Everybody’s Gone to the Rapture: An experiment in the storytelling capabilities of video games

Games have changed a lot in the past two decades with each console system improving the capabilities available to game designers and game players. A lot of modern games are focused on game mechanics, but more and more games are starting to have a stronger focus on the story of the game. An example of this is Call of Duty: Advanced Warfare, a game that is highly focused on the game mechanics of a first-person shooter game, but also a large focus on telling a story with the game’s campaign mode, even going so far as having actor Kevin Spacey portray the game’s primary villain.

 Game mechanics are important to a video game. The mechanics are often what draw players to a game. But as games are becoming more and more a medium for storytelling, could game mechanics be getting in the way? Dan Pinchbeck of game development company The Chinese Room believes so. The Chinese Room’s newest game has been highly anticipated, and it’s one of the most unique approaches to a game this year. It’s called Everybody’s Gone to the Rapture, and it’s coming exclusively to the PlayStation 4 on August 11, 2015.

Games like Call of Duty and Final Fantasy strive to tell a story as players journey through the game’s levels, but player choice is generally only illusory. Players may make choices, but they’re predetermined choices. The game is designed to take a player on a certain journey from one narrative plot point to the next. Even if it’s a branching narrative, player choices are still limited because it would be impossible for a game developer to design an infinite amount of possibilities in a game.

Everybody’s Gone to the Rapture is a game that’s designed specifically with the storytelling possibilities of a video game in mind. But it’s not a game that’s meant to take a player through a meticulously predetermined narrative. Certainly, the game has a design to it because it has to, but the game puts a lot of power in the hands of the player. Or at least it strives to.

Storytelling has been around for as long as humanity, and there are really two types of stories: the kind that are plotted out with the author in complete control and the ones where author and audience collaborate to create an original story experience. Rapture is about the second type of story. Stephen King, in his excellent book for writers On Writing, talks about story being something that an author searches for and excavates.

People are generally accustomed to author-controlled stories because those are the kinds of stories we find in novels, television shows, and movies. But video games aren’t something you sit back and watch. They’re inherently something you interact with. Dan Pinchbeck, the Creative Director of The Chinese Room, believes that video games should do more to tap into the player side of game storytelling, which means authors let go of some of their creative control.

Everybody’s Gone to the Rapture is a game where players take on part of the role that Stephen King describes for authors. Gameplay is focused on exploration and excavation of the story of what happened when the world ended. Clues are planted throughout the game for players to interact with. Some of these clues come in the form of apparitions. If you watch any of the gameplay trailers released so far for the game, gameplay is strangely eerie.

Development for the game has been intensive. The graphics are rich, the music creates a certain kind of atmosphere, and the hype of the story world where everyone has somehow disappeared has made the game one of the most highly anticipated games of the year. The Chinese Room has even created a website specifically for the game with gameplay trailers, music previews from the game, and plenty of behind-the-scenes info from the three-year journey of the game’s development.

With the game releasing in August, it remains to be seen whether or not the game accomplishes what The Chinese Room hopes it will. Storytelling is important, but gamers often come to a game for the mechanics. Even though a game like Call of Duty has a story to it, many players skip it in favor of the multi-player mode. Let’s face it: one thing that Rapture isn’t is an action game. And action games (i.e. Call of Duty and Halo) are arguably the predominant choice for most players.

It also seems possible that relying too much on player choice may have the effect of only creating a disjointed narrative. Design means that even if players are to explore and discover in a game like Rapture, what they discover is still predetermined in some way. Game developers can’t create infinite possibilities. Still, the hype The Chinese Room have created around Everybody’s Gone to the Rapture makes it seem like they’ve possibly landed on something.

As someone interested in storytelling in a variety of mediums, I’m personally excited to try out Rapture. I hope it lives up to the hype. I hope it sets a trend for a new type of gaming experience. But if it doesn’t, it’ll surely be a fun experiment in what video games are capable of.

Everybody’s Gone to the Rapture releases exclusively for PlayStation 4 on August 11, 2015.

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  • Paul

    Good article, made me interested in checking this game out.

    • Thanks for reading. It’s an interesting approach for sure.

  • Henry Higgins III

    The game has me intrigued, especially the fact it’s set in a small village in Shropshire. Most post-apocalyptic games have a “destroyed wasteland” setting, so to see things you’ll recognise (British signs, etc), will add an extra layer for UK gamers.

    Here’s a great 13min video to show what I mean.

    https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=aU4WT2LqpMA

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