Stu Attempts – Everybody’s Gone to the Rapture Critique

I thought of several ways to start this critique.  It was tempting to tear straight into the game but I thought that in doing so any of the good things that I should say about the game would be lost, so my thinking is to start off with the positives.

The Chinese Room have developed a knack for creating believable spaces.  The village is so realistically designed that I would not be surprised if it were modelled after a real area.  Yaughton is a proper English local town, picturesquely set.  A lot of time and effort must have been taken to design the space in a believable way, the space and area of the town feels right.  The number of buildings and amenities also feel right.

Graphically, the game has a great art direction.  It doesn’t feel like the ultra-realistic attempt that they made with Dear Esther, it feels softer in the choice of colour palette.

Outside of the main story arc, the individual side stories are well presented.  It was interesting to find out little pieces of back story, figure out who people were and how they fit into life around Yaughton.

So that’s the good stuff.

I went through a bit of a roller coaster with Everybody’s Gone to the Rapture, which is something that I haven’t seen other reviewers come up with.  Every moment I was hating something was almost equally, well apart from the logical leap required, balanced by something enjoyable.

So, let’s get the first elephant out of the room.  I’m a couple of hundred of words in and I haven’t mentioned the walking speed.

As with Dear Esther this is obnoxiously slow.  The developers have made some small nod to this by including a run button.  Except that this is only marginally faster than the normal movement speed.  Added to this is the fact that you cannot run indoors.  On checking the settings menu, the game states that running is not recommended, you will miss important details. Spoiler warning, but I think my end conclusion is that The Chinese Room are not comfortable with games as a medium.  There is no reason for hamstringing the player from moving faster indoors, then waiting for the player to clear the building by a few feet before allowing any acceleration.

The game touts itself as a mystery, this is stated on the blurb in the Steam store page.  The player is dropped into the world about half an hour after it has ended and you need to figure out the mystery of the apocalypse.  Which, as a side note, must be the neatest apocalypse I have seen portrayed.  How typically British.

The problem here is that there is no mystery, not really.  The games title gives everything away.

  • Where is everybody? Gone to the rapture
  • How did the world end? The rapture
  • What happened in the last days? The rapture

Any sense of mystery the game was trying to set up is undone by its title.  Now in researching for this script, I had to see if there were differing opinions out there.  Could it have been aliens, a virus, military technological experiments?  No, it’s the rapture.

What you are is an observer to people’s lives post event.  The discovery is to figure out who these people were, how they were connected and what their state was.  Where this was away from the main story, this was genuinely interesting.

If the game had been called The Mystery of Yaughton or The Vanishing of Yaughton, just be glad I’m not a game designer with titles like those(!), then there could have been more of an ambiguous question to answer but as the answer is provided up front, it kills the game.

Aliens can’t have taken people, because they have gone to the rapture.  Virus?  Rapture.  You get my point.

The real mystery is why Yaughton has no sodding door handles.  For a village so beautifully realised, taking away door handles stands out as a bizarre choice.  Also, why are some doors able to be opened and some not?  It’s not like they were boarded up, destroyed or barricaded by masonry or other forms of blockage.

The game wants to waste your time with decisions like these, something backed up by the developers’ attitude to the achievements.  The game has eighteen achievements in total and I was somewhat surprised to have found that I had only unlocked one when I had finished the game.

There are collectables, reading all the books, finding all the chads, reading all of the maps which are fine and pretty standard fare in games.  Less fine are those that are designed simply to waste your time, don’t touch the controls for five minutes, do this for two minutes, walk in and out of a building an inordinate amount of times, wait here for so many minutes etc.

I doubt that anyone would have figured out the time-wasting ones on their own so I can only think that the developer wanted people to go to the achievements menu to see what was going on.  It seems like a huge risk of aggravating the player if they didn’t naturally want to play through for a second time by making these cumbersome to get.  None are difficult, unless you count the walking speed as part of the difficulty.

The main story is fine, Stephen and Kate are well realised.  Stephen is, and forgive me for being crude, a giant egotistical prick.  Kate is the one that the player may be naturally sympathetic to.  I believe that she may be the only black character in the village although admittedly I might have misinterpreted the dialogue when that was revealed but she is certainly far from home.

Kate has a nice story arch.  She comes to the village as a stranger, must put up with Stephen, is treated with some suspicion by the locals and traps herself into figuring out what is going on.  Having discovered the pattern, the name given to the mystery for what it is, she accepts her fate.

Stephen is a giant prick start to finish.  He believes that the pattern is a deadly form of life and once the village is in quarantine, arranges for the remaining inhabitants other than himself to be destroyed by the way of nerve gas.  Believing that the pattern will take him over, he soaks himself in gasoline in his bunker and dies in the resulting fire.  During all this he has somewhat of a redemptive moment by thinking that the pattern could not know it is doing harm.

I have glossed over a lot of little intricacies with the story both arcs are more complicated than as presented but a lot of that is down to the more interesting back stories.  This is probably the main crime of the game; the back stories or side plots are far more interesting that the main game itself.  It has one pace, you are passively observing events and no, tuning in balls of light like you would a radio does not count.  They are just a trigger for a cut scene.

The ending is fine and makes sense within the concept of the story presented.  Kate is rewarded for her research and understanding whereas Stephen is essentially punished for his lack of understanding and being a prick.  I had seen some criticism for the ending but to me, the main point of contention should be what happens shortly before.

The game requires such a leap of logic or pure ignorance on the part of the player and I thought it best described in short bullet points:

  • Kate and Stephen arrive in Yaughton
  • They discover the pattern
  • People and birds are effected and die or disappear
  • Kate continuously studies it
  • Stephen arranges the quarantine
  • Stephen convinces the government to nuke nerve gas the town
  • Stephen hides in a bunker, has a realisation then gets burnt alive
  • Kate realises what the pattern is and accepts her fate
  • Everybody’s gone to the rapture

It’s a pretty large logical leap to think that one man could get in touch with the government and persuade them to nuke nerve gas the town.  One man.  No one thought to send any scientists or the military or hell, scientists with the military to look at and assess the situation?  The bureaucratic hoops that a democratic government would have to go through to arrange a strike on their own citizens is mind boggling.

Nope all it takes is one unstable citizen apparently.

What is so frustrating is that the story doesn’t need the nuke nerve gas.

  • Kate and Stephen arrive in Yaughton
  • They discover the pattern
  • People and birds are effected and die or disappear
  • Kate continuously studies it
  • Stephen arranges the quarantine
  • Having realised that people are still dying despite his best efforts, Stephen hides in a bunker, has a realisation then gets burnt alive
  • Kate realises what the pattern is and accepts her fate
  • Everybody’s gone to the rapture

The realisation that everyone that he knew and presumably holds dear is dead and he hasn’t been able to affect the outcome of that event should be enough character motivation for Stephen to have a mental break.  The nuking nerve gassing of the town does nothing to push the story forward.

The pacing is also an interesting problem that the story has and without redesigning the whole experience, I don’t know what can be done to fix it.

The player is experiencing events almost as if they are being played back in a recording and because of that no sense of urgency or escalation can be placed on the player.  The player has no agency.  So, the net effect is that the main story is delivered with the same gravity as the side stories and in my mind, enforces the fact that the side stories are more interesting than the main game because there would be no expectation of urgency or escalation.

I realise that my problems with this game have far outweighed any praise that I initially gave it.  I want to be clear that Everybody’s Gone to the Rapture is a far more engaging experience than Dear Esther ever was.

The fact that there were times that I was engaged, albeit not on the main story, is in my opinion a step forward.  I also realise that I criticised Dear Esther for having no gameplay something that I have not addressed here.  Make no mistake, Everybody’s Gone to the Rapture is still gameplay light but because this is primarily an exploration game and it is possible for the player to not find large parts of the story.  One of the achievements is to get to the bunker section of the game without resolving any other plot arcs.  To my mind then, there is enough interaction here to justify calling it a game.

My overall feeling is that The Chinese Room are still trying to get comfortable with games as a medium.  If you watched a playthrough of Dear Esther on YouTube, you have experienced that title.  The involvement of the player has no bearing on the experience.

It is possible to get the same feeling from Everybody’s Gone to the Rapture, much less so than Dear Esther but it is there.  For me, I think it important that The Chinese Room look at interactivity in their next title and try to remove completely, the possibility that someone looks at a let’s play on YouTube and either gets the full experience or very close to.

I will, though, be paying attention to whatever The Chinese Room do next.

The Stanley Parable

Let us suppose for a moment that you were going to a comedy club.  When you got there, you worked out that there was only one act, with one subject.  The act is good and well-presented but you should feel free to leave at any time, once you have had your fill of the often-repeated joke.

That is where I have gotten to with The Stanley Parable and I think that is the point of the experience.  The player should jump off, ideally, one joke or meta experience before they have had enough so that they retain positive impressions of the game.  Stay too long and the law of diminishing returns comes into play.

The Stanley Parable alludes to being a meta experience about a man named Stanley and the drudgery of a corporate working environment, always doing what you are told.

In reality, I think it is a more of a meta experience about how much the player can put up with.  Looking at the Steam achievements gives some hint to this.  One achievement is to not play the game for five years and another to play for the entire duration of a Tuesday.  I realise that some messing around with your computers clock will gain you these achievements easily but taken at face value, I think they should where the developer was really heading.  The commentary is not about office life as presented but the developers viewpoint on the state of the video game experience.

The overall meta commentary?  I could take or leave it.  I would imagine most players are conditioned to test the boundaries of their existence within the title that they are playing.  If you don’t routinely do so, The Stanley Parable might be an eye-opening experience for you.

The Stanley Parable is a fairly marmite experience, you’ll either love it or hate it.  Players who figure out quickly that the point is to misbehave and not do as you are told will likely get the hook of the game quickly and test the boundaries of what is possible within the experience.

As a side note, I do wonder if there were any players who went through the game just doing what the narrator told them to do, got to the end and turned the game off not knowing what the experience was supposed to be.  In that sense, it was a fairly brave design decision as a lot of game developers and publishers have a projected fear of missing out on behalf of the player.  I suspect though, that having got through this relatively short experience of doing what you are told, most people would be tempted to have another go and see what happens when the other door is picked.

The central hooks for the player are the narration and the element of discovery.

The narration itself is going to be another Marmite element.  Not everyone is going to get along with the sarcastic British delivery and the writing.  That seems like a redundant statement, not everyone will like everything but what I mean in this context is if you really don’t like the narrator it is likely going to make you uninstall the game.

If you can tolerate it, or even love it.  There are plenty of excellently delivered monologues and one-liners.  I would head back to my initial point here as well, jump off one line before it gets too much and you will retain a more positive impression looking back.

The element of discovery is probably the main draw of the game and there are some genuinely surprising moments to be had.  Discovering the Minecraft Easter egg was a great and surprising moment.  I don’t want to say too much about discoveries because if you have either listened or read this far, you might have decided if this is something that takes your fancy.

If, though, you are not certain about the game there is a standalone demo that does not spoil any of the main game experience.  The narration and the sense of discovery are the same here so if you are on the fence about committing to a purchase, I would recommend giving this a try.

The last point I want to cover is the question of if it is a game.  You could perhaps label this as a walking simulator and you would not be wrong to think of it in that genre.  Playing through once or twice might lead to a criticism there is not enough gameplay to match the narration.  Unlike Dear Esther, where there are no branching paths and you need to use your imagination to fill in the ambiguous gaps, the game here is to discover as many endings as possible, again to my earlier point of how much the player can put up with.

Ultimately, for me, I probably stayed far too long in the experience and didn’t jump off as early as I should.  Replaying The Stanley Parable for the purposes of this critique did bring back some good memories but also reminded me of the, to me, fatal flaw of staying too long.  If The Stanley Parable strikes a chord with you, I can recommend it as a very rich experience.

 

Depression Quest Script

I am going to state upfront that I am aware of the historical controversy of the main developer behind this title.  I am going to critique this title on its own merits.  So, if you are looking for any kind of commentary on the developer or gamer gate, it will not be present here and you can safely switch off now.

Depression Quest is sold, for free, as an interactive fiction game. You may better think of this as a choose your own adventure game.  Depression Quest piqued my interest because of this.  I have many fond memories of the choose your own adventure books that I played in my childhood.  Particularly the Fighting Fantasy books by Steve Jackson and Ian Livingstone.

I feel the need to also state that my original script for this game tore it to pieces.  I could not see any value to the game and felt that it had, in some way, stomped all over my childhood.  I used to think that those reactions to reboots of media were complete hyperbole.  Indeed, despite being a childhood fan of generation one Transformers, I did not have that reaction to the Michael Bay films.  I think they are terrible but I guess I was glad in some way that there was just more Transformers.

I originally had such a strong reaction because the game does a very poor job of showing what depression is like for someone who has not suffered.  On reviewing the Steam store page now, I can see that this is one of two stated aims for the game.  In full, those two aims are:

  • To show other sufferers of depression that they are not alone in their feelings
  • To illustrate to people who may not understand the illness the depths of what it can do to people

From research and absorbing other critiques of the game, I saw that it resonated with people who have, or have had depression.  They could identify with what was going on with the story and see how it applied to their own situations.

For this reason, I can no longer say that the game is without merit.  I think now, the game achieves one of its goals very well based on other people’s testimony but does not show, or go far enough to someone without the experience of depression.

This is perhaps best illustrated by my general approach.  I tend to treat choose your own adventures and role playing games in general, similarly to how I approach role playing games the first time through.  I make choices as close to what I would do in real life and see where I end up.  I am aware of the potential absurdity of this given that a lot of these choices are present in some kind of fantasy world and I have about as much experiencing wielding a sword and shield as I do launching fireballs out of my hands.  What I mean to say is that given an approach like lawful, evil or chaotic, I will tend to follow my own morality.

If the game grabs my attention for a second play through, I will attempt to play something I am not.  I might think up a specific character archetype and play to that.  I have no personal frame of reference for depression and picking what I deemed to be the worst options on an initial play through, seemed a little childish.  I also do not think that was the intention of the developer.

This approach did not help me on my first play through.  I made the choices that I would make.  So, I spoke with my partner, sought medical help and got counselling.  The depression got more manageable throughout the game and whilst there does not appear to be a cured state, it seemed to be the “best” ending.  Thus, I did not gain any insight.

My next play through, I did the complete opposite.  I made what I thought would be the bad choices and the game tried to show me via striking through dialogue choices, making the audio track glitch and a greater presence of static imagery at the bottom of the screen that these choices were having a deepening effect.

The striking out of options bothered me in the sense that they forcibly lead you down one path and seems to trivialise the choice.  In some passages, there will be multiple options but only one being available.  The audio and graphical clues were subtle, do not directly affect the gameplay but are an illustrative touch.  In my opinion, this would have been better handled by having more branching paths throughout the game.  So, rather than eliminate options, replace them completely with more context relevant scenarios.  You could counter this by saying well, that’s the point you don’t have a choice, you should be aware of the choice but not be able to enact it.

It could be that I am an idiot and not capable of grasping what the game is trying to tell me but to fix this game for me, I would have liked to have seen more information.  A sliding morality style meter may be a bit too gamey but a greater emphasis on graphical and visual clues, the deeper you go into the condition would have got the point across stronger.  Perhaps interactive links to medical resources would have been useful too.  I accept that these can take you out of the experience but maybe they could have been bookmarked in some way in game for review later.  I am particularly thinking about the medication that is offered in the story.  I understand that there can be fear or reluctance to taking medication but I do not know why.

In summary, I could only recommend Depression Quest to someone who already suffers or has suffered.  It does not do enough for non-sufferers to really understand what the condition is.  That said the game is free and if you are a regular reader, by that I mean read regularly as a hobby, each play through should only take 15 minutes.

Dear Esther Script

I want to say upfront that I do not understand the critical reception that Dear Esther received.  I feel that this is important to state so that there is an understanding of where I am coming from.  It is not that I did not understand what I was experiencing from a story or mechanical perspective, rather that I did not understand how what I was experiencing formed a coherent gaming narrative.

Consider the following quotes from critic reviews:

  • “Dear Esther completely changes the language in which we communicate with a video game; it is an interactive experience whose notion of interactivity demands much more from the players than they are used to.”
  • “One of the most haunting and well-executed titles of this or any other generation.”
  • “Play this just for yourself and try to see where things might go from here. The possibilities are endless and almost completely unexplored.”

Take the first quote.  “Dear Ester changes the language in which we communicate with a video game.”

I simply cannot fathom where the critic was coming from other than this was possibly the first, most striking example of a walking simulator.  In this case, why not simply state that this is representative of an emerging genre?

There is nothing new about the way the player will interact with Dear Esther.  Indeed, anyone familiar with a first-person perspective game will be immediately familiar with what is on offer.  Press “w” and use your mouse to look around.  Unless this was a parody comment referring to the fact that almost all elements of interactivity have been stripped away from the player.

Consider in the first moments, the player is likely to enter the building to look around.  In my first play through, a bird or bat flew out, control was removed from me and the character ducked.  You are not permitted to have your own natural reaction to the events.  Consider also, that on another playthrough, I did the same action but this time there was no bird or bat but the player character reacted anyway.  Had there been no reaction, I might have considered this a cool moment.  Instead, it served to remind me of the disconnect between the experience and the narrative.  An example of ludonarrative dissonance if you will, an experience where there is a conflict between narrative and gameplay.  I have not explored it, but consider if I had experienced that situation in reverse.  No event but the player character ducking anyway.  To me, a player would likely consider that a bug within the game.

That Dear Esther is haunting is something that I could not deny.  The island is dripping with atmosphere and the narrator at times, adds to this greatly.  It is one of the best examples that I can think of the atmosphere being so closely aligned with the graphical fidelity on display.  That Dear Esther is well executed is something that I cannot support.

Players are likely to take the same route around the island, they may notice something that they did not spot before, likely the appearance of the ghosts but there is only one path through.  The narration, though, is somewhat randomised.  That this could be considered well executed is pure nonsense.  Players could have multiple run throughs of Dear Esther and not be certain that they have heard the full story.

“The possibilities are endless and almost completely unexplored.”  This is either hyperbole to the extreme or the ultimate parody.  There is one possibility, you will start at the dock and end at the tower.  The goal of the player is one of the first things that they will notice and aside from the caves, will generally be visible in the form of a flashing red light throughout the experience.  Sure, you can head down dead ends and these are obnoxious in their own right, but there are no barriers to completion and this draws me on to the main complaint and one that I am sure will be familiar to most gamers.

This is not a game.

Probably not shocking to anyone with any kind of history playing games but in 2012 it won an originality award for best action/adventure game.

Consider the following 2012 action games:

  • Max Payne 3
  • Darksiders 2
  • Assassins Creed 3

Consider the following 2012 adventure games:

  • Deponia
  • Walking Dead
  • The Amazing Spider-Man

I picked those six titles from a quick google search.

I have a loose definition of what constitutes a game.  There only need be a barrier to completion.  So, you could lack the skill to progress in a first-person shooter, get stomped by that boss in Dark Souls, not win the race or solve the puzzle.  Gameplay can be as light or heavy as needed but there needs to be a barrier for the player to overcome.

No barriers exist in Dear Esther and this experience has stuck with me ever since my original purchase several years ago, I recall being angry at my Steam purchase and this being the first title in over 30 years of gaming that I was angry that I had purchased.  Sure, there have been numerous titles that I have been disappointed in but none that I was angry parting with money for.  Having been tagged with the action/adventure tag, and having the three plus decades of gaming under my belt at this point, I had, perhaps unfairly, had a certain expectation of what I was to experience.  Puzzles to solves, hazards to traverse or some form of conflict to overcome.

Dear Esther is full of symbology and how much you spot will depend on your appetite for careful exploration.  The first two that players will likely find are the chemical symbology in the first building and the Fibonacci spiral drawn in the sand.  Later, it is possible to spot bible verses and circuit diagrams.  This design choice can be empowering, the player can feel smart for recognising the symbol but it also has the danger of making the player feel like an idiot for not being able to recognise what is displayed.  It also has the danger of completely taking the player out of the experience completely.  Consider that you were so curious that you wanted to find out what the chemical symbol was or what that bible passage meant.  The player would have to pause or leave the game and do their own research.  The experience that you would get from this is completely separate from the game.

What Dear Esther should have done is meet the player half way, perhaps in the form of an interactive pop up that would display what the symbol is or a full except of the bible passage.  Such a feature could be enabled or disabled during each play through and as the intention is that players are supposed to play this multiple times, is keeps the experience within the experience.  Even developer commentary would have been preferable.

I know that the counter point to this is that not everyone likes to be spoon fed or that some peoples intelligence would be insulted or maybe, that the experience becomes overly bloated and takes away from the developers intentions.  It leads to the argument that whatever you take away from the experience, is well, what you take away from the experience.  If you however alienate your audience or they don’t derive any deeper meaning or enjoyment from the experience then that’s a fault of game design.

Consider The Matrix film.  If you want to derive deeper meaning from the symbology and messages, then that’s available to you.  If you just want to experience a stylised action film then that experience is there as well and you can also take a best of both worlds, enjoy the symbology and the action.  The audience is met halfway.

No such accommodation is made in Dear Esther.  If you don’t enjoy the symbology, there is nothing else available to you.

This leads me on to the narration.  As mentioned earlier, this is somewhat randomised.  I have read online that it can take up to eight attempts to experience the full script.  I have read the full script, available online that clocks in at around 7,800 words.  I think I got lucky on my first experience, the script seemed to flow and the narration appeared to be consistent in tone.  On subsequent playthroughs this was less apparent.  The narration would at times speed up, become more urgent before immediately settling down.  There did not appear to be any reason for this and was quite jarring.

Overall, the narration adds to the atmosphere of the island and generally the experience.  It is well read, clearly spoken and the only issue that I have is that it is far too flowery, exceedingly so.  It could be argued that this experience should be like that of a poem and whilst that argument would have some merit, poems are not action/adventure award winning video games.

I cannot discern any good reason for the narration being randomised.  You could say that this encourages multiple experiences but what the player experiences is not being tracked on anyway.  That also places a burden on the player.  If the eight playthroughs is accurate, then at forty five minutes a time, the player is looking at six hours of game time.  Is it really the intention that the player is expected to remember all the passages that they have experienced over that amount of time?  Surely it would not have been too difficult to incorporate a tracker of some description to check off passages that have been experienced.

It seems to be a disservice to not briefly summarise what I think the point of the story is.  My first thought was that the island represents limbo and the character is reconciling events of the car crash before moving on to the next stage of their existence.  The seemingly confusing nature of the narration is the attempt of a dying mind to pull and make sense of their thoughts.

So how would I have “fixed” Dear Esther?  My main complaint is the lack of gameplay.  Enemies do not make sense in this world and introducing jumping or other physical challenges also would not thematically fit into the world.  I would have simply introduced light puzzle elements.

The letters to Esther are already an established part of the world.  I would have made them an optional collectable item, say twenty of them.  As the paper boat armada is near the end of the experience, I would have had the character add all letters collected to the fleet perhaps earning additional content in the form of narration or an additional ending scene at the credit.  Sure its gameplay light and hardly revolutionary but it’s a simple, established hook already present in the world.  Players are rewarded for more time and exploration but not punitively punished if they would rather just have the core experience.

To sum up.  I had a better experience with Dear Esther after some years and coming back to it for the purposes of this critique.  This was though, because I understood the experience I was heading into so I did not have the “where is the gameplay” questions running through my head and was able to let the experience of the island flow.  I think the Steam store page is more representative now of what the experience is but I cannot shed the thought that there was somewhat of a bait and switch going on.  I have seen this justified online with people stating that Dear Esther would not have got any traction had it truly represented what it was.

This idea though, is very anti-consumer and whilst not the most egregious of practises seen on Steam, it saddles the title, at least in its early days with a damaged reputation.

I am aware that the developers have created a spiritual successor, Everybody’s Gone to the Rapture.  I am tempted to give that a try and see, with the Dear Esther experience if the developer has changed the formula, introduced any gameplay elements or if it is more of the same.

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