Set in Shropshire in 1984, Everybody’s Gone to the Rapture doesn’t really have your typical videogame setting, nor does it have the usual type of story. Trying to summarise what The Chinese Room’s game is about makes it sound fairly dull – it’s a rural village recreation where you eavesdrop on the inhabitants lives during a mysterious viral outbreak. In fact, playing through doesn’t actually do anything to dispel this either; you walk around listening to dialogue in a picturesque country setting. However, the beauty is in the details and the subtleties of the layered story, and these makes it one of the most unique and satisfying experiences in a very long time.
Everybody’s disappeared. It’s a bit like the beginning of Red Dwarf with Lister walking round the ship, passing piles of dust and not knowing 3 million years have passed since the crew were irradiated. You’re in that exact position, just minus the nuclear incident and the passage of eons. It all looks normal on the surface, a pleasant summer morning in a quiet little village called Yaughton, but things are obviously not right because there’s no life or sign of people or animals to be found. Coming in as an observer (the game is non-committal to your exact role), you can explore the environment, enter the houses, interact with objects, and try to understand what’s been happening here. Have all the residents really gone to the rapture?
I suppose you’re not strictly on your own in the village. There are strange dancing balls of light that guide and prompt you to investigate certain areas, with each being tied to a major character in the story; there are what can be best described as echoes of past events that you trigger when you visit key places; and there are many clues and pieces of info found in radio broadcasts and ringing phones. At no point does Everybody’s Gone to the Rapture give you a clear, chronological and concise summary of the tale, though it is all there for you to knit together as you glean pieces of information along your journey. Given that the real hook here is finding out what sci-fi event has caused this strange disappearance, a lot of your time is spent understanding the complex interactions between family members, the leading community figures, holiday makers, and new arrivals. It’s all very soap opera-esque.
Themes like lost or unrequited love, family feuds and even racism are tackled in the brief glimpses of the missing souls, all of which build to a profound sense of tragedy as the events of 6th June 1984 unfold. On more than one occasion I caught myself talking to the phantom characters on screen, telling them how badly they were reading the situation. Because the snippets you pick up are not linear from a time perspective, you find yourself in some instances knowing what’s going to happen, and consequently feeling much worse for it. It’s hard to make that kind of emotional connection in a game – a medium where the player is persistently on the outside of the action. Everybody’s Gone to the Rapture employs a unique method of engaging its audience… it simply grounds everything in realism.
Looking at a scene and feeling that it’s genuine is key to drawing a person into any story, whether that’s books, films or games. What Everybody’s Gone to the Rapture does is bring the visuals up to near photo realistic by faithfully recreating all the small things that subconsciously make you believe. I’m not sure how well that works with those folks not native to the UK, I just know that for me everything felt in the right place, even down to the fire hydrant markers on the edges of pavements. This attention to detail stops that nagging feeling that things aren’t right and frees you up to concentrate on what the developers are trying to convey to you. It’s not just a feast for the eyes (I couldn’t stop taking screenshots, hence the gallery at the bottom of this review); your ears get a treat with some of the best sound design in recent history from a team that know you need to be able to hear dialogue above background noise, and who’ve plucked out some inspired choral arrangements to punctuate the trek through the English countryside.
Is the game perfect? Very nearly, there are only two things worth mentioning. The first is the walking speed which isn’t really a problem on your first playthrough, but subsequent runs make you wish you could move a little faster. The second is stuttering in some of the more intensive areas. Out in some farmland it felt like a frame was dropped every couple of seconds as the engine struggled to load textures in. Do these ruin the experience? Absolutely not, this isn’t a game about fluid cursor lock ons or buttery smooth 60 fps, it’s about walking, listening and exploring.
Having grown up in the mid 80’s and spent many family holidays in areas very similar to the village of Yaughton, I can honestly say that the depiction of the time and place is what makes Everybody’s Gone to the Rapture so captivating. Not that you had to have done that to enjoy this, it just adds to the authenticity and pulls you deeper into the world, engaging on a level that a standard game would struggle to do. Face it, none of us have ever battled demons on the surface of Mars, but we’ve all walked through our local area wondering what’s going on in with the people we see. That’s what gets you here – it’s all so normal, and because of that it compounds the feelings of isolation, desperation, and ultimately resignation the characters have to their fate. It’s a darkly tragic tale that provokes deeper thinking than most titles; leaves an awful lot up to the player to figure out; and yet still manages to leave you wanting to go back and do it again. Pure genius.