The town is almost pristine. It isn’t decimated or destroyed. There are no smoking craters, blackened buildings, or burned corpses. No, this picturesque village sits in ideal tranquility; the birds twitter in the hedgerows and the sun shines brightly, bathing the blooming trees and golden fields of wheat in a pleasant, peaceful aura. And yet, something is terribly wrong. A thin tendril of smoke still curls from a recently abandoned cigar, a child’s bicycle leans casually against a tree, fully expecting the return of its owner. But there is no one. And there is no evidence of their disappearance aside from a few bloody scraps of rags, spotted in empty bedrooms and beside untouched glasses of lemonade.
You stand in the midst of the emptiness, an uneasy feeling nagging at your core. What has happened?
Everybody’s Gone to the Rapture thrives on atmosphere and storytelling and concerning the former aspect, developer The Chinese Room hits a home run. This is a beautiful, poignant visual presentation, designed specifically to highlight the mystery at the center of the adventure. With nary an indication of violence or even general unrest, it’s a remarkably captivating graphical achievement. Not simply because the village and landscape in question is so wonderfully designed and appointed, but also because it represents the contrast that drives the production forward. It’s supposed to be this perfect. So perfect, it’s almost severe in its austerity. How could anything be wrong? The gorgeous visuals force you to ask this question, over and over.
The stellar graphics combine forces with the appropriately haunting score and voice performances. The interesting part is that if you choose to wander about on your own, rather than being a slave to the twisting ball of light you’re clearly supposed to follow, the audio become that much more powerful. When you go rogue, so-to-speak, the music peters out and the effects are limited to the occasional bird call and babbling brook. This only makes you more aware of the rock that sits like a slab of ice-cold concrete in your gut. Then, when you do encounter the snippets of story, delivered expertly by accomplished actors that deliver genuine emotion, you’re once again immersed in the task at hand. An excellent, fitting score is just the icing on the cake.
The game plays simply: You move with the left analog and inspect with the X button. It’s a simple, even simplistic, mechanic but we don’t require any further input commands. If the game was structured differently, we would, but The Chinese Room puts the emphasis squarely on the narrative and environment, as opposed to relying on continual player commands and freedom. However, it’s important to note that while the game can be described as linear, it’d be erroneous to say there is no freedom at all. In fact, as I said above, you can often wander far, away from the pulsating golden ball that you must follow in order to advance the story. I’d recommend exploring off the beaten path, too; not because of what you might find, but because it adds dimension to the experience.
Each ball of light is a former citizen of this small town in Shropshire, England. Or at least, each ball is introduced as such. Perhaps it’s merely an unknown spirit, a result of the aftermath, which wishes to turn your attention to one departed soul. As you progress, you will see brief yet critical scenes played out before you; in these otherworldly visions, each person is entirely comprised of points of light. But the voices of these absent villagers are clear and strong, often filled with great emotion and sometimes, desperation. The more you see and hear, the more you will learn about the lives of the townspeople, and you’ll also glean hints as to their demise. For instance, you’ll soon find that everyone began to have terrible headaches and nosebleeds, and it was originally thought to be flu.
At the same time, you’ll learn about a husband and wife team of scientists, Steven (Oliver Dimsdale) and Kate (Merle Dandridge), who are trying to figure out the cause of the phenomenon. It becomes abundantly clear that their marriage is rocky and they don’t agree on the correct method of dealing with – and ultimately containing – the “event.” This event, by the way, is only vaguely defined: All we know is that an alien light entity of some kind (Kate says it’s “alive” at one point) has somehow infiltrated the town; it travels in the phones or via other forms of electricity. As a result, the town has been quarantined and when things get worse, we find out that an air strike has been considered as a last-ditch effort to keep this “presence” contained. But there couldn’t have been an air strike, right? Nothing is damaged.
Well, anyway, I won’t give away any more of the plot. Suffice to say it’s chillingly vague and captivating; I wanted to keep pressing forward to unravel the intricate threads of this mystery. The top-notch performances make each little scene stand out and you feel each disagreement and conflict, along with every pang of despair and hopelessness. This was a quiet town filled with regular people going about their lives and they can’t fathom how such a curse could befall them. They’re also increasingly wary of those trying to deal with the issue, and it doesn’t help that some personal entanglements have complicated matters. It’s a surprisingly complex and interwoven narrative that strikes to the quick with unwavering precision.
Now, in regards to the core gameplay, I’m aware that many might find the relatively slow movement tedious. This leads me to the controversy surrounding the basic movement and the uncovering of the sprint button. Firstly, let me say that the latter option – you hold down the R2 button for a few seconds – is very significant; you move about twice as fast. The rumor that it doesn’t increase your movement by very much is just wrong. It may not be as fast as your standard first-person game but it’s almost exactly twice as fast as the default movement. Secondly, I know why the developers didn’t tell the player about it, and why it’s sort of hidden (who would think of actually holding down a certain button to enable sprinting?)
The reason is simple: That’s just not how the game is meant to be played. Make any argument you wish; the bottom line is that you’re supposed to be savoring this environment. The speed at which you move is regular walking speed. If you set out to cross that meadow over there at a normal walking pace, you’ll cross it in about the same amount of time you would in reality. When you’re nosing about inside houses and structures, your movement will be understandably slower, especially when you’re looking for clues and signs. I have used the sprint option now and again, just to cross particularly long distances and move on with the story, but I will add that it just feels wrong. The default speed is correct. It allows us to properly ingest and process and gives us a greater appreciation of our surroundings.
That being said, I can say that given some of the distances we must travel, that speed is a little on the slow side. That’s when I was glad to have the sprint option. If the scope of the game was just a little smaller, I’d say you’d never need the faster movement but really, there isn’t much need to saunter down a stretch of road when there’s nothing to see or find. This is one of the few flaws in the game, although I guarantee it will be seen as a critical failing in the eyes of some. All I can say in response is that if you possess more than a few sentimental bones, if you’re one of those people who have actually stopped in the middle of a beautiful game to admire the view, you will understand this adventure. If you can’t conceive of a reason to ever let go of the controller, no matter what type of game you’re playing, this isn’t for you.
If I’m being picky, I could say I wanted a bit more discovery and diversity in regards to the facts. I feel as if the same story points where conveyed to me multiple times, only in different ways. I remember thinking to myself, “yes, I understand that part already,” despite the expertly produced scenes between villagers. If the narrative moved at a slightly faster pace and trusted the player to grasp important concepts the first time, it would be an even more intelligent and ambitious game. But that really is nitpicking; it’s me wanting the best out of a fantastic concept and not quite getting a masterpiece. There’s no doubt that the story here is superior to most video game stories we see, and it’s definitely better designed and far more intriguing than most.
Everybody’s Gone to the Rapture is an interactive work of art. Those of us who can be demanding when it comes to the realm of virtual storytelling might spot some minor flaws. Aside from those flaws, and beyond those who complain about the speed and lack of input commands, the game stands tall in its efforts to reach a new level of interactive storytelling. It does so by enrapturing us from the start, giving us a peek into the lives of the lost, and unraveling in a way that keeps us moving forward. Throughout it all, you’re aware of one palpable sensation: So many games are about saving the world. This particular world, despite its stark beauty, is already dead. There’s nothing we can do except attempt to learn the truth and in so doing, perhaps let the souls of the heartbreakingly departed rest in peace.
The Good: Beautiful, picturesque visual presentation. Excellent soundtrack and stellar voice performances. A moving and intriguing story. Interesting, multidimensional characters. Powerfully and masterfully combines atmosphere and narrative. Expresses humanity in a way rarely seen in video games. Simple control allows us to focus on what matters.
The Bad: Game’s size doesn’t quite match the default speed. We needed a few more concrete story points.
The Ugly: “Only the flak this game received from those who haven’t the first clue what it’s really about.”