A long, slow walk in the park overshadows an otherwise stunning plot.
What is a video game? Is it a stereotype, limited by being known as hours of mindless entertainment? Or have they passed the threshold into becoming works of art? Can a video game be something more than just a game? In developer The Chinese Room’s Everybody’s Gone to the Rapture, many of those thresholds are crossed, blurred, and sometimes nonexistent.
Everybody’s Gone to the Rapture is the spiritual successor to 2012’s Dear Esther, but this time skipping out on the PC and becoming exclusive to PlayStation 4, which seems to be a fitting touch based on Sony’s outreach for games targeted towards exotic, or unusual categories. Rapture is indeed unusual. Centering around the small, deserted English town of Shropshire in the 1980s; the only opening clue received comes from a calming voice stating “The answers are in the light.”
It is the player’s job to traverse beautiful grasslands, small villages, and lakeside camps; and collect knowledge of past events through radios, telephones, and an odd, sentient orb of light. Finding out what this seemingly magical light is portraying, alongside discovering where everyone has went is pretty much the entire game. There is no action in this game; no strategizing, no fighting of any sort. Rapture is a walk from beginning all the way to the finish line, all in a first person perspective.
"There is no action in this game; no strategizing, no fighting of any sort. Rapture is a walk from beginning all the way to the finish line, all in a first person perspective."
Upon first stepping into the main character’s shoes and seeing Shropshire all around me and even clear off into the distance, it took me several seconds to realize that this was no cut scene — I was able to move around and play instantly. It was lush foliage, glistening brush, and vibrant flowered plants that felt above playability in a standard game. Certainly something that could only be achieved through cut scenes. But in fact was the standard for Rapture’s visuals.
Exploring a little further revealed houses that honestly looked and felt lived in; a road that had certainly been driven upon by the locals; and a sense of former presence that no longer existed. There was a moment when I may have went a little off my rocker, when I thought — for only a millisecond — I could actually smell those orchids blooming in the English Garden outside an abandoned cottage. The houses were filled with decorative knickknacks, chalkboards along the walls, outlined with the daily special, and even a delicious, mouth watering lager sitting across the bar top.
This land not only felt real, it felt as though it, too, had many stories of its own to tell. Those of happiness, of everyday life, of sorrow and loss. I caught myself from time to time taken aback, wondering “what will become of this town that no one exists?” It was slightly troubling to know so much love in this village was now lost — and these thoughts carried through from town to town. Chirping and singing of birds off in the distance and an occasional bug or bee buzzing by helped calm the emptiness and gave small hope for this land’s future.
"I caught myself from time to time taken aback, wondering “what will become of this town that no one exists?” It was slightly troubling to know so much love in this village was now lost."
A descriptive voice cast sprinkles over tidbits of mixed backstory reaching into relevant, obligatory, or sometimes extraneous information. But even when relevant story plots are sometimes pushed to one side with unessential subplots, it still gives that tact as though other, very normal lives were still being lead before that mass disappearance took place.
Placed throughout the land are radios with recordings from a woman named Kate, a scientist working in an observatory. Voiced by the ever talented Merle Dandridge (best known for her work as Alyx Vance in Half-Life 2, and Marlene in The Last of Us), giving a brilliant take on a character so ordinary. We learn that Kate was on a search to discovering the meaning behind the light while struggling through an emotional tug of war with her worried husband.
As well, a small voice-cast of characters played into their own subplot roles; and by having expressed their own poignant point of voice on this apocalyptic situation, added a touch of life to a physically lifeless world. None of these voices seemed out of place and each one worked well with one another on their short, but intricately narrative journey. A better voice cast could not have been chosen.
"A descriptive voice cast sprinkles over tidbits of mixed backstory reaching into relevant, obligatory, or sometimes extraneous information."
What lies beyond the beautiful graphics, well sought out voice cast, and well paced, emotional narrative? It’s very hard to say this, but what’s left feels little more than a small budget indie title. Yes, The Chinese Room is an indie studio, but Sony had a large hand in Rapture’s development through funding. There is no action in Rapture. There is no fighting. There is no loot. About an hour in, Shropshire feels like a massive land. To most that may sound amazing to have such a large place to roam about and discover its secrets. However, with no collectables, aside from finding — but never collecting — voice recordings on decades old cell phones, phone booths and radios, there is no sense of discovery.
A game four to five hours long of, well, roaming. Each elaborately detailed land begins to meld with previous valley’s or towns. Aesthetics begins to repeat. That sense of discovery loses touch after just a short time. Rapture never gets ugly, it just loses that touch of freshness.
One’s next thought would probably be, “Well, it’s only four to five hours long. Roaming a large land is no big deal if the story is good.” After a short jaunt, that roaming feels like crawling. The walking speed in Rapture feels like the equivalent to a snails pace. It becomes unbearably slow at times. I liked going down all the wrong paths before I go down the correct one, just in case there is something I might have otherwise overlooked, and may not get a chance later to come back; then I realized I had to walk back the way I came — very, very slowly.
Now, it was revealed in an official blog right as the game came out, that speeding up from a crawling pace is possible if the R2 button is held for… seven seconds!! Then continued to be held thereafter. That sounds better than nothing, even if I have to wait a few extra seconds to speed it up. The only problem with that is the difference between “running” and walking is negligible — nearly unnoticeable.
"The walking speed in Rapture feels like the equivalent to a snails pace. It becomes unbearably slow at times."
Gimmicky tilt controls allow mandatory story points to be unlocked in unnecessary fashion. As though the developers knew they didn’t add enough to make this game more interesting past its story. What comes down to a last minute “add the tilt” decision really culminated to nothing in what little gameplay is actually there. I would have actually enjoyed clicking a button — which I so rarely got to do outside of phones, radios, and an occasional door — rather than “fine tune” a tilt of the controller. Sadly, however, the underutilized speaker on the DualShock controller was completely wasted (as usual) when a perfect opportunity could have been created as an optional output for said radios or phones in game.
Overall, Everybody’s Gone to the Rapture does blur the lines between what a game can and should be — even if it doesn’t always hit the right notes. It is a journey of self, a journey to understanding fraught with little hope, but hope nonetheless. It opened up a plethora of thoughts: What is the essence of Life? Is it family? Love? Survival? Hope? But a game can not be carried on thought alone. It needs physical substance. To feel that I am actually accomplishing something toward a cause, be it good or bad is something that was so desperately needed. It made me feel like a useless spectator in a game that had already been played out for me.
This game was reviewed on the PlayStation 4.
Built around a rousing, emotional narrative and inserted into a stunningly, beautiful world, barren of life, with stories yearning to be heard one last time.
A gruelingly, slow walk through the countryside, and a negligible 'running mode' really hurt this extremely limited experience. With lack of real choice or ability to really do much besides walk around. Also, gimmicky tilt controls just feel completely last minute.
Everybody's Gone To The Rapture really tried to be something more powerful than a video game. It tried to be art. However, instead of becoming a Mona Lisa, it felt as though the paint was still awaiting its first brush stroke. It never quite got there, but if it ever achieved that first stroke, it was bound to be brilliant.