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.

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