A Little Tenderness
The newest game to be developed by The Chinese Room and Santa Monica Studios, Everybody’s Gone to the Rapture is likely to become the next greatest example where critics can point in the blossoming art medium of gaming. Much like The Chinese Room’s 2008 PC title Dear Esther (spiritual predecessor to Everybody’s Gone to the Rapture), this first-person, story driven adventure game allows players to explore and interact with its world in order to uncover the mysteries surrounding its quiet, abandoned landscape, and to delve into some of the more subtly colored fabrics of humanity. Sounds deep, right? Well it is, but quite like arguments aimed at Dear Esther, it makes us question the definition of “game,” and whether that definition even has a place in modern day entertainment.
Like many titles before it, Everybody’s Gone to the Rapture feels like a game, looks like a game, but does not adhere to the modern tropes of gameplay. You begin with no introduction to whom you are playing as or what you’re meant to be doing. Instead of an arrow or a mini-map directing the game’s progress (there’s not even a heads-up-display), the designers chose to use purely environmentally visual indicators. It doesn’t take long to realize that there’s no jumping allowed or that any barrier that goes up to waist-height is likely impassable.The entire world relies on simple rules and simple mechanisms: doors left ajar open up to rooms that lead into backyards where a dirt path might take you to your next personal destination. And you just walk that path.
The reason why I stress “personal” destination is because much of the game encourages the player to find anything they want. Especially at the start, you must wander through the empty streets and empty houses of Shropshire, a small English town seemingly entirely void of human life. This forces you to form your own goals, to follow any path you desire until you’ve tired of an area and find a way to move on from it. It’s possible to just ignore each new area, to not interact with a single object all the way up to the end; nothing’s stopping you.
Of course, this is not an encouraged way to experience Everybody’s Gone to the Rapture. Unless your only goal is to see all of the pretty sights along the way (and it is a gorgeous game), you’ll miss out on most of what makes this game so special. In this familiar place, something completely unfamiliar has occurred: everyone has disappeared. From the game’s onset it plays on our most core motivations by giving us a place that feels so realistic and serene, and then by immediately striking a dissonant chord and making us ask “where has everyone gone?”
You might say that’s easily answered by the title of the game, but not quite so. As you travel through Shropshire, it would be impossible to miss the streaming orbs of light scattered across the environment, leading you or maybe even wandering just as aimlessly. This light brings with it all new sets of questions, and the people who were once there may be gone, but they are not silent.
In certain areas, painted in the light you’ll discover short scenes in the lives of six central characters in the days leading up to an apocalyptic event. Scattered throughout are ringing telephones and buzzing radios that you can interact with to gather one more piece of insight into the complicated web of these lives, but also the bigger picture of what happened to this place.
In each new area, you’re introduced to a new central character whose day-to-day life leading up to the Rapture is well-documented by the light. In the beginning, this can be a little jarring as there seems to be a neverending onslaught of new characters to remember, but after spending a little time with it, each piece of the puzzle finds its place, and you’re aching to find the next clue.
What might be equally jarring for some players are the game’s controls. There’s no gimicky use of the DualShock 4’s touchpad in this title. Instead, the controls are ultra-simplistic, only utilizing the gamepad’s two analog sticks, the X button, and SIXAXIS on occasion. However, what some players might find most unusual is the seeming lack of movement speed variation. To put it more bluntly, the game never explains how to sprint or even that you can.
This development choice is a bit of a double-edged sword. Everybody’s Gone to the Rapture is not a game to be completed in time trials. It’s meant to be experienced, drawn out, and sometimes difficult to decipher the path forward. This means that at times, you’ll feel finished with an area, searching for the way out only to find that where you really need to be is on the other end of the map. It can be a frustrating realization with the regular plodding pace of the player character, but the absence of a clear tutorial for the option makes players feel they have to pay closer attention to the environment, often discovering something they may have missed otherwise.
There may be another, ulterior motive to the game’s pacing, though. Its performance is not perfect. Certainly, most aspects operate smoothly. Object interaction was never faulty, nor was the sound or soundtrack ever less than superb. Early in my playthrough, the game froze, requiring me to restart the application and to begin again at an earlier checkpoint. Upon approaching the same place where the game had previously crashed, the autosave indicator flashed, momentarily stalling the game and I was able to move on. This was the only time my game crashed, but every autosave thereafter felt a little jarring and pulled me from an otherwise immersive experience.
Lighting and light play massive roles almost as if they are characters in their own right, driving players to new areas and telling the story like a narrator. Still, as the shadows moved across the ground, it was difficult not to notice they didn’t move smoothly. As impressive and notable as the scene might have been, it was slightly tarnished by these small, short instances of imperfection.
My first playthrough of the game ran nearly six hours, but I can see how it could last 10 or even 15 hours total for those who want to discover every secret. It might be difficult for someone who plays games as a completionist to come to terms with this, but it’s nearly impossible to discover everything on offer the first time through the game, which can open up a whole range of options for replayability. I could even see the argument that it shouldn’t be played in more than one playthrough; it should just be experienced as a single wanderlust or a voyeuristic view into what our relationships really mean, if connections are ever anything more than taut tethers always near breaking.
Like I said before, it’s a very deep experience. It’s worth far more than a glance between the ever-present bigger budget behemoths of the video game industry.
The Verdict: 10 out of 10
Everybody’s Gone to the Rapture is not necessarily a game that was designed for everybody, but it’s a game everybody should play at least once. Video games are developing into a medium for alternative ways of telling stories, and this one does a spectacular job of demonstrating just that. No matter the paths you will take or the order in which you will experience each scene, a solid plot unfolds and even gestures towards a deeper significance in our own lives without feeling overbearing. While the gameplay and performance can sometimes feel slightly flawed, there’s no doubt that this game embodies the beauty hardcore gamers now expect from their medium. And that’s something special, indeed.
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Jordan Loeffler is Editor in Chief for MONG who drives a 2006 Pontiac Vibe with Minnesota license plates even though he lives in Portland, OR. She’s seafoam green, and she drives like a wave. You can also follow him on IGN and on Twitter.