Fixing Rain World
Nobody requested this, but I'm laying it out anyway. Rain World (see review) pissed me off but mostly because it didn't have to be as frustrating as it was. After I wrote my review, I wanted to be done with it, but I can't stop thinking about what might have been.
The systems the game creates are good. I didn't mind dwelling in this ecosystem for the first 6 hours or so, but the game clearly didn't know how to deliver on an experience past that.
How could it have been better? With a little tweaking, it could have been great, and it pains me to see something with so much potential come up so short.
I will be discussing the game's mechanics as well as lore and endgame.
Step 1: Give the player a reason to explore & make the story that reason.
The game's primary problem is that it tells the player to explore, but then punishes the player for doing so. There is no reason to see the world. Every time the player ventures out, the player risks death on every screen, and if you venture our for longer than ten minutes or so, the rain begins and it will kill you unless you find a save point (hibernation chamber).
It's punishing. It's brutal. I was okay with it at first, even though your only reason to leave your comfort zone is to find food so you have enough to hibernate. This isn't enough reason to explore though.
At the same time, the game's story is hidden, so you must venture across the entire map multiple times to learn it, and even then you'll only get vague pieces of backstory that hint at larger events. Nothing wrong with that in and of itself, but forcing the player to hunt for food and survive predators for 20+ hours with no direction or goal, and their only reward is a few lines of dialogue hinting at things that happened in the distant past, is a letdown rather than a reward.
Currently, you must find or stumble upon Looks to Moon, and then travel to Five Pebbles to retrieve neurons and gain a microchip in the brain so you can talk to them, these supercomputer entities. Moon can read you pearls you find around the game map, which contain fragments of the game's backstory. Five Pebbles merely tells you what the goal of this game is: to end your cycle of reincarnation by drowning yourself in a pool of Void Fluid.
It is entirely possible to go through the game without learning a single thing about the world, or about your reason for going down beneath the Depths to kill yourself.
Solve two problems at once by giving the player the ability to read these pearls from the onset. Perhaps upon first picking one of them up (after maybe 2 hours of gameplay), the player triggers a meeting with one of the echoes who gives the Slugcat the ability to read these pearls and discover the backstory no matter where Slugcat is.
I realize this is more or less resorting to Bioshock's method of conveying the game's lore to the player, but it worked well enough for that game, and it could work here. Consider Fallout 3 and New Vegas (not FO4). Fallout 3 rewarded you for exploring its world with stories everywhere. Pieces of stories happening right now. Pieces of the game-world's history. Pieces of lore lying everywhere. The world was full of history, and it made the player want to venture out and find it. Your reward for completing quests was more of the game's story, all of which connected to the larger picture.
In Rain World, instead of forcing the player to bring pearls to a specific point on the map for a specific person to decipher, wasting hours and hours in pointless trekking and survival, give this ability to the player. Let the player discover pieces of the lore all around them. This would give the player a reason to leave their comfort zone and visit new regions because now there is a reward for doing so.
This would, of course, require the story to be way more than just pieces of mundane dialogue. The lore hints at much larger events, so showing those events should be part of the discovery. Included in finding the game's lore should be hints of what happened to the previous inhabitants, and that they learned something which helped them ascend to a higher plane of existence, and it might be possible for you to ascend, too, if you were to learn what they learned.
This means Looks to Moon and Five Pebbles are not essential to the game anymore, but they could still be there. Perhaps Looks to Moon is now more than merely the backstory interpreter; now if you brave Five Pebbles' lair and steal neurons from him and bring them to Moon, she rewards you with gameplay upgrades such as strength and stealth and night vision.
Five Pebbles itself could also offer the player a reward for bringing him Moon's neurons. Could be a choice element in there, as the upgrades he offers the player will be different and compel the player to survive in a different style.
Both characters could offer the player a path for what to do next, perhaps offering two different paths, leading to step 2.
Step 2: Remove the Karma system
Rain World does not explain its karma system very well. I had to look it up around my 3rd hour just to figure out what was going on and to confirm that the game world is, in fact, larger than The Outskirts.
When you hibernate, you earn a point of karma. When you die, you lose a point. String enough successful hibernations together, and you'll stay at maximum karma. You need karma points to pass certain karma gates to and from other areas of the game.
Having more karma points also serves no purpose, despite being able to upgrade your bar from a max of 5 to a max of 10. You gain no advantage from having more slots, only a raised expectation.
Since a predator is likely to kill you several times a day, or you're likely to miss an important jump more than once, you will lose karma. Even if you find a flower which protects you from losing karma when you die, you are likely to end up in a situation in which you cannot retrieve that flower and will play at a karma of 1 throughout the game until you want to move to a new area, and then you are forced to camp at a hibernation chamber for at least five cycles just to get your level high enough to advance to the next area.
The karma system serves only to artificially gatekeep the player, and it encourages camping in safe zones. Get rid of it entirely to free the player to explore at will.
If the time limit of the rains is to be kept, then extend the time limit so the player doesn't have to camp. Being forced to replay a day is punishment enough. No need to gate the player from new areas on top of it.
Now that they player is more free to explore, and the pieces of the game's story and what happened to the previous inhabitants is the reason to leave one's comfort zone and see the rest of the world, it's time to address the end.
Step 3: alter the endgame
The current endgame is to venture to the bottom-most point of the map so you can drown yourself in Void Fluid, thus ending your cycle of reincarnation and ascending to a higher plane.
How does it make sense that Void Fluid is all that's required to ascend? Void Fluid destroys physical objects, but how would it touch a person's essence? Apparently it didn't work very well for people with... sufficiently high egos. This is ridiculous and horribly contrived, but there is a solution.
Now that the player knows the backstory and has easier access to it, and without a karma system artificially gating the player from new areas, add a new element to the story: Void Fluid itself doesn't release a person from the cycle of rebirth. There is something else going on which the previous civilization learned, and that's what allowed them to ascend to a new plane of existence.
Make the goal of the game to learn what the ancients did in order to ascend and thus escape from the pointless struggle to survive.
Perhaps the game now offers two paths to learn what the ancients learned, one offered by Moon, the other offered by Five Pebbles.
Perhaps Moon tells you of rooms on the map where the player can go to learn pieces of what the ancients discovered. Now instead of a suicide mission, your goal is to find these rooms all over the map and discover more of the game's backstory.
Perhaps Five Pebbles tells you another way: the previous civilization found something beyond the Void Fluid, or discovered what it's made of, or what its purpose is, or maybe who created it, and this knowledge was enough to achieve nirvana. Or maybe the ancients found the counter-force to Void Fluid, and becoming aware of that made them leave the mortal plane, and the player can choose to venture either above or below to find whatever is beyond either side. Or maybe both is required.
Learning what the previous civilization learned should be the goal of the game, not merely a suicide mission to take a dip in a particular pool at the bottom of the world. This keeps the player active, and rewards the player for enduring the slings and arrows of Rain World's systems instead of merely surviving for the purpose of committing suicide.
All of this would require the game's story to be delivered in a much, much more dynamic manner, but if you're going to make survival so brutal and punishing, the player should be rewarded with knowledge and engagement, not merely a slog followed by the sweet release of death.
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The result of these changes would be a much more cohesive experience, and this doesn't even touch the combat and survival mechanics. All of those systems remain intact. Now the player has reason and reward to endure.
Implementing step 1 and step 2 would give the player a reason to explore, and it would reward the player for venturing away from their comfort zone. Karma is no longer some gate-keeping mechanic that has no affect on the game apart from preventing the player from crossing to different regions. The player is now free to explore and discover the story.
It also makes the game's story and lore the reason the player wants to endure the punishing difficulty of survival, and hearing about how the previous inhabitants of this world managed to leave it all behind would fill the player with determination to follow in their footsteps.
...instead of just offing themselves because some supercomputer told you to.
Now that the player knows the history of this world and its previous inhabitants, changing Looks to Moon and Five Pebbles into path-givers would give the game replay value. The player already figured out what their goal is. The player wants to follow the path the ancients did, and discovering the game story directs them to these two people, instead of following the cryptic and contradictory gestures of a spectral worm. These two NPCs now give the player two alternative paths to achieve their goal, which preserves player agency, rather than being told to go to this specific place and end your life.
This makes the game's goal a quest for knowledge and enlightenment rather than a slap in the face for all their hard work of surviving and journeying and enduring.
Enacting step 3 would make the endgame more than a suicide mission. Now the player's survival is rewarded with knowledge that helps the player ascend. The player has lived the punishing difficulty for so many hours, and now the player can ascend by way of the same forbidden knowledge the previous inhabitants of this land used. Way more satisfying than being told to go somewhere to commit suicide.
Rain World had so much potential. The developers had a solid set of systems. All it needed was a bit of tweaking to help them fit together. If only someone had told them these things before the game's launch, Rain World could have been a journey of enlightenment instead of a punishing slog to commit suicide.