Episode 536 - A Plague (Tale) of Books and Rats

Rob’s got contractors coming, and we discuss solutions for his too-much-everything problem. Patrick’s finished A Plague Tale: Requiem, and what starts as a wrap up delves into needing to spoil the ending in every way possible. Then, we have a special interview from Patrick, where he talked to several devs behind the Dead Space remake about their history with horror and what defines “violence” in Dead Space. After the break, we dive into the question bucket to figure out what each person’s magically-enlarged mount would be.


This is a companion discussion topic for the original entry at https://shows.acast.com/vicegamingsnewpodcast/episodes/episode-536-a-plague-tale-of-books-and-rats

Rob’s mention of keeping hold of a copy of The Darkness brought a hint of a smile to my now slightly more aged game developer face!

The Darkness was the first commercial title I worked on and holds a special place in my heart for both that reason and for it just being such an ambitious game from a kinda small team working on a mostly unknown license. I forged many friendships during the long nights of the last 6+ months of it’s development and still work with many of the team today.

I’m glad it holds a place in other’s hearts as well!

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Nice to hear Ren sticking up for Rain World once again.

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Rain World will forever be the game I want more people to talk about and at the same time am driven crazy by most conversations about it. Good on Ren for sticking up for it in the face of the normal reductive “game is frustrating” discourse. We live in a world where brutally difficult roguelikes are a dime a dozen, Elden Ring has taken over the world, and Paradox games with layers upon layers of systems that require a wiki to decode are more popular than ever. And yet a genuinely innovative game that is a somewhat opaque, but honestly not that mechanically demanding, and doesn’t traffic in power fantasies keeps getting the politely dismissive “I guess I’m glad there are people out there that like this” response.

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First of all: welcome.

Second of all: hell yeah The Darkness rules. Great game.

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I’ve never played either Tunic or Rain World, but from what I’ve heard discussed in podcasts it seems like both are operating in a (surface-level) similar space; thrown into a vast and interesting world with little direction and mechanical explanation. Why is one beloved and the other dismissed? Nostalgia? Simply not as similar as I’m imagining?

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Tunic is only obtuse as you delve into its secrets. On the surface it’s a traditional Zelda adventure that’s easy to understand. Solve puzzles, fight enemies, and explore. Furthermore, the instruction manual pages you pick up do directly explain mechanics to the player. Rain World is a lot more obtuse, by a large margin.

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I don’t think I agree with it being deeply obtuse, honestly. I think what it is more than anything is different in a way that disorients people, particularly those who have very specific expectations for how games operate from years of play. From a mechanics standpoint the game is really quite simple and doesn’t really hide any of the basics from you.

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The Darkness is a major work in a way that I can’t adequately describe. We don’t see much that’s as specific and coherent as that game. We didn’t in 2006, that’s for sure.

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I come into discussions about Rain World having bounced off it probably four or five separate times over the past several years. I keep trying it because so many people here whose opinions I trust seem to love it so much, and that makes me think maybe eventually I’ll break through whatever mindset wall I need to for it to click, but it hasn’t happened yet. I also originally tried it well before I read anyone post about it here, because my gateway into gaming beyond Pokemon and old shooters was “difficult 2D platformers,” and on the surface it seemed like another one of those. But that was absolutely why I bounced off it the first time — because the ways it seems to do difficulty (again, as someone who has never gotten very far into it) seem to be almost diametrically opposed to what one might call hardcore platformers, or Soulslikes, or roguelikes, or whatever genre gets described as “difficult” on a given day. Which is to say, I understand why it’s not uber-popular even as it seems like “difficult” games are uber-popular, because calling both these things “difficult” stretches that word to such a broad level that it’s just a meaningless descriptor.

(If I felt like being really annoying I’d probably go off on a tangent about how soulslikes, platformers, and lots of 2D roguelikes are all whether they know it or not trying to translate the feeling of playing old Castlevania games into modern genres and control schemes, which is partly why they all share the same approach to difficulty, but I’m just gonna stop there.)

Anyway, my enduring memory of those collected hours of trying to get into the game weren’t that it was mechanically challenging or obtuse, or even that it wasn’t giving enough direction — it was more that it just doesn’t give the kind of feedback that is the absolute core of all those other games I mentioned. Like, Souls games are constantly giving feedback, which makes for an experience of incremental improvement and a smooth curve upward. 2D platformers are the same. And roguelikes are feedback factories, like the core of the genre is teaching the player the game’s systems so well that they can clear the whole thing in one shot. All of those games treat death as a main vehicle for feedback too, whereas dying in Rain World felt like a genuine setback. It made a lot more sense to me when someone described it as a survival game, because while I don’t play many of those, that was much closer to the experiences I’d had with it. I think I got a bit farther into it that time too. Maybe I’ll pick it up again now that I’m done typing this post.

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Perhaps “obtuse” is inaccurate. “Lack of onboarding” is probably more apt. Tunic’s onboarding is much more straightforward. Of course, that’s not a criticism of Rain World as it’s doing its own thing, but it’s also not surprising why Tunic is the more popular game. I wouldn’t blame anyone for reading Gillian Flynn over Fyodor Dostoevsky either!

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I’ve never played either Tunic or Rain World, but from what I’ve heard discussed in podcasts it seems like both are operating in a (surface-level) similar space; thrown into a vast and interesting world with little direction and mechanical explanation. Why is one beloved and the other dismissed? Nostalgia? Simply not as similar as I’m imagining?

That’s an interesting comparison to think about as I love both games very dearly. I think you’re right that when you get past the headlines they’re just not particularly similar. They both require a lot of self direction from the player which is perhaps the cause of the love it or hate it reactions to them you see but I’d say that’s where the similarities stop.

Tunic is a pretty cerebral, puzzle-y sort of thing, and it lays out its breadcrumbs pretty clearly if you take the time to follow them. It’s also clearly riffing on Zelda and Dark Souls so if you have a passing knowledge of those games it’s quite easy to feel at home.

Rain World is the other end of the spectrum in that what the game asks of you is pure lizard brain instinct. It’s constantly throwing you into new and challenging encounters and asking you to overcome them with what you have immediately to hand and what you can pick up off the ground in front of you. You get better at recognising all the threats and tools that make up the impressively large mechanical sandbox but the game constantly throws them at you in novel and delightful combinations in these spaces that have a huge range of movement options and paths through them. The clock that signals the rain coming to wash everything away is forever ticking down and it’s just this sublime and constant immediacy of being this quick and stubborn little creature that is absolutely determined to survive (shoutout to slugcat, you brave little guy!). That’s all gameplay and sandbox stuff of course, don’t get me started on the mood and worldbuilding and art and animations and creature AI and ecosystem simulation…

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I promise that I’m not “well, ackshually”-ing when I say this because I would have agreed with you about the lack of onboarding…until I restarted the game a few nights ago. The first area is practically Mario 1-1 in the way it walks you through the basics without any predators around and you have a guide that helpfully tells you where to find food, shelter, and how to perform long jumps, and then points you along the critical game path. I think even the timing of the first rainstorm is planned so that you’ll catch the beginning of the storm without having to rush too much to get to the first shelter.

I think the mystique and barrier to entry of Rain World is just that it feels like a long lost evolutionary path of games. Or maybe something that dropped in a slightly different dimension where Mario never caught on and really codified what a 2d platform feels like.

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Count me among the slugcats a little frustrated by the Rain World chatter on this pod… mostly because I think “Ren teaches the crew Rain world” would be a fun stream

I couldn’t have put it better, for all its systematic intricacies and deep movement mechanics, you can play the whole game (Monk or Survivor anyway) basically just running, crawling, jumping, climbing and throwing the occasional spear, never needing to mess around with backflips and so on

For the purpose of encouraging anyone put off by this… this is only true in the base game and base difficulty (Survivor, white slugcat) but it doesn’t have to be like this. There are a variety of options to make death less punishing. Without getting into a lot of details that starts to get into spoilers territory, the Monk (yellow, in the base game) has very similar but more forgiving mechanics making death less painful. And the new Remix update (free even without DLC) gives you a couple of other options on top of that, one which can effectively eliminate the penalty. One of the DLC slugcats (Artificer) despite being more challenging in some ways, also eliminates this penalty in an interesting way. Dying as that character is even less punishing than losing your souls/etc in those games.

It’s not perfect and I wish there were more options and were a little bit more granular. But I also wish there wasn’t this stigma around accessibility options. Sadly even RW itself perpetuates this in the way the options are framed, but still… Accessibility options are for everyone! Even Patrick Klepek!

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I realize I sound like an insufferable contrarian but I’m just going to go ahead anyway:

Death is not as punishing in Rain World as it’s made out to be. In fact I think it’s less punishing than in the average soulslike. My personal theory as to why this is a sentiment is people have gotten used to games basically being challenge corridors that you have to get from one point to another improving on rote memorization of challenges, even popular roguelikes have some of this built in by their procedural algorithms. So when most people die in games it becomes this process of throwing yourself at the problem repeatedly until you’ve internalized things, with a little bit of experimentation around the margins to see if there’s something to give you an edge.

Rain World doesn’t work that way. The architecture remains the same but the real challenge-the ecosystem- keeps changing so you can never learn the exact combination of button presses that will get you where you need to go. People seem to find this deeply frustrating. But the flip side of this is: you don’t have to keep going the same direction and doing the same things. The world is constantly changing so you need to adapt to what is happening that particular cycle. Maybe you don’t make a run for the karma gate today, maybe you should just find some food and hibernate again, tomorrow could bring a better opportunity.

Souls games set up this dynamic where you die and then you need to get right back to the same place lest you lose everything you’ve accumulated, and if you use any items getting back there those are gone too. This is creates a system where each Death puts you in a worse position. In Rain World you die and you’ve lost a single karma level, the world has changed, and you’re free to go anywhere, plus you get to keep everything you had on you the last time you awoke. There is no long term punishment other than karma, which can be regained by just looking for food and sleeping.

This isn’t to say that there aren’t times where you can get a run of bad luck or find yourself in an area that is particularly hostile. I just think that mentally reframing the game from a platforming puzzle to be solved and into an actual world to explore and exist within takes most of the sting out of death. That’s really why the karma system exists, to slow players down long enough to make the space s around hibernation chambers temporary homes rather than checkpoints in a platform gauntlet.

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I wrote that post right before I went to sleep and I just woke up from a long and very weird dream about this game, so I guess I have to try it again now lol

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Hey gang. First off just let me say it’s really nice read your thoughts about Rain World in this thread. I feel like ever since I played it years ago I’ve been dying to talk to literally anyone about it but the critical conversation around it is very poor save for a few published pieces (including these excellent words by Chris Priestman for Waypoint right after it released). I love this strange atavistic game with all my heart and it’s lovely (dramatic understatement) to find people who feel the same.

I’m just going to spam quote all of you now so I can reply to things that I found thought provoking:

@robot:

And yet a genuinely innovative game that is a somewhat opaque, but honestly not that mechanically demanding, and doesn’t traffic in power fantasies keeps getting the politely dismissive “I guess I’m glad there are people out there that like this” response.

I think RW is a uniquely abrasive experience for people who Play Games For A Living. Reading through the original Polygon review you can feel the time pressure on the reviewer and I totally get it. I can’t imagine having to play this thing blind, to a deadline, back before there was a wiki and before all the QoL improvements that came in the first few patches.

However I share your frustration that this is still the stock response by people who have overcome steeper learning curves elsewhere. Especially so many years after release when the game has garnered such a cult following so there is clearly something of value there for a lot of people. It reminds me of when Sekiro released and there were a lot of Souls fans who hated it because they weren’t immediately good at it, despite having pushed through the exact same discomfort when they initially got into the souls series. People have short memories.

It’s always a risk to try and find the value in something that doesn’t welcome you with open arms in case it turns out there wasn’t anything there at all, or that, even when you got over the hump, what was there wasn’t for you. I think Rain World means enough to enough people that it’s worth the risk to the kind of person who is reading this post.

@Rupa:

I’ve never played either Tunic or Rain World, but from what I’ve heard discussed in podcasts it seems like both are operating in a (surface-level) similar space

I’ve already replied to this in more detail above about how I think they’re not actually that similar when you get down to it. But one mechanic RW did really well that I was happy to also find in Tunic was having to use items to find out what they did. Nothing as funny or joyful as throwing something you just picked up and discovering it explodes.

Also both games have really interesting and different approaches to encourage you to use finite consumables so you don’t just hoard them. Tunic by giving you a significant benefit when you use enough of them and Rain World by giving you severely limited inventory space and an abundant supply of low level pickups.

@robot again:

I think what it is more than anything is different in a way that disorients people, particularly those who have very specific expectations for how games operate from years of play. From a mechanics standpoint the game is really quite simple and doesn’t really hide any of the basics from you.

Sometimes all you need to get into a game is someone to tell you how to think when you play it. You’re totally right that the way Rain World wants you to play is completely different from any other game I can think of. Essentially asking you to roleplay as a creature in an ecosystem, to prove that you can consistently survive and thrive in the neighbourhood around your shelter in order to progress.

@diglett:

because the ways it seems to do difficulty (again, as someone who has never gotten very far into it) seem to be almost diametrically opposed to what one might call hardcore platformers, or Soulslikes, or roguelikes, or whatever genre gets described as “difficult” on a given day. Which is to say, I understand why it’s not uber-popular even as it seems like “difficult” games are uber-popular, because calling both these things “difficult” stretches that word to such a broad level that it’s just a meaningless descriptor.

Excellently put. Which makes me want to put a finger on exactly why RW’s approach to difficulty feels so different to the Modern Difficult Games pantheon of Souls, Hollow Knight, etc.

Ultimately I think it comes down to the lack of pattern recognition, both in enemy placement and attack patterns. In a Fromsoft game after you’ve played through once you know that giant skeleton in Tomb of the Giants is always waiting around that blind corner to kick you off the ledge. I can play through Dark Souls on autopilot now because I know exactly what is coming.

Similarly with combat. Enemies and especially bosses in all of these games are so transparently just finite state machines switching between ten or so attacks with distinct and readable windups. Once you have learned these questions and internalised the best answers there is very little interesting challenge beyond hitting the timings. This is also a weakness and point of divergence of a lot of the roguelikes that Rain World might be naturally compared to.

To me Rain World presents a much broader and holistic kind of difficulty and results in gameplay that is always fresh as it doesn’t suffer from pattern fatigue. @diglett noted that it made more sense to think of it as a survival game which is a genre I’d argue has a similar conception of difficulty that arises, not from learning patterns, but from the need to evaluate situations and systems: What are the creatures in play? What are their abilities and weaknesses? What is the topography of this room, and the rooms surrounding it? What resources do I have? What resources can I get from the environment? How long do I have until the rain washes everything away? Given the answers to these questions how do I survive and move through the world today?

Most of these points are made and expanded upon nicely by @robot’s post above.

Sorry for the wall of text. I just love this game and want to talk about it.

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The quote attribution wasn’t me, it was Rupa.

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One thing I find interesting about the distinction between Rain World and Tunic is Rain World also has a lineage of games it’s coming from. It’s got a lot in common with games like Another World, Oddworld, and other adventure platformers without ‘world’ in their titles. The high lethality platforming, and focus on highly detailed screens with hard transitions between them stands out as part of the lineage, though Rain World’s focus on an procedural ecosystems makes it stand apart.

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Ah I’ve never played these so perhaps that’s why RW felt so immaculately produced to me while Tunic felt so in conversation with it’s inspirations. Both very positively. I think @robot and @diglett hit upon something similar describing RW as the heir to an evolutionary stub of the 2D platformer, distinct from the main family branch.

You made me think a bit more about the other design bloodline that you mentioned: the procedural and systemic stuff and the way Rain World repeatedly provokes you to improvise you way out of whatever emergent mess its gotten you into. Ren specifically mentions Far Cry 2 in the pod which I think is a great example of the kind of encounter micro-narrative generation that RW also excels at.

However I think Rain World sits in a particularly joyful and elegant sub-genre of systemic design that Far Cry 2 is not a part of which I’m going to call Having to pick random stuff up off the ground and immediately use it that’s defined by some specific features and restrictions:

  • A significant proportion of gameplay encounters are sprung upon the player rather than being planned or initiated by them. This means the player must improvise their response to the encounter in real time.
  • The list of actions available to the player is defined in large part by what kind of resources exist in the encounter, not from character levels/stats or equipment obtained previously.
  • The type and placement of resources in a given area will often be random or limited. The player will have to make the best use of what is available.
  • The possibility space of the kind of actions the player can take given the right resources, is large.

I think this is what I personally find so fun about Rain World’s design. The closest I’ve found to it recently is playing through the first few hours of Breath of the Wild again up on the plateau. Throwing your only weapon and grabbing a sword dropped by the enemy it hits. Frantically grabbing branches off the ground when that breaks. Using fire and boulders and metal crates and explosive barrels to defeat enemies. Of course that game gets away from all that very quickly as its power curve out-levels the usefulness of its dynamic systems. You end up with more swords than you know what to do with and you end up just hitting everything with the one with the biggest number. I miss being pushed to adapt and improvise in that way. Rain World never allows you the comfort of your character getting objectively more powerful or better prepared but it gives you the tools and necessity to express yourself in strange and oblique ways.

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