Everybody's Gone to the Rapture may yet be an impactful, landmark piece of storytelling in video games. But amidst the nonstop sensory assault of E3 2014, it was very, very tough to see that. Or even hear it.
For such a pensive, open-ended game that depends greatly on user interpretation, curiosity and concentration, Sony chose probably the worst place to show off the PlayStation 4 exclusive. We were behind closed doors, but the room was beside the main speaker system at PlayStation's megabooth. The hype reel boomed through the walls as we strained to hear the procedurally generated ambient sound that the developer assured us was there.
The high concept of Everybody's Gone to the Rapture also doesn't lend itself well to a hands-off demonstration, where there was a lot more telling than showing. I think we saw about 5 minutes of gameplay interspersed between 30 minutes of explanations. The game deserves a do-over demo, because it is genuinely intriguing. Maybe it would be best to watch the trailer that was launched today and form your own impressions.
My impression was that I desperately wanted to see more of what The Chinese Room is putting together, just under more favorable circumstances. Everybody's Gone to the Rapture touches on an ages-old daydream — what if you were the only one left on Earth? This game doesn't seem to indulge the kind of consequence-free landscape that implies — no going into people's homes and raiding their fridge. You may go anywhere you wish but the game wants you to learn about the people caught up in whatever event took them all away.
"There is no fail state," Dan Pinchbeck, of The Chinese Room, told the assembly. "The only fail state for us is the player doesn't care."
In that regard, Everybody's Gone to the Rapture is succeeding for now. I definitely care, enough to be frustrated by the circumstances under which I saw it.
Set in the United Kingdom in 1984, the game began with the player (in a first-person perspective) standing by the road of a rural English countryside. A call box was ringing. Pinchbeck answered it and the voice on the line seemed to desperately, if obliquely, describe something bad had happened (or was happening). Up ahead, a glowing ball paced up and down the road, seeming to encourage the player to follow it. Pinchbeck said this ball is one of five AI characters with whom the player should end up forming a relationship, as he or she becomes interested in the stories to which they are led.
As we followed, we encountered ghostly blurs on a bridge — a father and mother who were gently arguing over the father missing their daughter's birthday. He too gave a hint of something bad coming — apparently an engineer, his job required him to work the weekend because of some upcoming cosmic storm that might create electromagnetic disruption. The shapes left the bridge, continuing to talk.
"The only fail state for us is the player doesn't care."
"It's up to you to follow them, if you like," Pinchbeck said. These conversations, however, are only going to happen once. You can't return to the location, re-trigger the encounter, and follow the discussion all the way to the end. If you've heard enough, fine, move along. Realize this is a mystery game, and the point — as I perceived it, anyway — is not necessarily to solve what happened, much less to reverse it, but to discover what happened in the lives of the people who were taken away.
"The world is completely nonlinear; we don't have any control over where they go, when they experience the story, how long they spend in areas," Pinchbeck said. "And the challenge for us as storytellers is what do you do with that, how do you make sure each player still has a compelling dramatic experience."
What Pinchbeck described, to me, sounded like a storytelling engine that could generate numerous different narratives that all still follow a major theme. A lot will depend not only on how much you see and perceive, but also when and in what order.
A good example: After wandering through a garden, and then woods, we approached a home. In a hatchback car parked outside were dozens of books and what appeared to be a few oxygen canisters. My impression was this was some kind of eccentric survivalist payload. Venturing inside, though, we saw a wheelchair. Then we stepped into a rip in time, which revealed a one-sided argument (I think? Again, hard to hear) involving a man screaming at someone named Amanda. Returning to present day, we stood in a filthy kitchen, two oxygen bottles leaning against the wall, and again the empty wheelchair. This was obviously a very strained care-giving relationship.
The assumptions could take on a different dimension if their components are consumed in a different order. Pinchbeck also said that the game will shift through varying times of day, and whether you experience something in morning or late afternoon may also supply some subtle different meaning to what you perceive.
It sounds like a storytelling engine that could generate numerous different narratives.
In terms of gameplay, people shouldn't expect much in the way of action, because Everybody's Gone to the Rapture is so committed to telling a story above all. There is one element that makes good use of the DualShock 4. For some of the time anomalies encountered, players may "tune" how they "listen" to what is coming from them, much like a radio, by tilting the controller left or right. Holding it in a proper location will reveal the audio, and there could be multiple conversations within one of these. Pinchbeck demonstrated this for us with an anomaly in a field outside the home, but again, it was a struggle to hear the words.
Setting the game in the UK in 1984 was a specific narrative choice, Pinchbeck said, recalling a time before the Internet and mobile devices when people were much more connected to the larger world and thus things experienced in far off places were felt and reacted to at home. The information isolation of that era drives the focus more toward the personal experiences of those going through it. "There was a parochial attitude about the world then," Pinchbeck elaborated, and I get that completely. If one's primary means of learning about this world is eavesdropping on conversations, then a simple radio or call box will do, rather than reading someone's email or watching a self-recorded video. It also keeps the designers from having to account for how this sort of thing would unfold in a constantly aware global society.
The Chinese Room is the studio behind Dear Esther, another narrative video game in which players assembled a story from fragments to arrive at a very personal conclusion. Everybody's Gone to the Rapture is very much a spiritual successor, though one built with a team of 13 as opposed to 3. Sony's Santa Monica Studio is assisting with production, QA and feedback, but Pinchbeck insists they remain as committed to the artistic integrity of the game as they are.
But this is E3, and it may have been a little too much to ask a quiet, thoughtful game like Everybody's Gone to the Rapture to state its case with Shooty McBro thundering through the wall. I may not have seen or perceived everything it can offer, but I did see something that deserved better than that.