Loss is a thing you cannot fix. Misplacing an object is inconvenient, troubling at best if the thing was of some sentimental value or important use to you. Leaving your iPhone on the train is terrible, money falling out of your pocket sucks, and unless other humans are as benevolent and selfless as we hope them to be, we'll never recover these things. But objects can be replaced. With people, it's harder.
Death removes people from the circles of the world. Death means you'll never see them again. But losing a friendship or breaking off a relationship means they will continue to exist without you. Everybody's Gone to the Rapture made me wonder which feeling is worse, which one is the bigger gut-punch of total, utter loss. At least with death comes the idea that maybe, depending on what you believe, there is something bigger than you waiting on the other side.
In developer The Chinese's Room's newest game, you move silently through the world, switching radios on and off, opening doors, and passing through ghostly environments like a ghost yourself. A heart-wrenching story and meaningful mechanics guide you through the experience, and the way you're tasked with not only consuming the mystery but also puzzling it all together is a recipe for heartache. Everybody's Gone to the Rapture left me cold and numb but with a sliver of wonder; the way the game weaves hope and hopelessness together is its greatest strength, and makes it one of the best narrative-driven games I have ever played.
The events of Everybody's Gone to the Rapture take place in a small town in Shropshire, England. The player character, or force, or whatever you are--there is no indication at any point as to whom or what the entity you are controlling is, you never see feet or hands--is alone. Everyone in the town has vanished. You are left to figure out why, driven only by your own morbid curiosity. There is no scripted quest or set path to follow, and you are left to wander at will to cobble clues together.
As you walk through the town, you'll find doors left ajar, cars parked askew on roadsides with doors and windows open, and streets strewn with dead birds and wads of bloody tissues. There are no bodies left, and maybe it's that hope of finding a human being--or at least some sort of human remains--that makes the desire to move forward so irresistible. Everybody's Gone to the Rapture plays like a horror movie stripped of its gore and fear, leaving you with only a simmering feeling of dread. It's that dread that drives you forward rather than terror, as there's nothing more to be afraid of. The damage is already done.
It's difficult to describe the game's story, because to detail how you obtain information is a heavy spoiler. The fun in Rapture is poking into every corner of Shropshire, hoping to find a scrap of something that tells you what happened. Many times my own search turned up empty, leaving me standing in an empty house and listening to the sound of wind through empty hallways. Sometimes I stumbled upon a hidden something, something easy to miss if I hadn't noticed the odd distortions in the air around it, and learned to check out a hollow deep in the woods or a cabin on the far side of the lake. And sometimes these things stumbled upon me instead, leaving me breathless and sad. If there's one thread of continuity in Everybody's Gone to the Rapture, it's that no one left the world behind without baggage, heartbreak, and something lost.
Everybody's Gone to the Rapture is ultimately a story about people, and the organic way in which their stories unravel--not with exposition but the presentation of real memories, out of order and completely dependent on how you find them--gives you the room to piece things together yourself. The game doesn't want to tell you anything; it wants to show you.
There are very few things you can do in this game. You can operate radios and lights, open and close doors, and walk very, very slowly. There is no menu screen, no directional compass, and no inventory. And there is no way to check your progress, leaving the pace and thoroughness of the exploring up to you.
Rapture's main mechanics involves tuning points of light like you would a radio. Every so often, you'll stumble upon a room or area filled with glowing specks of golden light. Approach, and you'll find a denser ball of light at their center. To "unlock" these lights, players are prompted to tilt their controller to the left or right, using the gyroscope feature to find the right angle to make the light grow brighter the same way you would tune a radio to find the right station. Within them lies the important stuff, the most impactful clues and poignant moments you'll find in Shropshire.
There are five main areas to the game, each with their own mini-story that connect in some way to every area's story thereafter. Discovering what happened to everyone in Shropshire requires you to explore every nook and cranny. The story--a beautiful tale of science and mysticism and love--is nonlinear, and areas can be "completed" in any order, and events drop just enough clues to tantalize you. The game never gives you enough to go on, and things always feel one hint out of reach. And just when you think you've solved the mystery, Rapture throws you another curve ball, making the things that were starting to make sense way more complicated and confusing. But then you stumble upon a nugget that suddenly, and painfully, makes it all clear. The way it all unravels is brilliantly designed, and coupling this trail of narrative breadcrumbs with its simmering sense of dread and loss makes Rapture a difficult journey to disengage from.
I had a lot of feelings while playing Everybody's Gone to the Rapture. The atmosphere was peaceful, I never felt frightened. But the deeper I walked into Shropshire, the more empty I felt. I've lost people in my lifetime, to death and to differences, and as I rifled through the remains of this tiny village I realized that no one in Shropshire got to leave in peace--and maybe didn't leave me in peace, either. Does anyone ever leave a world behind in peace?
Certain moments would make me sad, but not sad in the way you feel for someone after witnessing their misfortune. I felt sad in ways you can only feel when you've caused that pain. I wasn't doing anything, but by digging up these moments, I felt like maybe I was the center of these problems all along. Rapture's narrative will do that to do; you sympathize, you identify, and then you accept despair.
Everywhere I turned I found a mess. Houses left wide open with dishes left in the sink, scraps of paper and tissues littering the floor. Cars with open doors and backseats filled with belongings. Overturned crates abandoned on the roadside, their contents strewn everywhere. I found ashtrays filled with cigarette butts that were still leaking smoke. With each unraveling story thread I felt like the litter I found, unpacked and strewn about, left for no one to find. No one would find it. No one would know anything about the sad truths behind these people's lives and disappearances other than me.
But then I would leave a house and round a corner, and I would find myself on an empty road under a canopy of trees. Splintered light hit my face as the sun began to set. The leaves would be so green and so brilliant I would be temporarily blinded. I felt like I was in paradise, like nothing was wrong, like nothing could touch me. Maybe there was hope. Maybe this wasn't a futile search after all.
Everybody's Gone to the Rapture's artfully done visual and audio cues help you navigate without a directional compass or a HUD. The same gold lights that you can "unlock' will appear and zigzag through the air, guiding you towards things you should check out. The sound of radio static or a beeping phone floating to you will guide you towards hidden secrets. These masterfully wrought cues keep you on track, to let you know when you're missing something. This is how Rapture gets and holds you in its iron grip, and I found myself sitting inches away from my television screen listening raptly, desperate to spot something that would solve the mystery.
When you hear or see something, there's no way to play it back or view it again. This inability to go over information again will make you think harder. You, like Shropshire's doomed inhabitants, only have so much time to react. It adds a sense of urgency to things, making those "aha" moments when you decipher meanings all the more poignant and personal.
The speed at which you move through the game is frustrating. You walk very slowly, but this causes you to look at everything and pay attention to small details. But sometimes, especially when doubling back through areas following golden light or sound trails, the speed can get tedious. Sometimes those guiding golden lights move so fast you can't keep up, rounding corners and flickering out of sight only to leave you in their dust unsure where to go. But this movement speed isn't enough to deter you from exploring and revisiting areas you've seen before. The sense of wonder, the drive to solve the riddle of the rapture, is powerful enough to overcome this.
Furthermore, with no manual way to save and large swathes of time between checkpoints, Rapture discourages you from walking away with areas half-explored. You will get lost sometimes--but again, some wonderful audiovisual tidbits will pop up to guide you just when you begin to lose hope. Tiny lights will appear on the road in the direction you need to walk. Or the wind will pick up, carrying with it the sound of a beeping radio that holds your next cue. Getting lost happens, but it's never for long, and while I was admittedly frustrated in the beginning of my playtime, by the end the game had conditioned me to look and listen for the signs I needed to continue. And it didn't even have to tell me, it gave me the tools to learn on my own and really invest in the game's focus on exploration.
Rapture includes a soundtrack that perfectly augments the game's atmosphere of melancholy and futility. Rapture's ambience always sits you on the edge of sorrow, with the music never quite intruding in an obtrusive way, but pulling you in just close enough to dip your toes into the game world's melancholy. Its sounds make it hard for you to not feel like Shropshire itself: cold, alone, and utterly empty. A lonely, beautiful void.
But in the end, the game gives you no real closure. It's a bold, powerful move, and the feelings of hope and helplessness that filled me when the credits rolled are things I am still wrestling with as I try to unpack thoughts into a review. It's rare something can completely choke you up the way experiences like Gone Home and Journey can. This game is definitely a breath-taker.
Everybody's Gone to the Rapture uses subtle cues to guide you through its world and then gives you the space to digest what you find. It's a wonderful example of what games can achieve narratively while presenting minimal physical engagement and tasking player imagination with the rest. That sense of futility never leaves you, but whether or not you cling to the story's threads of hope is entirely up to you; no happy ending is forced on you... just an ending. The moral of the story is whatever you think it is, and there's no wrong way to feel as you sift through its bright, empty world. And while I had my moments of frustration in navigation, that didn't stop it from dazzling me. I left Shropshire exhausted, spent, and utterly impressed by The Chinese Room's magnificently crafted journey, both in how it brought me to its conclusion and the conclusion itself.
Update (8/11 9:12 a.m. PT): Following the publication of this review, developer The Chinese Room announced that there is a sprint ability when moving, though the game's tutorial never explicitly states you have the option. By pressing and holding R2 for five seconds, the player entity will gradually ramp up to a higher speed. We tested this speed, and while it does cover more ground more quickly than the default walking option, it's not a huge improvement. The faster speed feels more like a power walk or a jog, and does not affect my feelings about the movement speed.