Release date: March 28, 2017
Platform(s): PS4, Nintendo Switch, Windows
Publisher: Adult Swim Games
Genre: Survival, adventure
There is no game like Rainworld. In an industry that recycles trends until the wheels topple off, Rainworld is unlike anything on the market. Its unique vision innovates in every direction, from procedurally animated sprites to its strange lore. Its soundtrack is the crystallisation of this. While triple-A companies were recycling music from movies and cannibalising their own titles, James Primate & Lydia Esrig were literally hammering scrapyard junk together to make this game’s soundtrack. Rainworld is the pioneer of many innovations, but here I want to illuminate how it broke one of the biggest trends in gaming as a medium: the power fantasy.
The term ‘power fantasy’ is present in almost every medium from the novel to television, typically used to refer to a piece that embodies some form of dominance. In the gaming world this fantasy can best be boiled down to the idea of ‘the power to’.
The ‘power to’ fight against oppression e.g. Dandara. The ‘power to’ make meaningful choices that affect the world e.g. Mass Effect. The ‘power to’ embody some character that represents strength or perfection e.g. Kratos from The God of War series or maybe a modern Lara Croft.
Because in Rainworld, you aren’t a godlike being. You’re a slugcat.
You are a cat that is also a slug.
You are nothing. You are near the bottom of the food chain.
You certainly won’t be able to make meaningful choices that shift the balance of power.
This is part of the game’s brilliance. In no other title have I felt so persistently vulnerable, so totally oppressed by gameplay. Even in oppressively difficult games like Dark Souls you might start off as insignificant, but as you conquer your environment, your strength only grows and enemies aren’t obstacles, they’re vending machines full of currency and helpful items.In Rainworld every enemy is a brick wall, with progress your strength will diminish as the environment becomes more perilous and your enemies more fearsome.
In Dark Souls you are the ‘chosen undead’, an avatar made by the player destined for greatness. In that game your ending results in a meaningful choice, sacrifice yourself in order to restart the world or forge a new one. In Rainworld’s ending you die. I don’t mean that in a gameplay sense as in a death-state followed by a respawn. In Rainworld you are playing to end your existence, your goal is to be freed from the tortuous cycle of everlasting reincarnation by destroying your tiny soul. Rainworld’s lore is incredible, look it up. So as the slugcat you search for a way out of life.
But in this world, you are practically defenseless and everything’s favourite snack. In Rainworld the grass will kill you, the leeches will kill you, the spiders will kill you as will the lizards, centipedes, vultures and poles. Rainworld is brutal and often unfair. The slugcat lives in an unfair world and you don’t have the ‘power to’ fight back. In any other survival game combat would be the first option, but here you have to use your wits. You need to fool the enemy with rocks, hide whenever possible, run if you think you can make it. If all else fails you can fight, but you’re reliant on the environment for spears that hardly even chip at the enemy’s health. Killing predators won’t even net you anything and you are actively discouraged from doing so through the “lineage system”, a game mechanic that increases difficulty as predators are killed.
So Rainworld is a game about feeling small. It highlights your insignificance and, consequently, the world you explore becomes sublime in its enormity and danger. It encourages a humble attitude, you know you are going to die and if you don’t learn about your environment, you’ll probably get eaten by it.
I hope developers learn from games like Rainworld and strive to follow its example, and I hope that this article might inspire you to pick up the game. It has an easy mode now for those that don’t want to deal with the game’s lunacy, and a hard mode for masochists like me.
Words by Rory Haresnape
Featured Image: Still image from Rainworld © Adult Swim Games