Everybody’s Gone To The Rapture (Rapture, from here on in) is a new game from The Chinese Room (TCR) who gave us Dear Esther (Esther). Some are calling it a spiritual successor to Esther, in that it takes the idea of a story that you find fragments of as you walk around somewhere.
Now, I’ve come to a conclusion regarding these types of ‘games’. Many people are calling them (dismissively or otherwise) ‘walking simulators’. Instead, I’m calling them ‘Explorable Stories’. These are worlds you can move around in and discover the story within the world in your own time, often in whatever order you want.
The story begins with you, in first person mode, standing by an observatory. You can’t get through the locked gates, but a small hut nearby sets you on the path to getting some clue about what’s happening. This also introduces you to one of the ways you can discover story snippets: radios.
Radios are constantly droning out a series of numbers, and when you activate them, they give a small snippet usually from one of the two main protagonists: Kate, an astronomer at the observatory.
Similarly, a ringing phone (either landline, mobile or even CB) will give you snippets, mostly from other characters.
The first piece of the story introduces you to Kate, mentions an ‘event’, and tells you that the answers are all here, just “look to the light”.
As you wander you soon find out what that means. An orb of light, apparently sucking dust particles into itself (which I call ‘black-hole orbs’) appears, and the screen advises you to use the motion sensor in the controller to ‘activate’ it. Do this, and vaguely human shaped glows appear, with swirling trails of light flowing around them.
A scene between the people represented by these glows plays out in front of you. It’s a small slice of life from these people’s lives.
Once past that, you’re introduced to the first character who’s story you ‘follow’. A moving, glowing orb representing them flows around the world. This acts as a guide, showing you where the major ‘plot points’ are. Some are the black-hole orbs that you have to activate, others just require you to be present.
As best I can tell, the guide orb leads you to all of the places where there are phones, radios or scenes. I did some wandering of my own in my first play-through, then in the second tried to follow the guide – and that seemed to work out, even if the guide did often leave me alone until I got impatient.
As each person’s ‘chapter’ ends, you’re introduced to the next person’s orb, and a new part of the village/valley.
You very quickly find that the world is devoid of people. Or any mammals. There are still birds and insects, so it’s not completely devoid of life. Of course, part of the story is finding out why that would be so. As the scenes are played out, and the messages from radios and phones are heard, you can slowly stitch the events of the days before the ‘event’ together.
Since you can walk around and explore in any direction you want (within game world limits, that is), the story often comes at you completely out of order. I actually like this as it means you’re constantly trying to mentally slot all of the different elements together and I feel more invested in the story, and the world, for that.
While there’s certainly more interaction in Rapture than in Esther, what with being able to open/close gates and doors, and having to activate radios and the like, its the activating of the black-hole orbs that draws you in the most.
You see, the first few times you have to activate them, an image of your controller comes up and hints that you have to tilt it this way and that to do so. Some activate with a tilt of the controller, others I had to ‘fight’ with, trying to work out how the hell this worked. And then it clicked.
Activating those orbs is almost like tuning a radio. You tilt the controller until you find roughly where the ‘station’ is (the orb begins to pulse and flare), then you need to move gently, slowly to ‘fine tune’ until you lock onto the ‘station’ properly, and the scene begins.
I really, really like this mechanic and I’m hoping more designers can use the motion sensors for unique interaction like this.
Adding to the story is how pretty the world is. Rapture uses the CryEngine, and it shows. Along with the expected human created structures there are fields of plants: grass, trees, bushes, flowers, weeds. Then you have rivers, brooks, ponds, lakes and waterfalls.
Then you have the lighting effects, from the orbs themselves, to the atmospheric effects of the sun’s positioning. This is highlighted by the occasional quick shift from one time of day to another, sending the sun shooting over the sky and the shadows skittering over the land.
This all helps to draw you into the world and, hence, the story. Now I’ve seen some wonderful things done for stories with minimalist graphics (I’m thinking of To The Moon here), but this story really gets a boost from the visuals. And the audio.
Not only are there the sounds you’d expect to hear such as wind, birds, gates opening and closing, speech, phones ringing and so on, but there are the other effects.
The orbs have their own staticky, sometimes jet engine like sounds as they move. Each seems to contain the scenes of the characters within it, as when it’s close you can just catch snippets of voices.
Then there’s the music which is vaguely eerie at times, triumphant at others, and always a joy to listen to. There’s not always music though, which is a good choice. Sometimes you just need the background sounds of the world, and music can be added for that extra boost.
None of this tells you about the story itself. For all of the support given to the story, is it a good one?
Truthfully, if you made this into a short story, in a linear book format, I think it would just fall into the pile of many similar stories that work off the same tropes.
However, this is a story that benefits hugely from the format. Even if you threw away a lot of the prettiness, just exploring the world to find the snippets of information (as Esther did) works well for this kind of story. Any kind of mystery story works very well when presented as short scenes – it heightens the mystery and allows the mind to muse over what’s been heard, how things fit together, and perhaps what it all means.
And the ending? Is it worth it? Kindof.
I loved the ending of Esther, except for the very, very final fade to black. Without the way that was done I think it suited the story. It didn’t answer many questions, but it tied up enough to be satisfying, while still leaving the rest of the questions on your mind.
With Rapture, I think they’ve gone too far towards the ‘explanation’ side. They don’t over-explain, and they don’t tie things up neatly, but they do give more explanation than in Esther – and I think that leads to a slight disappointment with the ending. I’m not saying it’s horrible, I’m just saying it was the largest let-down of the story. Given how much I enjoyed the game, though, that’s still a very high bar.
Would anyone else enjoy this Explorable Story? I guess that depends on whether you like the slow paced format, and whether this kind of story is to your liking. If you’re not into apocalyptic science-fiction, then you probably won’t enjoy it.
I loved it, though, and I’m again trying to find more Explorable Stories. The only thing I’d really prefer is that I could find them to ‘read’ on my Tablet as I do with many other stories. But that’s just me being picky.