Feature: Following the extraordinary success of artsy experiment Dear Esther, thechineseroom are hard at work on its spiritual successor, EVERYBODY’S GONE TO THE RAPTURE. We sit down with creative director Dan Pinchbeck for a first look at “the absent apocalypse”.
“If the world ended in a little village in Shropshire, it’d be inconvenient.”
As far as CryEngine 3-powered open-world videogames go, it doesn’t sound like the most obvious elevator pitch. But that’s the idea behind Everybody’s Gone to the Rapture, which could be one of 2013′s more interesting PC releases.
It’s the spiritual successor to Dear Esther, the experimental hit that took the indie scene by storm earlier this year. Dear Esther eschewed traditional game mechanics and instead invited players to amble gently around a remote Hebridean island, soaking up the atmosphere and piecing together snippets of audio and visual cues into something resembling a coherent story.
Esther’s generally excellent reviews and extraordinary sales figures showed there’s a market for experiments in first-person gaming. For developer thechineseroom - an indie studio partnered with the University of Portsmouth, and who are also heading up development on Amnesia: A Machine for Pigs – the logical next step is to add bits of game back into the template, and see how people respond.
Like its predecessor, it’s being dubbed a “pure story game”. But unlike in Dear Esther, you’ll be able to do more than simply walk around. Rapture’s world is all about interactions, and the way these interactions can shape the environment and the story it tells.
“The concept of it is this almost ’60s-’70s Brit science fiction – this John Wyndham, John Christopher kind of thing – of how the end of the world would be responded to in a rural English location,” explains creative director Dan Pinchbeck. “It’s kind of like that film that was made after the Second World War about what would have happened if the Nazis had invaded – and actually, the film was so controversial because not a lot would actually change for the vast majority of people, or they’d just accept it really, really easily.”
These ideas got Pinchbeck thinking about the apocalypse, and how ordinary people would respond to its coming. “So we had this idea of going, ‘Actually, if the world ended in a little village in Shropshire, it’d be inconvenient’.”
Six people, 60 minutes
So, Everybody’s Gone to the Rapture is a first-person open-world game that tells the story of an environment and those who dwell within it. The world is big: “If you wanted to go diagonally from one corner to the other, it’d probably take you around 20 minutes,” says Pinchbeck. But each time you play, your time is locked to just one hour. Whatever you’ve managed to experience and achieve at the end of that time is your story. You can then go back to the start, to see some of the stuff you missed.
It’s a game designed to be played again and again. The time limitation means you’ll only see a fraction of the world on each playthrough, and your presence in the world – and the ways you interact with it – shape the events that take place.
But those events are also shaped by the game’s cast. In sharp contrast to Esther’s desolation, Everybody’s Gone to the Rapture tells the story of six characters. In their sleepy village, they’ll go about their lives regardless of your presence, but you can interact with them, influencing their actions and the effects they’ll have on the world.
What “characters” actually means is quite the mystery at this stage. ”They’re almost kind of memory traces of people that were there,” explains Pinchbeck, “and how we represent them, and whether we do full-on character builds or whether we do something more symbolic, we’re still kind of chewing around with.”
Whatever the team’s decision, though, the key is that they have to feel responsive. In some ways, Rapture is almost the antithesis of Dear Esther: where that was about removing your influence over the game, Rapture is exactly about influencing the events that take place.
Whether you choose to or not is a different matter. It’s perfectly feasible, says Pinchbeck, to play Rapture by standing still in the middle of the world. The game’s characters will continue to follow their own path, and their actions will still change the world, so you’ll still get to experience a story even if you decide not to participate in it.
You could find a quiet spot and simply watch a certain character. “Do you become like a voyeur, just watching them live out the last day of their life, effectively? They’ll get on with that anyway, and what they do will make changes in the world,” explains Pinchbeck. “And if you’re there when that change happens, that’s kind of realised and presented in a different way than if you’re not there.”
You’ll be encouraged to explore the range of ways you can shape these apocalyptic events. “We’re looking at making it much more physially interactive [than Dear Esther], so you can manipulate objects, you can open and close doors,” Pinchbeck says. “[And] without it being too much like easter egg rewards, the game will reward you for exploring and interacting. So there are places which are not obvious to get to, and you have to do things in order to get to them.”
Does everyone have to go to the rapture?
When thechineseroom were collaborating with Robert Briscoe on Dear Esther, the former DICE artist initially toyed with introducing interactive elements to the framework set out by the original Half-Life 2 mod. But it became clear to the team that it simply wasn’t going to work.
That didn’t stop Pinchbeck wondering what a game such as Esther would be like if you could more tangibly interact with it, though – and thus the concept of Rapture was born.
“It really made me want to do stuff like that more and more,” Pinchbeck recalls, “and go, ‘You know, I want to be able to allow the player to manipulate the world. I want the player to feel like, actually, this is a space that’s evolving and changing’. I think with Esther you generated most of that sense of foreboding prety much by yourself, and I really wanted a world where you actively feel like something is going on, becuase it actively is going on.”
But in a world that’s considerably more responsive than Dear Esther’s misty island, there appears a new million-dollar question: if the game takes place during the final day of the world, and your actions change that world, is it possible to avert the apocalypse entirely?
That, it seems, is still to be decided. “The nice thing about it is that there’s quite a lot of concept vision, but a lot of the story will come quite late, because it always does,” says Pinchbeck. It’s certainly something the team has been mulling over, he reveals. “I kind of like the inevitability of not being able to, but it’s still quite an intriguing idea of: how do you give that journey some kind of meaning, and make those interactions worthwhile?”
For now at least, Pinchbeck is more interested in the small pay-offs of individual interactions, and generating a sense of being able to tangibly shape things. “But how do you go somewhere between binary goal reward systems, and something more like The Path, which for me was too obtuse?” he ponders. “There’s somewhere in the middle that feels rewarding, that feels like what you’re doing has an impact, but you can’t always put your finger on the chain of causality. There’s a really interesting design space in there.”
Everybody’s Gone to the Rapture is due out for PC in Summer 2013. Full disclosure: BeefJack’s editor did some freelance PR work for Dear Esther, but he’s in no way involved with Everybody’s Gone to the Rapture and is no longer associated with thechineseroom.