzzles are well constructed. Solid control. An artistic expression brought to life.
The Bad: Story is a tad too abstract. Missed opportunities lead to uninspired, somewhat repetitive design.
The Ugly: “Not ‘ugly,’ but it’s slightly disappointing knowing that with a bit more gameplay innovation, this could’ve been amazing.”
10/1/2013 Ben Dutka