If there’s one new game genre that’s sparked admiration and controversy in the last few years, it’s the First-Person Exploration game. FPXs eschew action entirely, placing players in rich environments begging to be explored. One of the standard-bearers is Dear Esther, developed by The Chinese Room (who followed it up with the disturbing, brilliant, and oddly moving Amnesia: A Machine For Pigs). Dear Esther strained the limits of what constitutes gaming interactivity, angering action-loving GamerGate types in the process, with players merely walking around an island and hearing bits of voiceover storytelling as they went.
The Chinese Room are back, and they’ve developed an ambitious spiritual successor to Dear Esther, entitled Everybody’s Gone To The Rapture. It’s a PlayStation 4 exclusive, thanks to Sony’s assistance in development, and it’s a beguiling experience.
From the stylish emergency-procedure opening titles, accompanied by our first glimpse of the game’s haunting choral score, it’s clear Rapture is something different. You start out on an ordinary, bucolic English country road, and things get both more and less ordinary from there, as you explore the surrounding villages and farms and uncover just what has made every human being in the area disappear.
First things first: the game’s playable area, comprising villages Yaughton and Little Tipworth, a family farm, a forest, and a holiday camp, is absolutely gorgeous. Much attention and love has been poured into the design, from gardens to farm equipment to even things like the signs on post boxes. When clouds pass overhead, the world turns chill and grey; when the sun comes out again, it’s a moment of joy. At night, the silhouettes of the trees against the starry sky are similarly beautiful. Graffiti like “Tim is a massive knobhead” makes the world feel familiar (to this English colony-dweller anyway). It’s colour-rich, quaint, and feels lived in.
Importantly, half of Rapture’s story is told in the environment. Little details in the world expand on the game’s story or tell little stories of their own. Seeing a community notice board with a children’s musical rehearsal schedule on it, for example, brought a big smile to my face. But any smiles were short-lived, thanks to the presence of bloodied tissues, quarantine notices, dead birds, and - again - absolutely no visible human or animal life. It’s at once comfortingly homey and eerily empty.
Clearly, there’s more going on here than just a pastoral English hamlet. There’s a lot more, actually, and Rapture’s cosmic apocalypse tale is told in the best of all possible ways: through tiny interactions between ordinary people. As you cruise around these little towns and homesteads, orbs of light appear, revealing tiny glimpses at pre-apocalypse conversations between the game’s characters. The science fiction is there, but it’s smartly backgrounded in favour of more personal encounters - a chaplain struggling with his faith; a snooping, senile grandmother; a painful but unforced love triangle. Each separate bit of dialogue serves as context for the others, and in time, a rich, heartbreaking portrait of a community in crisis emerges.
Woven into Rapture is a deep appreciation of life. The mysterious force that drives the plot along doesn’t feel antagonistic to me (though your mileage may vary); rather, it’s fascinated with life and just happens to destroy everything it touches. There’s a temptation to call the game religious, given its casually Biblical title and the consistent presence of Yaughton’s village priest, but it’s more universal than that. Yaughton’s characters are concerned with their petty squabbles and hopeless romances even amid an apparent epidemic. The storytelling is messy and it doesn’t always directly relate to the A-story, but I like that. It feels human. That carries through to the ending, which can be interpreted in a multitude of ways - cleverly avoiding an overexplained endgame.
The story is supported by, I shit you not, some of the very best dialogue writing and voice acting I have ever witnessed in a video game. The snippets of dialogue to which we’re treated sound almost recorded on-location, they’re so naturalistic. The cast really help sell the sleepy English setting - disrupted by the arrival of a black woman long before the mass headaches and nosebleeds set in - and perform with disarming emotional honesty.
But we have to address the elephant in the meadow: Everybody’s Gone To The Rapture plays slowly. This is a game that forces players to go at a leisurely pace, soaking in the atmosphere and taking time to poke around. You can hold R2 to go faster, but that merely takes you from an “investigating every single painting in the museum” pace to a “strolling down the street for a sandwich” one. Sometimes the languid movement really works, complementing the game’s beauty; other times, you just want to get to the end of the damn road. It’s unfair to compare Rapture’s movement to action games, and perhaps faster movement would disrupt its tone, but the simple act of walking from point A to point B shouldn’t be this arduous.
If you think walking slowly around an empty village sounds like a load of bollocks, this probably isn’t the game for you. It’s more of an immersive narrative than an action-packed piece of entertainment, and if the PS4 wasn’t already struggling with frame rates in this version, I’d say it’s ideal for virtual reality. Everybody’s Gone To The Rapture rewards patient players with an epic soap-opera story, set amidst a science fiction disaster that itself has emotional weight to it too. Sometimes, in between furious visits to bullet hell, it’s nice just to go for a stroll.