In Sub-Saharan Africa and parts of Asia, many communities have no access to clean water. Travelling miles each day to find collect water and lug it back home is a task that falls overwhelmingly on women, taking away from time they could spend learning and helping their families. The UN estimates that women and girls across the world collectively spend 200 million hours each day collecting water—”a colossal waste of their valuable time.”
Ayo: A Rain Tale is a beautiful interactive metaphor that sheds light on this issue. You play as Ayo, a young girl from an unspecified African village on her daily commute for clean water. With an empty cannister on her back and the scorching sun overhead, she sets out across the savanna.
Despite a painterly art style, the first level is entrenched in realism: Ayo can jump only so far, and sun-baked rocks and trees form simple platforming puzzles, set against a backdrop that looks like a still-life painting of an African landscape. That starts to change when a dust storm whips up, a vision of a stampeding buffalo caught up in the swirls and waves, and Ayo falls into an underground network of caves.
As she looks for a way out, Ayo stumbles upon a pair of masked twins who offer words of encouragement. They also gift Ayo the power the mouse, allowing her to crawl through narrow spaces, and with that power, she’s able to continue working her way through the caves until eventually she gets out.
The rest of the game sees our hero travelling across increasingly fantastical environments, from a mystical veldt to a lava-filled subterrane to the very clouds themselves. She frequently runs into the twins, who have a new proverb and a new animal power for her each time: the rhino gives Ayo the strength to push boulders around; the antelope grants her a double jump; and the owl gives her the ability to change the colour of her shawl, in turn influencing the presence (or lack thereof) of blue and yellow platforms throughout each level.
On a purely mechanical level, this makes for a solid but not groundbreaking puzzle platformer. Ayo: A Rain Tale has you moving blocks around to open paths or neutralize hazards, jumping between platforms that crack and disappear if you stand on them too long, and alternating the existence of coloured platforms and walls that block your path. Collectibles take the form of droplets of water, some easily found along the way, and others that require bit more work. Stripped of context, it’s typical platformer stuff.
But you can’t strip the context from a game like Ayo: A Rain Tale, because it’s the context that gives weight and meaning to every action. This isn’t a fun, lighthearted platformer even though it plays similarly; this is a story of one girl’s struggle, and a metaphor for the real struggle that millions of real girls go through on a daily basis. Every hazard is representative of the real dangers faced by Africa’s water carriers, be it the heat, the dangerous wildlife, mosquitoes, windstorms, or precarious terrain.
This is a story of one girl’s struggle, and a metaphor for the real struggle that millions of real girls go through on a daily basis.
Even rain—such a rare and precious commodity—can be a threat. In the last couple of levels, Ayo literally ventures into the clouds, where torrential rain and lightning get in her way. The final boss is the full force of stormy weather, brought to life as a buffalo spirit, that Ayo has to flee from. Even in its most fantastical moments, the game’s connections to the real word and the message it wants to tell are laid bare.
Likewise, the “powers” that Ayo gathers on her journey are symbolic of the perseverance and resilience of the water carriers. Each new ability is accompanied by the sharing of a proverb, acting as both a lesson in life and encouragement in the face of Ayo’s challenge—”Do not let what you cannot do tear your hands from what you can.” The thing that carries these women and girls through their journey is their strength, their grace, their intelligence, and their wisdom.
But the most potent and powerful moment in Ayo: The Rain Tale comes right at the end. You might consider this a spoiler, so skip a few paragraphs if you’re particularly concerned about such things. I think the power of this moment comes in experiencing it for yourself, not in it being a surprise, and it needs to be talked about to convey the full weight of the game.
Having fled the final boss—crucially, you don’t get to kill it, because you can’t stop a storm—Ayo begins her trek back to her village. At the start of the final level, the game suddenly pulls back to reality, and all the fantasy elements that had been slowly building up over the course of its run gone. Tired and now carrying a full canister of water, Ayo’s even less able to jump than before, and she walks with a pained sluggishness. She no longer has any of her powers. The fierce afternoon sun beats down, and spending too long in its gaze causes Ayo to faint, sending you back to the last checkpoint.
The last level is a lethargic, tedious trek from one piece of life-giving shadow to the next, and I say that with the highest praise. It’s lethargic and tedious (though not difficult or frustrating) because it needs to be to really drive home the point that the game is making. As beautiful as the fantasy metaphor spanning the rest of the game is, it’s when you suddenly lose all the things you’d gained and are thrown back into reality that Ayo: A Rain Tale has its strongest impact.
For anyone who sees games as more than just “mindless” entertainment, but as an art form with the power to change the world, Ayo: A Rain Tale is a game you don’t want to miss.
Ayo: A Rain Tale is developed and published by Inkline. It’s available now for PC.
A press copy was supplied by the publisher for this review.