Thursday, 21 April 2016

Notes of Rapture from...

...Yaughton, a leafy Shropshire Village stuck in a timewarp in the 1980s…[youtube vid]

An enticing valley is beautifully rendered before me, blossoms are falling from trees, sunlight is dancing across the empty road and glorious music is moving and uplifting where everything here is so... deserted… It’s intriguing… and it’s another fine example of game-'plays’ to come.

As I start looking around, the first, apocalyptic signs slowly appear: abandoned cars, unlocked doors… Am I an English 'Donnie Darko'? Hold on a moment: who’s this? Oh… the residual light energy from the past; ‘ghosts’ giving me clues about what on earth has happened. 

It must have something to do with the locked observatory nearby, which will mark the beginning and the end of this revelatory ‘journey' called 'Everybody's Gone to the Rapture'. A big question is: will these villagers know the 'Timewarp dance'? [ok, that's 1975 to be exact.] 

There are five 'areas' in the game, each of which revolve around a different character, with the main protagonists being Dr Katherine Collins (Kate) and her husband, Stephen – both scientists at the observatory. During their work, Kate and Stephen encountered a ‘strange pattern’ which appeared to be an unknown form of life. They observed the pattern ‘infecting’ and sometimes killing other lifeforms. Kate concluded that the pattern was attempting to communicate with humans, ignorant to the harm that it was causing during her attempts to communicate with it. During this time, Stephen becomes convinced that the pattern is a deadly threat capable of destroying the human race. [wikipedia]

Immediately, it strikes me as very radio play though, i.e. a lot of try-hard dialogue and this is a little distracting from any involving mystery. It seems to detract from a sense of mystery, the characters being so down-to-earth. Also, although not a big Archers fan, it’s quaint for the scenario and I do like some radio plays. The combination could still work… besides, the countryside and mesmerising light-shows are compensating.

Quick note to players: go with the flow. Try and get through it in about 2 sessions. This isn’t an open-world experience, but a story-based, emotional narrative that we get to – literally - follow. I treated it as a non-linear game initially, searching for ‘complete freedom’ (which is what I so love when I’m given a whole map to explore) but consequently I had to backtrack in order to proceed. Bummer.

1980s ordinance survey map preserved in a timewarp

On with the reflection and suggestions…

There’s lots of reviews out there of ‘Everybody’s Gone to the Rapture’, not just a great title in itself but a ‘mature experience’ in that it’s not any mainstream shooter, puzzler etc. We should just have some new genre now in the gaming world for the ‘deeper’ titles; spiritual titles that must really be celebrated straight-off for expanding what modern games can be, what forms they can take (especially before the advent of VR experiences).

And it felt a little like this is what strategy developer The Chinese Room has in their heads. Virtual atmosphere. The environment and sound are the key players as the world of Shropshire ‘breathes’ before an almost disembodied, first-person POV. It’s those 2 lovely adjectives: lush and detailed. We are supposed to move lightly through this story; we are given time to dream and to think for once. The power of PS4 was alive and well as I started to move about. It’s a game to play in a comfortable chair. I’ve read the term ‘a good couch co-op’ game which is a good one. You can watch someone else play without getting stuck all the time (unless they do what I did). 

The detailed countryside is the sort of thing I’m writing about in my nature-based game-world, The Spiral, which is a non-linear concept, in that the areas of the game-map are open to explore in any sequence and revelations will be a mix of scientific and magical but all relating to real science/nature. So naturally I was a little disappointed by the constraints imposed by the narrative in Yaughton.  

However, there’s loads I like about this ‘interactive story’ as opposed to game: the graphics, atmosphere and story have been given full attention; the dancing light streams are captivating and enrapturing (a Ghostbusters game would be great too like this.) There are clearly talented people out there who can program and control light graphics. Fine wizardry! The music (Jessica Curry) and scenery work really powerfully together. The sound adds a haunting, necessary weight to the whole exercise.

I’ve seen some of the bad reviews out there: ‘walking simulators’ is amusing criticism, but so undeserved. Yes, it’s a slow game, but this is the point; it’s all spiritual, just read the title on the tin.

I don’t like to add to the criticism (where this is an appreciation site, featuring titles which already resonate personally), and also because the central point is that, having experienced it through to the end; this game works. It feels perfectly crafted for what it delivers. No, it doesn’t test your mind (like shooters setting up an attack in Far Cry), or resource management (like a knowledge of crafting in Skyrim), but it ‘shows’ you an experience of people from an almost subjective perspective; everyday, earthbound people facing and sharing a looming shadow. 

As mentioned, it was a shame there wasn’t a bit more flexibility in how the user comes to understand this story. This would then work - even more - like seeing a theatre play where you actually controlled how you understood and experienced the events (but would be much harder to craft).

So, there are a few things not to like, but none really detract from its core objective: to show you a story about life and death; to present an artistic idea about this transcending. Personally, I didn’t like the Archers-style rendition of humanity, in that none of the English – or American - characters seem particularly real or likeable. Stephen, the most interesting, and a very eighties character, is also rather annoying considering this weight but it’s a good try at a 3-D character under pressure. 

The task of placing the writing around the ‘world’ of this countryside must have been challenging and they have tried hard to tune up the emotion, but the writing still feels stretched out across the spaces. Maybe a completely different setting - like a deserted space-station – would've been even better, because the characters would not have to be quite so real? See also the PC classic System Shock 2.)

The mystery itself here is interesting and revelatory but not surprisingly or amazingly so. The revelations begin to feel a bit contrived and flowery instead of moving but – at least - it’s mostly positive for once, for an interactive medium. I guess the title clue of Rapture pre-warns us. 

Towards the end we get writing like: ‘The earth continues after we’ve gone’ – well, yes – and the idea we’re all light and motes is great but the metaphysical snippets don’t really convince. It’s all a bit cosy and human wrapped up in a consoling blanket of music when there have been clearly a lot of issues between people in this village. I guess this may be the concept: to contrast with something alien or ‘other’ which is positive - in order to teach us to keep positive… and why not. But… I almost wanted more science to help give me a big insight somewhere. A Prof. Brian Cox to appear. Why not just find the positive from what science and nature teaches us more directly? There’s a lot there.

Following the balls of light – even when so captivating – starts to get a little tiring. It’s a good thing we start to reach the observatory before long.

To summarise, I hope none of these humble notes stop anyone from visiting this super-illustrated story-game and experiencing its stand-out moments which are awesome, pushing the medium.  Not to be missed is the beauty of feeling that you have ‘found’ or ‘followed’ a story moment, so that the past becomes more present, more revealed and understood. The way the night sky opens up and reminds us of our tiny place in a universe of light: great stuff.

Well done to The Chinese Room for contributing to, or continuing to expand, connections with virtual environments that are more about movement and time, and less about what we have to explore or click on. This title proves that the gaming genre can handle the dramatic. I hope their next title works even harder. Now that they’ve done the Archers, what about a Shakespeare!? All the English A-level students would have an excuse to do some gaming. Beyond this, there are so many revelatory experiences that could be presented in similar ways...

What is it now about the 1980s? I do love feeling nostalgic and admiring the graphical details. It seems to be becoming more and more prominent ‘modern’ timezone. I suppose it now seems a simpler realm to base stories, still with a modern rendering. 

ah... the old 'Play' button for cassettes

Is it because the 1980s were the last decade of our ‘innocence’ before gadgets and technology took over; a modern setting before we realised we were ruining the earth. Was it a time when people talked to each other – too much?! - but were still very flawed, as this game reminds us ! 

'live in fragments no longer... only connect.' [e.m forster]
[my youtube vid 'seeking the Rapture'...]

You’ll also like: 
Dear Esther (same studio), Journey, Alien Isolation (but… good luck!), System Shock 2, Heavy Rain

Friday, 8 April 2016

British Academy Games Awards

Please see the link for the news on the results from the British Academy Games Awards...

It's great to see this British game from company The Chinese Room, 'Everybody's Gone to the Rapture' being awarded for such a spiritual and different experience.

I've currently put Witcher 3 AND Star Wars Battlefront on hold to play through this £10 game and am finding it a really atmospheric change of pace. It's also keeping me inspired in my current creative writing about games, such as The Spiral...

Watch this space... for my upcoming PS4 notes, videos and full thoughts on 'Everybody's Gone to the Rapture'.

I'll let you know there if I've decided to join them!