Tuesday marked the release of Everybody’s Gone to the Rapture, the latest game from Dear Esther developers The Chinese Room. I’ve already finished it. If you’re into this sort of game–narrative heavy, puzzle-free adventure games, derogatorily called “walking simulators”–I can’t recommend it enough. It’s easily the best game I’ve played in the genre. Rapture is to Dear Esther what Journey is to Flower.
The entire game is the exploration of a suddenly-empty British village, finding clues and watching ethereal glimpses into the lives of the departed inhabitants. I won’t say any more, because uncovering the mystery (to the extent you can) is part of the reason to engage with the game. The last thing I’d want to do is spoil that.
If you don’t like this kind of game, at least check out the soundtrack on Spotify. It’s so good that there is a non-zero chance that I just love the soundtrack so much that it carried the entire game for me.
The release of Everybody’s Gone to the Rapture was, unfortunately, burdened by a strange bit of controversy regarding the walking speed of your main character. Across the board, reviewers complained that movement was terribly slow–even those who enjoyed the game. IGN called it ” a rate that seems to actively disrespect our time and patience.” If you check out the review, you’ll see this is now redacted because, unbeknownst to everyone playing the game at first, there is an option to speed up walking. Allegedly, pressing R2 and holding it down will gradually ramp up walking speed. I did this on-and-off throughout the game and the effect isn’t dramatic (when it works, which is not indoors) so it’s not terribly relevant to the point I want to make.
You walk really slowly in Everybody’s Gone to the Rapture and that is okay.
There are a lot of reasons why good stories are so rare in video games, but an overlooked problem for the medium is pacing. Like film and television, video games merge visuals, audio, and writing into a single form. But unlike film and television, the creators have essentially no control over the pacing at which the player experiences the work.
This is one of the reasons why comedy games often fall flat, because pacing is one of the most important parts of humor. Seek out some bad stand-up comedy routines and you’ll find plenty of people who are adequate–maybe even good–at crafting jokes, but bomb entirely on their timing. (As an aside, this is why I would never even consider voice acting for a comedy game like The Closer. Sticking jokes in text is the easiest way to mitigate this problem in games, since we all know how to read humor from other mediums).
In games, there’s nothing to prevent the player from wandering off the intended path, finding the wrong plot elements first, or simply looking in the wrong direction. Dramatic moments–no matter how well written or placed–can be completely dashed by necessary player decision. Take The Last of Us, which is widely regarded as one of the best recent video game stories. There are tons of moments that an uncooperative player can easily ruin–what if I don’t want to look at the giraffes???
The gameplay can also eviscerate the emotional impact of a story. A frustratingly difficult sequence can force the player to replay a touching moment again and again, robbing it of any of its intended meaning. Imagine if you had to watch Mufasa’s death in The Lion King six times because you kept failing to get away from the stampede yourself? By the seventh try, you’d have forgotten the tragedy in the midst a wave of frustration. That’s a pacing problem, too, because a weighty moment needs time to breath. You can’t just go back and relive it again and again; there must be denouement and consideration.
And it’s not just pure pacing. One of the best moments in the last several years of games is one that a handful of players will never see. In Red Dead Redemption, as you first enter Mexico, the game’s soundtrack shifts to a stirring vocal track, “Far Away” by folk singer Jose Fernandez. When it happened to me, I was slowly riding through a vast, empty desert as the sun set. Others get it during different times of day, at slightly different parts of the ride. But if you google “Red Dead Enter Mexico” or something like that, you’ll find people falling all over themselves to call it the highlight of the entire game.
There’s only one problem: the song stops playing if you get off your horse. And it doesn’t start up again. If you decide to engage in a very specific gameplay mechanic, the moment is gone. You can’t experience it, and RDR’s save system pretty much guarantees you’ll never see it. Since there’s absolutely no way to control what the player happens to be doing at the moment the song starts, there will always be some players who…just never see it.
These are challenges that almost every game faces. Visual novels have it a little easier–no camera control, no direct movement should ensure that the audience will at least see and hear what the developers intend. But even in VNs, there’s the problem of voice acting. An entire VN can be voiced and there’s a decent subset of players who will never hear the full script because they read faster than the actors, and skip ahead before the lines are read.
I know because I’m one of those players. Even in games I love, like Danganronpa, I will speed through the dialog as fast as I can, regardless of whether it is fully voiced. Why? Because I want to get to the next moment–the next reveal, the next joke, whatever–as fast as possible. And I play all sorts of other games like this. I never stopped to fully listen to the audiologs in Bioshock. I kept walking as they played, and if I got into a firefight before they were over I just accepted that I would miss some of the narration. And I’m someone who cares about stories in games so if I’m going around using every trick the developers allow to go as fast as possible, I bet a ton of other people are, too.
Everybody’s Gone to the Rapture was one of the first games I’ve ever played that refused to let me speed ahead. I could not zip between the houses at DOOM pace. I could not speed up the conversations between characters, except to walk away from them and abandon them entirely. Every moment was followed by a forced denouement–a walk to the next location, a stroll through the woods, or a return to the road in the dark, the world lit only by the strange glow of the lights at the center of the story.
If I could have run through Everybody’s Gone to the Rapture, I absolutely would have. Just like I skip through the lines in Danganronpa. But I couldn’t. All I could do was slowly move from one location to the next. Getting lost meant a long walk back to the nearest landmark, and there is no in-game map.
I will not criticize Everybody’s Gone to the Rapture for taking control of its pacing and arresting control of impatient speedsters like me. Unlike Red Dead Redemption, Rapture doesn’t have a dozen types of gameplay to fall back on when its narrative moments fail. Those moments are all it has and sometimes they are amazing. You can’t miss them (well, actually, you can if you choose not to explore certain parts of the world, but that’s a whole different post about opt-in narrative depth which is cool when it is intentional).
Is this to say that the movement speed in Rapture is beyond reproach? Of course not. It’s strange. It feels wrong at first. The last first-person game I spent significant time in was Titanfall, which I recently picked up through EA Access, so you better believe I had a rebound effect. But just because a game does something differently–feels different from others that take the same perspective–doesn’t mean it’s doing anything wrong.
So how should we criticize the movement speed if it really does detract from the enjoyment of the game? By recognizing that it’s not the controls that are the issue.
This hits on a key problem in a lot of games criticism, which is a reduction of problems down to technical mechanics. This is never more obvious than when people start talking about how a game controls. “Awkward” “painful” “intuitive” etc etc. I’m guilty of it as much as anyone, but it’s something we should endeavor to explore with more thought. There are a few times when controls are a straight-up bad decision that anyone could have seen coming (the Rare Replay re-release of Jet Force Gemini bound the N64 c-buttons to the right control stick, disregarding that they were used as action commands rather than camera control).
But often we should stop and think whether our complaints are with the controls or the game itself. When we’re talking about a game like Everybody’s Gone to the Rapture, we’d do well to remember a film school cliche: form and content being inseparable. We shouldn’t call the slow movement a bad mechanic in the same way that we wouldn’t call the lingering camera shots in the film Valhalla Rising bad camerawork, or the dialog in My Dinner with Andre bad writing. I choose these examples not because I want to elevate Rapture to the level of these particular films, but because I believe that people who dislike Rapture’s movement speed are trying to articulate a criticism that is leveled at Vallhalla Rising and My Dinner With Andre: all three are boring.
There’s nothing wrong with finding Everybody’s Gone to the Rapture boring. But don’t try to turn that into an objective knock against it. I didn’t think Rapture was boring at all and, as such, I had no problem with the movement speed. Rapture is a slow game, and its mechanics reflect that. But it’s entirely intentional and it serves the narrative extremely well.