Everybody's Gone to the Rapture [official site] is The Chinese Room's newly-on-PC game about exploring an English village in the hopes of finding out where everyone's get to. I played it when it came out on PS4 a while back but I've just worked my way through the PC version and can now tell you Wot I Think:
Everybody's Gone To The Rapture won't quite come together in my head as a unified experience. It has all of these moments of real loveliness and effectiveness but also, for me, there's an undercurrent of intense frustration brought about through the interaction systems and slight disconnect between story and environment.
Let's start with what the game actually is.
The story begins near an observatory on the outskirts of the Shropshire village of Yaughton. The village is empty – a kind of English countryside Mary Celeste – but you seem to be able to tap into echoes of the events that triggered the absences. Radios offer diary-like snippets, phones play out older phone conversations, motes of light coalesce to present a few seconds from key events as a kind of supernatural slideshow.
Further exploration takes you on a circuit of the Yaughton area and through the lives of particular villagers - that's how the game divides into chapters, it moves from person to person. The knowledge accumulates and you reveal relationships and their undercurrents as well as the reasons for the disappearances.
The main mode of interaction is walking and clicking. You walk through the areas and trigger the majority of the light-show story snippets just by passing nearby. A mother berates her children for poking at the dead birds in the park, a concerned villager remarks on the presence of people with guns, a local vicar tries to persuade a new arrival to the village to come to church.
You can click on some of the doors to open them and gain access to houses or rooms or gates to let you into fields and gardens. If you find a radio tuned to a numbers station you can click that to get it to spit out one of those diary/confessional fragments, while clicking a ringing phone will dispense the contents of a prior call.
You'll also encounter balls of light which you need to activate for key parts of the main plot. You do this by right-clicking and then dragging the cursor left or right until you find a sweet spot. It's a fiddly interaction and I found that it kept interrupting the flow of story, although I'd found it worse on PS4 as you had to sort of waggle the controller and use the motion sensor to find the sweet spot. (You can shift the difficulty of these encounters in the accessibility options menu if you're really struggling, though as well as opting for visual help with audio cues and turning on a crosshair if you're getting motion sick.)
There's another ball of light which zooms around the space as a kind of celestial tour guide, although I will admit that I found it a bit opaque at first and treated it as an optional thing, wandering around on my own.
You can do that - it's a perfectly valid way to play - but you might find that in doing so you miss some of those click-to-trigger chunks of story. That becomes important because if you don't trigger enough of those you don't get the emotional set-piece ending to each person's chapter, you just drift onwards leaving agitated and confusing balls in your wake.That's what I did in the first chapter before realising what was happening in the second.
Here's where I am with the game. The story itself is decent. It's a kind of seventies-feeling British sci-fi radio play. The basic premise – disappearances and a mysterious infection that the authorities swear blind is a kind of Spanish flu – isn't unfamiliar but I do think it's well executed and I would happily listen to it all over again. I would also listen to the soundtrack all over again as it's absolutely gorgeous. In fact I've got it playing on Spotify right now.
But what I wouldn't do out of choice is play the game again and that's because, while it's capable of delighting or creating these moody, intimate moments, it's also capable of frustrating and irritating. It was so hard to maintain my immersion.
My biggest problem was the movement. You walk around the environment as you explore but the pace is so SLOW. You can speed up a bit by holding shift but it didn't seem to work consistently for me and when it did it work it wasn't a run, more that it brought you up to the pace I felt was appropriate for the space in the first place. I want to be clear that I'm not complaining that you can't sprint round Yaughton like Sebastian Coe. That would be weird.
What I am getting at is that the space is big enough that the default pace felt wrong to me. It took too long to get to the next house or across a playpark or from one end of a field to another. I found myself playing the entire game holding shift just to try and normalise the movement for myself, and the points where it won't let you move faster than the default offered up that impatient irritation I associate with being stuck walking on a narrow pavement behind someone going far slower than you when you really want to get somewhere.
The slow walking also combined with another little problem to work against the idea of exploration. So, you know how I told you that you can open doors in the game? Well, you can open some doors and not others and there is no reliable way of knowing which will and won't open. Some are ajar and you can generally get through those, but other times you'll find yourself in a house and some of the inner doors will open and others won't. Similarly you can be in a garden and walk over to a gate, having breezed through identical gates previously, only to find this particular gate is locked, forcing you to trudge back slowly.
Both the walking pace and the door unreliability are little things but it meant that exploration was more something I had to push myself to keep doing rather than an easy and pleasurable thing. You might end up just following the light ball around instead which seems a shame given there's this whole world to look at.
With that in mind, let's talk about that world. It's a joy to see something so ridiculously British in a game when I'm so used to seeing either America or fantasy landscapes. I mean, look at this. Do you know what it is?
It's a fire hydrant sign. A British fire hydrant sign. None of that red metal cactus nonsense they have going on in the States.
And look at this!
COW PARSLEY. That stuff was EVERYWHERE in my own rural village.
A public phone booth with an area code from before we added a 1 after the zero. I'm a child of the British 1980s and this is a thing I remember and have never seen in a game before.
There's value to seeing art assets that are based in something you know from real life experience rather than a multimedia experience of pan-global Americana. And then you get views like this. They're absolutely stunning and remind me of strands of British landscape painting.
But even then the game falls down a bit. Not in the landscape moments or the wonder of a night sky or anything, but in the homes. To me they never felt lived-in. They're show homes, with a few narratively-relevant assets dotted around. They're too clean and too generic. The only one which felt really lived in belonged to a farmer and it was because it was a mess. The others tend to have the same few book styles lying around, the same kinds of art on the walls, the same bare kitchens, the same kinds of flower arrangements.
Here's the farmer one for a comparison:
I get that that stuff is a big ask and a drain on resources, but for me the basic sterility of a lot of the "homes" caused a disconnect between the scenarios I was seeing in these motes of light and the world in which the game was telling me they had taken place. The light world just didn't quite feel linked to the physical world and it often felt more human than this weird, emotionless set of very British show houses.
Having reached the end I'm still feeling that disconnect. There were moments where I found myself moved or excited or curious but they were balanced out by this feeling that I was pushing myself through the interactions and sometimes seeing the seams of the world, the bits where it was a game and I was in my room, not ensconced in the unfolding mystery.
It was British in so many ways that I hadn't seen before in a game, from the art assets to the peculiarly village-y sniping and busybodying and threatening to write to a local MP. I loved that that side existed and that other people will see it too. But the story felt like work to experience. The best way I can think to sum up this feeling is to say I enjoyed Everybody's Gone To The Rapture far more on PS4 and that was because after the first chapter I lay on the sofa watching and listening and luxuriating while my companion dealt with the controls.