Everybody’s Gone to the Rapture could be something quite remarkable – it’s easy to see why it has everyone so excited.
First announced at Gamescom 2013 and developed by Brighton-based developer The Chinese Room, Everybody’s Gone to the Rapture is slated for a PS4-exclusive release in summer 2015, by publisher Sony Computer Entertainment. We’re more than a little bit excited for this one.
The Chinese Room (named after US philosopher John Searle’s famous AI thought experiment) might be a new name to some, but they’ve been busy over the last few years. Beginning life as a University mod group and originally working in Valve’s Source Engine, their most successful Half-Life mod Dear Esther was re-built and re-released as a standalone title in 2012 to critical acclaim. An idiosyncratic example of the video game as pure art, Dear Esther takes place on an uninhabited Hebridean Island, as the player/narrator explores the island hearing fragments of his letters to the titular Esther. There are some who argue that Dear Esther isn’t really a game at all, as the player has very little interaction during their exploration – the monologic excerpts are even discovered at semi-random, and different play-throughs can cast dappled light on aspects of the story – but the experience is an astounding and powerful one, and is not quickly forgotten.
Once you know the background of the studio and the storytelling ethos of Dear Esther, Everybody’s Gone to the Rapture starts to make perfect sense. The experience is set in the most intricate, perfectly imagined game world we’ve ever seen; a vision of 1980s England and a picturesque Shropshire village resplendent in CryEngine 3. Having grown up in a very similar village environment in North Yorkshire in the 80s myself, I can confirm that The Chinese Room have absolutely nailed their environment. Something very disturbing appears to have happened, though. The player character is entirely alone. Cars are abandoned in grass verges. Kids’ bicycles are left leaning against fences. Everything looks right, but something is very, very wrong.
As the name – Everybody’s Gone to the Rapture – suggests, the entire populace appears to have been whisked off the face of the Earth. We don’t know where they’ve all gone, or indeed why, but far more unsettling is why we appear to be the only one left behind. Much like in Dear Esther, our unknown protagonist wanders through the open world, attempting to piece together the tragic events that have come to pass. Unlike Dear Esther though, Everybody’s Gone to the Rapture looks to have more structure to its environmental storytelling.
Electronic sources in perfect 80s style, are used as storytelling devices – telephone boxes, FM radios and VHS players abound – but as the player meanders at entirely their own pace through the astonishing vignette of a familiar time and place they stumble upon swirling pools of light that, when interacted with, reveal Lilliputian snippets of the events that have come to pass. Picture discovering the back-story of BioShock’s Rapture through ghostly apparitions in addition to the audio logs, and you’d be close to the mark. Exploration promises to be a tranquil, almost soporific experience, but we’re willing to wager the experiential narrative will have everyone hooked; especially if the latest, much darker trailer is anything to go by:
When building a game that is largely without action, atmosphere is the linchpin of design. Having a story that envelops with its intrigue will drag the player in, but with little scope for classic video game trickery to add challenge or longevity – timed missions, boss battles, fetch quests and their ilk – if the immersive nature of the narrative experience slips then the player can be unceremoniously dumped outside of the game’s world, and can often find it difficult to work their way back in. Developers therefore need to use every atmospheric device at their disposal, not just the visuals, to maintain the player’s momentum.
We’ve already examined how The Chinese Room have significantly over-achieved with the jaw-slackening CryEngine 3 visuals in Everybody’s Gone to the Rapture, but sound will have just as important a role to play in making the experience feel mesmeric and immersive, particularly where those environmental audio clues are all-important for retelling the story. Thankfully, the environmental audio we’ve heard thus far (on the trailer above, and IGN’s gameplay preview from last month) is superlative, but the score that accompanies Everybody’s Gone to the Rapture – written by Studio Director and Composer Jessica Curry – already looks like it’s going to be one of the stand-out features. In a title where everything already feels remarkably accomplished that’s high praise indeed, but we’re almost as excited for the soundtrack as we are for the game itself. Have a listen for yourself, and you’ll soon see why: