“The light we cast transcends our death.”—Everybody’s Gone to the Rapture
It’s possible that no game has ever summed itself up as succinctly as Everybody’s Gone to the Rapture does with that sentence. Beneath its apocalyptic sci-fi surface the Chinese Room’s newest game explores what it means to lose and to be lost. We never see any of its characters, but through their words and possessions we feel the impact they have on each other and their community, the connections that turn homes scattered around a farm into a village and not just a series of buildings.
That village, in a remote valley in Shropshire, is abandoned. Nobody’s in sight, cars sit derelict, unattended luggage litters every house and bus stop. It doesn’t look like anybody’s been here for days or weeks, but the cigarettes are still smoking in the ashtrays. Did they leave in a hurry just a few minutes ago? Something happened, something catastrophic, and Everybody’s Gone to the Rapture doesn’t want us to know when or why until it’s ready.
Investigating this mystery introduces us to a sprawling cast of friends and family, an elaborate web of personal relationships set in a rural, isolated village resembling a Thomas Hardy novel set in the 1980s. We don’t see the residents—again, they’ve all disappeared—but we hear snippets of their conversation when we pick up telephones or pass by certain clusters of light, golden silhouettes recreating their exchanges. We learn about Stephen Appleton, a native son and scientist who returns home with his American wife Kate Collins to work in a local observatory. We meet Stephen’s mother Wendy and uncle Frank, who no longer speak, and his former flame Lizzie Graves, who regrets never leaving. We hear children, teenagers, adults, the elderly, hinting about their lives and increasingly worried about an outbreak of something that doesn’t quite seem like influenza. We explore their modest homes, with their TV sets and small book collections and model train sets and abandoned luggage. We see the blood-stained handkerchiefs next to every couch and bed, growing more frequent the deeper we walk into the village.
The Chinese Room has created a world and a community that, in its depth and subtlety, feels real. It shares the verisimilitude of a Ken Loach film but without the politics, the characters sounding like real people having real conversations. Before the scope of the mysterious illness dawns on everybody and overtakes all conversations, we hear them talk about the sort of personal issues that videogames rarely discuss, like the slow pain of a disintegrating marriage, the anxiety of young parents, or the absence felt when a lifelong partner passes away. These moments of empathy and humanity are when Rapture excels, uncovering poignancy in areas this medium has generally considered too mundane to explore. (It should also be noted that the game’s use of sound is masterful, from the creepy emergency signals and radio static that suddenly puncture the unnatural silence, to the gorgeous score from Jessica Curry, heavy on choral pieces that underscore both the game’s examination of community and its religious themes.)
Gradually the mystery starts to override these glimpses into everyday life. A floating ball of light urges us on, as numbers stations appear on every radio, television and computer (given the time and place, presumably all ZX Spectrums). We find occasional dispatches from a character isolated in the observatory, their increasingly frazzled speech revealing more about the game’s story. Eventually the sci-fi overtakes the entire story, serving as a not entirely necessary metaphor for what the game was already saying. The resolution is both overly vague and too on-the-nose, with exposition that states too plainly the game’s thesis while also suffering from the same kind of florid language found in the Chinese Room’s Dear Esther. These final moments are visually striking and emotionally rich but lack the nuance that serves the game so well.
Everybody’s Gone to the Rapture feels trapped by its medium, forced into one of a handful of approved genres because that’s what is expected of videogames. The Chinese Room knows how to create vibrant worlds, and fills Rapture’s with a number of believable characters. If they trusted fully in these characters and their lives, or the audience’s willingness to be fascinated by them without a sci-fi hook, Rapture would have been stronger for it. Anybody interested in games as a storytelling medium should play it, even if its light is reined back in right on the verge of transcendence.
Everybody’s Gone to the Rapture was developed by The Chinese Room and SCE Santa Monica Studio. It is available for the PlayStation 4.
Garrett Martin edits Paste’s games and comedy sections. You can find him on Twitter at @grmartin.