Everybody’s Gone to the Rapture is the latest from British developer The Chinese Room, the creators of Dear Esther and the Amnesia sequel A Machine for Pigs. From those two titles, gamers should have some expectation of the style of game coming their way with Everybody’s Gone to the Rapture. That is, they should expect a game that is heavy on environmental design and voice work which relays a story that is devoid of combat and full of key moments with simplistic controls schemes. This is exactly what they deliver here, taking the their creative process to a new level.
If that wasn’t enough of a pre-amble warning for you, then let me be more blunt. If you feel that “walking simulators”, as they have so dismissively been categorized, are not games, or that story-heavy narratives which don’t rely on shooting mechanics are incredibly boring, then Everybody’s Gone to the Rapture isn’t for you. If, on the other hand, you enjoy these exploratory narratives and are open to the idea of a story that reveals itself in segments that are filled with genuine human emotion, all with a dose of sci-fi/religious mythology… well you may have found the right game.
All that said, I’m not passing any judgement on the type or types of games you like to play. It’s simply important to have an idea of what you’re going into. Everybody’s Gone to the Rapture is definitely not for everyone. However this beautiful, emotional and intriguing mystery was an excellent experience for me.
“I don’t know if anyone will ever hear this. It’s all over. I’m the only one left.”
The game begins after a long load time. Dr. Katherine Collins sends a message out over radio waves. We hear her voice as the screen fades-in from black to white. A basic, sketched black and white render of a bluff overlooking trees and sky appears and players get their first taste of the truly stunning musical compositions from Jessica Curry. The stylized depiction of an English countryside transitions to a brilliantly, fully-colored world.
This first glimpse of the game gives a little taste of nearly everything that Everybody’s Gone to the Rapture has to offer from a visual standpoint. The screen is dominated by atmospheric lighting and foliage. A brilliant orange sun powers its way through hazy skies, casting it’s light on everything visible. A slight breeze gently shifts the flowers. Below the bluff on which we stand, fog forms in the valleys. Buildings can be seen through the trees stretching down the hillside further. It’s beautiful.
And then, we’re off. There’s no intro sequence providing backstory and character development. No fantastical CG-rendered video telling us who we are and what our purpose is here. Instead, we are meant to fill in all of these blanks — and how many of them you do is up to how thoroughly you wish to explore — by simply looking, moving and listening.
Immediately we hear the static of a nearby radio, desperate to find its signal and deliver its message. A simple button press when near the radio delivers a message. Again, the voice of Dr. Collins breaks the silence of our surroundings. She mentions “The Event” and her attempts to understand it. Whatever this happening is, markers have been left in its wake which will provide us some clues. “The answers are in the light”. Continuing down the road a telephone rings. This satellite phone plays a canned recording of “emergency measures” being deployed in the area. Further down the road a van sits in the middle of the road, abandoned, the back doors ajar. The movement is very slow (more on that later), which is a bit of an annoyance, but everything serves to build a feeling that is unsettling.
A short walk up some stairs brings us to a glowing orb of light in front of what appears to be an electric generator and fence. We are prompted to tilt the controller. This action triggers an event. Suddenly human-shaped beams of light are moving and talking. This is a vision of the past, and it begins to tell us the story.
A man with a British accent argues with a groundskeeper. This is Stephen, husband of Kate. Their relationship is just one of several that brings to life this small English village, but theirs is at the heart of everything. Stephen grew up here, but left for his education and work. There he met the brilliant Kate. Now they have returned to his childhood home to work at the local observatory. It’s evident that things between them are rough.
The rest of the game plays out similarly. We move through the town and the countryside, uncovering key story pieces through the orbs of light. The true revelations come for the patient explorer however. Side conversations, told by the light ghosts of the past, fill in the backstory and provide an amazing amount of emotional depth to the gameKate is completely isolated from the majority of the town due to some thinly veiled racism, shrouded only by comments of her being “not a good fit” and “too smart” for this place. Further complicating things is that Stephen’s old fiancee, stuck in a loveless marriage, and encouraged by Stephen’s own mother, re-enters his life. This makes an already rocky marriage even more so.
If it all sounds a bit melodramatic to the casual reader, maybe it is. It doesn’t feel that way though. It feels honest in the ways it deals with decisions and regrets. Dissolving marriage, infidelities, theft, manslaughter, assisted suicide, Everybody’s Gone to the Rapture takes on all of these issues without preaching. They are simply events that happen, and do so with increasing frequency as the fear and desperation of an entire town increases.
It feels incredibly genuine as when people, when humanity is at it lowest point — when most people would like to think that they would do the right thing — is when people start making ugly decisions. Yet even here, these negative choices are not all filled with malice, they are often just people failing to see eye to eye, and most certainly not stopping to attempt to see something from some else’s perspective. Why do we appreciate flawed characters? Because they are much closer to reality than pure superheroes and villains.
Everybody’s Gone to the Rapture is something along the lines of 4-6 hours in play length. Delving too much into the story would ruin the experience for new players. It should be said that there is a lot to discover within that time. It’s well worth your time to explore as many side memories as you can find. You’ll begin to care about these people; loathing them for their bad decisions, fearing for them, hoping for their safety, and ultimately figuring out where they’ve all gone.
It’s not a completely solitary journey through this ghost town. Aside from the specters of the past, and simple sound effects along the way, players are followed by an amazing musical score form Jessica Curry. The game picks and chooses when to unleash the soundtrack on the player. Often times you will have silence, or the most minimal of soundscapes floating through the soundscape. But then you’ll be hit with an impassioned, stirring piece with male or female soprano voices punctuating key events of the story.
Dust and Shadow is an excellent example of this, creating an ethereal, haunting tone. Its heart is somber and solemn, while still striking the tone of not hope, but something akin toward reaching for some sort of saving grace. Other pieces, like The Mourning Tree bring mix these elements with a sort of folksy, old-worldly sound paired with classical instruments. The musical score is truly top-notch which speaks to its release on the SONY Classical Records label. It’s one of my favorite releases of the last several years.
The striking music is used to great effect with the wonderful voice-acting and dialogue. Each character is distinct, with their own story and motivations. Even singular glimpses of inhabitants can bring to the front strong feelings. These narrative slices really grabbed me, beyond what Dear Esther was able to do. And while not reaching the horror heights of the Amnesia franchise, there is a real building sense of anxiety and doom.
Strangely these moments are also Everybody’s Gone to the Rapture’s most hopeful ones. Each piece of light is an instance, a perfect memory captured for each individual. When separated from everything else, even the darkest memories can be overcome by the light. As previously mentioned, the game is short. If I had not been so captivated by understanding the story and learning about the people, I would have been more annoyed by the movement speed. Yes, I was one of the many would very slowly plodded my way through the game, unaware of the “run feature” which the dev’s failed to tell people about. Whoops! However, having tested it out post playthrough, it’s still pretty slow.
On one hand I understand this. The Chinese Room wants you to really take the time to look and listen, to fully inform yourself about the how and the why, while taking in their gorgeous visuals and superb music. On the other hand, it’s still too damn slow. This is bad, because I know it will take the more impatient gamer completely out of it right away, and they will be missing out on what I think is a fantastic experience. One that’s inhabited by the most genuine characters, brilliantly performed, that I’ve seen or heard.
Some of the strongest feelings came not from conversations or key events, but from the little things. An abandoned walking brace, a child’s room with unfinished games, or a baby’s bottle on a park bench. Even stronger is the feeling when the light of the ghosts slowly winks out of existence.
Aside from the movement speed, I didn’t really understand the need to use the Dualshock’s tilt function in order to corral the balls of light. It seem like an unnecessary mechanic meant to bring a tiny bit more interactivity to the story reveal moments. Other than that I don’t have much to complain about with this game. It felt like the right amount of time to explore the world and its story, leaving the final meanings of everything up to the player’s discretion. This, to me, was a truly beautiful piece of art. I’m excited to see what The Chinese Room does next.
Review copy provided by the developer. The game is a Playstation 4 exclusive title.