Everybody’s Gone to the Rapture is the latest game from The Chinese Room, a confusingly named development company known for Dear Esther and Amnesia: A Machine for Pigs. I never played their Amnesia game, but having gone through Dear Esther and more recently Rapture I can solidify my prior notion that The Chinese Room is at the forefront of an unfortunate trend in modern gaming.
The thesis upon which I built this blog is that the most important aesthetic attribute of video games is interactivity and therefore if video games are to evolve as an artistic medium, they must continue to incorporate meaningful connections between narratives and mechanics. The Chinese Room also appears to recognize that video games are a fascinating artistic medium with great potential, but their aesthetic philosophy on video games is seemingly the exact opposite of my own. Rather than experiment with new means of fostering interactivity, The Chinese Room prefers to strip as much interactivity out of their games as possible, until the point where their products are arguably not even games at all.
Unlike Dear Esther, I actually liked the story in Rapture. The core premise is great, the characters are well-rounded, the voice acting is excellent, and I genuinely enjoyed discovering all of the little connections between the many characters who populate the game’s rural English town. But despite all of that, there was one massive question which lingered over Rapture in my mind:
Why is Everybody’s Gone to the Rapture a video game?
For those who haven’t played the game, Rapture tells the story of two scientists in a small English town who accidentally discover an alien being made out of pure energy which proceeds to infect the townsfolk, thereby causing them to get sick and eventually disappear. The narrative also covers the relationships between more than a dozen individual townsfolk in the build up to, and during the primary story events.
However, the story is not presented to the player by allowing him or her to control any of the townsfolk or really anyone actually related to the events of the story. Rather the player controls an unknown entity (it isn’t even clear if it is human) who walks (at a painfully slow speed) through the town after the events have already taken place and everyone is gone. The player experiences the narrative by following floating balls of light (who are implied to be or represent particular characters) and watching shimmering light particles form rough outlines of non-interactive cutscenes.
Aside from opening a few doors and occasionally using the PS4 controller touch pad to activate the light particles, the player does nothing but walk, look, and listen throughout the entire game. There is no win state, no lose states, no combat, no inventory management, no branching narrative choices, no collectibles, and nothing which resembles gameplay or promotes any sort of connection between the player and the narrative the game is presenting.
To be clear, I am not entirely opposed to the “walking simulator” genre. Gone Home is one of my favorite games of the last few years, and the best current example of how minor mechanical elements and framing devices can elevate an otherwise sterile narrative. Gone Home had an integral player-protagonist who pieces together the mystery of her family by exploring an unfamiliar environment littered with familiar objects which provide explicit and implicit clues as to the nature of the events she missed while away from home. Rapture has the player control an unknown non-entity who slowly walks around a large town with the guidance of weird orbs of light, and watch hard to follow cutscenes play out-of-order. Despite both games being heavily-narrative focused, Gone Home uses its mechanics to make the player feel like he or she is living the story, while Rapture has so little concern for the player, that the developers didn’t even bother giving the player and actual in-game identity.
Given that The Chinese Room doesn’t let or ask the player to do anything in Everybody’s Gone to the Rapture, why did they think Rapture’s story was better suited to a video game than a movie, a book, a graphic novel, or even a TV show? How does walking through an empty town and watching blurry cutscenes out of chronological order add anything to the player’s experience of the story?
I can’t think of any legitimate reason for such a decision, other than The Chinese Room’s apparent belief that the most profound video games are those which least resemble games. This aesthetic philosophy is both similar and different to that of thatgamecompany, the creators of Flower and Journey. Both companies seem to agree that pretentious vagueness is a key component to aesthetic value, but at least thatgamecompany wants to make actual games, albeit ones with excessively simple mechanics. The Chinese Room, on the other hand, doesn’t seem to be concerned with mechanics at all.
Of course, I’m not the first person to ask why The Chinese Room’s games needed to be games. Here is a good analysis of Dear Esther based on the same idea. But unfortunately, many critics seem to have fallen into the same trance that Journey put them into, by confusing pretensions of artistry for genuine artistic merit. At least I can take solace in the fact that Rapture was not quite as well received as Journey, with the former garnering a 78 on Metacritic (which is around slightly above average by inflated video game review standards), while the later was hailed as one of the best games of the year and still resides near the top of the PS4’s “highest rated” list.
While I’m complaining about Rapture, I have to throw out one petty complaint which I haven’t seen anywhere else: I hate the game’s name. Everybody’s Gone to the Rapture is a terrible title. It is playful, if not sarcastic, but the game’s narrative is extremely serious, if not out-right dark. Based on the title alone, I would think Rapture is a light side-scroller or a fun flash game, not a “serious art game” about people finding their loved ones as they fall sick and burst into flames. But the title’s biggest problem isn’t even its tonal discrepancy; its worst sin is that it is a spoiler! Rapture’s slowly unfolding story would be far more interesting if the player had no idea what the crazy light disease was, instead of being clued into its true nature before even starting the game.
Despite all of my negative thoughts on Rapture, I have to admit that I basically enjoyed the game. I really did like the story, and it has some wonderful imagery which is especially meaningful to me (I’ve always been fascinated by light and fire). The narrative is confusing, but compelling and occasionally rewarding, unlike the incoherent mess presented in Dear Esther. When I wasn’t frustrated at having to walk another absurdly long stretch of road at a cripple’s pace, I was actually enjoying watching the apocalyptic tale unfold in a beautiful English countryside.
Yet I still can’t consider Rapture to be a good video game. I enjoyed the story presented within the game, but disliked all of the game’s mechanical aspects (to the extent that they even existed). Analogously, I might enjoy the story formed by words written on a series of canvases, but just writing words on a canvas does not result in a good painting.