Note: Since time of writing, this game has been ported and re-released on PC. This review is based on the original PS4 version.
It’s a beautiful summer’s day as you stroll down a winding road into the village of Yaughton. At your back are gigantic astronomy observatories. Ahead are English cottages, their flower beds and trellis roses showcasing the local passion for gardening. The center green has a bubbling stream and a handy map announcing that “You are here.” Oddly, no one but you IS here, and that is just the beginning of Yaughton’s conundrums and eccentricities. Orbs zoom about, leaving contrails like miniature comets. You hear conversations emitted by swirling lights that form into human outlines. Quarantine signs are nailed to front doors. Outside the local doctor’s office you find blood stains and a recording of the physician’s voice, calmly dictating the bizarre symptoms he is experiencing.
Welcome to Everybody’s Gone to the Rapture, a PS4 exclusive from The Chinese Room, the developers of Dear Esther. In case you’re unacquainted with the term, the “rapture” is an event associated with the biblical apocalypse, when “we shall all be changed, in a moment, in the twinkling of an eye, at the last trumpet.” And indeed, a mysterious transformation has clearly swept through Yaughton and its neighboring forests and farms. It’s your job to explore, observe, and suss out what happened in this idyllic stretch of England with its less-than-idyllic residents. You will open doors, access radio broadcasts, listen to desperate phone calls, and stumble across conversational echoes from the past. You will not pick up or carry anything, or solve any puzzles in the traditional sense, but rather you’ll piece together the story of what took place and why, who might have been responsible, and whether disaster could have been averted.
A good chunk of the storytelling takes place as the town’s vaguely humanoid light-forms replay past events. The first encounter you’ll likely trigger are the voices and hazy figures of the two main characters. Though he has an acerbic personality, Stephen Appleton is something of a local hero. Having grown up in the shadow of the nearby Valis Observatory, he left town to study astronomy and has recently returned to take up a post at Valis, along with his new American bride. Stephen’s wife, Kate Collins, is also an astronomer. She’s brilliant – a genius, even – but doesn’t bother learning what makes other people tick. She is unapologetically forthright and blunt. Stephen’s fellow scientists are far more impressed with Kate than are his family and friends. And then there’s Lizzie, Stephen’s old flame who lives just down the road and seems very happy to see him again.
In addition to the main characters, you’ll eavesdrop on the spectral reflections of the town busybody, the perplexed doctor, the persevering priest, the secret ex-juvenile delinquent, and the farmer with an overly stiff upper lip. Occasionally you’ll hear more remnants from the past: the buzz of voices in a pub, children’s laughter on a playground, a train whistle blowing. Since you never see their faces, character depictions rely on voice alone. Fortunately, the voice-over portrayals are uniformly excellent. (I recommend playing with subtitles enabled, however, so that the characters are identified as they speak, making it easier to keep track of the interwoven relationships.) Before events overtook them, these people were working at their jobs, drinking in the pubs, gossiping, struggling, thriving, helping and/or hurting one another. And they were almost entirely unaware that they occupied a rustic paradise. Then, one by one, neighbors began disappearing; roads out of town were blocked; paradise turned vicious. You listen in as each individual reacts differently to these extraordinary circumstances. The characters are well-developed and I cared deeply about many of them. I was drawn into their predicament and found myself cheering when they pulled together to face the situation, but wincing when personality conflicts led to isolation, duplicity, or denial. Some of the language is coarse, especially during moments of desperation.
Everybody’s Gone to the Rapture contains an immense, photorealistic 3D gameworld – about ninety percent of which is available from the very beginning. Merely walking about in first-person view, seeing and hearing everything that contributes to the town’s backstory, is a huge task. You’ll visit houses, parks, garages, fields, a lakeside camp and a church. This is a game for players who like to discover every nook and cranny, slip down every twisty pathway, and try every door to see if it opens. This is the largest setting I’ve explored in a very long time, and it’s expertly constructed to reward curiosity and to encourage you to take the less-traveled road.
Unlike some 3D games, where a handful of plants are created and then plunked down all over the landscape, here you’ll see a sumptuous variety of flora used to vibrant effect. I have always wondered what it would be like to stroll through a woodland with bluebells everywhere underfoot. Now I know. The gorgeous play of light and shadow in the trees is constantly changing as you move. Swirling sparks of light from an unidentified source join the drifting leaves and blowing petals. But not all environments are fresh and sunny. The lakeside camp sustains frequent waves of clouds and rain (this is England, after all). Sundown drenches the landscape in eye-popping, dream-like periwinkle hues.
Music in the game is unusually varied. At one point, a simple pipe melody backed by plucked strings brings a medieval aura to this historic town. Other times, distant chanting voices or reverberating tones merge with the ambient sounds of bees buzzing, radios beeping, or bells tolling. The most affecting music occurred after I left a community hall stage which was to be the venue for a children’s production of Peter Pan. After hearing what I can only describe as a spoken lullaby, I emerged to find that it was nighttime. Transfixed by a dawning realization, with the starlit sky above me, I faced a massive wall of sound like a thousand angels singing. It was heartrending.
The only incidents of gameplay in the traditional sense are your encounters with interactive light orbs. These differ from the comet-like orbs in that they respond to movements of the controller. When you encounter the first couple of orbs, a graphic appears on-screen indicating that you should tilt the gamepad. When you twist and turn it in the correct pattern, waves of light spin faster and static-like sounds increase; angling it in the wrong direction resets the orb back to its original state. Success brings a luminous flash, followed by a performance of vital dialogs. Each orb relates to a specific character, and accessing them fleshes out and finally completes a character’s story arc and gives you a glimpse of his or her ultimate fate. Early on, these orbs are easy to “beat” – you only have to wiggle the controller a bit, or perhaps turn it sharply to one side. Late in a character arc, though, the pattern is more complex and you may find yourself performing multiple gyrations. A few times I had to practically dance the Macarena before an orb was satisfied.
Some orbs are easily found; others are more discreetly hidden. The sequence at the end of each character arc contains visual clues indicating that this part of the story is over. In general, if you leave a major area and haven’t found all the vital orbs, a comet-orb will swoop nearby and attempt to lead you back, eventually hovering near the desired destination. However, you can choose to ignore the comet-orbs and explore entirely without assistance if you wish, entering or re-entering any portion of the gameworld at any time. Late in the game there was an elusive orb I found only by systematically exploring certain buildings. It’s possible that this one is purposely hard to find, as that particular character arc makes the most sense if it’s completed last.
One downside to all this exploration is that the walking pace is extremely slow. You use the analog sticks on the controller to pan the camera and move very leisurely at first, though if you hold down the R2 button you’ll gradually increase your speed to a quick walk. This was usually fast enough for me, as I don’t enjoy zooming through landscapes, especially when they are this fabulously detailed. I found myself crisscrossing the world and finding side routes throughout that yielded tasty story bits. However, this meant revisiting locations and streets I had already traveled, and toward the end I chafed at the inability to run along major roads that I already knew well. Another downside: the autosave system is inadequate. Twice I got through a play session without triggering an autosave and then had to go back and repeat what I’d already accomplished while searching for a story event substantial enough to generate a save.
Rapture offers nineteen trophies, and I only earned four of them. Judging from the descriptions of trophies I didn’t achieve, a few can only be won by replaying the game, and others by waiting for an unspecified time period in specific locations. But I also neglected to find every heart-to-heart conversation and secret pathway, which leaves me very curious about what I missed. There is so much to see and hear in the game, I’m not surprised at all that I missed some, but it was gratifying to learn that I didn’t miss a single microwave oven. When it comes to microwaving, I’m a champion.
Figuring out when exactly this story takes place forms its own sort of narrative puzzle. Judging by the technology – phones, recording devices, microwaves, and a few computers – the story is unfolding in the 1980s. Or, at least, the town currently exists in the 1980s. There is something peculiar going on with time here, and I haven’t even come close to figuring it out. All the clocks are stuck at 6:07, though a few of them keep ticking. A cigarette, a cigar, and the coals of a barbecue are still smoking. They continued issuing their smoke trails throughout the seventeen hours I spent in Yaughton and its surrounding environs.
By the time the game concluded, I had a basic understanding of what caused these mysterious transformations, how events unfolded as the locals reacted, and why the characters made decisions that led to specific outcomes. But as for my own character’s presence in this town, the larger implications of what transpired here, and the depths of people’s motivations… those I’m still turning over in my head. The resolution is appropriate and fulfilling, allowing the player to discover facts and come to logical conclusions, but leaving plenty to mull over afterwards.
I’ll need a second playthrough to master the full intricacies of Everybody’s Gone to the Rapture; another chance to eavesdrop on the dialogs, phone calls and radio broadcasts – this time with a more informed perspective; a new opportunity to trigger any story sequences or hidden trails that I might have missed. But though I may grumble at the slow walking pace, I welcome an additional journey through the leafy paths, dazzling landscapes, pulsing light forms and multiple mysteries that make up this enormous, confounding and fascinating world.