This is the one hundred sixty-first entry in the Scratching That Itch series, wherein I randomly select and write about one of the 1741 games and game-related things included in the Bundle for Racial Justice and Equality. The Bundle raised $8,149,829.66 split evenly between the NAACP Legal Defense and Education Fund and Community Bail Fund, but don’t worry if you missed it. There are plenty of ways you can help support the vital cause of racial justice; try here for a start. Lastly, as always, you may click on images to view larger versions.

The curtains have opened on our one hundred sixty-first random selection from the Bundle for Racial Justice and Equality, and the audience waits expectantly for the performance to begin. It’s The Rainsdowne Players, by Steve O’Gorman, and its tagline in the bundle reads:

A creativity-driven RPG about a rundown theatre and pleasing its unruly clie…

That’s right, folks: it’s time for some local theatre.

On its page, The Rainsdowne Players claims that it “plays like if Paper Mario and Majora’s Mask had a child, but the father was secretly Rhythm Tengoku“. I’ve never played any of those games, however, so I’m not qualified to comment on the accuracy of this claim. But I’m not sure I agree that it’s a role-playing game. It looks like a Japanese-style role-playing game, with its pixel art style, characters who explore the city of Rainsdowne in three-quarter top-down perspective, and plenty of locals to talk to. But it doesn’t have the gradual improvement of equipment and character skills that feel central to role-playing games to me. Instead, it feels more like an adventure game that happens to be controlled like the town exploration segments of Japanese-style role-playing games. Players look for hints, solve a few puzzles, and put on plays.

There are two protagonists, who are named by the player: the orange-haired actor is enthusiastic and outgoing, fond of loudly advertising the Rainsdowne Players troupe to anyone and everyone, whereas the blue-haired actor is more introverted, but highly skilled and possessing good insight into what others think or desire. For the sake of this post I’ll just call them Orange and Blue (the only colors that exist). As the game opens, Orange is explaining to Blue about how to put on plays, as a short tutorial sequence. Every play involves picking five elements from a set of cards: the subject of the play, the location, the purpose or goal, the encounter or twist, and the outcome. At the start, there are only five cards available, used for the classic play “The Adventurer and the Bear”. This play is about an adventurer who travels to a lake seeking wealth, but encounters a bear and is killed. As I headed into the performance, I learned a simple mini-game required for a successful play. As Orange and Blue stood onstage and acted out the play, unruly audience members would approach from each side and hurl bottles or other objects at them. A quick tap of the left or right arrow key (or the d-pad, if using a gamepad) let the actors dodge each projectile, and the better they dodged the happier the audience became.

But there’s a lot more to performances than that. The Rainsdowne Players is a much larger game than I expected, in fact. When I started playing I was just about to leave on travel, so I brought it with me, thinking I’d finish in a few hours. Instead, it became a companion game for the entire trip and more, as I wandered the city, met new people, and worked out what kind of plays they wanted to see. Orange and Blue can find inspiration for plays as they explore, in the form of new cards to slot in to one of the five parts of a play. There are a whopping 86 of these cards in total, each added to the troupe’s book once it’s found. Some are easy to stumble upon simply by exploring and others require solving a few puzzles. Most, however, are granted once the actors figure out what a particularly picky audience member wants, and put on a play tailored to their interests. For example, one person complained that the ending of “The Adventurer and the Bear” was too heavy-handed, and wished we could put on a show with more nuanced moral message. Hmm, maybe we can come up with a twist on that play that makes it a bit more realistic?

It’s not necessary to find every card to finish the game. In fact, I suspect it could be done with very few of them. But I enjoyed card hunting, and the creativity I was able to employ when combining them into plays. The actors’ friend Snails, who appears to be a cat-like creature, keeps a journal showing the various people the troupe hopes to please and how many cards they need in their play (the identity of these cards can also be revealed for a fee, if players tire of trying to figure them out on their own). Crucially, it also shows whether any of the needed cards haven’t been found yet, even before paying to reveal them. Only a few people are picky enough to need all five cards, however. Most just need two or three, or even just one. For those plays, I was free to fill in the rest of the play’s elements myself. For example, perhaps someone wants a play with a specific setting, but I can choose the hero, objective, twist and ending on my own. Audiences respond well when elements make logical sense together, and each performance earns some cash that can be spend on a few things around town, so even if my play wasn’t exactly what the audience member wanted, I still got rewarded for it.

I admit that I repeatedly feared that The Rainsdowne Players was going to be more punishing than it is. After the first play I was free to wander around a bit, but it was already nighttime when I left the theatre, and I was afraid I’d be forced into another performance in the morning. Time runs constantly in the game, and since certain people and things can only be found at certain times of day, I was afraid I’d miss things and flub my performance. But it turns out that the next performance doesn’t start until players choose, and they can spend as many days as they wish wandering around before continuing. Similarly, there are some main story events that pop up at certain points, and I feared they’d lock me out of other optional things, or that they’d arrive before I was ready for them. But none of that is the case. I had plenty of time and freedom to pursue any side objectives I wanted. The city keeps opening up more as the game progresses, too, so there were new places to go and people to meet as I went.

The city of Rainsdowne and its residents are lovely. In a break from the tradition of Japanese-style role-playing game towns, every single resident has a unique appearance, and I was endlessly impressed that each is recognizable on sight. Talking to people was always fun, because the writing in The Rainsdowne Players is fantastic. It takes place in a strange pseudo-fantasy world, where people can be of many species including cats, lizards, denizens of the fire lands, and a grey-skinned pink-haired species that I was unable to identify. Each resident will chat, gossip, complain, joke, or otherwise express themselves, and many of the conversations are genuinely funny to the point that I actually laughed out loud. Special moments playfully use common video game mechanics to serve the humor, with one scene involving a yoga class as a particular highlight. The Rainsdowne Players isn’t afraid to get serious when necessary either, delving into some heavier subjects as I learned more about Orange, Blue and their close friends. I truly cared about this cast of characters, making their story all the more affecting.

I also learned a bit about the history of the city, its rivalry with the Walled City on the north bank of the river, and the important role that drama and stage acting played in it over the years. These artistic pursuits are enshrined in the city’s culture, but the annual Festival of Dramatics is dominated by the upper-class Academy on the north bank, and no one from the poor south bank of Rainsdowne has participated in some time. As Orange and Blue put on shows in their dilapidated theatre, however, they inspire others and begin to revitalize the art scene on the south bank, which was lovely to see. This even opened up new stage venues to perform in, with their own timing-based minigames associated with performances.

If I had a pick a flaw of the game, it might be that there’s no way to avoid these minigames for players who dislike them or have trouble completing them. Plays must be performed to move the story forward, and failing the minigame ends the performance prematurely and forces players to try again. While I enjoyed the simple tests of timing, an option to disable them (or make them auto-pass even with poor performance) would be welcome. Another complaint might be that some cards are quite hard to find. Steve O’Gorman seems aware of this, and has offered hints in both the Steam forums and comments (even answering a few of my own questions there!). There’s also a player-made wiki for the game that reveals some (but not all!) card locations.

I thought I’d be frustrated when I couldn’t find cards, but I surprised myself by falling into the relaxed mindset of the residents of Rainsdowne. I might wander the city for a bit, looking for new people to talk to, but if a day went by without finding anything new I wasn’t particularly bothered. Sometimes I put on plays just to pass the time. Eventually I would stumble upon the card I was looking for. There were a few that I had to look up, however, and I was often annoyed that Snails’ book showing me the audience members who hadn’t been catered to yet did not also record the hints they’d given me when I talked to them. I had to go out into the city to find them again, and sometimes I didn’t remember where (or when!) I’d encountered them.

But these are all minor complaints. Scratching That Itch often moves at a breakneck pace as I cover a lot of short, experimental games in a row, so it was a treat to take the time to dig into a more substantial game like The Rainsdowne Players. The city of Rainsdowne is simply a lovely place to be, and I enjoyed all of my wanderings and conversations and performances, even if they weren’t actually advancing the story. That story is excellent, however, and benefits from the easygoing, player-controlled pacing of the rest of the game. This one is a gem that I highly recommend, even to those (like me, honestly) who aren’t that into theatre. It’s a funny, heartfelt game that gives players a lot of freedom and creativity, with a fleshed-out and interesting setting to boot. Best of all, if you missed it in the bundle, The Rainsdowne Players is available for any price you wish to pay, including free (it’s free on Steam too). So there’s nothing stopping you from paying Rainsdowne a visit yourself. I recommend bringing an umbrella if you do, though.

That’s 161 down, and only 1580 to go!