The places where you played as a child shrink with the passage of time. That’s just a fact of perception and physics. Your body expands. Eyes sit taller in their sockets. Everything grows smaller in the rear view mirror. Objects, the classroom. Friends. Parents, Grandparents. We watch as our friends and memories shrink in the distance then – eventually – disappear.
I grew up in a small village in Scotland. I’ve lived in Australia for almost eight years. I left Scotland in 2003 at the age of 21.
I come back often, to visit friends and family. Each time: the same feeling. The drive back from the airport. A tightening in the stomach. Memories flood back – not specific – more like an overarching feeling. An alternate dimension dragged back to the forefront of your consciousness. An alternate person. You become the human being you were all those years ago.
It isn’t a bad feeling. It isn’t necessarily a good feeling either. An uncomfortable transition. It just feels strange.
I never thought, or even imagined, that a video game could so successfully replicate that feeling.
Everybody’s Gone To The Rapture, by The Chinese Room. It’s a video game about a village. A video game about the people who lived in that village. In that sense it’s unique.
In video games there’s the idea of the ‘distant world’. We’re supposed to explore exotic locations. We are supposed to embody different lives. Video games as ‘escapism’. “I am a gamer,” goes the (misguided) meme you’ve probably seen on Facebook a hundred times, “not because I don’t have a life, but because I choose to have many.”
I’ve never subscribed to that idea, never been a fan. I want video games as a medium to be secure enough to portray the mundane in meaningful ways. I love shooting people in space. I like driving F1 cars in the Monaco Grand Prix. I like Mario. I like riding dinosaurs in fictional worlds where I can throw fireballs and transform into a bee for some ungodly reason.
But I also enjoy games like Papers Please where I mostly just stamp passports. Or games like Gone Home where I re-explore a family home. Sometimes I enjoy games with the ability to reflect my own experience. Sometimes I don't need to escape.
We call games like Everybody’s Gone To The Rapture ‘walking simulators’ — which is fine by me because I like walking, but it’s meant as an insult. The idea being that you essentially ‘do’ nothing. That the experience is passive. Normal video game verbs don’t apply. You’re not shooting/punching/jumping you are… walking. Mostly just walking.
Dear Esther, The Chinese Room’s previous game, is frequently referred to as the atypical ‘walking simulator’. It’s a game in which, essentially, nothing happens. You walk, you listen to a series of letters being read and you sink into the quicksand of a remarkably well-designed spatial environment. A space that cares about details; that feels remarkably under designed but is, without doubt, painstakingly crafted.
In Everybody’s Gone To The Rapture you walk. That’s it.
Every time I return home to the village where I grew up it seems to get smaller.
The houses in Scotland are smaller.
Australian house are different. Australia is warm. Life is lived in open spaces. Kitchens bleed into dining rooms into living rooms. Doors are left open.
In the colder, harsher environment where I grew up walls remain thick. Doors must be closed.
“Did you grow up in a barn,” is what my Scottish Mum says when I leave a door open.
“I hate closed doors in the house,” is what my Australian wife says when I close them.
Sometimes my friends and family ask if I’d ever consider coming home. I think I’d find that difficult.
In Everybody’s Gone To The Rapture all that’s left is ‘memories’. At least they feel like memories, other people’s memories. Echoes of past events replayed, trace events re-enacted. That might be a better description.
You walk into a pub. You watch as fragments of light reconstruct around conversations, monologues. Some feel clumsy. Some feel poignant. Others are completely benign. Together they weave stories of past lives, allude to future events, highlight regrets.
It’s supernatural. That’s the idea. At least it’s supposed to be supernatural. But it’s really not. That experience — walking through a village, history on repeat — it’s the most natural thing in the world.
I’ve been there. Many times. Each time I return home I’ll walk around the village where I grew up. The memories, embedded and reinforced. Years of returning to the same places. Reimagining. Reinventing. That’s the place where James broke his collarbone. That’s where I first learned to ride a bike. That’s the house where my first girlfriend used to live.
My wife moved around a lot as a kid. She can’t remember a thing. I stayed in the same spot. I feel as though I can remember everything.
But the moments I forget? I remember. Details become fresh. Memories triggered. Forcing you to relive them, embody them.
Everybody’s Gone To The Rapture does a spectacular job of eliciting the discomfort of that feeling.
I blame the universe building. I blame the intrinsic ability of The Chinese Room to create detailed worlds that feel like real places. This is not a world of copy-pasted textures. This is a world that feels unique. Where the placement of everyday household objects make absolute sense. Both logistically and from a narrative standpoint.
The village in Everybody’s Gone To The Rapture is a village within which I truly believe people could live.
People could exist here. Those people could leave. They could come back years later. They could walk around the village in a nostalgic haze and they could remember the place where James broke his collarbone. I believe that.
Dr Stephen Appleton is one of the major characters in Everybody’s Gone To The Rapture and boy is he ever an asshole. Passive aggressive. Often just plain aggressive. Like all elitists he struggles with a diminished sense of self. He is insecure.
Stephen, like me, left his village. Like me, he returned years later. Like me, he seems to struggle with the embedded history of the village where he grew up, the relationships that defined his early years. Like me, he appears troubled with the dissonance: the comforting feeling of home contrasted with the claustrophobia; the old Stephen clashing with the Stephen that exists in the here and now.
I struggled with his sections of the game. During early parts of the game I thought I was playing as him (I wasn’t) and it was just too close to the bone. I wandered around the old village. I shared in the fragments of its memories and I thought about my own home town.
I thought about the place where I grew up. I wondered when I could go back home and live amongst my own memories, one more time.