Given its post-apocalpytic trappings, no one would fault you for assuming that Everybody’s Gone to the Rapture is a game about the fate of humanity. It’s not. Instead, developer The Chinese Room, best known for their earlier work on Dear Esther and Amnesia: A Machine for Pigs, has delivered a game that places the emphasis squarely on the fate of humans.
The distinction is a crucial one. Like the best fiction of any medium, Everybody’s Gone to the Rapture is a character-driven work through and through, focused almost myopically on the inhabitants of the fictional English village of Yaughton and its environs. The cause of their crisis—and by extension, the fate of the larger world—is among the first things you’re likely to suss out from Rapture‘s piecemeal, nonlinear story; it’s thankfully also the least important.
Instead, you’re tasked with the much richer responsibility of learning about the lives of individual people, about their strengths and their foibles. No one is entirely clean, but more importantly, no one is a stock character played out in common form. Despite a limited degree of exposure, each person manages to feel realistic, with quirks, flaws, and history that inform their actions. I’ll admit that Rapture may be less intimate and tactile than Gone Home and less mainsteam in it ambitions than either of Ken Levine’s BioShocks, but it still crafts interesting personalities and stories to inform them.
And unlike the studio’s earlier work Dear Esther, which I found at the time to be lacking, Rapture is unafraid to be meaningfully playful with its medium. I have no desire to spoil even the most basic aspects of player interaction here. Like Starseed Pilgrim, one of my favorite games of all time, Rapture thrives upon a cursory knowledge of the genre it loosely inhabits, and upon the uneasy process of pushing you beyond known boundaries. There are simple gates, objectives, and meaningful ways to alter your pathways through the world, obtuse though they may be, and deciphering the mysteries of the world is more rewarding than any dumbed-down recap of mechanics could ever serve to be. I will, however, say this: For the first time, The Chinese Room has delivered a game design that enhances the storytelling, rather than detracting from it.
That’s not to say that Everybody’s Gone to the Rapture is without its notable flaws. Environments are visually rich to the point of indulgence, full of bespoke textures and models, but the framerate suffers too much as a result. Standard movement is full of hangups that will unsettle softer stomachs. When the game engages in its most stirring affectation—swift changes of daylight that call to mind Koyaanisqatsi‘s dramatic time lapses—the framerate hitching becomes almost intolerable.
Plus, in opposition to the rest of the industry, Rapture imposes a realistic (read: very slow) walking speed, a limitation that feels at odds with its large open world. If, like me, you don’t catch on to the larger design until partway through the game, you’ll find yourself doing an uncomfortable amount of backtracking at an uncomfortably low speed and wishing for all the world there were a sprint button to ease your sorrows. I sympathize with the desire to make players take a step back and observe their surroundings, but when that casual pace disincentivizes exploring visually lucrative but mechanically barren dead ends, the compromise becomes an unhappy one. In 2015, no one wants to walk down a road in silence for ten minutes, even with a moving story awaiting them on the other end.
But if Everybody’s Gone to the Rapture is a purely story-driven experience, it’s not without its failings there, either. Namely, a tidy ending threatens to undo the complexity of everything that comes before it. My initial reaction, as the credits rolled, was that I had witnessed something akin to a compelling Arthur C. Clarke story with a last-minute schmaltzy Mitch Albom rewrite. Like the finale of the first season of True Detective, Everybody’s Gone to the Rapture appeared to soften its most interesting ideas at so swift a pace as to feel mawkish to the cynic in me. The more the hours passed, however, the more I began to appreciate it in full, with the unreliability of all its ensemble narrators and the complexity inherent in that tension.
Everyone we’ve grown to know and care about is either right or wrong about the underpinnings of Rapture‘s world. Either way, it’s a tragedy. That ambiguity, assuming it is not exclusively my optimistic invention, represents a more adult approach than any you are willing to find in gaming this year. Dan Pinchbeck and company have no doubt delivered a challenging game. Whether or not the public can take up that challenge remains to be seen.
Like The Chinese Room's previous work, Everybody's Gone to the Rapture will no doubt prove an acquired taste, but the game is bolstered by strong, character-driven writing and a desire to experiment with boundaries no other developer, indie or established, is willing to engage.
The Chinese Room
Sony Computer Entertainment
M – Mature
|Everybody’s Gone to the Rapture is available on PlayStation 4. Primary version played was for PlayStation 4. Product was provided by Sony Computer Entertainment for the benefit of this coverage. EGM reviews on a scale of one to five stars.|