“On the fifth day, which was a Sunday, it rained very hard. I like it when it rains hard. It sounds like white noise everywhere, which is like silence but not empty."
- Mark Haddon, The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night-Time
London’s Random International Art Gallery is home to quite a unique exhibition. In October 2012, they unveiled the ‘Rain Room’ where visitors can surround themselves with falling water while sensors in the room detect where the person is standing, keeping them dry. Described by the Daily Mail as encouraging the visitor to “put their trust in the work”, it provides a reminder of the way rain if so often perceived.
There are few things that have such an immediate effect on emotion and behaviour. For most, rain represents negative emotions such as depression, misery and stagnation. It becomes an element that hinders the progress of those who work outdoors or would simply prefer to traverse sidewalks without being drenched by passing cars. But as the Rain Room illustrates, rain itself is nothing to fear and can have far reaching and beautifully poetic attributes. For example, the opportunity to be surrounded by it can in itself have an enveloping sense of comfort on a person. Rain provides relief from drought and has a cleansing effect on the environment, nourishing it and encouraging growth.
It is for these more weighty symbolic interpretations that rain has long been at the forefront of an artist’s palette when staging visions that require a particular sense of immersion. For moving images, it began with film as a device to raise tension, set the tone of a story or create emotion for a pivotal scene. This is likely why so many of cinema’s most famous moments from Gene Kelly’s rendition of Singin’ in the Rain (1952) to Jurassic Park (1993) and its T-Rex attack were drenched to the gills.
For the modern computer age, water in general has been cited as one of the most difficult challenges for software to handle due to its unpredictable nature. Even so, long before films like The Abyss (1989) and The Day After Tomorrow (2004) made what are now considered breakthroughs in realistically rendered O2, game developers were dealing with it on an almost regular basis.
Japanese developer Taito’s racing game Continental Circus saw its original release to arcades in 1987 being later ported to the Atari ST and Commodore 64 in 1989. While certainly not the first title to showcase weather, it remains one of the earliest known examples where rain had a realistic and dynamic effect on the player’s experience. As a Formula 1 game, the player must traverse outdoor tracks that are susceptible to dynamically changing weather conditions. Similar to 1983’s Enduro and it’s day/night cycles, weather in Continental Circus shifts depending on the distance travelled by the player. From time to time, a thunderstorm will occur, prompting a ‘CHANGE TIRES’ alert to be displayed. Unless immediately entering the pits, the car’s traction will be nullified by the rain represented by a pixelated zebra-like pattern literally flooding the screen. Rainfall also leaves lasting effects on the condition of the track in the form of puddles of water after the storm has ended.
The game as viewed today also remains interesting as being a precursor to what would ultimately become the 3D representation of rainfall and its accumulating effect on the player’s experience within a virtual environment. Fast forward 26 years to Grand Theft Auto V (2013) and its use of rain can be identified as having its origins in its 1980s forbearers. Despite utilising radically more sophisticated technology, the end result is more or less unchanged. Rainfall occurs at random intervals, effects the handling of vehicles and leaves behind puddles of water on the streets of Los Santos. The only identifiable shift between the eras as far as weather is concerned is in the behaviour of the world itself. Technology now allows the reaction of non-player characters to changing weather conditions as pedestrians cover their heads and quickly dash towards nearby shelter. The allowance of subtle details like these allow the more realistic depiction of what is intended to be a living city due to the demand presented by the advent of complex technology. Nevertheless, Continental Circus and Grand Theft Auto V have more in common from a gameplay standpoint then one would initially believe.
Perhaps then, as the rain room again illustrated, the true power of rainfall in artistic works is through its use as a narrative and aesthetic tool. If rain as a gameplay element fundamentally ends at realistic depictions such as in Grand Theft Auto V, the potential for its ability to evoke mood, story and character would seem far more open ended.
Beginning in 2001, Max Payne is a franchise that relies more heavily on atmosphere than most other AAA brands – to the point where weather tells more of the story than Max himself. He begins his story in the original game having lost his wife and daughter in a tragic prologue level. As such, the world Max inhabits has been designed to reflect his grieving and negative outlook on life as he hunts for those responsible. Set in New York which itself is referred to as ‘Noir York’ via an in-game television show, the city is in the grip of the worst blizzard in decades. As the cold, bitter tone of the setting serves to reflect Max’s state of mind, snow becomes part of the narrative as the storm gets progressively worse approaching the finale. “A hint of desperation had crept into the snowstorm, as if it was trying to get it all out before the end” narrates Max while ascending Aesir Corporation’s headquarters.
The use of snow rather than rain for atmospheric effect in the first Max Payne was a necessary choice both as a psychological plot point and also as a metaphor for the mounting trauma he endures over the course of the story. As Max sinks down into his own personal hell, the snow too becomes deeper and less manageable representing the continuously mounting odds. Max Payne 2: The Fall of Max Payne (2003) evolves the concept of weather as metaphor by replacing snow with rain to illustrate the wasteful aftermath of the original game’s ending as what remains of Max’s life is quite literally washed away.
Returning in Max Payne 2 was one of the most memorable characteristics of the original - its use of a graphical novel rather than cut scenes to convey a moving story. Comparisons are often made to Frank Miller’s Sin City publication in both its dark colour pallet and its use of rain as a persistent presence. Due to Miller’s heavy use of contrast, characters and rainfall are most often coloured white against a black background giving an almost melting quality to each frame, as if the page itself is torn or decaying. Max Payne 2 borrows the same tactic – placing characters within a frame and superimposing layers of rain that obscures any recognisable aspect beyond the characters themselves. Like many of Miller’s characters the point rammed home is that Max does not embody the role of idealistic hero, existing purely for his own needs rather than those of the world around him. By being blurred out of the frame and leaving behind only the basic act of murder as his defining characteristic, rainfall becoming a barrier to any sense of normality. The commonalities between the original game’s plot involving a wider political conspiracy and the manufacturing of narcotics cease to exist.
Accentuating Max’s deteriorating mental state within the game engine is rain’s effect on the setting itself, now far more decrepit and nihilistic than before. Remaining mired in slum neighbourhoods, abandoned warehouses and Max’s own dingy apartment building for the duration of the story, the constant rainfall becomes more penetrative as the story goes on. Beginning with an expert use of sound, rain can be heard falling onto the roofs of darkened hospitals and disused restaurants containing skylights where the beating effect on the glass is imbued with an uncanny sense of desperation. Once the environments progress to the slums, water actively penetrates the environment through cracks in the ceiling, broken windows and fire damaged roofs as if nature seeks to reclaim a world and individuals no longer fit to exist. It is also for this reason that Max Payne 2 is arguably the best example of a game making artistic use of rain’s cleansing and purifying qualities – quite a feat for a game with such a murky sense of atmosphere.
While all of these examples have made heavy use of rainfall as an active characteristic in an environment or story, SCE Japan’s aptly named Rain (2013) released on the PlayStation Network is among the first to take a meteorological phenomena and give it a personality of its own. Taking the role of a nameless boy, the player must guide him through a rain drenched neighbourhood to investigate after spotting the silhouette of a young girl. While not promoting rain as something empowering or welcoming as the Rain Room had done, the game instead expertly taps into the common perceptions of fear in relation to weather and weaves them into the fabric of the gameplay. After discovering the girl is able to turn invisible, the boy finds that the rain exposes him to threats from the various creatures that stalk him unless he takes shelter, rending him detectable only by his watery footprints. Where rain becomes a character is in its manifestation of the enemies the boy must avoid. Instead of appearing as something with a solid mass, creatures seem to be composed of the rain itself possessing an ethereal and almost ghostly appearance.
The implication is that rain is a living presence rather than simply an event with no coherent order. By being given a watery quality, enemies offer the impression of being born out of a sentient form of life actively seeking harm against the player’s character. The need to hide under shelter represents the natural instinct to seek safety as dry areas are represented as sanctuaries where rain cannot reach. Nevertheless, there remains the need to reach the next stage of the game which means braving a dash between shelters, while quietly hoping for a quick resolve. The interruption to the fluidity of movement and purpose among various forms of life when rain begins to fall is poetically invoked in a threatening but deceptively attractive game world.
If there is any truth to the commentary provided by the Rain Room, the real power of an element traditionally held as something to be avoided is only paid tribute when applied to various works of art. This should be taken as yet another testament to the ability offered by video games as a developing art form to give life to something otherwise ignored as a routine or expected aspect of daily life. Of course, not all titles recognise this. When writing his review for Rain, Tom Mc Shea summed up the importance of the game’s reliance on its titular effect with the words; “Without the rain, you're nothing.” Although describing gameplay mechanics, this statement conjures up those that sometimes fail to properly respect the ability of immersion on offer. One particular example that persists is World of Warcraft (2004)’s addition of weather during its vanilla era where rain and other weather effects are only barely noticeable, having no effect on the player, or the world around them – a jarring oversight in a game with an otherwise outstanding sense of atmosphere.
Regardless, such examples are few and far between. With storytelling and technology both constantly evolving, there can be no doubt that rain and the elements in general will become a presence impossible to ignore as simple ambience when creating interactive entertainment.