As with Dear Esther before it, Everybody’s Gone to the Rapture offers up an admirable and atmospheric experience that simply isn’t all that much fun to play. If anything, the game’s expanded size and scope only amplify the frustrations with the developer’s choice of medium, with the player’s sloth-like movement speed being wholly inadequate for the exploration of an entire English county. Even accounting for the invisible walls that keep players from strolling too far off the beaten path, it’s all too easy to get lost in Rapture’s depiction of Shropshire, and even easier to grow frustrated with the leaden backtracking required should players miss out on viewing one of the many mandatory flashback sequences that are required to move on to the next area.
What’s odd is that when it comes to both big-picture and small-picture ideas, Rapture can be compelling. The overall narrative, driven by Dr. Katherine Collins’s exploration of the de-populated town and the various auditory clues she finds along the way, offers up moments of religious and scientific insight. Likewise, though the fully voiced cast of villagers can be initially overwhelming (at least 20 make an appearance), little details discovered over the course of the game help players to make intimate connections with them, whether it’s learning about the car crash Sean and Di caused, the potentially illicit (underage) romance between Rachel and Rhys, or the secret life of the local stationmaster, whose home is filled with model-train sets that one can imagine him contentedly playing with. The moments in which players are invited to fill in the blanks between the gradually increasing corpses of birds and bloody tissues on the streets, screwy radio and telephone static, and ominous contrails occasionally seen in the sky are a pleasant departure from the often too frenetic and obvious storytelling of video games.
But people aren’t the only thing missing from Rapture. There’s a built-in inertia to the game, stemming in part from the movement speed, but extending to the nonlinear narrative and semi-open-world design. There’s a liquid-light presence (a science-fiction Tinkerbell) that pings locations of interest, but whereas Journey at least offered a clear goal (a mountain to ascend), Rapture never picks up the pace. Like the recent Submerged, there’s simply not enough game here, which suggests that the Chinese Room might have been better off with the approach of another similar physics-based mystery, Cloud Chamber, which skipped out on a disconnected walking simulator so that players could instead double down on mentally wandering through all the interconnected videos and documents.
In an effort to hold a player’s attention across the sprawl of the game, each of the six main areas dedicates its mandatory narrative scenes to a specific character. In the initial area, players will learn about Father Jeremy’s attempts to maintain order in the panicked (and quarantined) rural village of Yaughton; in the more industrialized part of town by the railways, Little Tipworth, players “meet” Kate’s husband, Stephen, as he desperately tries to free everyone from the Pattern he’s unwittingly unleashed on them. To its credit, Rapture largely manages to meld scenes of “last days” panic with those that introduce the rise and fall of Kate and Stephen’s relationship, thanks in part to an affair Stephen rekindles with an old flame, Lizzie, whom players will encounter at the now-abandoned lakeside resort. But these scenes are still at odds with the lack of gameplay: There’s a reason Lars von Trier didn’t design Melancholia as an interactive love story.
Ratpure is, then, a beautiful disappointment. All of the marvelous details and distinctions—pay close attention to the shifts in lighting as day turns gradually to a pinkish sunset and star-filled night—can’t save the story from its platitude-like coda (happiness, it suggests, is found in togetherness), and do nothing to actually improve the gameplay. Before creating another tedious and overlong game, the Chinese Room would do well to study the structure and pacing of a Zen kōan.