Symbols and Strata | Rain World

Asian megacities have long served as the ultimate prop shops for cyberpunk: The neon-lit towers of Shanghai and the flashing Kanji logos of Tokyo have dressed the genre’s hyper-tech urban sprawls since its inception in the early 1980s. Since then, a thousand sci-fi universes have resorted to Asian symbols and imagery as a shorthand for a technologically advanced future. While this practice might seem like a love letter, in reality, for Western literature and cinema to imagine an Asian future, was to give credence to a particular form of American paranoia.

Japan’s economic boom in the ‘80s and subsequent rise in cultural exports, including cars, mecha anime, and personal electronics, struck fear into the West. Japan seemed poised to take over the world and put an end to the American Century. The response to this was a new type of techno-orientalism, which we celebrate for its spectacle, but often forget is a visual shorthand for an urban nightmare, filled with zaibatsu overlords, transhuman uncertainty, and cramped living spaces. Cyberpunk is a warning concerned in part with the rise of the East.

Think of the classic shot from Blade Runner: Los Angeles overlooked by a geisha from an advert on the side of a corporate skyscraper. And in Neuromancer, the Triads and Yakuza are conglomerated as the “Sons of the Neon Chrysanthemum”—a reference to the Chrysanthemum Throne of the Japanese emperor, acknowledging their influence over the population. Cyberpunk imagines a dystopia caused by the rise of Japanese culture across the globe; you can hear it in the pidgin slang on the streets, see it in the foreign glyphs flashing on overhead signage.

It’d be easy to draw a line from this tradition of fear and awe to Rain World. It’s a game that forces you to focus on its foregrounds, where you control a slugcat as it wrestles with an aggressive ecosystem, and flees from rain that falls hard enough to kill. But the underlying story is told in the game’s backgrounds, which act as a thick brochure for a collapsed civilization, one built from vast megastructures, and that communicated with Asian-style symbols.

Temples built from old stone crouch beneath towering icons of steel and glass

Those symbols hang in broken lights across rusted silos and act as unknown instructions at the mechanical gateways that control access to Rain World’s different regions. Their omnipresence throughout the game suggests they are just another use of Asian symbolism as shorthand for a dystopic future, and yet they emerge not from tired cliche, but lived experience. Speaking with Swedish programmer Joar Jakobsson, he explains that he started working on Rain World in 2011 when he lived as an exchange student in Seoul. He experienced the city as a foreigner, surrounded by unusual customs and intricate symbols, all of which he struggled to understand.

It’s a connection that is reinforced by Rain World’s level designer James Therrien, who always thought the glyphs in the game resembled the symbols of Hangul, the Korean alphabet. He says Jakobsson must have taken directly from his experience as an exchange student, as it’s “like you’re seeing some language in these glowing neon things through the mists on the outskirts of Seoul.” During our conversation, Jakobsson himself never admits to pulling his memories of Seoul into a nightmare future where humanity has died out. But he nods along with the analysis, as if the machinations of his own subconscious were being revealed to him.

Traces of Seoul are found in Rain World beyond the parallels with its glyphic language, especially if you study its architecture. Seoul is a huge metropolis with an unusual mix of traditional and ultra-modern buildings that are made to stand in direct opposition. Marble pagodas and Buddhist temples built from old stone crouch beneath towering icons of steel and glass. No more clear is this battle between old and new than at the city’s center, where the Sungnyemun Gate, one of the original gates of the ancient Fortress Wall of Seoul, is surrounded by skyscrapers and a vortex of busy roads.

The architectural clash of Seoul’s urban form is captured in Rain World’s multi-layered backdrops. These depict not the remains of a single civilization but many: Metal palisades and barbed wire in one suggests tight security and oppression while another is filled with satellite dishes and loud speakers as if distant communication was the priority.

In one region we can find the traces of an ancient people, represented by old stone totems with intestinal belly parts and grinning heads. Yet the area next to it is a hard contrast, dominated by a modern subway complete with metal carriages and graffiti sprayed on concrete walls. This dichotomy is repeated across the whole game in a way that resembles the battle in Seoul between its historical temples and modern skyscrapers.

But Rain World also suggests a shared history by merging its different regions in such a way that it can be hard to tell where one begins and another ends. Many of the game’s backdrops, filled with ruins collapsing into one another, resemble a fight for territory and resources between different architectures. What we get to see, in these dioramas, are conquered civilizations becoming the physical foundations for others. It’s a place built from accretion, with cities not only being built adjacent to each other, but also on top of another. What Rain World envisions is a world made from strata—history starts at the bottom and rises up through its world. This is why ancient temples sit at the lowest point, underneath subterranean villages, sunken subways, and dark citadels, leading us on a crumbling path, right up to the most recent civilization at the top of the pile.

As previous access routes have been demolished or flooded, you find that you have to crawl the shafts and makeshift tunnels to get through, constantly thinking of spaces through their interstices. It’s as if you’re an engineer, who works and sleeps between moving machine parts, only able to navigate by the familiar sight of a broken rebar or one of those incomprehensible glyphs. The game commits to this perspective through the exposition of subspaces; factories don’t exist just as simple outlines in the distance, but are exposed as rotting corpses, their guts spilled out across the screen. As you get up close you can peer into the head of a rusted screw, or trace lines of cement between bricks. No details are spared.

“Like you’re seeing some language in these glowing neon things through the mists on the outskirts of Seoul.”

However, it is difficult to pick apart the individual components of these industrial collages without observing the shadows that carousel across the game’s backgrounds. That play of light carves up new frames in each screen through which to observe the debris. It encourages you to break up the larger picture into smaller items. This becomes essential, as to single out even a small part of the game’s bricolage can be tricky, with it all tangled up and knotted into each other: chains hide amid hanging roots, cog pieces are incorporated into colonnades, industrial fans are smothered by plant rot. This constant, quiet motion is the final layer on the seemingly infinite strata of this world.

The result of Rain World’s glyphs and ruins is the sensation of being lost inside a massive, eclectic labyrinth. The foreignness of its spaces are meant to generate fear and awe, but this isn’t yet another lazy rehash of cyberpunk imagery and its fear of the East. Instead, rather than coming from a place of distant romanticism, the game emerges from proximity, relaying Jakobsson’s personal experience of alienation in a city at odds with its own history.

Chris Priestman

Chris is a freelance writer interested in experimental videogames, data errors, digital toys, and virtual architecture. He runs a small curation website called Warp Door, and writes regularly for The Guardian, Edge, and Gamasutra.