The Chinese Room is a very "love-'em or hate-'em" developer. I'm glad that I fall into the former category and find their stories and theming to be entrancing, as without that draw their games are pretty... lifeless. I'm not saying that their worlds are lifeless (quite the opposite!), but their titles as video games generally don't demand much from the player other than to poke around certain corners. Luckily the overall package more than makes up for the lack of gameplay; Everybody's Gone to the Rapture continues their trend of enveloping you in an enigmatic universe populated with confusing questions, breathtaking vistas, and stellar writing*.
(*for what it is—a bit more on that down below)
I wrote last week about how plot obfuscation in games can be a good thing, and that player comprehension is a key component that ties in with player agency. I mentioned that encountering and ruminating on a story is an essential cornerstone for the walking simulator genre, and this holds mostly true for Everybody's Gone to the Rapture. The modifier "mostly" is used because the game could actually be played for its visuals alone—seriously, it's one of the most beautiful games of the current generation thus far. Yaughton is fascinating in its gorgeous mundanity, whether it be walking through its streets and backyards, exploring the town's accurately rendered houses, or brushing by laundry undulating calmly in the wind. The simplicity of the countryside being paired with meticulously crafted details is a whimsical combination, filling the land with a very real sense of time and place.
This is of course aided by the sprawling landscape design, funneling the player from large area to large area one dialogue event at a time. Sadly it's also a point of grievance for many players, as the roaming hills of Yaughton lend well to directionless wandering—which means you're likely to get lost and miss some story bits. Important events are usually marked by glowing orbs you'll tilt to activate, but it can be easy to miss the incidental triggers that add a bit more life to each of the characters. And since the player's stride is purposely slow, patience is a virtue you must keep in mind as you amble around the open fields, asking yourself if you've missed anything. Thankfully the astounding visuals make backtracking less of a chore as there's always something to gawk at, and as frustrating as it can be sometimes, accidentally stumbling into a forgotten snapshot of somebody's life is central to the game's motivation.
Regarding the characters, the story present in Everybody's Gone to the Rapture revolves primarily around its colorful cast. While a plot exists, it takes a backseat to each of the major characters and their struggles with Yaughton's quarantine—and each other—until the last two chapters. There's a tangled web of names and relationships you'll have to unravel as you explore the town, and while some characters fall by the wayside pretty quickly, it's fun to try and piece together how these country folk lived. It's great that the voice acting is extremely well done too, as it's what you'll identify the townsfolk by for the entire game.
If I must express (untenable) disappointment at something though, it's probably the style of writing used here. You see, what really drew me to Dear Esther and Amnesia: A Machine for Pigs was Dan Pinchbeck's abstract prose. The simplest way I've described it before is that he writes poetry for videogames, and I think whether or not you actually enjoy his writing makes little difference—his games have a very distinctive style. It's rare to encounter a video game that forces you to mull over what was just said, or to engage with metaphors in an unorthodox (and fun!) way. Pinchbeck's writing is wonderfully ornate and obtuse, but here... it's a lot more ordinary.
Understand that there's nothing wrong with the writing in and of itself; if anything, I greatly respect Pinchbeck for taking a down-to-Earth approach regarding the dialogue in the game. These humble villagers live a simple life, peppered by mundane interactions with one another—admittedly unbefitting of grandiloquence. It's only at the end of the game that the language starts to become more esoteric as the plot unfolds, which can make figuring out the story quite a conundrum. I don't think it's too difficult to parse however, as purposely muddying certain concepts and truths has been a staple of The Chinese Room's works, and you'll learn to fill certain gaps yourself. I still personally would've preferred a more poetic approach to the entire experience, as just about any other game takes the prosaic approach, but the storytelling here is quite fitting for the tale told.
While I feel that it's my least favorite of The Chinese Room's titles, there's still plenty here to admire and love. I certainly had a good time on my sightseeing tour through Yaughton, and recommend it if you don't mind occasional dilly-dallying. The eerie absence of any tangible human life combined with nature's gentle placidity is a striking combination, and it's one that I feel only a developer this flexible—and peculiar—could pull off.
A job well done guys.
Images obtained from: playstation.com, gamespot.com, gamesradar.com, thewayfaringdreamer.com