Games use all sorts of tricks to ease performance load, and while Starfield has had its fair share of optimisation woes (though Todd Howard sees things differently) it's not an exception to that rule.
One such trick was discovered in all its soggy glory on the Starfield subreddit earlier this week, as thelastfastbender points out that "In Starfield, rain only exists in a small area around the player."
While Starfield's protagonist being followed around by a literal stormcloud like some kind of cartoon character is very funny, this kind of trick's actually standard practice. Developers don't render anything that's not necessary—and if you can't tell the difference from a first-person perspective, who cares?
3D environment artist Karl Schecht spoke to Polygon about the technique, and sums it up pretty well: "You see, everything in a video game, whether it’s lighting, reflections, weather stuff, and scenery are all part of a built system. They’re set up to look and feel real, but also to run smoothly on your console or PC."
As spotted by Gamesradar David Szymanski, creator of Iron Lung, joked about the "big reveal" on Twitter, before later replying: "Yup, this is how rain is done in uhhhhh... basically every single game."
The response from the dev community's mostly been jokes about how terrible it is that gamers have caught a peek at the proverbial man behind the curtain—combined with shock that anyone's surprised by how the pixelated sausage gets made.
"Wait till they learn all those elevator rides, shimmying against walls, etc are just glorified loading screens lmao," writes Collin MacGregor, an associate world designer at Bungie, while Nick Carver, a game artist and developer who's worked at studios like Blizzard and Riot, notes: "This is like the frustum culling revelation all over again."
Culling, in this instance, refers to removing anything the player's not looking at—something most game engines do—while the 'frustum' is the 'view pyramid'. Think those big cones you get beaming from enemies in stealth games sometimes—except that cone makes and unmakes reality. That's how games do. It's all an illusion made out of cardboard, sorry to disappoint you.
Heck, back in 2018 Xalavier Nelson Jr. wrote this piece for PC Gamer which, among other things, detailed how 2000:1: A Space Felony allowed the player to run inside a centrifuge spinning through space: "Rather than attempting to create a special case for the player to be able to travel around the centrifuge while it was moving, she bent space around the player. When the player was outside the centrifuge, it would rotate as normal. However, as soon as the player entered the centrifuge, everything else in the game world would begin to rotate."
Basically, game developers are magicians and we should fear their illusory might. While Starfield's cursed rain orb has gone a touch viral, it shouldn't be surprising anyone. The only weirdness here is that it's centred on the player, as Tom Francis of RedHookStudios notes: "Gamers have discovered our secret … could have been avoided if you [attached] the rain to the camera Bethesda."