'Everybody's Gone to the Rapture' is a gorgeous game that you shouldn't play

Video games are changing.

Just a few short years ago, a game like “Everybody’s Gone to the Rapture” would not exist on home game consoles. It would be relegated to the PC and Mac —  maybe tablets — and would exist solely as an “indie darling” (“Gone Home,” anyone?).

Those days are apparently over, given the PlayStation 4 exclusivity of a new game called “Everybody’s Gone to the Rapture.”

What makes something like “Everybody’s Gone to the Rapture” so different?

That depends on your expectations of a game. Do you expect clearly defined “levels” that you must complete in order to proceed? How about overcoming conflict? 

Many established standards of the video game medium are not components of “Everybody’s Gone to the Rapture.” There is no action. There are no characters to interact with. No checklists of tasks to complete. 

In “Everybody’s Gone to the Rapture,” you’re an unidentified character exploring the British town of Shropshire following an apocalyptic event. Except the apocalypse wasn’t a nuclear war or a battle between the forces of good and evil. It was more like the Christian concept of “rapture.”

Here’s how “The Encyclopaedic Dictionary of Religion: Q-Z” defines “rapture,” which I’m including because it’s an almost direct parallel to what happens in the game: 

The rapture is an eschatological (end times) event whereupon the return of Christ the true believers who are “alive and remain shall be caught up together with them [those who already died as Christians] in the clouds to meet the Lord in the air…” (1 Thessalonians 4:17). This is the time of the resurrection where the Christian receives his resurrected body. First to receive their new bodies are those who have died as Christians, and then “those who are alive and remain.”

Still with me? The long and short is that Shropshire is empty where the people used to be. Almost like, I don’t know, they have all been “raptured.”

Whatever happened, it happened very recently. Like, within the past 10 hours of when your unnamed character arrives in Shropshire to explore. Cigarettes are still burning in ash trays, dishes are sitting un-done in sinks, etc. It’s clear that life was in the middle of going on when everyone disappeared, and that life ended in the very near past.

So what do you do in “Everybody’s Gone to the Rapture?” You walk around Shropshire, taking in the local charm and — mostly — following an amorphous ball of light from area to area. Occasionally, that ball of light conjures an ethereal conversation between two or more people. Occasionally, the game instructs you (via on-screen prompt) to tilt your gamepad one way or another to “activate” a scene (played out by two etherreal depictions of the people involved in said scene).

The Chinese RoomOne of the ‘people’ in ‘Everybody’s Gone to the Rapture,’ represented as light. This is where you’ll get most of the game’s exposition from.

All this to say: mechanically speaking, “Everybody’s Gone to the Rapture” is extremely bare bones. This isn’t a game about solving puzzles or killing bad guys. It’s about walking, watching and listening. It’s about absorbing a story.

“Everybody’s Gone to the Rapture” is about telling the story of several Shropshire inhabitants leading up to the rapture. All of these characters are interconnected — as are the majority of the townspeople — and their stories tie to the bigger picture of “what happened.”

This is the ultimate “goal” of “Everybody’s Gone to the Rapture”: to uncover where everyone went and what happened to them. 

The game isn’t alone in this pursuit of storytelling over gameplay. Recent classics like “Gone Home” and “The Stanley Parable” pioneered narrative-only games and, more importantly, proved their commercial viability. 

It’s good that those came out before “Everybody’s Gone to the Rapture.”

While the aim of these three titles is the same — focus on storytelling instead of on shoehorning a story into a mechanics-driven game — the delivery in “Everybody’s Gone to the Rapture” is nowhere near as well-done. 

The Chinese RoomThe graphics are beautiful.

“Everybody’s Gone to the Rapture” bills itself as a “non-linear storytelling” game. That means you’re given an open world (Shropshire) and you can go wherever you want. Wherever you go, you’ll pick up some of the game’s story. The more places you visit, the more you’ll learn, either from audio logs found in the world, or from brief moments of character interaction presented by the ever-present ball of light, or from the environment itself.

In practice, this means hours and hours of walking around an empty British town following a ball of light that’s ambiguous in its directions. Should I go back into that part of town where I’ve already been because maybe I missed something? Which direction am I even going? (There’s no in-game map, only maps littered around the world.) 

Bizarrely, there’s no clear indication of a “run” function. The game’s developer, The Chinese Room, did include one, but it was added late enough that there’s no indicator in-game that you can run. Apparently, if you hold down the right trigger on your PlayStation 4 gamepad, your character will gradually build up a run over time. I only discovered this by looking at the game’s developer website. Despite my repeated attempts to discover a run function — including using the right trigger — I never found it. If you take anything away from this review, it should be this: you can totally run in “Everybody’s Gone to the Rapture” by holding down the right trigger.

And that is crucial, because your character walks slowly, and backtracking is a recurring component of “Everybody’s Gone to the Rapture.” I spent more time walking around Shropshire, through the same neighbourhoods and parks and woods, than I did enjoying the game’s esoteric story.

It’s about scientists and God and, uh, something?

The Chinese RoomOne of the rare scenes at night. In case it wasn’t clear, the game is very pretty.

As far as I can tell, “Everybody’s Gone to the Rapture” is about two scientists falling out of love, accidentally discovering some new form of life, and then welcoming that new form of life to Earth where it “raptures” everyone.

That’s the big picture, of course. There are plenty of in-between moments where people are just being people, and those are the games better moments. Like so many sci-fi stories before it, “Everybody’s Gone to the Rapture” is really about humans and relationships and how we deal with tragedy. At least it’s trying to be that when it’s not hours of walking around aimlessly in a gorgeous but very boring English town.

If a “game” requires some form of challenge to overcome, “Everybody’s Gone to the Rapture” is more interactive fiction than anything else. And that’s fine! I’m not going to lambast “Everybody’s Gone to the Rapture” for “not being a game” (whatever that means), or argue to define what a game is. Who cares? That’s just semantics. 

Interactive fiction as game can be innovative and fascinating and engaging. And in the case of “Everybody’s Gone to the Rapture,” the game is ambitious and risky. For that I salute its developers at The Chinese Room. But “Everybody’s Gone to the Rapture,” for all its ambition, ultimately doesn’t deliver.

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