E3 2014: Everybody's Gone to the Rapture Preview: Making meaning in the apocalypse
Everybody's Gone to the Rapture, a first-person exploration game coming to PlayStation 4 in 2015, is beginning to bear one of gaming's most profound outcomes: the kind of player-driven storytelling that doesn't merely unfold through interactivity, but gifts unique meaning to each and every player. Through injection of the self--the memories, life experiences, joys, and hardships that have brought us to this present moment--we make sense of mysterious worlds in ways that no other person can exactly replicate. In the English countryside of 1984, where my behind-closed-doors demo of Everybody's Gone to the Rapture was set, I let sun-baked crops and dirt roads take me back to the long car trips of my youth, visiting distant, rarely seen family members I was supposed to remember but never could. These treks were mysterious: I would leave these foreign, impossibly beautiful farms and fields almost as soon as I arrived, so today, the fleeting memories formed with cousins, aunts, and uncles can feel like dreams. In my thoughts, I wander back to these and other hazy worlds from time to time, but watching creative director Dan Pinchback play Rapture felt like stepping into the dream worlds of another.
In multiple ways, you are. As an unknown protagonist, you explore five distinct areas of Yaughton Valley, all sewn together in a seamless, wide-open world with no limits to exploration and no loading screens. An apocalypse of some kind has seemingly ended all human life on Earth, but by all rights, the world around you is downright peaceful. As the demoer moves along a dirt road, we pass a babbling creek, a long wooden fence, and some telephone poles. The world is as foreign and dream-like to the main character as to the player. There's not a soul in a sight, but a nearby phone booth rings. A nervous message--to a missing love or a family.member--teases an imminent disaster, likely what put the world in this dissonant state of peaceful warmth and foreboding silence. We, and the protagonist, are trying to figure out what happened.
Soft music plays as we follow an orange orb, one of five "characters" you'll interact with in Rapture's world. Its prompt is subtle: the orb floats away as Pinchback explains there is no correct path to follow for the game's story moments, returning a bit later to cheerily circle our head before flying off down the road again. As we come to a stone bridge, ghostly apparitions of two people (orange, like the orb) appear. They chat idly, overlooking the creek below, fading in and out of visual existence. After a short time, they walk on, continuing their conversation but falling out of earshot. As you discover for yourself what’s happened to the world, you can choose to follow, absorb, and contemplate these human moments for as long as they last--or simply run on to the next point of interest. Regardless, their appearance further adorns the world in dreamy trappings. The facade of reality breaks down further when, in a ranch house up ahead, strange visions of an empty room with a lone wheelchair flit across the screen. Upstairs, we find the same room. Downstairs, echoes of screams play as we round the corner into a messy kitchen with dozens of objects strewn about. The rest of the house is immaculate.
Rapture, like Gone Home before it, seeks to tell a particular story within the unpredictable landscape of feelings players will bring to the table. A ghostly apparition of a girl might remind me of someone I’ve personally known in life. I might stick around longer, waiting to hear her entire monologue, reflecting on how my life would change if that particular person were gone forever. This meaning is made possible through interactivity: degrees of player freedom, and just enough creator tinkering, that allow conceptions of meaning and plot to form around just about any game element. When I see a toolbox and still-burning cigar on a tree stump, I might think of my father, an especially handy man with a fondness for smoking cigars on the golf course. If Rapture’s procedurally generated music crescendos with a chorus of voices (as it did shortly after we came across the toolbox), then I might recall his most heroic moments. Suddenly, the emotional punch of Rapture’s empty world hits home. Where would I be today without my father’s guidance? What would we lose if everyone we know was gone tomorrow?
Rapture’s dreamy world, full of simultaneous life and life’s absence, envisioned by developers and soon to be understood by players, is the first that players will step into. The worlds of its characters, evoked through dialogue and expressions of ghostly silhouettes and voices, come next. Finally, there’s the technical world of pixels, polygons, and color palettes. I only saw one of Rapture’s main areas, each marked by thematically different environments and emotions. But what I saw was gorgeous: sunlight blanketed thick gardens of sunflowers and tomatoes. The density of foliage was impressive, but the hazy, blurred warmth cast by the lighting was more so. Combined with impressive texture detail, the game’s more dream-like elements take on greater significance. Frame rate issues aside (there’s plenty of time before Rapture’s 2015 release), the game’s use of CryEngine astounds. The wind rustles crops, which also bend and sway under the ethereal force of the orange orb we follow for a good chunk of the demo.
There’s one last world players of Rapture will step into: the discussion, stemming from individual players who will take to the internet to profess what the experience of playing meant to them. I’m confident that The Chinese Room has crafted a game capable of inviting players to shape, not merely guiding them through, a significant narrative will unfold in due time--at their hands, in their minds. Despite the esoteric nature and presentation of Everybody's Gone to the Rapture, I'm very excited for its 2015 release. It's unclear whether the larger plot of The Chinese Room's third effort (after Dear Esther and Amnesia: A Machine for Pigs) will ultimately be a story worth telling. But the human moments and self-reflection that will likely define the experience have my undivided attention.----