Everybody’s Gone to the Rapture is a good story told by a terrible storyteller.
Everybody's Gone to the RapturePublisher: Sony Computer Entertainment
Players: 1 player
Developer: The Chinese Room
Release Date: 2015-08-11
Everybody’s Gone to the Rapture is a good story told by a terrible storyteller. It’s weird to say that because the developer, The Chinese Room, pioneered this story-driven genre of First Person Walkers (or to use the more derogatory term, the Walking Simulator) with Dear Esther and Amnesia: A Machine for Pigs. Sadly, Rapture proves that pioneers can forget the very lessons that they pioneered.
This is a game about breakdowns of communication in all their forms: person to person, person to society, person to otherworldly glowing orb. Many of these characters feel apart from the world even when surrounded by supposed loved ones, and that loneliness drives them to seek out satisfaction in ways that are casually cruel to those around them. The story takes place in the idyllic English town of Shropshire, but the beauty of the environment hides all sorts of darkness underneath.
I’m not sure if the contrast between environment and story is purposeful or if it’s poor writing. Is this a game that wants us to focus on the beautiful side of a painful world or on the painful side of a beautiful world? As disaster and death spread throughout Shropshire, people don’t come together. They break apart and seek their own way through, yet their stories are still touching and beautifully tragic. The ending seems to strive for positivity, but it’s hard to feel positive after watching the unintentional death of the human race. At the very least, this confusion stays with you and demands to be mulled over, which is a sign of success for any story.
Unfortunately, for as good as the story is, you likely won’t see much of it unless you have incredible patience (or the obligation of a review). Everything else about the game actively works to hinder your consumption of the story; an insane design decision considering that the story is literally the main selling point for this type of game.
The town of Shropshire is large, and it’s easy to get lost among the houses (an issue for later), but there will always be a ball of light flying ahead of you, leading the way to an important location. When you reach that location, you’ll find a second ball of light that explodes into a memory. This is how the game expresses its story. Each memory is a piece of the narrative puzzle, and the more that we find, the better we come to understand these characters and the sequence of events that led to their disappearance.
First of all, you should turn on subtitles as soon as you begin. This is advice I was given before playing, and it made the narrative significantly easier to follow. I hate to think how lost I’d be without this warning. We hear these memories clearly, but seeing them is harder. People are just clouds of light in them, occasionally condensing into a shape with arms and legs before wafting apart again. This makes it impossible to identify anyone by sight, which makes it difficult to know who is who. The cast is surprisingly large and keeping track of them through voice and dialogue alone makes it unnecessarily difficult to follow the plot. The subtitles help because they provide a name with each piece of dialogue, as if you were reading a script. This supposedly optional feature is necessary for a basic understanding of events.
Much has already been said about the frustratingly slow speed of your character. Shropshire is wide and spacious, so the speed only serves to discourage exploration. And since exploration is necessary to uncover the story, the speed hinders your ability to consume the story.
It’s clear that we’re meant to admire this world, to appreciate its serene beauty, and make no mistake Rapture is a gorgeous looking game. However, gorgeous worlds are a dime-a-dozen nowadays, especially on the Playstation 4, which is currently the exclusive platform for Rapture. A beautiful world does not a good game make. That's the stuff of good tech demos. Rapture is so in love with its own look that it shortchanges its story to force its world upon the player.
This is particularly abusive because for all the attention to detail that has gone into this world, that detail doesn’t amount to much of importance for the player. This isn’t Gone Home, in which picking up and examining every object in a house garnered you more information about the characters. In Rapture, you can’t pick up anything. You can’t touch this world. You simply follow the glowing orbs and watch (or rather listen to) memories. Sometimes a memory will provide context for the current state of the environment, like when a woman gets a bloody nose and leaves behind several bloody tissues or when a man abandons his stalled car in the road, but most of the time these memories don’t provide any such context. Clouds of light walk and talk and disappear. These memories are the soul of the game, they evoke genuinely emotional and memorable moments, yet they have little to do with the graphically intensive, detailed, well-rendered world. In truth, Rapture could have been rendered on an original Playstation, and it still would have hit the same emotional beats because it hits those beats in spite of, not because of, its obsession with environment.
The open world design also works against the story. Memories are spread far and wide, so it’s easy to miss things. There’s no map of the town, so it’s easy to lose your sense of direction; Shropshire is no predictable grid town, it’s curved and wide and there’s no clear sense of a “forward” direction. The floating orb is meant to mitigate this, but there are dozens are memories off the proverbial beaten path that you’ll miss if you just follow the orb.
This is particularly frustrating because I know I missed several “final” memories. There are several floating balls, each representing a different character, and they take you to memories important to that character. There’s always a clear “final” memory, a climax to their little arc, because A) it will be emotionally devastating, able to humanize even the worst character in the game, like a racist, crotchety, nosy, hypocritical, fundamentalist busybody and B) the world will darken and candles will appear to chart anew the path ahead. These moments are special and memorable, and I missed several. Rapture apparently doesn’t care if you miss its most emotionally resonant moments.
There may be a meta-theme to all this. Rapture is about the breakdown of communication, so maybe The Chinese Room purposefully sought to break down the communication of its story. If so, these issues at least make sense. They're still awful and hurt the game overall, but at least, they make sense. Otherwise the awful presentation, controls, and level design feel like amateurish mistakes from a seasoned developer.
Rapture fails where The Chinese Room's other games succeeded, and when peers like Gone Home and The Music Machine are surpassing even those previous successes, this massively hyped step-backwards feels like a weight dragging down the entire genre.