When I asked the internet what I should play on the PlayStation 4 we got for Christmas, Sam Ashwell immediately suggested The Chinese Room’s Everybody’s Gone to the Rapture. Over the last week my partner and I played it across three sessions. I ended up finding it hard to process, not due to its content (which I rather enjoyed) but because it just seemed an overall unlikely artifact.
I didn’t carefully time it, but I think it took between six and eight hours to stride through, not playing as a completionist. I did try to trigger as many location-dependent story points as I could, but found that the player-character’s relaxed walking speed, inherited perhaps from the team’s previous effort Dear Esther, discouraged obsessive searching through every nook and cranny of the map.
The game invites you to explore the many interpersonal dramas within a modern English hamlet whose inhabitants possess various degrees of realization that the world’s coming to a sudden end. (No spoilers here — the title’s a little oblique, but only just a little.) Your lonely wandering occurs sometime after all the people have inexplicably vanished, leaving behind ghostly echoes of their conversations, fights and trysts across the eerily empty fields, homes and pubs. I found it reminiscent of the films Melancholia or Life After People, albeit married to the narrative conceit found in games like Bioshock (while leaving all its gunplay at the door).
I’ll have more to write about the experience of playing contemporary video games on the PS4 later, but allow me to say now that I spent much of my time with Rapture just… confused that humans had managed to build this. That seems very small-minded of me, as someone who has experienced Stendhal Syndrome in the presence of certain real-world architecture. Rapture didn’t make me weak in the knees, though; my wonder more resembled that of watching a master magician, perhaps, performing impossible actions at a personal scale. In the game I would make my way through a field of tall, rustling wheat stalks and into a shed, and stare straight up at the metal corrugated roof, noting the spattering of rust around its uneven seam. Like so many other things and structures in the game, the shed narratively served only as set-dressing, with no rules-mechanical purpose at all. I’d think about the effort it took to build this shed inside the game world, and how I’d leave it soon and never see it again. And I’d just think: how?
I mean, I know the basics of the process that must have gone into that shed. Initial design documents describing the fictional village of Yaughton and its adjacent farmland would have led to field research in the real world’s countryside that found and photographed, among many other things, little sheds with corrugated roofs. These would ultimately become amalgamated into a single digital shed built through the same processes of painstaking modeling and QA testing that the studio applied to every other object and structure found within the game. I get all that.
But as “I” stood there in the shed inside this game, staring at its ceiling, I couldn’t escape the feeling that it shouldn’t exist. None of it should have existed. On the aesthetic level alone, it seemed too beautiful and fragile to exist within the medium of video games. I hate how hokey that sounds, and I dislike how it sounds like I call the entire game a masterwork for the ages, because I’m not sure I would. The “player is a silent, invisible specter exploring a beautiful but lifeless world littered with talking books or audio diaries or whatever” setup is very well-trodden ground, and to say that Rapture does something new with it isn’t necessarily saying much at all.
It made me feel regret all over again for not visiting Sleep No More during its lengthy run in Boston, because I now very much wish to compare my feelings about exploring the spaces offered by the two works. I suspect I would find them both similar in their extreme unlikelihood, and yet in both cases: here I stand, inside them.
Let us leave the shed and return to the story. The very end of the game presents a tonal shift different from all that came before. At the closing credits rolled, my partner said, “That was confusing.” I didn’t disagree, and some hours into the following day, while she worked at her job and I sat around the house thinking about very slow video games, I composed for her an email writing out my take on the ending, and all else that the game’s last half hour or so reveals. And this follows.
Please note that the remainder of this post spoils the story of this game, and won’t necessarily make much sense if you haven’t played it, besides.
The player-character is Kate, the antisocial American scientist whose research brings her to the observatory at Yaughton — the home town, as it happens, of her husband and fellow astronomer, Stephen. The game intentionally keeps this identity vague until the very end, to the degree that I spent quite some time believing the player-character to be Stephen. (You do start the game outside the observatory gates with a short voice-over of Kate speaking, but are offered no other context.)
The “wisp” and other light effects seen throughout the game are hallucinations Kate experiences through “the Pattern”, the perhaps lonely, perhaps merely hungry alien entity she grows obsessed with. They seem to let her see and hear location-tied echoes of people (and other neurally complex animals, like the dog perhaps) whom the Pattern has eaten.
Kate clearly has serious difficulties relating with other people, and comes across as a cold outsider to her neighbors in the English hamlet her astrophysical research brings her to. This sets her up as a perfect (and perfectly ironic) recipient for communion with the non-human Pattern, an entity she would forsake everything to talk to.
Even before the Pattern sets into her, Kate does manage to complement her misanthropy with pathological possessiveness over her husband, Stephen. When Stephen’s ex-girlfriend, Lilly, approaches her just to introduce herself and clear the air, Kate seems initially confused why Lilly would even bother, and then becomes territorially defensive.
Combine all these traits, and it ends up taking very little for her to leave Stephen feeling alienated after she finds a project at the observatory that consumes all her attention. When she discovers his seeking companionship elsewhere — with Lilly, herself stuck in a loveless marriage — we can understand Kate’s surprise and anger, but it seems to come from a darker place that lacks much empathy. (I also got the impression that Stephen and Lilly didn’t actually start sleeping together until after Kate’s discovery that they’d been sharing drinks at the pub, but it’s all one to Kate.)
Against this setting, Kate comes to see the Pattern as not just a fascinating phenomenon but her soulmate, especially after she discards Stephen. She willfully feeds it all of humanity in order to consummate her relationship with the entity — an act she accelerates without a shred of doubt or hesitation after Stephen, desperate to save the rest of the world, tries to kill her (and every other “infected” villager) with the airstrike.
She utters a final line of something like “Everyone is paired off now, and this Pattern is mine”. Through the final recordings she makes at the observatory’s towers in the final chapter, she shows how she sees herself and the Pattern as completing and archiving the project of humanity by enabling the Pattern to eat everyone on earth.
On her final tour through the hamlet, she witnesses standing-wave echoes from all its inhabitants, and the communication they shared — as couples, friends, co-workers, rivals — all paired off and caught forever in the Pattern’s amber. The player is free to feel moved by these displays, but I believe Kate watches them dispassionately, with the eye of a museum curator at best. Having made her rounds (and knowing that she must soon succumb to the airstrike’s poison) she can finally reach up to embrace the totality, the whole Pattern itself, in the eternal cosmic union she claims as her reward.
Kate’s kind of a jerk.