Ev­ery­body’s Gone To The Rap­ture

PS4

EDGE - - GAMES - Pub­lisher De­vel­oper For­mat Ori­gin Re­lease SCE The Chi­nese Room PS4 UK 2015

Cir­cum­stances have con­spired to place us in Shrop­shire for the apoc­a­lypse. To be more spe­cific, we’re just out­side a fic­tional vil­lage called Yaughton, stand­ing on a coun­try lane a few feet from a red tele­phone box. It’s 1984, and the phone is ring­ing. We yield to our cu­rios­ity and an­swer it, only to hear a man on the other end gar­ble a mes­sage about some kind of event. It’s the end of the world and there is no­body else around. The Chi­nese Room’s pre­vi­ous two games,

Dear Es­ther and Am­ne­sia: A Ma­chine For Pigs, also sought beauty in des­o­la­tion, but men­aced with their set­tings – the iso­lated He­brides in the case of the for­mer and macabre Vic­to­rian Lon­don for the lat­ter. Ev­ery­body’s Gone To

The Rap­ture’s ru­ral West Mid­lands, how­ever, trades the out­landish for the fa­mil­iar and is im­me­di­ately more wel­com­ing, a place full of bird­song and sun-dap­pled trees sway­ing gen­tly in the breeze. But that very fa­mil­iar­ity makes the ab­sence of this re­gion’s for­mer in­hab­i­tants even more dis­qui­et­ing.

In this poignant lone­li­ness, though, there is one other sign of life aside from the birds cir­cling above: a glow­ing orb moves grace­fully through the air a lit­tle way far­ther along the road. As we ap­proach, it be­gins to move more pur­pose­fully, like an an­i­mal at­tempt­ing to en­gage a hu­man in play. “That thing that’s danc­ing around is one of the phe­nom­ena in the game,” cre­ative direc­tor Dan Pinch­beck ex­plains. “We have five of these, and they’re all unique. They de­velop a relationship with you as you go through the world.”

These AI-con­trolled pres­ences will haunt ar­eas of in­ter­est and, in a round­about way, guide you, sim­i­lar to Sir, You Are Be­ing

Hunted’s will-o’-the-wisp-like lights. “If you fol­low them, you can find [sig­nif­i­cant] places,” Pinch­beck tells us. “But what’s im­por­tant is that the player won’t go, ‘If I fol­low that, I’ll get a so­lu­tion.’ It flat­tens them to a game­play func­tion. [In­stead phe­nom­ena are] mov­ing around a space, and when they come to an ob­ject, they’ll pause. There’s an in­fer­ence of emo­tion at that ob­ject at that point.”

A lu­mi­nes­cent orb per­haps isn’t the most con­vinc­ing form for a sub­tle and pro­gres­sive game me­chanic to em­body, but Pinch­beck stresses that Rap­ture’s phe­nom­ena are works in progress. “We’re look­ing at a mod­er­ately early vi­su­al­i­sa­tion here that’s come on since

then,” he says. “I’ve been work­ing with Maarten [de Mayer], who is one of our coders, and he’s driv­ing the AI for­wards. We’ve been work­ing closely with the ef­fects artists, say­ing, ‘We know there’s a func­tional level of path-find­ing and splic­ing, in­te­gra­tion and track­ing, but the key thing about this is ex­pres­sion.’ If [phe­nom­ena] ex­press a per­son­al­ity, if they ex­press a sense of be­ing, then we’re done. Other func­tion­al­ity is sec­ondary to that; we don’t need them to do any­thing other than make you feel a con­nec­tion and the sense of be­ing in there.”

The game’s sense of place is given more weight by aban­don­ing the directed paths of The Chi­nese Room’s for­mer games. Rap­ture is an open world, al­beit a seg­mented one. Bro­ken down into several large ar­eas, the game is free to be roamed at your leisure as you try to piece to­gether a neb­u­lous sto­ry­line from snippets and clues spread around the play area. As well as phys­i­cal ev­i­dence of for­mer lives – a cig­a­rette smoul­der­ing next to an aban­doned tool kit; oxy­gen tanks left in the open boot of a parked car – you’ll en­counter ghostly echoes of past con­ver­sa­tions.

The first one we come across is be­tween a man and a woman, the lat­ter frus­trated by the for­mer’s rev­e­la­tion that his em­ploy­ers need him to work more hours due to some kind of elec­tro­mag­netic dis­rup­tion. It will mean he can’t keep a prom­ise to per­form magic tricks at his niece’s birth­day party. The con­ver­sa­tion con­tin­ues as the pair of ap­pari­tions wan­der off in the di­rec­tion we’ve come from, but we don’t hear the rest be­cause we de­cide to press on. After Dear Es­ther’s con­trolled de­liv­ery, it feels dis­con­cert­ing to be handed the power to ig­nore por­tions of story.

“Dear Es­ther was ran­domised and not many peo­ple re­alised that,” The Chi­nese Room direc­tor and com­poser Jes­sica Curry points out. “It was a dif­fer­ent ex­pe­ri­ence ev­ery time. I see Dan’s work on [ Rap­ture] as an ex­ten­sion of that. But I was deeply con­cerned that we were go­ing to throw the story un­der a bus for the sake of try­ing to do what I saw as a tech­ni­cal ex­er­cise. Ac­tu­ally, that was the wrong way round, and thank good­ness I was wrong. I sim­ply don’t know how he’s man­aged to make some­thing so com­plex fit, and you can come at it from so many dif­fer­ent an­gles and it still works on so many dif­fer­ent lev­els and it still makes sense. I was wor­ried about it at that ba­sic level of, ‘Ac­tu­ally, will the player be able to piece this story to­gether?’”

“Es­ther proved to us that play­ers are smart, and if you let play­ers be smart then they will be,” Pinch­beck says. “If you treat play­ers like they’re stupid, then you’re not let­ting them be smart and that’s not a good thing. We just treat it like a TV minis­eries, in a way. For in­stance, say we wanted to know Bob’s story – he’s not a char­ac­ter in the game, he’s just an ex­am­ple – he doesn’t need to be in the room ev­ery time for the player to un­der­stand. We can un­der­stand more of his story by hear­ing Joan and Carol talk about Bob, or even by see­ing the scratches on Bob’s car. Per­haps we hear Joan and Carol talk about when Bob hit the dog, then we see the scratch, then we

“Es­ther proved play­ers are smart, and if you let play­ers be smart then they will be”

meet Bob later. You can do those three points of story in any order and the jig­saw pieces will fall into place.”

It’s a pro­gres­sive view. But cre­at­ing what Pinch­beck de­scribes as an “ar­ti­fi­cially en­closed char­ac­ter group” only re­sulted in a script that felt like heavy-handed ex­po­si­tion. Pulling back from that has not only al­lowed for greater subtlety in Rap­ture’s story, but made room for am­bi­gu­ity and in­ter­pre­ta­tion.

“What’s been in­ter­est­ing when do­ing playtest­ing is that peo­ple lock on to dif­fer­ent char­ac­ters and re­ally en­gage with dif­fer­ent per­son­al­i­ties,” Curry says. “Some­times, it’s been re­ally sur­pris­ing – there are a cou­ple of char­ac­ters that I find per­son­ally dis­lik­able, but some­body who was go­ing through it was fix­ated on this one char­ac­ter say­ing, ‘I re­ally know them. I re­ally like them. I iden­ti­fied with them.’ The whole story then rolls back­wards from that in­ter­pre­ta­tion.

“In a way, it’s about let­ting go as a writer. What I love about games, and be­ing a writer in games, is that you can’t dic­tate

ev­ery­thing – the player will al­ways find a way of get­ting in the way of that. You’ve just got to em­brace it. If you do that, you start writ­ing with gaps in it, and you cre­ate some­thing with holes to leave room for the player to get into those holes with­out feel­ing like they’re fight­ing us to cre­ate space for them­selves within the story.”

One of Pinch­beck’s great in­spi­ra­tions, he tells us, is Hem­ming­way’s six-word short story. “It’s so un­be­liev­ably pow­er­ful in just six words. You can do an equiv­a­lent with en­vi­ron­men­tal sto­ry­telling in games, and it’s one of the most pow­er­ful tech­niques we’ve got. Lots of games use it, and in a way we’re just tak­ing on that de­sign his­tory in Rap­ture.”

But while you can piece to­gether the story in which­ever order you want, and delve as deep as you like, the game is not en­tirely freeform. Key story mo­ments – whose as­so­ci­ated lo­ca­tions dis­tort and flare when one of the me­an­der­ing AI char­ac­ters passes them – are dot­ted through­out Rap­ture’s world and must be wit­nessed in order to move the game for­ward. Though they are es­sen­tial, The Chi­nese Room’s ad­her­ence to a ‘show, don’t tell’ mantra ex­tends to these, too.

“You find these spa­ces that have these weird vis­ual phe­nom­ena in them; it’s all part of the cen­tral mys­tery of the story,” says Pinch­beck. “In these spa­ces, what’s re­ally im­por­tant to us is that when these scenes are play­ing out, you’re never just trapped lis­ten­ing to the story and wait­ing for it to fin­ish, but that there are al­ways vis­ual re­sponses to ev­ery­thing, so it re­ally makes the story con­tinue while the voiceover is go­ing.”

We en­counter one of these spa­ces dur­ing our time with the game. A farm­house sits in a wooded area at the end of a wind­ing muddy foot­path. Aban­doned wash­ing bil­lows on the line out­side, and a creeper plant grows across the front of the build­ing. When we step through the open front door, those vis­ual dis­tor­tions be­come ap­par­ent, the hall­way and rooms warp­ing and flick­er­ing in­ter­mit­tently. Framed pho­tos, or­na­ments and the mess from what looks like a quick exit of­fer glimpses into the for­mer lives of the peo­ple who lived here. And when we move up­stairs, we find the epi­cen­tre of the dis­tur­bance.

Tilt­ing the DualShock al­lows us to tune into the noise around us, mov­ing through static and snatches of dia­logue un­til we find

“What Rap­ture is about for us is that it’s not a story that can be told in an­other medium”

the sweet spot and trig­ger a voiceover. As it plays out, we move back through the house to find it changed and the dis­tur­bances gone. A shadow now falls on the wall be­hind a wheelchair left in the spare room, show­ing its oc­cu­pant slumped. Per­haps they’re just cough­ing? Maybe they’re in pain? All the draw­ers and cup­boards in the kitchen are now open, their con­tents scat­tered across the room. With­out the con­text of other per­spec­tives on the house’s oc­cu­pants, it’s dif­fi­cult to in­ter­pret what we’re see­ing, but it seems that a relationship in which one party was forced to be­come a carer was un­der strain. Pinch­beck won’t be drawn on plot de­tails, but does re­veal that the tuning me­chanic will evolve over the course of the game, start­ing off with sim­ple ex­am­ples like the one we’ve de­scribed and be­com­ing more com­plex ar­range­ments that might re­quire a se­quence of move­ments to trig­ger, or even play out mul­ti­ple scenes in the same space. Choice, then, is a cen­tral theme of

Rap­ture in much the same way that Es­ther ex­plored free will, test­ing the bound­aries of the def­i­ni­tion of a videogame in the process. Pinch­beck com­pares Rap­ture’s ap­proach to nar­ra­tive to Pac-Man: “You’re gob­bling units of story, but mak­ing the choice to do that, rather than it be­ing some­thing that the game is force-feed­ing you”. With its ghosts gen­tly nudg­ing the player in var­i­ous di­rec­tions, the anal­ogy seems like a par­tic­u­larly apt one. And draw­ing a com­par­i­son to a clas­sic ar­cade game only serves to high­light the flood of recog­nis­able videogame me­chan­ics here that were ab­sent in Es­ther (Pinch­beck cites Halo’s 30 sec­onds of fun, Stalker, Metro and RPGs as in­spi­ra­tions, too). But while Rap­ture may bear more fa­mil­iar game con­ven­tions than Es­ther, it is no less ex­per­i­men­tal than its an­ces­tor.

“What Rap­ture is about for us,” Pinch­beck says, “is that it’s not a story that can be told in an­other medium. It’s about what you can do in games that’s unique in terms of how you deal with sto­ry­telling, how the player func­tions so dif­fer­ently from the idea of a reader. For me, as a player, one of the big­gest buzzes I get from games is just be­ing in a world. It can be a lit­tle bit frus­trat­ing when you’re in those open-world en­vi­ron­ments and you get that very forced em­bed­ded lin­ear story. You could go any­where, but you have to go here, then you have to go here and do this. What if you re­ally can just go any­where – can you still have a game that has a re­ward­ing dra­matic arc to it? That feels like a re­ally in­ter­est­ing, valu­able ques­tion to be ask­ing.”

Rap­ture is am­bi­tious, but isn’t meant to ap­peal to ev­ery­one. “We tried to sat­isfy too wide of a re­mit [with Am­ne­sia],” Pinch­beck says. “As a re­sult, it wasn’t a great game for many peo­ple, and it was an OK game for others. We prob­a­bly should have stuck to our guns”

FROM TOP The Chi­nese Room’s hus­band-and­wife team of direc­tor and com­poser Jes­sica Curry and cre­ative direc­tor Dan Pinch­beck

RIGHT Rap­ture takes place over the course of one day. If you re­turn to ar­eas you’ve al­ready vis­ited, you’ll find some sub­tle changes in the en­vi­ron­ment and au­dio that re­flect the de­ci­sions you’ve made and how much of the story you’ve un­cov­ered

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