One of the things that video games can do magnificently is create worlds. These posts are an occasional exploration of games that I love because of where they take me.
This was a peculiarly English end of the world. No guns, no running and screaming, no heroes or monsters. Just nosebleeds, headaches, fear – and then the light. What remains of everyone is brightness, and voices… and the world they inhabited.
Everybody’s Gone to the Rapture is the kind of game that will receive nothing but scorn from some gamers, and I understand why. Much like Dear Esther, one of developer The Chinese Room’s earlier titles, it is closer to site-specific theatre than to typical games, offering little in the way of player agency. Playing Rapture, you walk around a bucolic Shropshire village that seems to have been deserted by its inhabitant – although as you approach the floating specks of light, you perceive echoes of scenes of village life, giving you glimpses of whatever took place that resulted in, well, everybody having gone to the rapture. Not the literal biblical Rapture, by the way: The Chinese Room haven’t made a Christian game, though arguably the story they tell is (again, very English) sci-fi through a spiritual, if not religious lens – and fittingly, while you may not have the agency, or at least the illusion thereof, that many gamers crave, you have a specific role: you bear witness, to the lives of the people that are gone and to what has happened, not just to the idyllic village of Yaughton, but to everybody.
The conversations you hear, accompanied by glimmering lights that give you an idea of the speakers, hinting at posture and body language, are obviously key to conveying what has happened. Just as important, though, is Yaughton itself. I cannot judge if its thatched roof cottages, BMX bikes, Ford Cortinas, hay bales and transistor radios are a realistic representation of ’80s rural Shropshire. With its birdsong, floating lights and utter solitude, Yaughton seems both too good to be true and uncanny, an idyllic English village by way of the Mary Celeste. Real or not, though, it is certainly one of the most believable spaces I’ve ever seen in games. Walking into one of the deserted houses, even before I’m unsettled by the signs of those who only moments earlier were still there – the Mary Celeste had its smoking pipe, the Yaughton village pub has a smoking cigarette sitting there in an ashtray – it’s the atmosphere that hits me hard, my childhood memories of holidays in the UK and day trips to the countryside. If Yaughton had a smell, it’d be the smell of gas cookers, mown grass and orange squash.
Like all computer games, the world Rapture creates is one of smoke and mirrors: Yaughton is a carefully crafted illusion, a virtual set locking you in with hedges and fences that can’t be climbed. Nevertheless, The Chinese Room have created an illusion that feels solid and real. It’s an amazing achievement in terms of level design, but that’s too narrow a perspective, to my mind; it is the interplay of visuals, writing and performance that come together to create Yaughton. More than just recreating a Shropshire village in a game engine (which at this level of fidelity would already be quite impressive), the developers fill their virtual space with hints, both visual and verbal, at the lives of those gone forever, and the interplay of these create a memorable, evocative world in miniature. Everybody’s Gone to the Rapture creates a place that exists in the space between the zeroes and ones in your computer and your imagination, and fills this place with melancholy and a sense of loss. You may be the last person alive, but you can bear witness to these lives, these lights – to a world that has ended.