I’m Only Happy When it Rains
I recently got around to playing Bend Studio’s Days Gone, as I wanted a grounded open world to explore and live in for a while. Possibly to remember what it felt like to have more than 20-square feet in which to sleep, eat, live, repeat.
About 10 minutes into the game, the protagonist Deacon St John is riding shotgun on his friend Boozer’s motorbike as they meander through a gorgeously rendered forest in Oregon.
But the game didn’t open with a resplendent and sun-drenched vista. Rather than introducing their gorgeous world in its best light, Bend opted for a mild drizzle of rain, puddles of mud (not that one) and a thicket of mist.
It struck me as a surprisingly…normal way to introduce a game world. 30 minutes later I was clearing out a bandit camp and, just like the skulls that I had introduced to my baseball bat, the heavens once again opened to let their nectar flow forth.
Being soaked twice in an hour was obviously too much for St John to take. He soon channels his inner Travis and bemoans the “Goddamn rain. Why is it always raining?”. As I continued playing, the number of reasons I had for not bonding with Deacon would grow. But this early gripe turned out to be one that stuck with me.
Because I love when it rains in a videogame. It has always been something that can immerse me into the world. To be honest, I’m not entirely sure why – but I have a few ideas. Let me take you on a damp journey through some of my favourite rain-drenched gaming moments.
Fo Drizzle Ma Nizzle
For years back in the 90s my favourite game was A Link to the Past. It’s also one of my seminal gaming experiences, leading me down the path of isometric adventure and RPG games on the SNES. As an aside, Secret of Mana has the greatest boss theme in history, come at me. Most people remember the game for the masterful dungeons, classic power-up based progression and realising that the guy you play as isn’t the Zelda of legend.
While I remember these things too, what also sticks with me is its opening. Much like Bend did with Days Gone, and Snoopy did with every story he wrote, Nintendo chose to start A Link to the Past on a dark and stormy night. This left the beautiful land of Hyrule obscured by a moist, murky curtain.
Nintendo would also douse the introductions to two more of their greatest games: Super Metroid and Metroid Prime. Both still open with the classic self-destruction of a space station. But the first time Samus sets foot on a planet, that foot gets wet. The surface of Zebes is buffeted by a storm, and Tallon IV’s overworld is a lush rain forest. Samus’ poor ship must be incredibly rust-resistant.
So, perhaps having great games introduce themselves to me while soaked to the bone influenced my love of digital rain. First impressions last, and lasting impressions solidify, so associating landmark games with rain could have left a lasting imprint.
Hearing Placebo’s album “Without You I’m Nothing” makes me think of playing Metal Gear Solid at the time. When I smell pine trees I think of playing Bloodborne sat next to my Christmas tree. These connections are strong; but that’s a topic for another day. Moving on!
Rain on your parade
Rain has long been used in media to convey a sombre mood, to reinforce the emotional tone of a scene. It is sombre or downbeat because it usually means fun and happy things can’t happen. Kids can’t play outside, a beautiful mountain view is obscured, your wedding photos are shit etc.
And so it has also been used in games like Days Gone and Pixelopus’ tragically underappreciated Concrete Genie. In the game, Ash uses art to survive through bullying and return a rain-swept abandoned town to glory.
Beyond mere rain, the violence of storms can heighten feelings of unease and portray themes of danger and threat. This is the case in ALttP when Link’s father is missing, and the legendary Zelda is imprisoned. Uncharted 4 uses a spectacular, ferocious storm to highlight Nathan Drake’s predicament of being alone and marooned on an island.
Risk of Rain
Rain doesn’t just stop fun things from happening, though. It also makes us cold and wet, two states that we are homeostatically averse to. As the rain poured down on poor Deacon St John his clothes visibly change to a wet and sodden texture. This is common in modern games, but many marvelled when Drake first emerged sodden from a jungle pool in Uncharted 1.
The protagonists in Capcom’s magnificent Resident Evil 2 remake visibly flinch – muttering ‘ugh’ – as they walk out into the rain. Lara Croft squeezes the moisture out of her hair in Shadow of the Tomb Raider. This cycle of being sheltered and exposed to the elements helps to solidify feelings of being vulnerable. We are under the kosh and at the mercy of nature (or unnature, in the case of RE2’s zombies).
I generally gravitate towards stories and songs that have more negative emotional beats – I’m a passionate fan of metal music and all things heavy. So it could also be that I identify or resonate more with games with unhappy, painful or threatening atmospheres. Washing tears away with rain-soaked pixels.
Any good story plays with cycles of success and failure, or threat and safety. There is no rainbow without rain, and so a game needs light to fully appreciate old man gloom. But it’s when you stare into the abyss that the abyss stares back – and you recognise the face.
The Rain in Game Falls Mainly on the Plain
One of my strongest memories from playing Red Dead Redemption came after riding out of MacFarlane’s ranch towards Armadillo. I was comin’ round the mountain, trotting down the sloping path towards town. I angled the camera up to see the expanse of Cholla Springs spread out before me and the clouds wept at the sight.
From the view of the rain, the sound of the wind and patter of raindrops, I could almost smell the petrichor. These effects did more to make the game feel real than any of the actors’ performances – excellent as they were.
I’m not alone in marvelling at the swaying of the trees in The Witcher 3. Combine this with the loud rustling of leaves, the wind as it howls through them and the pounding of rain on mud-soaked fields. It’s one of the most convincing weather effects in games.
And I genuinely spent 20 minutes in Horizon Zero Dawn’s photo mode the first time a storm kicked in. I almost shivered as the deluge started. The red stealth-grass was mesmerizing as it danced with the wind, bathed in mist and soaked in torrents.
I’ve had similar experiences in open-world cities like GTA 4’s Liberty City or the Hong Kong of Sleeping Dogs (don’t let this one lie, we need a sequel). The milling civilians, regular traffic and neon signs do their bit to make the city feel alive, tangible and real.
But, as Shirley Manson sang, I’m only happy when it rains. The city feels more real when the streets are glistening and reflecting those neon signs and car lights. It feels more lived in when the civilians are forced to pop up umbrellas or hide indoors.
Game worlds often feel more real to me when there are March winds and April showers. Forget those naff and idealistic May flowers. It could be because that is what real life is like. I don’t leave my flat in the morning and see another resplendent and sun-drenched vista. I live in Glasgow for fuck’s sake. I’ve lived in Scotland my entire life. Rain is like breathing here: if Nintendo was Scottish, they would have called it Dreich of the Wild.
Having rain in my games brings them closer to my reality, makes them more relatable and immersive. It almost makes them mundane. I can’t fully identify with a warrior hunting robot dinosaurs. But I can identify with someone who just got caught in a shower, and now has muddy feet.
It’s always nice to escape somewhere different, to visit pastures new. I’ll always appreciate the scorching desert of Journey, or the vibrant hues of the Witness. But rain will always feel like home.
There you have it, I have committed a thousand words in homage to one specific in-game weather effect. If you made it this far, you have my thanks and my concern. Obviously, I don’t like every game with rain in it. I gave up on Days Gone after a few hours because it didn’t do anything particularly new or interesting. St John is also a hard character to like, even outside of his views on the weather.
And I’m happy when it’s not raining too, especially if it’s snowing instead (look forward to that article soon). So I invite you to think about and tell us what oddly specific aspects of a game world hook you in. What makes you happy?
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