Despite being a huge fan of the burgeoning genre, I have never played the original "walking simulator", Dear Esther. I have, however, played The Chinese Room’s follow up, Amnesia: A Machine For Pigs, and thoroughly enjoyed its atmosphere and smart writing. Now they’re back with the long-gestating Everybody’s Gone To The Rapture, a PS4 exclusive that feels like an attempt to make a bigger, more ambitious sequel to genre codifier Gone Home.
The premise: it’s the 80s and something very strange has happened to the rural Yaughton Valley region of Shropshire. Dead birds litter the ground, all the clocks are stopped at five past six, the radios are all broadcasting a creepy number-station style message, strange balls of golden light float along streets and country lanes… and everyone is gone. It’s up to you (it’s not entirely clear who you’re actually supposed to be) to explore the valley and piece together the mystery of what happened.
You’ve got a few methods of doing that. Phones and radios scattered around the area will play audio-diary style recordings (believe it or not, there is actually a plausible story justification for this) and as you explore you’ll stumble across manifestations of golden light that play out scenes from the day before “the event” occurred. These story snippets form a non-linear narrative consisting of several inter-weaving strands, dealing both with the unsettling events that led to the valley’s current state and the smaller personal dramas playing out behind the scenes.
Everybody’s Gone To The Rapture is essentially open world. Your route through the game follows a linear main road, but that road passes through five sprawling areas filled with side-paths and buildings to explore in any order you want. Tackling those areas in the order you encounter them provides the most coherent story progression, but you have no obligation to do so.
This is easily the biggest world that a story exploration game has ever had to work with, and The Chinese Room rise to the challenge near-perfectly. Side areas loop back around to the main path in clever ways that let you strike out on tangents without fear of missing anything, and once you’ve “cleared” an area by finding the climax of its plot thread, shortcuts open up to aid with back-tracking to previous locations. Buildings that can be entered are generally telegraphed from a distance with partially-open doors (although there are also a few false positives with this, as I once or twice found an unlocked gate that didn’t actually lead anywhere or a conspicuously open door that I couldn’t reach). Sound also plays a pivotal role; ringing phones and radio broadcasts lead the player toward points of interest, and once you’ve explored enough of an area a very noticeable audio cue will guide you to where you need to go to “finish” that area’s story.
All that said, there are a few minor ways the game lets exploration-minded players down. The manifestations of light aren’t visible until you’re right on them, which means there’s no way to catch them all except to obsessively scour every area. That’s not a big problem- as I’ll go into in a second, Rapture’s world is a delight to explore- but I did find myself wishing I had some way to know whether I had caught everything in a particular region. There was also one instance where a manifestation crucial to understanding a character’s story overlapped with the location of the “end” of that area, which meant that I missed it until I doubled back around and returned hours later.
These are minor complints. Overall, Rapture is a masterclass of level design and an evolution of how games of this genre can handle larger, more detailed worlds. Which is definitely welcome, because the Yaughton Valley is a region you’ll be itching to explore. This is hands down the best rendering of a realistic location in videogame history, beautiful and meticulously rendered in sumptuous graphics with the Cryengine (how cool is it that games like that are being made in the Cryengine?). The empty streets and forest pathways are punctuated with just enough explorable interior locations to provide a constant bread-crumb trail of discovery. I was constantly delighted by how much attention and effort had been put into locations that existed simply for the sake of existing; this is the product of a development philosophy that sees the inhabiting of a virtual space as inherently worthwhile, with no layer of gameplay needed to justify that space’s existence.
Everybody’s Gone To The Rapture isn’t a horror game by any means, but it shares with Gone Home an appreciation for the unsettling effect that emptiness and silence can have. Once I started to piece together why everyone went to the rapture, the surroundings I moved through started to take on sinister connotations. I found myself glancing at an open window and jumping slightly when I briefly mistook a lamp for a human figure, or just stopping to take in the emptiness around me and shiver. Weird, booming echoes and radio static drift over the horizon from time to time, leading the player to wonder just how far the effects of "the event" have spread. And those balls of light become a lot less whimsical when you realize that they’re aware of your presence and will do shit like hover outside buildings waiting for you to come out.
But a story exploration game can’t stand on just exploration alone. Gone Home’s touching love story is what elevated it above the status of Empty House Simulator 2013, and Rapture’s story is what sends it rocketing to greatness. The Chinese Room have a noted history for dense prose and extremely ambiguous writing- people still debate what Dear Esther is actually supposed to be about- and to an extent that’s also true here, as the plot is presented in a fragmentary and somewhat non-chronological manner that takes close attention to piece together. But it’s also far clearer and easier to understand, dropping the poetic language for realistic dialogue rendered by startlingly lifelike voice acting.
The nature of the “event” that emptied the region is an interesting spin on a very established fictional trope, but what the game is really interested in is how ordinary people in all of their mundanity and flaws react when confronted with a force that’s far bigger and more inscrutable than anything they’ve ever encountered. Given the quaint, idyllic surroundings it would have been easy to reach for ironic contrast and employ apocalyptic tropes about people descending into chaotic violence as soon as the delicate machinery of society breaks down, but the game thankfully goes for more subtle territory. The valley’s final days do play host to acts of violence and people who selfishly abandon others in their bid to reach safety, but far more often the game’s characters exit the story in moments of quiet redemption and communal solidarity.
The end of the world means something different to each of Rapture’s characters. For some it represents death and how we face it, while for others it’s nothing less than a manifestation of God, humanity meeting our creator and finding Him to be much more alien and inscrutable than we could have imagined. All of the game’s central characters are flawed or morally compromised in some way; they all carry regrets or guilt with them, and when the rapture comes they must decide how to deal with those burdens. It’s a very human story, and at times a powerfully moving one.
This is all buoyed by an absolutely killer soundtrack, without which Everybody’s Gone To The Rapture would only be half the game it is. Jessica Curry knocks it out of the park and into orbit here, delivering a soaring choral background that elevates the small-town drama of the valley into an epic battle for its inhabitants souls. Outside of the dramatic moments the music floats in and out ambiently, giving the eerie impression of a host of angels hovering somewhere nearby, watching the player’s progress. The lyrics of the music frequently repeat the dialogue spoken by characters in a particular scene, which lends the whole thing a sweeping operatic feel.
If it seems like I’m gushing about this game, well… I am. I loved almost every second of Everybody’s Gone To The Rapture. It will take time and a few replays to see if it stands beside Gone Home, but for now it’s easily the best thing I’ve played this year. My only serious complaints are that the game’s frame-rate is distinctly erratic and that the movement can at times be overly sluggish. A well-publicized snafu resulted in the game shipping without any indication that there’s a run button (hold down R2 for several seconds) but even knowing this from the start I occasionally found myself wishing I could cover ground more quickly, particularly when back-tracking to find plot nuggets that I had missed.
Normally when talking about a game like this I’d employ the Gone Home Test-- if you like Gone Home you’ll like this, if not then stay away-- but I was surprised to see that the critical reaction is sharply divided even among people who have championed this genre in the past. That’s perhaps not surprising, since Dear Esther was similarly contentious in a way that some of the games it opened the door for weren’t. For many people, the slow pace and the nearly total dearth of interaction in that game was a complete turn-off, and I imagine that will hold true here as well.
It seems that this emerging genre is here to stay- Fullbright have a follow up to Gone Home coming next year, and the highly anticipated Firewatch is nearing completion- and in light of that Everybody’s Gone To The Rapture deserves to stand as a milestone in its history. It’s a story exploration game given the blockbuster treatment with highly ambitious production values, but never once compromises itself. Sony are to be commended for putting money behind a project like this, and The Chinese Room for using the resources given to them in a way that stayed true to their creative vision.