Everybody's Gone to the Rapture Review
Sony PlayStation 4
Imagine a village theatre group with a budget equivalent to a blockbuster film. Instead of staging the play at the local hall, the village itself becomes the canvas for immersive storytelling, eclipsing Secret Cinema’s largest productions. This would be unfeasible anywhere but in the medium of video games and it is exactly how Everybody’s Gone to the Rapture feels; observational, intimate and unforgettable.
The game shares a great deal with its predecessor Dear Esther. Players walk at a leisurely pace through a vividly detailed environment - now a cosy Shropshire village by the name of Yaughton instead of the sparse cliffs and beaches of a Hebridean island. Rather than listen to narration, vignettes play out in front of you, performed by luminous spectres re-enacting the last movements of Yaughton’s residents. Rapture follows in the great English tradition of Wyndham and Wells for an unspecified apocalypse has taken place, leaving the village ominously empty yet resplendent in pastoral beauty.
The Chinese Room is not a huge team but what they have achieved in depicting a small English country village is nothing short of amazing. Still screenshots convey just a glimpse of the detail inherent in the environment. Yaughton feels quintessentially English, touching on all aspects of a village in mid-1980s Britain. From a traditional pub, untouched by Wetherspoons or Fullers, to the wooden parquet flooring of the town hall, some minor detail will resonate, grounding the game with an uncanny sense of realism. The Chinese Room has a masterful grasp of lighting - from the unrelenting heat of midday in summer to a sunset filtering through trees, it all looks transcendent. Add in the mysterious orbs of light that roam the village, coaxing you to follow them and you have a game where any screenshot could be a painting.
These orbs act as guide and beacon, guiding you towards the next scene or point of interest. Dear Esther was criticised by some for being a ‘walking simulator’ more than a game - frankly, these people are failing to see the bigger picture. Rapture has more to do than Esther - there are radios, phones and other devices that deliver points of exposition to find. Likewise, there are scenes featuring the luminous echoes to observe, often off the beaten path. It took a second playthrough to find a whole area of the village missed on a first run and there are likely to be more clues to see once you know the general arc to the plot. Therein lies Rapture’s main draw - working out the mystery of what has happened. Not through arbitrary combat or reams of text but through curiosity and investigation.
And what stories there are in Yaughton. The sense of melancholy lies thick in the air, the tragedy of events at odds with the constant beauty on screen. Rapture has a cast of characters more at home in an episode of Emmerdale, albeit far better written and these familiar faces - the type of people you find in every small English town - again serve to place Yaughton’s drama squarely on realistic foundations. The more scenes you discover, the more you are able to link the characters to one another and discover their relationships. The major story arcs are poignant, intriguing and all contribute to the greater mystery. All the better, really, as Rapture’s main plotline doesn’t resolve quite as satisfactorily as the stories that comprise its parts. Like Dear Esther, there’s a lot to discuss and decipher, ensuring the game lives beyond the confines of the digital.
All of this is accompanied by what will likely be one of if not the best soundtracks of the year. Jessica Curry’s score to Dear Esther was sparse but powerful; Rapture’s score, making heavy use of vocalist Elin Manahan Thomas and choral accompaniment, befits the game perfectly. Pastoral, lush and melodic, it heightens each scene but never feels too big for the story. The use of original folk songs and hymns chimes with questions the game raises to do with God, community and the English reaction to horrific events. It’s perhaps the game’s greatest strength - sitting at a coffee shop the day after rounding off the story, relistening to the score nearly had me weeping in Russell Square, it’s that powerful.
Of course there are a few qualms. The use of radios and phones as what amounts to audio logs felt shoehorned in, especially when there isn’t a great deal more with which to interact. The other problem was likely the fault of my curiosity. Although the glowing orbs are really there to nudge you in the right direction, they can occasionally disappear. When this happened, there is a possibility to wander off the ideal path and end up ‘behind-the-scenes’. You can usually tell when you’ve done this - you’ll re-encounter a visual effect or the time of day will lurch between two points. It only happened once or twice, but it did result in not knowing where to go next and the pervasive feeling when I rejoined the story that I’d missed a few key scenes. If anything, it re-encourages replay in order not only to check for bypassed clues but to also see the story knowing the end.
A friend recently told me that they couldn’t ‘get’ videogames; that playing them felt akin to watching reams of Youtube videos, or binge watching sitcoms. It’s hard to argue when the outwardly visible part of gaming tends to be the tentpole releases like Call of Duty or Minecraft that market themselves on bombast or freeform tinkering. True, they can provoke or inspire but hours can still be sunk in pursuit of nothing. At five or so hours in length, Everybody’s Gone to the Rapture is a perfect case for games doing something no other artform can do; in connecting and discovering the lives of Yaughton’s residents, I became part of their tale. Rapture is a game that rewards those who bring something to it; learning what happened to Yaughton can be as involving as you want it to be. A book can do the same, but remains passive. A film as well. There is but one artform which felt remotely similar - immersive theatre - and games are one step beyond, focusing the experience singularly on you. Maybe I’m a hopeless romantic at heart, but Rapture provoked tears on five different occasions while I soaked up its atmosphere of joyful tragedy. Sometimes it was for the sheer beauty of the sound and visuals, sometimes it was a story beat that hit hard. Sometimes it was because I knew I was experiencing something special. Some may not consider it a game but who cares? Everybody’s Gone to the Rapture stands as one of the finest experiences so far this year and is something everyone should witness.