If everybody’s gone to the rapture, then this must be hell: a game where the player hardly matters, a story that not even the characters care about, and a world whose pastoral beauty is a hollow vessel. The Chinese Room’s Everybody’s Gone To The Rapture—a PlayStation 4 exclusive from the creators of Dear Esther—is a work so brutally dull that it would function as a parody of an “art game,” if only it didn’t take itself so seriously.
Rapture takes place in a placid English village near an observatory that came into contact with an otherworldly energy. As you might gather from the title, the town’s population vanished in the wake of the discovery, and you explore the aftermath. You’re alone as you wander the countryside of greater Shropshire, but residents occasionally appear as shimmering human-like forms—glittery echoes of bygone souls that re-enact exchanges from the village’s final days. You piece together the prelude to apocalypse by seeking out these conversations, the majority of which hew to these talking points:
- Strange things are happening.
- The town is under quarantine.
- Strange things are happening, and the town is under quarantine.
Repetition plagues the vignettes in other ways. The sparkle-people frequently appear as a pair in which one mildly concerned person offers perfunctory reassurance to another, somewhat more alarmed person. Rapture applies this dramatic template indiscriminately, with tiresome and sometimes bizarre results. In one scene, a citizen (alarmed person) alerts the local doctor (mildly concerned person) that an elderly friend has gone missing and might have strayed beyond the bounds of the quarantine. The doctor shrugs it off and remarks that he needs to open his office on time—because, apparently, he doesn’t want to be thrown off schedule by the disappearance and potential death of a patient. You’d think some measure of upset would be in order on the doctor’s part, but Rapture is determined to infuse this moment with the same “they didn’t know what was coming…” dread that, especially early on, is its default storytelling stance. That dread is evoked to the detriment of the characters’ humanity (and believability).
Rapture attempts to balance the empathy deficit of its trite sci-fi trappings with more down-to-earth human dramas, and these form the game’s true backbone. As you encounter the snapshots from the past, you witness episodes of emotional torment among the decent townsfolk. One of the observatory’s scientists throws his marriage into peril. A teenager pursues a forbidden love affair. Shropshire’s local busybody reveals her heart of gold. None of it is especially charged stuff; you’d think even a sleepy English hamlet could muster more scandal than this.
The impact of these prosaic fictions is blunted by the fact that every sparkle-person looks the same as the next, so it’s difficult to tell the characters apart. Presumably, this is an intentional device that compels you to listen more closely in your effort to reconstruct the town’s recent history. The gambit backfires, though, as the script’s plodding, straightforward dialogues do not benefit from an attentive ear.
That’s a recurring theme: Rapture invites scrutiny that only serves to expose its deep flaws. Your character, for instance, inches forward at a pace more typically seen in tectonic plates, which is an implicit encouragement to take care and study your surroundings carefully. That’s a nice thought, but while Rapture possesses bucolic majesty on the grand scale, it rarely stands up to close inspection. Books can’t be read. Keepsakes can’t be inspected. Most doors don’t open, and when they do, the interior of one home is indistinguishable from the next. In other words, Rapture falls victim to the same Potemkin-village effect that afflicts so many open-world games; it just has the temerity to pretend otherwise, at the expense of the player’s time.
(UPDATE, Aug. 11 9:30 a.m.: The Chinese Room published a blog post this morning to inform players that there is a “sprint” function in the game—you hold down the R2 button for a while to gradually build your speed—and to explain why the feature was undocumented in the version released to reviewers. I’ve confirmed that this works, although it would be more accurate to describe the “sprint” as simply a more reasonable walking speed. This doesn’t make Rapture’s world any less mundane, but at least traversing that world will involve a bit less agony.)
Characterizing this world as “open” might be misleading, given that Shropshire is carved up by long, impassable fences. Whenever you want to go somewhere, rest assured there will be a fence in the way. Maybe a chain fence. Or a horse fence. There are chain-link fences, too, if that’s your taste, and hedgerows also double as fences. Many fences have gates, yet most gates do not budge—they are fences in disguise. (Of course, a few gates do open, so you have to try them all.) Perhaps the local fence maker has a kickback deal with the town council. That could be the true intrigue lurking under the surface of this quest. In any case, all these barriers conspire to make exploration miserable, and exploring is the only thing to do in Rapture.
Hoary game design ideas abound. Whether they’re spouting from a glittery humanoid, a haunted telephone, or a possessed tape recorder, the characters’ speeches are just glorified audio journals—the kind that were already seen as awkward when BioShock employed them eight years ago, in a campy but more effective fashion. Some of the sparkle-people only appear after you approach a hotspot and twist your gamepad a certain way, because superfluous motion controls are apparently still a thing in 2015. (Sony might have forced this feature on the developers, as the company often demands “only on PlayStation” enhancements to its platform exclusives.) Granted, these cliches might not seem so bad because Rapture is, on the surface, a more elegant enterprise than most mass-market fare. But that just goes to show why the supposed distinction between “mainstream” and “art” games is pointless: Clumsy design is clumsy design, even when it’s backed by a string orchestra.
In the lead-up to its release, Rapture drew comparisons to Fullbright’s Gone Home, a superb 2013 game in which you snoop around a family’s vacant home to reconstruct the lives that unraveled there. Both games use spatial storytelling to build their narrative worlds fragment by fragment, but the crucial difference is that Gone Home rewards the player who seeks out small details while Rapture tends to wither under a close-up gaze.
Furthermore, Gone Home is playful at times, toying with your expectations, a contrast to the solemn self-reverence that pervades Rapture. And Fullbright’s developers simply gave themselves better material to work with, as their poignant story of adolescent self-discovery has greater force and emotional honesty than The Chinese Room’s stilted quasi-spiritual fare. Gone Home crafts a richer, more arresting tale in the space of a single house than Rapture can manage over an entire countryside. The latter game might stretch itself too thin.
It’s only fair to disclose that I didn’t finish Everybody’s Gone To The Rapture, but not for lack of trying. Having traversed all of Shropshire, I spent long chunks of last weekend on a vain effort to trigger what I presume would be the game’s ending, trudging back and forth across the map in search of whatever essential snippet of dialogue I’d missed along the way. Gone was the dancing orb of light that had previously drawn my attention to points of interest—indeed, the game seemed to forget I was there.
Then, after an increasingly desperate three-hour session of sparkle-seeking, Rapture crashed, and I gave up, unwilling to keep pretending that I cared. The screen froze on an image of a road emblazoned with the word “SLOW,” like it was mocking the torturous pace of my progress. If only Rapture had such a puckish streak, its sluggish march might have been more bearable. Instead, I found myself wishing that I could go to the rapture, too.