A Fleeting Sense of Presence in 'Everybody's Gone to the Rapture'

by Scott Juster

10 September 2015

Looking for authenticity and contrivances while slowly shuffling through the apocalypse.
 

This piece contains spoilers for Everybody’s Gone to the Rapture.

At times, Everybody’s Gone to the Rapture feels very grounded. Despite it being a story about a supernatural visitor that causes the population of a small English town to inexplicably vanish, the world and its inhabitants often feel authentic. However, due to the way that you interact with and learn about the world, this feeling of “being there” is inconsistent. Everybody’s Gone to the Rapture is a story about humanity, but the tools that you use to understand the story are unfortunately alienating.
  
From an aesthetic perspective, Everybody’s Gone to the Rapture does an outstanding job of building a believable world, largely thanks to its focus on the ordinary. You explore a small English town, complete with everything that should be part of a small English town: little, brick pubs, quaint single-family homes with narrow hallways and long steam radiators, and gentle rolling hills. There’s enough clutter in people’s kitchens and backyards to make them feel comfortably used rather than arbitrarily staged. Look carefully and you can see the patterns of everyday life as well as the actions that people took while awaiting the titular rapture.

First person exploration games from Gone Home to BioShock have done this sort of environmental storytelling before, but Everybody’s Gone to the Rapture deserves recognition for its emphasis on the natural environment. It’s one of the few games that has made me stop and just observe the wind glide through the trees. Clouds momentarily darken the sky before drifting onwards and moving on. Somewhere in the distance a telephone starts ringing, and I can tell not only that it’s on my right, but that it’s northeast and muffled behind a door.

All of this makes the mystery of the deadly orbs of light more unsettling. It’s chilling when you see how the entity travels through the power lines around the village. Something that is a familiar staple of everyday living is now a conduit for a completely unknown, potentially deadly force. Suddenly the ordinary setting with all its banal accoutrements feels even more personal and more vulnerable. You feel like you know what the apocalypse might feel like because the environment feels so convincingly normal.

Then you start moving and things fall apart. There’s no way to say this without sounding petty, so it’s easiest to be plain. The movement speed in Everybody’s Gone to the Rapture is painfully slow and the entire game suffers for it. It seems like a small thing, but this aspect leads to a cascade of problems that destroy the sense of presence that the game’s aesthetics go to such lengths to produce.

It’s fine to make a deliberately paced game, but Everybody’s Gone to the Rapture makes even the simple act of entering and exiting a house a tedious chore. It’s really hard to overstate how slow the movement is. One could argue this is meant to enforce a reflective, observant approach to the game. In some respects this is true, but it also inspires resentment.

Missing a key story piece and facing the prospect of a long journey backtracking (and potentially getting lost) is demoralizing. After a certain point, seeing a mysterious item in the environment no longer raises the question of “What is that?” but rather “Is that potential clue worth the time it will take to walk over there?”  The fact that sometimes a mystery is just a trick of the light (rather than the quasi-defined light being itself) means that the slow speed actually hastened my pace to finish the game.

The biggest problem with the snail’s pace is that it pulls you out of the moment. It’s immediately clear that you’re moving slower than the average person walks and far slower then the average person jogs or walks. The speed dehumanizes you and turns you into a person-height steady cam that slow pans across beautiful, but relatively empty environments.

Because of your speed, you have plenty of time to reflect on the many contrivances needed for an interactive sci-fi story/religious parable. Why can’t I hop over waist-high fences? It sure is convenient that some of these doors are locked while others aren’t. How is this place littered with identical radios that all play a pre-recorded message on demand? Why can I only see the ghostly apparitions of some people and why aren’t these people more angry about their impending deaths?

Suddenly everything feels overly produced. You’re not person in a village. You’re a human-sized viewfinder navigating around a meticulously constructed set on which you mustn’t run. The stories that you witness are cherry picked to foment a vaguely utopian theme of togetherness and acceptance that is conveniently wrapped up in the end by a person that we’re seemingly expected to admire in spite of her sociopathic obsession with the unknown deadly force.

After Everybody’s Gone to the Rapture’s initial sensory rush, you quite literally slow down. The game’s world is beautiful and evocative, but the way in which you’re forced to crawl through it reveals all its seams and flaws. What starts off feeling like an intimately human environment becomes a stifling set piece. Instead of relishing your presence in environment, you resent it and ultimately detach yourself from it. 

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