Friday, 11 September 2015

Review: Everybody's Gone to the Rapture

Yaughton, Shropshire, 1984. “It’s all over”. Kate is “the only one left.”

And that’s how Everybody’s Gone to the Rapture begins: our protagonist – is it Kate, a spectral version of her, or someone, something, else entirely? – looking down from the gates of the observatory to fictional Yaughton below, its church spire and cluster of houses, an idyllic mid-summer glow inviting us in.

For a game in which we technically see no people; only their after-images, occasionally witnessed as ethereal snatches of whirling light, or hear their voices reverberated back to us through payphones and achingly anachronistic bricks of mobile phones, Rapture does an incredible job of detailing a cast of characters in an entirely believable mid 80s English village. Yaughton may be fictionalised – something between the Shire and Midsomer – but it feels like a place we’ve all been to, or seen on a post card, or heard an old Uncle sentimentally pine for. Immediately, the game brings to mind the recent ITV drama, Broadchurch (the ‘event’ having already happened); later I was put in mind, depending which locale of Yaughton I witnessed, and in which light, of everything from Stephen King’s Misery to Fumito Ueda’s Ico. Invariably, though, such comparisons do the game no favours; Rapture shines – and my, how it shines – because there is nothing quite like it, on TV, in film, literature or on console.

The fact that the game is set in 1984, obvious Orwellian nods aside, is not just an aesthetic choice on the part of developers, The Chinese Room. Yaughton’s mid 80s cast of parochial characters, their village hall with its production of Peter Pan (surely another nod?), their two quaint pubs (‘ale and a curry: £2’, advertises The Seventh Whistler), their pre-curve, pre-sleek cars, their fat televisions, their lack of internet, their... insular, squabbling village-ness, all of it feels deliberate. This is not a game that would have worked in contemporary London, or Tokyo, or just about any other city, for that matter.

Normally in a review, one would expect some recounting of the plot by about this stage. But here’s the thing: with Rapture, it’s all already happened. And that’s the beautiful simplicity of the game: you’re free to piece it together, liberally, as you drift around (and, make no mistake, you do drift, entirely ghostlike, in every sense) through deserted Yaughton, with its kitsch holiday camp and two-platform train station and not entirely un-Red Riding Hood woods, trying to work out what the Hell has happened to everybody.

For some, this momentum – or its absolute lack – has been too much of a barrier to the game’s enjoyment, but surely that misses the point. Yes, you can’t sprint; yes, you can move a little bit slower than dream pace if you hold down R2, but why would you want to? The real joy of Rapture is in the details: spending time exploring the houses, reading the signs in the bus shelters (items needed for fete; meeting to protest new observation tower; cast members needed for Peter Pan, etc.); marvelling as the light catches the canopy of leaves as the sun tilts and angles.

Drifting through the game – and there really is a sense that one does, a la Guy Debord’s Situationist Theory, ‘dérive’ through this landscape – the experience becomes more and more intense just as it becomes more and more lonely. While the player learns more – of the various characters and their back stories, their prejudices and their relationships – increasingly these revelations and plot twists, minor sub-dramas unfolding like snatched episodes of The Archers, begin to feel obscure, meaningless, and, ultimately, irrelevant. Even as the narrative shifts towards its ‘climax’, with the two central characters, Kate and Stephen, and their complicated motivations and actions spiralling towards the dénouement, the overriding sense of Rapture is that none of it matters; everything that has been will always be, and may be again.

Here, of course, is where the game’s various nods to astrophysics and philosophy could be mulled over, twisted, and mulled over again. Would we, in listing, probing and arguing over potentially limitless theories, ever reach a satisfying conclusion? I think not.

I ‘finished’ the game in around ten hours, but I suspect a second, and even third or fourth, play through would be an enriching experience, as I’m almost certain I didn’t reveal all of the ‘clues’ or find out all of the characters’ persuasions.

My enduring memory of Everyone’s Gone to the Rapture will be its superb blend of audio-visuals: the way, hovering between rugby posts, you half hear the game that played out days, weeks before; the way that air-raid sirens drift on the wind just as trails of light from the bombers they were warning against hang in the air like ribbons; the way payphones burr from incandescent red boxes and you approach them, never quite knowing where from, when or how the message has come to you. It’s the way you genuinely feel a chill on your spine as the balls of light, orbs of power, approach you and you tune and twist them, manipulating echoes of shrill then din, past voices back through their star gates, their portals. It’s the way you feel spooked yet comforted the first time it goes dark as you walk through the woods and tiny balls of light rise like stoned fireflies; or how the silhouette of the windmill catches against the universe of stars beyond and the brightness and otherworldliness of all the lights, strung out but coalescing, as you ascend the observatory.

When the final credits rolled, I put my controller down and closed my eyes as the choral soundtrack – that gut-wrenching, hallucinatory music which peppers so many of your encounters in the game – started up again. I sat back, not quite knowing what I’d experienced, but feeling a heady mixture of elation and sadness that it was over.

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