Wednesday, 16 March 2016

A walk into the abyss: Everybody's Gone to the Rapture

Spoiler warning for Everybody's Gone to the Rapture!

I'm pretty nosy. When I go to people's houses, my attention is divided between the conversation and the mantlepiece as I scrutinise the family photos and wonder where the ornaments came from. Are those porcelain spaniels treasured reminders of an endearingly eccentric relative, or did my friends actually buy them?

Fortunately for everyone I know, my love of poking about has long been satisfied by gaming because developers are constantly refining the art of delivering narrative through environment. It's one of the most efficient means of interactive storytelling because it can be so easily integrated into gameplay. The player has to scour every room in a point-and-click anyway, so why not reward them with story as well as the key to the next level? Even in fighters, platformers and shooters, there's no reason why the environments should just be backdrops to the action when thoughtful design means they can convey character and backstory too.*

Beyond Good and Evil and Tomb Raider provide insight into their protagonists' inner lives through relaxed, combat-free sequences set in Jade's cosy lighthouse and Lara's heavily-modded mansion. The complex plots of the Deus Ex series are illuminated by information hidden in the messy offices of its shady corporations, while the Fallout series and The Last of Us tell poignant stories of humanity's last days through the abandoned homesteads scattered across their post-apocalyptic American landscapes.

In recent years, an increasing number of games have been entirely dedicated to this once ancillary mechanic. Known (mostly) affectionately as "walking simulators", these games are well-suited to the kind of small-scale human drama that can be drip-fed to the player as they rifle through the characters' stuff, gawping at the unfortunate state of their health, marriage and soft furnishings.

One of last year's most high-profile examples was The Chinese Room's Everybody's Gone to the Rapture. Like The Last of Us and anti-Objectivist undersea parable BioShock, Rapture is set in the shell of a community that has been obliterated by a terrible event, and is still littered with the things its victims left behind. However, while The Last of Us' zombie apocalypse and BioShock's civil war are backstory for those games' main narratives, thus rendering exploratory detective work mostly optional, all of Rapture's gameplay is devoted to wandering around its abandoned world in order to learn the truth about the people who once called it home.

With my penchant for nosing around, I gleefully picked it up expecting a juicy combination of small-town gossip and quasi-religious sci-fi, but what I discovered was altogether more thought-provoking.

Set in the fictional West Country village of Yaughton, Rapture gives the player the power to walk, push open doors and turn on lights and radios, but nothing else. It is in many ways the maturation of ideas floated in The Chinese Room's experimental Dear Esther (2012), which marooned the player on a Hebridean island and gave them nothing to do except wander slowly around, listening to intermittent fragments of a story told in voiceover. It was highly atmospheric and very moving, and in my review, I explained how its lack of interactivity increased immersion:
"Because there are neither interactive elements nor threats, you start taking in your surroundings in a way that you would if you were actually on the island. Traditional level design is such that we tend to look upon gameworlds with blinkers, filtering out everything that signifies neither objective nor threat. Yes, design, appearance and detail can be put to great narrative effect, but when you must accomplish certain tasks in order to progress, exploring the environment often becomes a means to an end." 

This is slightly less true of Rapture as the player is always partly on the lookout for a crackling radio or a door left ajar, but such items are so widely spaced throughout the game that the overall effect is largely the same. Although the purity of this design yields rich narrative rewards, the lack of objectives means that there's little point in trying to assess the success of Esther or Rapture using traditional metrics. Even as examples of "interactive" narrative they arguably fall short because there is so little, well, interactivity.

To enjoy them at all, it's necessary to accept them on their own terms and be open to the experiences they offer rather than lamenting the lack of a relationship between input and reward. I was fortunate enough to be able to ask The Chinese Room's Dan Pinchbeck about passivity in Dear Esther, and he explained that the minimal interactivity and slow pacing were chosen to give the player time to experience emotions that games don't usually allow room for:
"What I think we found with Esther is that that sense of pace and emptiness buys time and space for an emotional reaction. I really think emotions work at different speeds. You can’t feel sad, fast."

While Esther is about trying to make sense of grief, Rapture is a much bigger game that uses similar techniques to take the player from disquiet through despair to an ultimate sense of universal wonder. It tells the story of Yaughton native Stephen and his American wife Kate, two scientists who accidentally summon a mysterious power, the Pattern, from outer space while researching the night sky from the observatory overlooking the village. By the time the game starts, the Pattern has somehow taken everyone, leaving Yaughton eerily empty.

The story is slowly revealed to the player through scenes from the residents' final days, played out by traces of the Pattern, which manifests itself in balls of light. There is no explanation given for the nature of the Pattern or the reason it emptied Yaughton, though the villagers who survive longest have their theories, which I'll get to later.

What's more, most of the scenes focus not on Stephen and Kate's experiments but on Yaughton's domestic dramas, whether it's the villagers' less-than-friendly reception of American (and black) Kate, a farmer's problems with his staff, or Stephen's busybody mother's interference in his marriage. This puts the focus not on the "space magic" but on the relatable and recognisable lives it disrupts. The juxtaposition between the provincial subject matter of these scenes - many could have been lifted right out of The Archers - and their otherworldly staging makes the overall effect extremely haunting.

Because the scenes are triggered in geographic, rather than chronological order, the player is likely to see a panicked family trying to escape the quarantine long before they witness the clandestine meeting of Stephen and an old flame, an event that contributes to Kate's isolation and thus her discovery of the Pattern in the first place. By shuffling the humdrum earlier sequences and the devastating later ones, Rapture imbues the former with a sense of creeping horror and throws the latter into stark relief. Destruction and death, especially in video games, can be numbing without a sense of the peace - however troubled - that they destroy.

Plenty of games motivate the player by constructing a beautiful world for them to fall in love with before exhorting them to save it (the aforementioned Beyond Good and Evil is a great example of this), but few show them one that's already been ruined and don't let them do anything about it. Even post-apocalyptic games tend to give players an objective: the Fallout series lets them build lives of their choosing in the Wasteland, and The Last of Us puts them on a quest to protect humanity's last hope for salvation.

By laying out the entire story after it's over, Rapture coaxes the player into an introspective relationship with it. Unable to influence events, all players can do is reflect upon their meaning. The lengthy gap between the surreal vignettes gives players time and space to do this, which they wouldn't have in a non-interactive medium. The beautifully-rendered and incredibly tranquil surroundings lull players into the kind of meditative state that they might achieve on a real-life walk through the British countryside, allowing them to fully absorb each mundane, heartfelt or disturbing fragment of the story.

Perhaps unsurprisingly, Rapture received a fair amount of criticism for this design approach, initially because The Chinese Room failed to alert players to the "run" control. This left many reviewers under the impression that their character's top movement speed was a glacial crawl that punished exploration with an excessively arduous trek back to the main path. Even once the "run" command was made public, a lot of the critics who disliked the game stuck to their original positions, partly because even the running speed was still slow by first-person game standards, and partly because they felt the world just wasn't interesting enough to warrant such minimal activity anyway.

One such critic was Jim Sterling:
"Indeed, the motive for this punishing movement speed was likely an attempt to make players more thoughtful and observant regarding their surroundings, but I can’t help but feel an arrogance in that design decision. Forcing the player to “take it all in” rather than making them want to is a case of developers simply strongarming appreciation. Perhaps if the world of Everybody’s Gone To The Rapture was worth appreciating, I’d have been more forgiving. Sadly, as with Dear Esther before it, I can’t find myself particularly invested in a vacuous empty space with disembodied voices telling snippets of vague story."
While I've already explained why I think the pacing is effective and think "vacuous empty space" is a little harsh, this assessment touches upon the only facet of the game that I think could have been improved. Rapture's gameworld may be full of faultless architectural, botanical and vehicular details that make for a disconcertingly accurate rendering of an English village, but relatively few of them contribute to the player's understanding of the story or characters. Although a few homes later in the game are clear reflections of their erstwhile inhabitants' troubled mental states, for the most part dwellings look similar, contain few personal artefacts and do not reward exploration with insight in the way The Last of Us' houses do. Consequently, the gameworld doesn't so much convey narrative as set the scene.

However, while I agree with Sterling that a voiceover is generally not the most effective means of conveying the story to the player**, I'd argue that Rapture's scenes aren't really voiceovers. A voiceover is contextually disconnected from the action, but Rapture's scenes are like footprints in spacetime; when they are triggered the player witnesses something that once took place in the exact spot where they are standing in the present.

This is significant for two reasons. Firstly, because the scenes are played out by the light of the Pattern, they implicitly demonstrate that the Pattern can become imprinted by the memories of those it has taken. This changes the players' perception of the power from an entity of evil or menace, to something altogether more mysterious and beautiful because they can see that it has been as irrevocably changed by the villagers as they were by it.

Secondly, it works on a symbolic level because although the villagers have "gone", vanished into the unknown, traces of them still remain in the little world they built and once inhabited. This is a poignant reflection of the way that people still impact the world long after they die.

A potentially problematic feature of Rapture's storytelling is the fact that it doesn't matter who the player character is. They could be Kate, they could be a human visitor to the abandoned village, or maybe even the Pattern itself, but because the player is so detached from events, viewing them from different perspectives doesn't actually alter their significance. Sterling laments that this makes him feel like "little more than a glorified camera operator watching others who have personal stakes in a world that excludes me," but once again, I think there's more to it than that.

Rapture's limited interactivity allows The Chinese Room to tell a story about absence, in a world where, you know, Everybody's Gone. In a non-interactive medium, Rapture's dialogue would work well as the basis for a character-driven sci-fi that follows Kate's growing obsession with the Pattern and the fatal dynamics in the village that prevent its people from taking action before it's too late. The film would end where Rapture begins, with the village abandoned. But that story would be about people, not the lack of them. It could not, as Rapture does, immerse its viewer into a world where all that is left of humanity are their empty buildings and the vestiges they left on an entity that like so much in our universe, we do not understand.

Because the nature of the Pattern is never explained, it can represent everything that humans can neither learn nor comprehend. No-one knows for sure what happens when we die, and no-one can imagine infinity, so everyone must form their own, mostly uneasy, relationship with the abyss.

Rapture's characters all deal with the increasingly apparent reality of the Pattern in different ways. Some deny its existence, putting the bizarre disappearances of their neighbours down to them simply wandering off. Others, like Stephen, rail against it, mounting futile attempts to overcome it, while his mistress Lizzie tries to make the best of the life she still has. The village doctor is detached and realistic about his impending demise, and the priest, faced with what he perceives as the divine, is finally able to articulate his crisis of faith.

For her part, Kate is, well, enraptured. Described by her husband as having "entire worlds inside her head", the visionary scientist gazes into the Pattern and sees all the mysteries of the universe gazing back. And then, just like everyone else, she's gone too.

Sequestered in the observatory, Kate no doubt used to stare up at the skies in wonder, contemplating the way the atoms of her body once formed stars, and in millions of years would form stars once more. The player sees stars too when, at climactic moments in the game the Earth spins on its axis and the night sky appears, inviting them to consider its symbolism as the residents of Yaughton once did. To some it was the heavens, to others the terrifying unknown, and to Kate it held the answers to all existence.

Whatever the stars may have been to the villagers while they were on Earth, they are their ultimate destination. The villagers' departure from their world may have been unlike any we have ever heard of or ever expect to see, but it's no less final and ultimately mysterious than our own will be. By immersing the player in a world that was once inhabited by humans, but is now devoid of them, Rapture forces them to contemplate not just their own end, but that of the species, and the traces that both will leave behind.

Giving the player more power than the ability to simply observe and reflect would compromise the integrity of this stark vision. Were the execution different then this austere design could have made Rapture unbearably bleak, but by rendering the ghosts of the departed in beautiful sparkling light, the game puts the focus not on their death, but on the beauty of them having been there at all.

Not bad for a walk in the countryside.

The screenshots that illustrate this post are a mixture of The Chinese Room's official publicity screenshots, and ones I took on the PS4 version of the game. 

*If you share my predilection for playing Through the Keyhole with video game characters, I wrote about narrative through domestic spaces for the Escapist a while back.

** I was far more engaged in Gone Home's narrative when I was discovering it myself by going through my family's belongings than I was when listening to Sam's voiceover read her diary aloud. When it was triggered I felt as if the value of my hard work methodically searching every room for clues was diminished by an information dump that answered questions I didn't even know I had.

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