I have never experienced anything that is quite like Mr. Rainer’s Solve It Service.
Sure, there are some holes in that. Mr Rainer’s is the latest game from developer Etherane, who made the fantastic Tomorrow Won’t Come For Those Without ______ and the Hello Charlotte series (which I’m looking forward to playing). The games all share some central occupations: The limits and definitions of bodies, interfaces/technology, and the terror (and allure) of constant observation. One could broadly understand each of these games as horror science fiction. Mr. Rainer’s itself is a visual novel, with some RPG Maker-style sections. Within all these frameworks, it is easy to understand as similar to plenty of other works.
What makes Mr. Rainer’s unique, at least in my limited experience, is its approach to its well-defined, but ambiguous world. Much of science fiction can be broadly put into two camps. The first camp introduces a set of plausible, but fantastical, rules, and explores the consequences of those rules on particular characters or situations. Think of stories with a speculative “what if” premise that skirts just outside reality as we know it. Hard science fiction, many Star Trek episodes, The Left Hand of Darkness, or The Dispossessed broadly fit in this camp.
The second camp leaves gaps in the internal reality for interpretation, relying on evocation and ambiguity to fuel its plot. These works obviously include explicitly “non-real” elements, but the source or exact nature of the non-real is never fully explained and thereby can take on a metaphorical character. Alien, Prometheus, Annihilation (both the book and the film though in different ways), and 2001: A Space Odyssey could be included in this group. I’m sure there are plenty of holes in these loose, working definitions and no single work is going to fit into either of those camps cleanly. However, this brief exploration should help explain what makes Mr. Rainer’s so bizarre and beguiling.
Mr. Rainer’s cannot be plausibly included in either camp, though it shares common elements with both. It constantly tosses exposition at you, clearly stated facts about the world even. But the basic premises of its science fiction are skipped over; most of the principle characters that protagonist Üral meets assume that he already knows what the world is and how it works. He doesn’t and neither do you. It will take playing the whole game, probably multiple times, to fully understand the basic plot beats from beginning to end. It creates ambiguity, not through the leaving of evocative gaps in knowledge, rather by telling you things of grave importance and trivial facts of no consequence constantly without any meaningful differentiation between the two.
To be clear though, Mr. Rainer’s does not expect you to keep up with it. Üral’s psychology and his place in the world are in part constructed by his lack of understanding. The game is about being overwhelmed and confused. To put it crassly, Mr. Rainer’s is a game about becoming an Uber driver when you don’t even know what a car is. The effect is like diving deeper and deeper into a lively ocean. As soon as you feel like you understand the dangers of one layer, you descend further, the sun grows darker, and things get stranger. Mr. Rainer’s constructs its emotive landscape through simultaneous knowledge and ignorance.
The result is a totally unique feeling in games, and still pretty unlike anything I’ve experienced in any other medium. Mr. Rainer’s total disinterest in basic clarity combined with its expressive imagination results in a world that feels truly alien, even as it constantly comments on facets of our own. It’s a game that could conjure a bevy of think pieces on disability, the gig economy, the physical internet, but also sidesteps almost everything obvious that could be said about those things. The result is something multifaceted and shaded. The game will only last two or three hours, but it is dense and deep in a way many longer games cannot sustain.
I’m being a little vague about Mr. Rainer’s in part because I don’t want to spoil any of its many surprises, but also because I still don’t feel like I have a grasp on it. Mr. Rainer’s takes work to understand. It’s dense with both written and visual details. It puts you in an environment where it can be unclear what information is plot-important and what is “merely” texture. But because of those things, not in spite of them, Mr. Rainer’s deserves contested criticism and thoughtful analysis. I went long on Everhood for the last entry of this column, but while Everhood is easier to pitch, Mr. Rainer’s is a significantly more complex and rich text.
However, the peril of hard pitching something like this is that it can expose that thing to audiences who have no intention of understanding or being generous to it. Some of you reading this will not like Mr. Rainer’s. You might find it too opaque or emotionally distant. You might find it overwhelming or be unable to find a foothold in its shifting setting and constant array of proper nouns. You might just find it boring.
Still, I would encourage you to push through. If you are willing to open your mind and heart to it, you’ll find an experience far more rich and rewarding than most releases this year. Even games like Sephonie or Pentiment, which I love, are not as dense as this is. Etherane’s work has a fanbase, has fanart, but does not often have the serious consideration it deserves. I hope to play Mr. Rainer’s Solve It Service again, to cut myself on its edges, to feel its warmth, to dive into the ocean of its complexity, and to emerge with both new insights and new mysteries. I wish this for you too.