[Note - story spoilers right at the end.]
There is somewhat of a split among people who have played The Last Guardian as to whether the griffin is the most buggy video game animal ever, or the most realistic video game animal ever.
I don't own a PS4, although I do own a bird, which is basically half a real griffin already, but I will probably never weigh in regarding this particularly expensive tamagotchi that makes you cry. I can, though, definitely say that the fauna in Rain World tickles a certain little nostalgic part of my lizard brain. Like the first time at a zoo, or digging around in leaf litter for bugs, or finding a lizard under a rock, Rain World satisfies a little part of me that only got off last while watching Planet Earth.
Screenshots do not do it justice. The procedural animation, coupled with insanely detailed, multi-layered sprite dioramas, create an intoxicating virtual ant farm in which the slugcat's ordeal takes place. The game is also hard, though. It is more than hard; it is that nasty sort of hard that isn't cool in a climate where a certain game has met with enough critical and financial success to spawn a slew of... soulless... knockoffs. Rain World is unfair. And if, like me, you beat it and read through all the journal entries on the wiki because you found literally zero of them in-game, it turns out it's more than a little smug about how unfair it is. A smugness that I feel is somewhat earned, as even though it is just a video game (the lowest form of art meant only for male teenagers) it's bold and subtle in how it weaves the statements it makes about life and frustration into your experience of playing. I'm definitely going to champion this game as GotY when that eventual slinging starts.
Rain World is a game about nature.
Bull ants are a particularly nasty and aggressive species of ant whose bite hurts about as bad as a wasp sting. I stopped by a nest with a few friends on the walk home from high school once. One of my friends was swearing and slapping at his ankle, and he made sure to remind us that 'this really fucking hurts' every two minutes for the rest of the walk. I put my foot in front of the path of one of the ants to see what happened. It didn't turn away, so, obviously, I slid my foot back to avoid the same fate as my friend. The ant turned to follow it. I could take small shuffling steps to lead it around in a circle near the nest, so long as my feet remained within view. A genuine intent behind the jerky, zig-zagging, erratic movements of this tiny bug. You think you're just imagining it following you at first, and it's a kind of delayed shock when you realize that no, this weird little alien has just been wanting to bite me this whole time.
Rain World features various sizes of giant centipede, animated at an unnerving level of fidelity. The small ones are food. I assumed the large ones were passive, as they didn't seem to actively seek me out. About 18 hours in, I encountered one in an open space. I sort of hop on top of it as it scuttles the other way underneath me - no big deal. It's head curls around to face me. It moves with the same uneven gait as a real insect. Step-step-step stop. Step, stop. Step-step-step... I chalk its head-turning up to coincidence. The lizards routinely find themselves stuck in corners, chasing their own tails, after all. I climb up a nearby pole. It's head follows me again; no eyes, no mouth, just four antennae, bobbing slightly with inertia. Step-step-step it follows me up the pole. I hop off as little alarm bells go off in my brain. It slides forwards again as I get close, and slugcat jerks to a halt, caught by god knows what at the end of its head. One of the things that always unnerved me about insects as a kid was I could never read them like you would a dog or cat. They're just sort of there until they lash out. Going out in the yard as a kid, you catch a bee, looks cool, just hanging out. Nope. Now your hand stings like hell and your parents are rolling their eyes at you.
There's a high pitched whining noise, a blue flash and spark of electricity, and slugcat goes limp, before being pulled into a nearby burrow.
As a child I visited a friend on a rural property as they got new puppies. They were small, floppy eared and adorable. I visited again many months later. The puppies were now fully grown dogs, large and black, still with those adorable floppy ears, but they were undisciplined, and jumped to lick my face as I entered the yard. They were taller than me on their hind legs, and gave me a few bruises and scratches in their enthusiasm. Not a big deal, but terrifying enough for little old me that I never went out in the yard again.
In Rain World, the coastline is populated by a sort of cockroach/squid thing that is ostensibly harmless and to which you can feed food in order to grab on and swim around with them. After befriending a duo, I left them behind to travel down an underwater vent into a sewer system. They followed me in. In the cramped, water filled tunnel, they frolicked as they followed me, jumping up and down, out of the water, down on my head as I tried to surface to escape. Slugcat drowned a few seconds later.
About two thirds of the way in to the game, slugcat is upside down, idly chewing on fleshy computer drones as he drifts peacefully about in zero gravity, admiring the nearby work of long, fern like arms jutting from the walls of the structure. I don't really have any prior experience that relates to this.
"It's an old text. The verses are familiar to me, but I don't remember by whom they were written. The language is very old and intricate.
The first verse starts by drawing a comparison between the world and a tangled rug. It says that the world is an unfortunate mess. Like a knot, the nature of its existence is the fact that the parts are locking each other, none able to spring free.
Then as it goes on the world becomes a furry animal hide, I suppose... because now us living beings are like insects crawling in the fur. And then it's a fishing net, because the more we struggle and squirm, the more entangled we become.
It says that only the limp body of the jellyfish cannot be captured in the net. So we should try to be like the jellyfish, because the jellyfish doesn't try.
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. Perhaps that's what we were to them, someone to delegate that unrestrained effort to.
I know I have tried very hard."
Rain World isn't just a zoo of nice animals to look at and be killed by. It's been slammed a little by various publications for erring on the wrong side of difficult. I can understand these frustrations. You can transition from one area to another right into the mouth of a giant lizard and die instantly. You can blindly climb up a pole from one hard locked camera angle to another, right into the mouth of an out of view giant lizard, and die instantly. You can make a blind jump down a screen transition that you thought was not a bottomless pit but in fact was, because they are not at all distinguished between each other, and die instantly. And with its strange obscure system of symbol transitions that go up and down with each death and hibernation, called 'Karma', a reference which was lost on me for 99% of my time with the game, you lose not only your progress for that life, but in a way you retroactively lose your progress for your last, successful, run through the world. You can get trapped in a single horrible area for two hours and get nowhere. And it won't be fun. This may happen multiple times throughout this thirty-hour game. There are no RPG progression systems to exploit. No enemy layouts to remember, since they're almost always randomly placed. No cheat codes. No difficulty levels. Just you and the net. And only the limp body of the jellyfish cannot be captured.
Try to be like the jellyfish, because the jellyfish doesn't try.
There are two ways to be like the jellyfish. There is one way to not. Two of these three ways of existing within the fishing net are characterized within the game. One of them, by necessity, isn't.
Obviously the first reading of 'not trying' is to simply give up. This is just a video game, after all. Thankfully, the ordeal of the slugcat is not real life. You can stop struggling, slip the net over your shoulders, and walk away. Remember how I said the game was a little smug? In an industry of consumer software largely geared towards optimal dollars:time ratios and meticulously tweaked reward curves, to be told to just walk away if you don't like it, buddy, must sting a little. I'm not even being facetious here. It's kind of a jerk move! But I do like it.
If you don't try to be like the jellyfish, you of course become stuck in the net. This isn't just a metaphor for being stuck in a particular section of the game, unable to progress, but still trying. It is a sense of frustration with the game itself that persists even after you give up. People who come away exasperated, exhausted, or angry from the experience in which they were not able to progress as they would have liked, are stuck in the net. The game is littered, paradoxically in its calmest, most serene moments, with 'echoes' of the past inhabitants of the world. They are stuck in the net, unable to remove themselves from the karmic cycle of life and death in the game, because of their own worldly attachments and egos.
"It's a Small Plate, a little text of spiritual guidance. It's written by a monk called Four Cabinets, Eleven Hatchets. It's old, several ages before the Void Fluid* revolution.
Like most writing from this time it’s quite shrouded in analogies, but the subject is how to shed one of the five natural urges which tie a creature to life. Namely number four, gluttony.
It is basically an instruction on how to starve yourself on herbal tea and gravel, but disguised as a poem.
Now of course when Void Fluid was discovered these methods proved obsolete, as it was more easy just jumping in a vat of it to effortlessly leave this world behind.
There were some horror stories though... That 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."
*(Void Fluid refers to a liquid which removes you from existence and allows you to reach Nirvana. Duh.)
I might be reading way too deep into this, but that totally sounds like the developers sneering at anyone who doesn't like their game because it is too hard. That your frustration is an echo in the game's world of your own pride and expectations. Sense of entitlement, maybe? That the game cater to your own tastes? But surely I am entitled to enjoying a product I paid for. Art doesn't cost twenty dollars on Steam, does it. I have very mixed feelings about this! But I do like it.
The third way, then. Don't walk away, but let go of your pride. The net is only in your mind. There is no net, and you're The One, Neo. The One who is special enough to undergo this transcendent experience and just persist with a goddamn video game. Just take a few deep breaths whenever you die, chill out and try again.
Rain World isn't just an ecosystem, but a microcosm. The life in the game is vibrant and believable, both as observer and participant. 'Nature' is all about the external, moving parts in the world around us, and a description of our inner workings. It's about taking the bad with the good. Progress comes, and sometimes it doesn't. Sometimes it is the nature of things to just spin your wheels for whole tangible fractions of your existence, and the best you can do is not get caught in the net, because it won't pull forever.
What comes after the net passes, then? Rain World pleasantly surprised me with its ending. Slugcat doesn't really find his family. The game isn't just a journey, it's an exodus. A vicarious ordeal with all the catharsis but none of the risk. It ends with a twenty minute long segment of minimal interaction that is an aural and visual masterwork and only mildly triggering of my thalassophobia. I can't stop thinking about this game, but who knows whether this is just a honeymoon phase or something I will still champion come the end of the year, or the next.
It's also fun to play. Check it out.