Those who play videogames are often accused of (and attest to) doing so as a way escape their presumably sad and frustrating lives. What the people who assume such things ignore is that the only thing escapism tends to stave off is mundanity. In the face of true, gut-wrenching sadness or fear, I find most videogames to be an utterly unsatisfying distraction. They demand things of me that I don't have to give: determination and hope. Worst of all, they offer yet another opportunity to fail. Escapism is one thing, but it only works when we're able to exist passively in our own reality. When reality becomes too painful to ignore, escapism falls undeniably short.
I tried in vain to play through Red Dead Redemption's Zombie Nightmare. It was on my list. I sat in the chair directly in front of our game-designated television. I leaned forward, controller in hand, and pressed start. Within five minutes, I quit. My heart just wasn't in it. I tried Pac-man Championship Edition DX and a couple of Xbox Live Indie games. I looked at myself, I looked at the controller, and I realized the truth: I'm not in the mood for this.
We've all had the experience of being emotionally shattered and yet still trying to carry on with our lives. As we find our footing in this new, broken reality, the world seems to go on without us in an utterly thoughtless way. People laugh, smile, greet us on the street, mention how beautiful the weather is. We want to stop them and ask, "Don't you realize how I am feeling? Don't you realize what has happened?" A death, a break-up, a huge and irrevocable mistake. They ought to know; they ought to care. Sometimes it feels like the only way to survive is by spending our time feeling empathy for someone else, if for no other reason than to hold off the loneliness.
Strange Rain is a game about what it's like to feel alone while experiencing truly earth-shattering, confusing, depression-enabling sadness. While movies, books and television often leave me with a melancholy sense of detachment in relation to the world, Strange Rain uses its platform in such a way that I was actively immersed in the story. Its narrative drive was entirely dependent on my own personal exploration of the space I was given. We the players are an implicit part of the story, helping the protagonist, Alphonse, explore all manner of philosophical, theological and social concepts. Without us, Alphonse is frozen in time, but we have a very distinct sense that time goes on for those around him. He stands in the rain, frozen and scared, trying to find peace.
Peace, though, is non-existent for Alphonse, who finds himself tortured by his own thoughts. Strange Rain is unique in that it manages to craft an interactive experience out of nothing more than the internal struggle of one man. For those of us feeling pensive or melancholy, it's a welcome change of pace from even the most artistic interactive experiences. There is no need to purposefully empathize with this character or imagine that we are him. The game simply asks for our undivided attention and deposits it directly into the mind of our protagonist. Think of it as a first-person thinker.
Any success, frustration, or breakthrough in Strange Rain is purely internal and organic. The game gives us the temporary freedom to explore the life and mind of another person without arbitrary obstacles or goals—only rain, thoughts, and a struggle. And as the story unfolds, so does its melody. The musical score of Strange Rain remains sparse throughout, but as I played, it became a rich tapestry of sound and meaning within the context of my mind. The game managed to snake its way into my own life and thoughts, encouraging me to interpret, ingest and create meaning throughout the experience even though there are clear road signs on the path towards making sense of Alphonse's situation.
Strange Rain may concern itself primarily with providing a pure artistic experience, but the team at Opertoon have gone out of their way to make the experience one that is welcoming to those who are not as used to more inaccessible art games. The designers cleverly incorporate Game Center achievements in order to let the player know how much of the storyline they have discovered, provide three vaguely different but experientially distinct modes of play, and supply helpful tutorials for how to most effectively play the game.
Strange Rain may not have all of the Pavlovian bells and whistles that usually cause me to fall in love with a game. But on those darkest of nights, when I find myself too out of sorts to sit comfortably in my gaming chair, I lay back on the sofa, take out my iPad, and embrace its strange, existential sadness.
Strange Rain was developed by Opertoon and published by Apple. It is available via the App store for iPad, iPhone and iPod touch.
Richard Clark is the editor-in-chief of Christ and Pop Culture, where he often writes about video games. He can be reached at deadyetliving at gmail dot com or followed on twitter @deadyetliving.