Everybody’s Gone to the Rapture is beautiful. There’s just no other way to describe it. Everything about it is awe-inspiring and absorbing and beautiful.
The menus right at the beginning of the game set the mood immediately. Based on Cold War Public Service Announcements, they set you up for when “emergency” comes, stoically informing you that preparedness is the key to survival. But there is no real preparing yourself, just an artistic opening sequence, before you find yourself in the Shropshire village of Yaughton.
Yaughton isn’t real, but Shropshire is. It’s a tiny county in the West Midlands of England; so small and irrelevant that most people from Britain couldn’t point it out on a map, if they’ve heard of it at all. I know, because I was born and raised here. And Everybody’s Gone to the Rapture evokes it…well, as I said, just beautifully.
There were some issues with the graphics as I was playing; pop-in, framerate problems, assets disappearing for no apparent reason. But I didn’t care. It was the visual world building that I was looking at: that pub looks just like the one on the corner of such-and-such a road; I see all these road signs on a daily basis; walking down this road, with hogsweed in the verge, and a blackbird singing…
The story, too, felt familiar. Sci-fi intrigue aside, Yaughton is full of family tensions, political gripes, and good old-fashioned British complaining. Many of the dialogue segments triggered by approaching a residual imprint of light left behind by the ‘event’ of the main plot didn’t focus on that plot at all. Rather, they talked those ubiquitous small town concerns, amplified by the fact that the game is set 30 or so years ago.
One protagonist, Stephen, was originally from Yaughton, but studied in California, where he met and married an American woman named Kate, who is our other protagonist. The two have just moved back to Shropshire as scientists, and it’s made abundantly clear that Kate doesn’t fit into Yaughton. The new scientific facility, and new faces in general, are immediately fronwed upon. Then there’s the fact that some residents complain that Kate has changed Stephen, or that Stephen shouldn’t have left his stable life (including his ex-girlfriend, Lizzie) to study in America. Others are surprised that Kate’s actually Dr. Collins, PhD, since she’s a woman and all. And one resident insists that she’s not biased against Kate “because of the colour of her skin.” Let me tell you, as someone painfully aware of the ignorance of insular small town life out here, even several decades later, her insistence fell quite flat. At one point, Stephen insists that “they’re not that bad,” and Kate drily replies “Easy for you to say.”
The world building was almost too accurate, because it made the game probably creepier than it was intended to be. Yes, everything was familiar, but that just meant that it was like walking down my own abandoned street, complete with the odd dead bird and blood stained handkerchief. At one point, the story was really building up to a crescendo, and I walked into a front garden and stopped dead, because I saw a freshly dug grave with a homemade wooden cross hammered into the ground over it.
Except that it wasn’t. It was a bird bath in a flowerbed. Death might be one of the key themes of Rapture, but threats weren’t. My mind, however, didn’t want to accept that sense of calm that Rapture evokes so well. I was spooked by a ticking clock, a fern blowing in the breeze, and my own footsteps. (I thought they were a Geiger counter. It’s possible I’ve been playing too much Fallout.)
Thanks to this creeping sense of dread, I became oddly attached to a small ball of light that acted as a kind of nudge in the right direction for the player, leading towards the next main section of story without forcing you to advance at all. At first, it seemed mildly annoying. “It’s okay,” I wanted to tell it, “I live here. I want to explore.” But as I began to feel more and more isolated, I was glad to have my little guide. In my mind, it became a character of its own, wanting to show me what had happened. Once, I listened to a piece of dialogue, carried on up the road, and realised that the light had stayed put. I returned, found a new dialogue segment, learned something new, and the light advanced (but it happily waited as I searched along a side path that led nowhere). A little later, I lost my glittering guide, and even though I was pretty sure I knew where I needed to go, I felt lonely. From that point it came and went, apparently of its own accord, and the sound of its return always brought a smile to my face.
The world building did its job incredibly, but it wasn’t flawless. Oftentimes dialect and accents seemed out of place in ways that probably wouldn’t be noticeable to audiences that don’t know the area so well – but then they wouldn’t have been as drawn in by the world building in the first place. Instead, what truly carried the mood, story, and game was the music. It drew the experience together and made it whole and real. Main plot revelations were followed by haunting choral pieces, whilst side plots and general exploration had their own, equally captivating, tracks. It was some of the best I’ve encountered in video games, or any other form of storytelling, for that matter.
By the end of Rapture, I was feeling quite emotionally drained. It took me a while to step back and evaluate the experience as a whole, and once I did, I could only describe it as beautiful.