One of my favorite games of this year was released over the summer – Everybody's Gone to the Rapture from British developer, The Chinese Room. The thing is, is it actually a game?
For the sake of this piece, I'm calling it that, but it's clear that Everybody's Gone to the Rapture is somewhat experimental in nature. It's more of a piece of interactive fiction: A storytelling game – also known as a walking simulator – in which the player explores the game's environment, listens to snatches of dialog, and slowly pieces them together into a narrative that ultimately coalesces to articulate the over-arching plot of the game.
Everybody's Gone to the Rapture's setting is the fictional village of Yaughton in the verdant British midlands countryside of the mid 80's. Having lived in Shropshire – the county where the game is set – for a few years during that period, I can attest that the detailing of the place is incredibly well observed. From the architectural elements of the different period housing through the church and pub to the centrally-situated village green, complete with old school kid's park, the landscaping perfectly captures the essence of a typical Shrophsire hamlet. Even the type of trees feel right for the environment.
It's presented as a largely open world that the player can explore in any way they wish. However, while you can take different pathways to the game's numerous locations, there seems to be a fairly natural golden route through the game that essentially funnels you along – although it doesn't really feel like you're on rails at any time. The game's simply designed in a way where locations and objects catch your attention at certain times and attract you to them – which then lead to parts of the story being revealed. You can choose not to head towards, say, that strange glowing ball of light or the church on the hill – but since there are no other pointers in the game to direct you, I certainly found myself gravitating towards them.
Very early on, you begin to understand that the game is post-apocalyptic in nature. The village's inhabitants seem to have disappeared and you're perhaps the last person left. What remains of Yaughton's populace are ghostly vignettes of dialog and interactions between the residents that occurred before the mysterious cataclysmic events whisked them away. By standing in key locations, you can watch and listen to these after-images unfold.
In many respects, it's almost like listening to a radio play. Because these scenes are conveyed by the after-images of characters whose features and details you never see, it's more important to listen to these parts of the game than to watch them. There's an element of concentration required too – the game offers no notes or cheat sheets. It's up to you to discern between the different characters, and distill the most salient parts of their conversations into facts that begin to piece together the game's greater mysteries. The thing is, not all conversations help in this respect. Some are everyday banter between individuals fussing over minor details and misunderstandings, or gossiping about one another. However, I did find that these snippets of chat were illuminating in terms of revealing the sometimes small-minded nature of the characters, and their motivations.
I think this aspect of the game was quite divisive, however. While Everybody's Gone to the Rapture is a fairly short experience – around four to five hours, give or take depending on how efficient you are at working your way around the environment and reaching its inevitable conclusion – it's a slow burn game. Some of the conversations aren't particularly compelling, yet they hide interesting little facts that give clues as to the nature of the catastrophic events that have occurred. In other words, you're searching for pieces of information hidden in sometimes mundane conversations – and some of those clues aren't necessarily obvious initially, but might have greater meaning when cross-referenced with other dialog.
More clues are found in and around the environment. Phones and radios deliver messages that further round out the plot, coming across almost like a person's inner monologue. Posters on walls explain that the village has been put under quarantine due to an outbreak of influenza – and the bloody tissues that are found in many houses allude to the fact that people were contracting some kind of sickness before they disappeared. And dust being found in the houses of the recently departed is evidence that some people seem to have perhaps spontaneously combusted.
I won't go any further at this point, because I don’t want to spoil the game for those who mightn't have played it yet, but it's all part of the broader mystery of Everybody's Gone to the Rapture. What I liked about the game is that it treats its audience quite intelligently. It doesn't spoon feed you facts. Indeed, sometimes it feels quite the opposite. Much of the game is open to interpretation, and to be honest, the first time I played through it, I didn't fully understand the ending. I certainly "got" enough of it to be able to put together the basics, but it was on my second playthrough where I found I garnered more subtle information that enabled me to better piece together the myriad of clues and more effectively understand the force behind the disappearance - and what it means not only for the residents of Yaughton, but for the human race itself.
It's certainly heady stuff, and because of that, Everybody's Gone to the Rapture isn't for everyone. Those who like their action a little more visceral and immediate will probably tire of its gentle narrative quite quickly, and find the slow pace of the game irritating. However, those who want to be challenged to interpret what is essentially a story hidden in everyday dialog, and who might enjoy one of the most gorgeous and restful settings ever seen in video gaming should definitely consider checking the game out.
For me, it's one of the year's best: A smartly-written piece of cozy catastrophe science fiction melded with a simple game to create an experience that's gripping and thoughtful. That's the thing that really made the game special for me – it made me think. Both while playing it - in terms of figuring out what's going on - and afterwards, while I pondered its story and somewhat open ending. It's not often that a game does that for me, and that's why I believe Everbody's Gone to the Rapture is one of the year's most interesting and unusual gaming experiences. Even if it's not quite a game.