One of the most intriguing upcoming games of 2015 is, in some sense, not quite a game at all. It's part interactive fiction and part non-linear drama, but ultimately, it is a game, even if it doesn't play like a traditional one.
The title in question is Everybody's Gone to the Rapture, a gorgeous-looking PS4 game that has garnered more than its fair share of attention – and deservedly so. While the mere mention of the concept of a non-linear storytelling game will send some reeling away from the keyboard – and I can understand exactly why a slow-paced, non-visceral, fuzzy-objective based game would – I'm personally intrigued at what Everybody's Gone to the Rapture has to offer.
Set in 1984, the twilight analog years of the pre-digital age, when cold war paranoia still played strong on peoples' minds, Everybody's Gone to the Rapture falls into an unusual post-apocalyptic science fiction category known as "the cozy catastrophe." Coined by Brian Aldiss in his 1973 book, Billion Year Spree: The History of Science Fiction, this particular style of sci-fi story first appeared in the decades following World War II, and was written by mostly British novelists. The most famous titles of the genre include John Wyndham's Day of the Triffids, John Christopher's The Death of Grass, and The Drowned World by JG Ballard. They're all bound by a similar premise that follows the collapse of civilization and death of the majority of the population, but where the protagonists ultimately adjust to, and even thrive in the new post-apocalyptic landscape. Even though "thriving" sometimes means casting off the vestiges of the prior civilization and embracing something completely new – as in the case of Arthur C Clarke's Childhood's End.
Quite how this concept will play out in Everybody's Gone to the Rapture remains to be seen, but it certainly has trappings of the genre. The player starts in an idyllic English countryside setting, complete with picturesque buildings, with the only initial hints of an apocalypse being the disappearance of every single human being.
The creation of The Chinese Room, known previously for acclaimed indie titles Dear Esther and Amnesia: A Machine for Pigs, Everybody's Gone to the Rapture puts the player firmly into their own shoes, on a mission of their own discovery. There is no linear story here; just a world to explore, secrets to uncover and a mystery to solve. There is no hard start or end point, and there isn't even a fail state. Indeed, creative director Dan Pinchback joked during his E3 presentation that, "the only failure is if the player isn't interested."
So how does Everybody's Gone to the Rapture work, exactly? The game basically presents an environment that the player is free to explore in whatever manner they seem fit. Want to wander off down a path and look for something interesting? Go ahead. Maybe you'll want to walk across a field to check out what's inside the barn on the far side? Or perhaps you'll make a beeline for the farmhouse in the distance and start exploring there. Wherever you go, pieces of narrative, clues and events within the environment are triggered that slowly combine to paint a bigger picture of what transpired in the days leading up to where the game begins.
What's interesting is that because Everybody's Gone to the Rapture is non-linear, the order in which events are experienced can lead the player to have different perceptions of what's going on. Conversations heard in a certain order might yield slightly different motivations and assumptions than if they're heard in a different way. This ultimately means the game is open to interpretation, and while there is an end-point to the game, the path leading there can result in very different experiences.
What this also means is that while the game does have an over-arching goal – which is to figure out what has happened – there are no hard-and-fast sub-goals like most games. This lack of a step-by-step breadcrumb trail will no doubt throw off many players who tend to be more goal-oriented. Indeed the general game construct means that Everybody's Gone to the Rapture will be automatically earmarked as "experimental," since it doesn't follow typical game conventions, but I do believe it's still a game in a general sense. There's an environment to "play" in, and there is an ultimate puzzle to solve. What's missing is the usual mechanics to guide a player along. Instead, it's a case of stepping back and having to really think about what you want to do, and listening to and interpreting dialog to piece together the mystery.
Of course, this is pretty much the antithesis of most games, which string together a series of visceral goals that the player is benchmarked against. With Everybody's Gone to the Rapture, it's all about looking at the detail. Dan Pinchback explained at E3, "We believe that the emotional connection the player will make with the game will be through the little things. Things that they might recognize and relate to."
That requires quite a leap compared to most games, where the goal is all, and little is left open for interpretation. Here, it's a case of immersing yourself within the scenario, taking as much from it as you can, and piecing together the "evidence" to form your own narrative. That pushes the game into a very grey area of part interactive drama, part game and part adventure.
One thing's for sure – it won't appeal to everyone. Even though I'm extremely keen on playing it, I'm still not sure whether I'll like it or not. Based on my experiences so far, it looks terrific, but it does require a certain amount of "work" from the player. You have to really think about what you're doing in a global sense, and carry with you the knowledge that you glean from your encounters. That sounds like a typical game, but here it's a more holistic experience than the more traditional step-by-step, encapsulated gaming format where your experiences are rolled up in a more procedural manner.
Either way, whether it's a game or a piece of fiction, or something in between, Everybody's Gone to the Rapture is going to be one of the most interesting titles of 2015.