Everybody’s Gone To The Rapture
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