Everyone’s Gone to the Rapture is free for PlayStation Plus subscribers this month, making this post unintentionally timely. I do recommend giving it a go if you haven’t already—it’s worth a few hours of your time. However…
Something has been bothering me about Everyone’s Gone to the Rapture ever since I played it last year. Specifically, I’ve been wondering why I don’t like it more.
On paper it should be my ideal game; it’s utterly beautiful, it’s well-written, the production is excellent, and it’s sci-fi, which is usually my thing. So what’s the problem? Why do I feel so indifferent about it? It took a solid week of chatting about games at a conference to come to some sort of conclusion.
In short, it’s a combination of two things: lack of constructive agency and lack of player role in the narrative.
Let’s start with the agency. Rapture is really quite linear, despite its sprawling village environment. The game is essentially divided into five chapters, each focused on a different character in a different area of the map. You’re encouraged in each chapter to follow a glowing orb representing the chapter’s character. This leads you to a number of the conversations the game focuses on and ultimately to the chapter finale.
I say ‘encouraged’ because you don’t have to follow it. But you probably should, because choosing not to may mean that you miss conversations, lose the orb, and even miss chapter finales (which seem to only be triggered once you’ve found all the key conversations in that chapter). When I played I initially adopted an exploratory pattern born from years of RPGs and methodically worked my way round the first chapter area; unfortunately this meant I passed the finale location early on and, having lost the orb and not knowing to expect a chapter finale, didn’t realise I’d missed it until later in the game.
You have agency in how you uncover the narrative but diverging from the recommended route seems more likely to be detrimental to your narrative experience than not. The player also has no way to affect that narrative, which brings me to my second point.
Games are usually about the player in some way. “Isn’t that a bit entitled?” someone said to me. Perhaps, but it’s part of the medium. Agency is one of the defining features of games, separating them from film/TV and granting them a wider, more immediate emotional palette (including feelings like guilt and pride) to evoke a closer connection to the worlds/characters/narratives they include. Similarly, identity of the player character is a theme or motivating force in many games.
In Rapture, you play an anonymous observer without any stake in the world or narrative. The world in Rapture is a moment frozen in amber—beautiful, but distant. There’s little narrative tension in Rapture; all the conversations are echoes of past events with outcomes the player can’t affect, and we know what’s ultimately happened—the clue’s in the title.
I did wonder if perhaps I was reading it wrong—that the player was actually a disembodied character too (perhaps Kate). I considered this, but the audible player footsteps and inability to float over low objects put me off this interpretation. When I mentioned this to someone with connections to the developers at The Chinese Room, however, they told me that the player is indeed meant to be Kate, and that the footsteps and suchlike are to aid playability.
Alright, but what does it matter if you are playing as Kate? Nothing in-game seems to react to your being a particular person, and we uncover Kate’s story like any other. The only real hint that we may be playing as Kate is her central role in the story and our starting position by the observatory. At the end of the day it doesn’t matter who you’re meant to be, because nothing in the game has anything to do with your individual identity.
It’s the combination of these issues that makes Rapture feel a bit like a missed opportunity. It may be filled with lovely scenery and a host of interesting characters but Rapture’s arguably no more emotionally engaging than a TV show. Gone Home and Firewatch have had me on the edge of my seat with anticipation, The Witcher 3 has left me bereft, and Journey certainly lived up to its name. Rapture evoked none of these things when I played it, and evokes nothing now when I think back on it.
In Dear Esther, The Chinese Room’s first game of this type, we can identify with the narrator, become him as we voyage down those unknown paths, and wonder what will happen when we reach the radio tower; with its climax comes a deep catharsis as if we the player have ourselves taken flight. The shadow of a gull recalls it even now. Rapture doesn’t strike the same notes. The player can be moved by in-game events but they’re too far removed by their lack of identity to experience that deep catharsis first-hand—it belongs to the characters in the game, not the player.