A Shropshire apocalypse

Like the end of the world? Enjoy walking around? Hate people?

Well, have I got the game for you.

Everybody’s Gone to the Rapture is a game by the developers of Dear Esther, probably the best-known walking simulator game. Where that game focused on paths around a small island, Rapture allows you to wander around a fictional Shropshire valley, ostensibly at the end of Something Really Catastrophic. 

Unlike Dear Esther, the game does not voice you, the observing body. There’s no internal monologue, which is suitable: whereas in that game you were a walker processing the pangs of a very personal grief, this game sees you as an interloper. You’re someone who’s examining a scene after its actors have left. The action has already happened, and you’re left with what can best be described as a psychogeographical simulator with which to piece together the events leading to your entry.

(Hope you like abandoned bicycles and lone soccer balls.)

Fancy a pint? It’s quiet today.

These pieces are earned by watching glowing traces of humans – memories made visible, perhaps – reenact conversations, and by picking up snatches of conversation from long-dead phones. Through these, we discover a romantic triangle, human stories of loss and grief, and the progression of an otherworldly energy. It’s conspiratorial, both in the private and the public senses of the word, and though it may be hand-wavy (or even outright silly) it seems to work.

(Well, I accepted that I was learning about the apocalypse from clouds of fireflies in human form, if you want further definition of “seems to work”.)

The story can appear convoluted, though this is largely down to how it’s transmitted: you are free to wander wherever you like, and can pick up pieces of narrative in a random order. The game prompts you with a preferred path – tiny balls of light lead you towards places you should be looking at – but it never really forces you to do that. You could stroll around, ignore the spaces where you could overhear story beats, and never progress. But the human absence prompts curiosity, and I found I was creating theories about what might have happened in the place, altering them as I moved through the game.

(There’s a pretty good summary of the story to be found over here, should you want more of a structured take on the thing. )

The atmosphere, though: man. The game presents a beautifully bucolic scene, all pastoral hills and white-walled pubs. There’s memorials, a church on a hill, and small-windowed houses. With no humans, all you can hear is the weather, the wind soughing in the trees. All you can see is the nodding of crops, the clouds moving against the sails of a windmill. It’s calm, and beautiful – the weather and solar effects are pretty great, despite varying levels of pop-in, at least on the PS4 – and yet there’s something off about it. Cars are stopped, doors open. Radios repeat digits, tuned to a numbers station. Computers show crackling images, always the same. And there’s bloodied tissues in increasing numbers.

Either where I live has shitloads of light pollution or I’m BLIND.

And as the bloodied tissues increase, so does the level of lurking unease. Which is weird, and slightly wrong-footing given the almost happily elegiac note struck by the ending. I don’t want to spoil it, but there is an unevenness to the story, I think, that seems to work against it at times. But when it does work – when you complete an individual’s arc, and are rewarded with a further nugget of death’s hurtling face, followed by a walk under astronomically gobsmacking skies – it works really fucking well.

There are, of course, some problems. The game world looks great, though on my PS4 there were certain elements of pop-in. I guess this is unavoidable given that the only real loading screen you see is at the start of the game. There’s an inability to run – well, the button to do so is hidden from any instruction – which can frustrate, as sauntering through the countryside, while beautiful, is distracting once the story grabs hold. And, naturally, there’s occasional problems with invisible walls; you’re unable to go where you feel you should be able to. I understand that the game requires a certain amount of funnelling in order to force the player to regard specific events, but there were a number of times I felt constrained. It was here that the uncanny valley reared its head the most, and it pulled me out of the game when it happened.

WHY CAN’T I PLUNGE TO MY DEATH IN A SIMULATION OF SMALL-TOWN DESPAIR? WHY?

There’s also collectibles in the game. Except you don’t really pick up anything, so it’s not until after the fact that you’re likely to find out about them. Regarding a certain type of book cover in all its variations will give you a trophy, for example – except that for a game like this, the competitive aspect of trophies seems pretty worthless. I know they’re expected with games, but it does feel a bit like a system admonishing you that you’ve experienced the game wrongly, which is something that shouldn’t happen in a walking simulator.

Having said that, though, these are minor annoyances, and they didn’t stop my enjoyment enough to make me quit. Everybody’s Gone to the Rapture is a game that somehow roped in my love of the Marie Celeste and presented it in a wrapper of 1980s pastoral sci-fi. It takes an evening to play, and is worth a look. I certainly think I’ll be making the trip back into the valley at some point, to see what I’ve missed.

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