Clenched in the jaws of a bright blue lizard, Rain World‘s slugcat looks tiny–a ragged doll whose furry body seems insignificant in scale next to the other creatures it shares a world with. The slugcat, a snowy little animal that finds the natural meeting point between the boneless malleability of bug and cat, is meant to seem less powerful than everything around it. It’s small. It doesn’t have sharp teeth or claws. It’s midway up the food chain, eating plants and plucking opportunistically from swarms of bats. The slugcat isn’t much of a hunter, which is a point the player realizes quickly. Remembering it is important.
Rain World is a difficult game, full of peril seen and unseen. The slugcat can slide into tight passages and climb from place to place, but it isn’t nearly as fast, vicious, or capable of overcoming danger as the many predators that share its home. It’s good at climbing, but can still slip from a ledge or accidentally enter a tunnel occupied by a lizard or spidery-looking rodent. A vine it grabs might turn out to be the wavering appendage of a carnivorous plant.
It’s tough to be a slugcat, but dismissing the game based on the challenge presented by navigating its world misses Rain World‘s point entirely. The game’s enclosed areas may resemble the jumping puzzles of something like Super Mario Bros. and its enormous, interconnected map layouts look a lot like those made famous by Metroid, but these reference points are superficial. They’re inspirations for Rain World‘s language, but not its model. Its alphabet is shared with well known games though it’s used here to tell an entirely different story.
Though late game context I’ve yet to find might make this explicit, even in its earlier areas Rain World‘s environment suggests a post-apocalyptic ruin–one where the animals of today have vanished or mutated to form a strange new ecosystem whose rules we know very, very little about. The torrential rain that periodically pounds the concrete and exposed pipeworks of its crumbling buildings and neglected city infrastructure implies an ecological catastrophe has taken place at some point in the past. Now, familiar animals have died out and only those that have managed to adapt continue to survive.
It makes sense, then, that Rain World should be full of surprising, unexplained elements. There are plants that the slugcat will barf up soon after eating and others that explode. There are giant gates that open only when their marking matches a mysterious symbol displayed at the bottom left of the screen, and, most importantly, there’s a number of predators whose behaviour can only be learned through careful observation. All of this, often inscrutable and dangerous, is in service of making Rain World‘s sprawling environment more closely resemble a living, alien ecosystem. As it should be, the player learns only through observation, guiding the slugcat to whatever degree of success is possible through cruel Darwinian rules that have little regard for the typical give-and-take learning curve of a videogame.
Playing Rain World is less a direct challenge where objectives must be completed on the way to reaching an ending than an opportunity to interact with something like a nature film shot on an unexplored world. Guiding the slugcat as it tries to avoid danger, escaping predators and making its way toward the family it’s lost, captures the feeling of rooting for a hapless deer hunted by a pack of wolves in a documentary meant to describe how one of our own ecosystems functions.
The game’s tepid reception, often centred on a condemnation of its slippery controls, confusing objectives, and high difficulty, misses the point so completely that it calls into question the basis for mainstream videogame criticism as a practice. Rain World shows how necessary it is to look beyond the traditional, incredibly limiting understanding of games as vehicles solely capable of providing fun and see that moment to moment levels of enjoyment are not the only metric for finding a work’s worth.
Rain World succeeds enormously in inventing and presenting an entirely new ecosystem. Clearly explaining itself or conforming to a more familiar level of challenge would be completely contrary to what makes it fascinating. As harsh as the slugcat’s many deaths may be, Rain World never loses sight of its goal. It allows us entry to a natural world as chaotic and brutal as our own and, by refusing to organize itself more neatly (or more fairly), it leaves players with something far more reassuring than an affirmation of our own importance. Rain World shows a way that life might persevere, regardless of what we can do to it, within or outside of a game.
Reid McCarter is a writer and editor based in Toronto. His work has appeared in Kill Screen, Playboy, Paste, and VICE. He is also co-editor of SHOOTER, co-hosts the Bullet Points podcast, and tweets @reidmccarter.