The Chimerist

Strange Rain is an app released about a year ago, and for a while it was popular — surprisingly so when you consider its ambiguous nature. Is it a music app, an ambient sound effects generator, a game or an enhanced ebook? Apparently, people use it in all of these ways.

Strange Rain fills the screen with the image of a clouded sky. Raindrops fall “down” onto the surface of the glass as if it were a skylight. Moving the tablet around will cause the perspective from this “window” to shift a bit. Pinching can adjust the heaviness of the rain. In Wordless mode, the drops patter pleasantly, and touching the screen produces unstructured, chime-like music. In Whispers mode, single words appear when certain raindrops are touched, words that are all related to rain or water. 

In Story mode, touching the screen produces the first person thoughts of a man taking a break from a situation whose nature is only gradually revealed. If you drag your finger around the screen a different, deeper set of thoughts and ideas appear, in white text instead of black, but emanating from the same man. After you’ve played around with Strange Rain for a while, the silhouette of an airplane will move across the sky. If you tap on the screen frantically, the sky “falls” in a way that suggests a sudden cataclysm. (A Twitter feature has been added, but that seems entirely extraneous to me.)

What’s best about this app is its radically simple beauty and the ambling exploration it promises. There is mystery here, especially in the appearance of the plane. Strange Rain gives the impression that you can’t quite get to the bottom of it, or at least that something momentous awaits just out of reach.

The main shortcoming of Strange Rain is its story (written by creator Erik Loyer ), which, although reasonably well written, reveals itself to be an ordinary domestic drama, the sort of material that might serve as the premise for the stereotypical “New Yorker story.” Even the New Yorker has moved past this formula. Supposedly, the user’s interaction with the screen can change the story, but after multiple plays I haven’t found that to be the case, or at least not so as you’d notice the difference.

Still, I like it, and I’m not alone. Many of the app’s purchasers choose to ignore its Story mode and use the rain sounds as a relaxation tool, setting a timer to turn off the iPad after they fall asleep. Strange Rain is meditative, and how could it be otherwise, really, given that there’s very little a slice of sky can provide as a stage for a story? There’s not much for a protagonist to do, either, while staring upwards. Since it can’t really go anywhere itself, I wish the app’s non-story were more suggestive and enigmatic, giving the reader something to ponder.

Experimenting with the time-honored rules of narrative is a tricky business, a bit like deciding to improvise while baking; there are good reasons why you make cake batter with room-temperature butter, as the flat, rubbery discs produced by alternate methods demonstrate. That’s not to say that new forms of storytelling can’t be achieved in the app format, but I suspect that whoever finally pulls it off will be someone who’s mastered the basics first. Writing seems as if it would be the easiest, cheapest thing to get right in apps like this, but (for that reason perhaps), it’s often the weakest element. I believe that the first really great narrative app will probably be a collaborative effort, like the best graphic novels, but involving a creative programmer as well as a gifted writer and a visual artist.

Laura Miller