I don’t know how I feel about Everybody’s Gone to the Rapture yet. On one hand, I find myself entirely drawn in by the narrative and world, but on the other hand, I find myself wishing for more. I had similar feelings towards Dear Esther, another game by The Chinese Room. While Dear Esther is beautiful, it has been the source of discussion as to whether one can truly describe it as a game. Essentially, the only mechanism bestowed on the player is the ability to move. As you move around the bleak deserted island setting, you trigger voice-overs that gradually construct the story. So it’s not a movie, but it’s not entirely a game either – it’s something in between.
Rapture is an evolution of this concept. Once again the player finds herself exploring a new world in order to find out what has happened. In a similar fashion to Esther, walking into certain areas or rooms will trigger an audio recording and the next part of the narrative will unfold. Instead of bodiless voice-overs, however, one meets “shadows of light” – the ghosts of former villagers conversing with one another about the latest developments of their crisis (or other more mundane local gossip). It’s a haunting way to revisit the last days of a community, but once again, this methodology leaves the player in a mostly passive position being fed information. Unlike Esther, players have more freedom to open doors, climb (some) ladders, and turn off and on TVs and radios. But other than that, there are no items to pick up, no drawers to peruse, no pamphlets to flip through. You can see them, but you can’t touch. And while the same characters do keep re-appearing, without facial features to register, it is very hard to keep track of the multiple sub-storylines, the different key characters, and their relationships to each other. Figuring out how the different configurations of light function in the game also offers extra confusion.
All that being said, the story line is fascinating. All the residents of a tiny country valley in Shropshire suddenly disappear. Prior to the disappearance, the area was quarantined for a supposed influenza outbreak, so no one was allowed in or out, resulting in no external knowledge as to what truly happened to the villagers. The player is dropped into this quarantined area, left to explore a vast open world to figure out what happened. This world is incredibly beautiful, paired with an equally exquisite atmospheric sound track. Thus the exploration, while passive, is a sensory delight. But, in fact, the level of detail invested into the world-building is precisely what leaves me disappointed with the lack of interactivity. For instance, the intriguing books and personal notes strewn around beg to be picked up and studied for answers.
Playing Rapture, I was reminded of another experiential game called Gone Home. Gone Home follows the return home of a young woman who has just spent the past few months in Europe after finishing school. In her absence, her family moves, so she returns to an unfamiliar residence, which also happens to be empty. The game follows her progress as she tries to figure out where everybody is. Gone Home is lighter on puzzles, but it does manage to draw the player more intimately into the environment by allowing for more interactivity. Keys need to be located, locker codes cracked, and paperwork examined–all while certain discoveries trigger audio-recorded journal entries similar to those in Esther and Rapture. The result is a more robust experience of truly feeling responsible to find out what happened and thus more engaged. I would have appreciated some of that agency in Rapture.
Ultimately, however, for both Esther and Rapture, though I have some disappointment, I find myself still contemplating their fictional worlds and the accompanying stories–that fact alone says something profound about a game’s efficacy. For Rapture in particular, as the narrative climaxes, I have been finding myself welded to my screen, determined to keep going until I figure everything out. Last night I was hoping to finish the full game before I wrote this review, so I spent almost 3 hours enrapt as the game’s pace quickened. (I still didn’t make it, but I’ll post something when I do.)
Maybe it is simply a question of expectations. Maybe I am looking at this all wrong. Perhaps Esther and Rapture are not passive games but rather interactive movies? For certain, The Chinese Room has developed a very effective means of storytelling.
What do you think?
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The featured image is a screenshot from Everybody’s Gone to the Rapture posted by PlayStation Europe at http://bit.ly/1JjO0kA. It was republished through CC license: http://bit.ly/1eBd9Ks