If you’ve played a video game, you’ve probably seen the end of the world. The medium is saturated with post-apocalyptic scenarios, from the nuclear wasteland of Fallout to Left 4 Dead’s zombie-ravaged rural hellscape. No matter the cause of the catastrophe, though, these games tend to have a lot in common: violent, action-packed affairs where you can’t go far before someone, or something, tries to kill you. But Everybody’s Gone to the Rapture envisions a different kind of doomsday. What if everybody just suddenly disappeared? And instead of trying to save what was left of the world, you were just trying to find out where everyone went?
“I really liked the idea of, well, what would normal people be doing if the world ended,” says Dan Pinchbeck, creative director at Rapture studio The Chinese Room. “Is there a game in that, rather than the same old kid of heroics?”
Rapture takes place in a small English village in the 1980s, and at the outset you — whoever it is you play as — find yourself all alone, not long after the rest of the townsfolk have mysteriously vanished. Like the studio’s previous games, including Dear Esther, Rapture is an experience that plays with your expectations of what a game is: all you really do is walk around, looking for clues and listening to flashback sequences. From this simple base you’re able to slowly piece together not only the events leading to the end of the world, but also the lives of the town’s inhabitants. It’s an example of environmental storytelling, something that’s unique to games, where the world creates much of the narrative itself.
But the game could’ve ended up very different. The initial prototype for Rapture had the same apocalyptic theme, but also gave players a time limit: at the beginning of the game you would have 60 minutes, after which point the world would end and so would the game. The idea was that you would replay that hour multiple times, exploring different characters and storylines each time. The concept was scrapped pretty early on — Pinchbeck likens it to a book that stops halfway through and tells you that you didn’t read fast enough — but not before the studio had become attached to the characters and location.
And that location is a distinctly British one. The quiet town of Yaughton, in the Shropshire countryside, feels like a postcard that you can explore in three dimensions. The homes are full of cozy chairs and floral wallpaper, surrounded by peaceful gardens, and just about everywhere you go you’ll see cups of tea waiting patiently on a table or counter. It’s absolutely beautiful, but also haunting; when you remove people, things take on a whole new look. The local playground is especially creepy, devoid of children. Setting the game during the ‘80s, a time before the internet and cellphones became widespread, was also important for creating the sense of isolation that’s so key to the game.
The picturesque town is much larger than games like Dear Esther, and that was one of the goals from the outset. "We wanted to push further than we had done with Esther," says Pinchbeck. "We wanted to see where the next place to go with it was. And I was playing a lot of open world games — Skyrim, Red Dead Redemption — at the time, and was thinking, we tend to make these things work in corridors, but could we do this if we went into an open world and did something that was fully non-linear."
You can go pretty much wherever you want in Yaughton, save for areas blocked by fences and locked doors, and the story unfolds differently depending on where you go and when. But that open nature also means that the world has to serve two purposes: it not only conveys the story, it also helps guide you. Rapture doesn’t provide you any overt instructions, but instead uses various techniques to highlight places of interest. The most obvious are the ghostly wisps, tiny balls of shimmering light that will fly around, sometimes impatiently, showing you places to check out. You’ll also hear things — radio static, a beeping phone — that will make you want to investigate a particular location.
The world design is also often much more subtle, guiding you in ways you might not notice, according to Pinchbeck. He says that the team labored over specific details — the angle of a driveway, whether you could see an open door from the road — as a way of suggesting to players where they might want to go next without actually telling them. Even the power lines that run alongside the road serve as unconscious guides. These aspects are necessary so that players don’t get lost or frustrated. "We really didn’t want the player to feel like they were being forced down a series of pipes in the world," he says. "But also, you’re trying to make sure they’re not just completely lost. That balance between giving people enough clues and not lecturing on how to play the game is really hard."
According to Pinchbeck, one of the main goals of the studio was to never pull you out of the experience, and that’s part of the reason there’s no mini-map or typical on-screen instructions. Even the menus are styled and laid out as if they were part of the world, framed like a 1980s disaster preparedness pamphlet. "It’s one of those things where, if you can, why wouldn’t you?" he says of the menu design. "It’s just better."
Equally important to the experience is the music and audio. You never see the former inhabitants of Yaughton — they appear as human silhouettes made of light — but you do hear them, and, much like in a book, you create your own vision in your mind for what they might look like. The wonderful music, meanwhile, imbues the otherwise quiet countryside with a real sense that something important is happening. The swelling score grows surprisingly loud during key moments, and often lingers afterwards to keep those events stuck in your head. Jessica Curry, Rapture’s composer, is also the co-studio head at The Chinese Room and served as director on the game — perhaps explaining why the music feels so integral to the experience.
Rapture is part of a growing trend of narrative-focused, first-person games, which was largely spearheaded by the success of Dear Esther. Curiously, many of these games tackle a similar theme of disappearance; Gone Home is about exploring an empty home, trying to discover what happened to the family who lived there, while its successor Tacoma is about investigating an abandoned space station.
Pinchbeck says that these thematic similarities are partially due to technical constraints of making a game with lots of people in it — character animation and AI are a lot to take on for a small studio — but also because these games are essentially an offshoot of the first-person shooter, a genre that tends to explore themes of isolation. "Right back to Doom, you’re the last one left on the moonbase," he explains. "To me it was always just a sidestep from a long, proud history of first-person shooters." For a new, growing genre of games, the question is what other kinds of stories it can tell.
"The next interesting step is thinking, how do these games become social?"
Everybody’s Gone to the Rapture is out now on PlayStation 4.