Update: Everybody’s Gone to the Rapture was released in August 2015, and has now been confirmed as part of the PlayStation Plus November 2016 line-up of games for subscribers. With renewed interest in the game, we’ve decided to re-launch the review so you can find out what it’s all about.
With Everybody’s Gone to the Rapture, interactive storytellers The Chinese Room demonstrate that their signature genre–first-person narrative, in the vein of The Stanley Parable, Gone Home, and the developer’s own Dear Esther–is still growing. And with growth will come growing pains.
In the pursuit of new ideas, things that first-person narrative hasn’t seen before, Rapture veers off the beaten path into frustration too often for its central conceits to stick. Too much is given to characters who don’t quite earn our emotional investment, and too little is given to the player’s independence and intelligence. The story, when all is said and done, presents a “What if?” meditation that’s fun to reflect upon, but little else lingers save the notion that individual stories matter more than cosmic events.
This message is conveyed throughout the roughly six-hour story in a series of vignettes. As the game begins, you stand atop a hill overlooking the fictional country village of Yaughton, 1984. Descending into the valley, exploring Yaughton and the surrounding county, walking through abandoned houses, farms, fields, and dirt roads, you periodically encounter orbs of light that play visions of the people who came before. Through these vignettes–some optional, others automatic–you learn the names, personalities, relationships, and secrets of a supporting cast while piecing together what happened surrounding their disappearance.
So where does it all lead? What or where is the eponymous Rapture? Who are you, the player/character? Some questions are answered, but Rapture seems more exacting (or, restricting) in its storytelling than other games. Barring minor insights into the lives of these characters that might come from finding every single vignette, there is only so much you can learn about them, and very little is left to interpretation through environmental clues.
Indeed, there isn’t much of anything to find in Yaughton’s country homes and pubs. Games like these are generally given more meaning and impact for the way players can unravel the threads themselves. The story speaks louder when we can move through at a pace and in such a way that mirrors how we think and reflects the things we find important. There’s room for interpretation, often using the things we find in the world. And because the resulting narrative is, in some small or large way, totally unique to us, those findings are more emotionally resonant.
Rapture doesn’t seem interested in this. Environments are somewhat sparse, so there are few (if any) meaningful conclusions to draw from things on their own. After a couple hours, I got used to the idea that, no matter where or what I explored, the most I was going to find was another orb of light and its accompanying vignette, or perhaps a radio with an audio log. When I would first crest over a hilltop or get clear of a thick forest, and a new landscape stretched before me, I would look across at farms, fields, school halls, and ponds, feeling like I already knew in a vague sense what I would find there.
Simply knowing I would find vignettes would normally be enough to entice exploration, but there’s two things working against that. The first is that too many of the vignettes, especially early on, are simply uninteresting. There’s something to be said for world-building, of course. But even the rapture-relevant vignettes are often deliberately vague, with abrupt, cliffhanger endings and a cliche dialogue tone along the lines of, “Haha, Player, you don’t know what we know!” Concrete information about the fate of the world doesn’t really start to fall into place until the last hour or two of the game, so it’s hard to care about someone’s infidelity or small-town gossip.
My second frustration with exploration is the game’s walking speed. This sounds like a petty thing without context, but a couple things compound the issue. For starters, your maximum speed–full-tilt on the left analog stick–feels just barely more than a walk. A half-tilt is practically a crawl. Indoors, it’s fine, and the slow pace feels like a match for the game’s contemplative, cerebral mood. But most of the time, you’re trekking across a large, open world, and the glacial speed just doesn’t cut it.
It’s enough that, seeing a spot I hadn’t explored down a side road or on the other side of a pond, and seeing one of the bouncing, moving orbs of light that not-so-subtly guides toward the story’s progression, I would stop to weigh whether walking over was worth the time. Of course, I rarely decided it wasn’t, but with more objects of interest or environmental storytelling, there wouldn’t be so much downtime waiting to reach your destination.
But for all my negativity, there’s good things to be found. With an absolutely divine orchestral score, one that frequently deploys cathedral-esque vocals to powerful effect, the atmosphere of of this game is just incredible. It’s well and truly haunting in a way that complements the story and its mystery. The graphics, too, are a masterstroke. The sun casts rays dynamically, and, in key story moments, dramatically shifts its position in the sky as the light follows accordingly.
And really, despite putting too much narrative attention on characters who don’t quite warrant it and not enough attention on what’s ostensibly the biggest mystery, Rapture is still a good story. It’s a unique, modern take on a concept that’s had so many interpretations over the years, and it’s fun to ruminate on as the game concludes. But the narrative scope is limited; there’s little to interpret or glean from the game that isn’t told outright. With much of the narrative heavy-lifting done in the last hour of play, I look back on everything that came before as simply a beautiful walk through empty British countryside. And if there’s one thing about this strange genre that The Chinese Room’s latest effort makes clear, it’s that beautiful, empty walks might be better served by things to do and see.