'Everybody’s Gone to the Rapture' Is the Bleakest Game of 2015
Sometimes death by alien singularity is preferable to living with your neighbors.
Some people really loved Everybody’s Gone to the Rapture. I didn't, and a lot of my dislike stemmed from what I saw as bad design. This is a game that does everything it can to hinder your consumption of its story, even though its story was the only thing of interest to its players. As a first-person walker, Rapture is a story-driven game in a story-driven genre that fumbles every aspect of storytelling. I hated playing it so much that I think that hate has seeped into my interpretation of its themes. It's a game that is stuck in my mind not because it's so good, but because it seems, to me, to be one of the most cynical and nihilistic games ever made, one that embraces the awfulness of humanity and celebrates our untimely end.
I imagine Rapture was always meant to be a game about beautiful death, about appreciating life, and the gamut of human emotions in a way that could only be done once all of human life is over. It looks back on our collected works as a species like one looks back over a book. The stories of Shropshire are meant to be a "Story of Us," flaws and strengths and all, and the pastoral town left behind after the human apocalypse is meant to be a reassurance that death was not the end of beauty.
You can see this in the premise: a post-apocalyptic game set in an idyllic English country side. You can see this in the controls: movement is so slow because we’re meant to appreciate the calm and scenery of the idyllic English countryside. You can see this in the title itself: The Rapture represents the end of a sinful world and the beginning of God's kingdom. It's the most positive an apocalypse you're ever gonna get.
This is what the game was supposed to be.
In reality, the stories within Shropshire are about people breaking apart, not coming together. They're about how we hurt each other, not how we help each other. This is not a story about finding light in darkness, but of exposing the darkness within seemingly light things. The town may look nice and its people may seem pleasant, but that’s a façade that hides an underbelly of distrust and racism and adultery and sadness. Its people constantly hurt each other in ways that are thoughtlessly cruel, then justify their cruelty as a minor thing or even as a noble thing.
Stephen is the closest thing that the game has to a protagonist. When he realizes that he and his wife (Kate) have accidentally unleashed an ephemeral alien force upon their little town, he races around trying to figure out how to stop the alien menace from spreading. His intentions may be noble, but unfortunately for the world Stephen is a dick. His "help" is mostly yelling at people, not explaining himself, stealing bikes, and killing a man out of anger. There are some nice people in Shropshire, and it's easy to imagine things turning out differently if one of them had been in Stephen's shoes.
Stephen is simply a man incapable of relating to others or bringing people together. Before the fantastical elements of the story begin, he's already showing signs of the selfishness that will be his downfall. When a scientific paper written by him is rejected, he rebuffs any attempt that Kate makes to cheer him up, preferring instead to remain bitter. Shropshire is his hometown, and he's dragged Kate back here despite her reluctance. Not only is it a foreign place for Kate, but as a black woman in an English town, she's looked upon with suspicion everywhere she goes. Stephen deals with her misery by having an affair with his old flame, Lizzie.
Lizzie is one of the kinder characters in the game, but her kindness also embodies the game’s cynicism. She begins the affair with Stephen because she’s unhappy in her own marriage and bored. What we hear of her husband, Robert, makes him out to a drunk and a bit of a fool; a well-meaning fool but still a fool, the only one in the town who doesn’t know his wife is cheating on him. His ignorance of his actions drives Lizzie into the arms of another man, but she had other options. She could end the marriage or work to make it better, but that she chose the affair shows her returning the cruelty back to Robert. She wants to hurt him. Even if she justifies her actions with proclamations of love for Stephen, she was ultimately driven to him because of her boredom and anger at Robert. She’s a nice person otherwise, but even this nice person perpetuates the cycle of hurt that is seen throughout Shropshire and Rapture.
However, neither of them are as awful as Wendy, Stephen's mother -- a nosy busybody inserting herself where she's not wanted, a casual racist who keeps saying how Kate "doesn't belong" in Shropshire, a hypocrite who has no problem setting up and encouraging Stephen's affair with Lizzie, and an all-around horrible person who thinks a single sorrowful act of repentance when at death’s door somehow makes up for years of hatered. She justifies her constant interference by arguing “someone has to say what everyone else is thinking.” She thinks that she’s speaking truth to power, but she never actually tries to speak up for someone in a lesser position, and she never confronts someone on a higher social rung than herself. She just meddles in other people’s affairs while punching down at them.
Rapture tries oddly hard to redeem Wendy and make her sympathetic. She talks at length about how her husband died young in a war, and her climactic moment has her seeing planes overhead, believing him to be coming home when in fact they’re gassing the city to contain the alien. It’s a tragic moment that highlights her loss and how that loss has weighed on her, but that loss doesn't do enough to excuse her shrill behavior to everyone else, especially since she constantly uses it to play the victim and shield herself from criticism. The game buys into Wendy’s delusional arrogance with swelling music that’s supposed to make us feel sorry for this miserable woman, but Wendy’s life was not one to be mourned. She was not a good person and left no good things behind.
Finally there's Kate. It's easy to feel sorry for her since she's the most obvious victim of life's casual cruelties, but she responds with cruelties of her own. Even before Stephen begins his affair, Kate retreats into herself and her science, brushing off Stephen's concern, fueling a self-perpetuating and self-destructive cycle of loneliness and isolation within herself. The two of them may be married, but they're also an awful couple who only bring out the worst in each other. Then, in her lonely desperation, she tries to communicate with the alien Pattern. At first, she doesn't know she's helping it spread, but even after she learns this she doesn't stop. She becomes attracted to the alien's otherness, finding companionship in another being who exists outside the norms of society. The fact that she embraces it in the end, happily being turned to light, proves how alone she felt in the human world, how much human contact had failed her. That’s not something to be celebrated, that’s something to be saddened by. It's a romanticization of death by demonizing life.
Even the supporting/side characters get in on the cruelty. For example, while Mary slowly died of a debilitating disease, her husband Frank drowned his sorrows at the pub. Or then there’s Sean and Di, who leave their baby at a day camp while they try to escape Shropshire, accidentally killing Lizzie’s husband in the process. The lesson is that tragedy and hardship don’t bring people together, even families. It just breaks us apart even more.
Everybody's Gone to the Rapture is a game about the breakdown of communication. “It doesn’t know it’s hurting us,” Stephen says of the alien Pattern late into the game. This sums up the entire theme of Rapture. How often we hurt others without realizing it? How willfully blind we are to others’ pain?
Hell is other people. Therefore all life is hell, and so the bright death brought about by the Pattern really is a kind of rapture to a better place. It's sadly the best ending we can hope for. The Pattern may kill us, but at least it only hurts us once. Compared to the endless little cruelties of other people that seems like the lesser of two evils. Death by alien singularity is preferable to living with your neighbors.
To be fair, I don't think this is what the developer intended, and it's certainly not in line with what others have gotten from the game. I think this interpretation stems from my dislike of everything else about the game. Design affects perception, perception informs interpretation, and Rapture is a game that’s all about interpretation. It’s likely that my negative experience with the mechanics makes me assume a more negative thematic message. Or at least that's the only way that I can rationalize why I'm so disturbed by it while others are (somehow) reassured by it.
That all said, regardless of intention, Everybody's Gone to the Rapture has remained stuck in my head for the past several months as the most horrifying and cynical game of 2015.