The Chinese Room’s first game, “Dear Esther” (2008) was conceived by Pinchbeck as an experiment to see what possibilities arise when conventional gameplay mechanics – like jumping and shooting – are snipped from a virtual environment. In the wake of such austerity, Pinchbeck (the author of a dissertation on how games involving first-person shooters have handled storytelling) hypothesized that a narrative tailored to an immersive setting might engage a player’s interest. His hunch proved profitably correct.
“Dear Esther,” one of most cerebral video games in recent times — about a suicidal man wandering an uninhabited island — began life as a user-created mod to a popular first-person shooter. It was built using the Source graphics engine that underpinned “Half-Life 2.” Initially released as a free download, it was well received by the mod community. This paved the way for the top-to-bottom remake that was released commercially in 2012 and has since sold over 750,000 copies — quite a feat for a title whose investors were initially skittish about its earning potential. The game’s success allowed The Chinese Room to sever its connection with the University of Portsmouth, where Pinchbeck was employed as a lecturer and researcher. The company partnered with Frictional Games to release “Amnesia: a Machine for Pigs” in 2013 while laying the groundwork for its latest release, “Everybody’s Gone to the Rapture,” a game that bears obvious comparison to “Dear Esther,” given its fixation on solitude and death.
“Everybody’s Gone to the Rapture” begins with a canny piece of editing. Its cinematic intro is framed in a letterbox style suggestive of a blank film screen. Against its white flickering plane, a woman tells us, in a tremulous voice, that her name is Dr. Katherine Collins and that she is the only one left. The blank screen cuts to a black and white pastoral setting as the title fades in along with the first notes of the game’s stupendous musical score. Then radiant color fills the screen and you’re released to roam a bucolic environment–one of the loveliest in video games, right up there with “The Vanishing of Ethan Carter.”
In this opening segment, the specter of cinema is summoned and spurned. For as pleasant as it is to watch the film-like opening, the joy of interactivity is conferred at precisely the moment that the on screen image reaches the apex of its beauty. It’s as if the developers wished to imply that this is something that reaches past cinema. Yet, it’s the world’s great filmmakers who I most wish would play this game.
“Everybody’s Gone to the Rapture” demonstrates that an ordinary domestic setting enriched by dramatic lighting can be every bit as compelling in a game as in an arthouse movie. As the player, your job is to do your best not to get lost among the streets and byways of Shropshire County, in the West Midlands of England, and to puzzle out what’s happened to the inhabitants of the area who have disappeared. From the outset, all you know is that an “event” has occurred which, according to Dr. Collins, has left traces of previous incidents behind.
As you make your way through the rural area, which is dotted by public telephones, portable radios, and boxy vehicles that vivify the 1984 aesthetic, you’ll discover pools of light. Approach them, while twisting the controller in your hand like tuning an analog knob, and you’ll be treated to short theatrical interludes involving the townspeople whose lives have intersected with Dr. Collins. These apparitions appear as strands of light. As a consequence, even moments that reveal their pettiness and selfishness are gilded in beauty.
Luring a player through a world with little more than the promise of uncovering social interactions seems like a winning tactic. I’m surprised more development studios haven’t used it and gathered the input of filmmakers and theatrical directors.
For while I was quite keen on discovering all of information I could — maybe an hour elapsed before I began a second playthrough — but I found the characters’ backstories skewed more towards melodrama than drama, which makes “Dear Esther” the more literary-minded game. Considering the game’s reliance on theatrical set pieces and voice-overs, I kept wondering what my favorite filmmakers would do if they were given similar tools to work with. How would Chris Marker have used voice-overs if he were alive? How might David Lynch stage that confrontation? Idle questions, yes, but indicative of the mood the game generated.
“Everybody’s Gone to the Rapture” is an ambitious game that is fundamentally about the acceptance of death. It shows how video games can tap into the ordinary without unwieldy mechanics (I’m looking at you “Heavy Rain”). Though It doesn’t offer the intellectual workout of another first-person perspective, story-first game such as “The Old City: Leviathan” it is the best scored, most accessible argument for how video games can prosper as narrative sandboxes.
Christopher Byrd is a Brooklyn-based writer who has been playing video games since the days of the Atari 2600. His writing has appeared in the New York Times Book Review, the Barnes & Noble Review, Al Jazeera America, the Guardian and elsewhere. Follow him on Twitter @Chris_Byrd.
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