In the first part of this blog-letter, I discussed the rise of the walking simulator and the merits and flaws of perhaps the most expensive game of this kind yet made, Firewatch. In this concluding part, it is time to look at what The Chinese Room achieved – and failed to achieve – in their successor to Dear Esther, the science fiction drama Everybody’s Gone to the Rapture, which you critiqued in August 2015.
I must start by confessing my neutrality to its art style. I am not wowed by so-called photo-realism, which rarely seems impressive to me and I would much rather the beautiful stylised visuals of Firewatch than ‘reality’, which is to say, the jarring unreality of the attempt to look actual. One of the biggest problems with this choice of visuals is that by setting the bar so high, every tiny flaw becomes much more apparent – witness your complaints about the ‘phoniness’ of the pub (it is not a bar, as you claim) and the jarring repetition of props like the paintings. The result is that a trip to the Vale of Yaughton is a literal descent into the Uncanny Valley.
But you misjudge the situation when you attribute this and other such flaws as resulting from The Chinese Room’s disrespect of their audience – almost all of your complaints about repeated content, or the missing character models, or even the game’s issues with ‘sprinting’ (well, walking imperceptibly faster) are attributable to a problem I know all too well from personal experience: developmental constraints. For although it may not be apparent, this game had far a lower budget – and a tighter development schedule – than Firewatch. Where you offer your disdain, I offer my sympathy. You will say, as you have done before, that the critic need not take into account behind-the-scenes issues such as these, and I will continue to disagree. It would be wrong to complain that a stage play was lacking in CGI – not just because it’s not part of the form, but because stage plays are budgeted differently to films. The constraints of form are part of the wider world of artworks. Treating ‘videogames’ as one singular form is a hopeless approach; surely your support of Beeswing entails at the very least an acknowledgement of its low budget? Everybody’s Gone to the Rapture certainly has more resources than that particular artgame, but it is pinched in the uncomfortable space below AAA where players expect everything a big budget offers but which the developer cannot possibly hope deliver. I work primarily in this commercial space – and I love it, too, since the room for creativity on AAA’s is almost negligible – and I am far more appreciative than you of the ways The Chinese Room conserve their budget (for instance, by not animating full characters).
But then, there’s that six hours of gameplay issue. I agree with you here – the game is too long, and this means the resources are stretched even thinner, although given the design choices that were made a lot of the extra space is less expensive than it could have been, I suppose. I am also surprised you do not mention the ‘tuning’ mechanic, where you must tilt the controller to trigger certain key flashbacks. These for me were far and away the biggest aesthetic flaw in the game and I suspect the hand of Sony’s ex-dev department in this, since they are always trying to force motion controls onto devs (it was a requirement of the unprecedented three-game deal Sony struck with thatgamecompany that all three had to feature motion controls). The trouble for me here was that the tutorial clearly shows the controller titled ninety degrees. So that’s what I did every time. But that was the wrong instruction, as I finally discovered only at the very last juncture. It is required to be an analogue action, akin to radio tuning. Without this knowledge I had to seek the one hidden spot where the flashbacks could be triggered at ninety degrees – in one case requiring me to balance precariously upon a bench to trigger one of several poignant scenes that apparently had no impact upon you whatsoever. (From looking into it, I was not the only player to fall prey of this frustration. The root problem? Not enough blind testing. The QA team knew how it worked, so they could never spot there was an issue. The game needed testing by players with no preconceptions, and this does not appear to have been done in this case.)
So to the story. You hate it. I, on the other hand, think Dan’s script is a work of insane brilliance, for despite my expectation that this was to be a game inspired by that most English of sci-fi authors John Wyndham (clearly an influence, mind you...) what this game is truly modelled upon in the longest running soap opera in the world: BBC Radio 4’s The Archers. Now various British reviewers have mentioned this in passing, sometimes as an accusation (I guess because they never liked the show?), but none seem to have really grasped just how great a tribute to the form of that radio soap this script truly is. And given that nobody in their right mind would bankroll a videogame whose x-statement was ‘the Archers meets the apocalypse’, I afford huge credit to Dan for going down this road, and for doing it so well.
There are missteps – the fox anecdote you mention is somewhat overwrought, although I think it still just about lands, and the radio overhear of the air strike in the caravan comes off a little too Planet of the Apes finale – but there are a great many places where it rings true too. Lizzie’s pregnancy is subtly foreshadowed by having her ‘ghost ball’ accompanied by a smaller companion, and here as elsewhere Stephen comes off badly because he is written as a heel. Stephen thinks he is the hero... but he is so lacking in virtue that he brings disaster at every step, a tragic hero of a kind The Archers seldom engages with. And there are moments of great success – the evocation of Kate’s perceived sense of exclusion (because the rural Shropshire community has so little experience of black people she takes their discomfort at her arrival as racism, which it arguably both is and is not) is one of the stronger emotional notes of the story, and makes sense of her character as the architect of everyone’s doom, aided – willingly and unwillingly – by her hopelessly inadequate husband, Stephen, who pushes her into an intellectual affair with the alien visitor.
I think it a great shame that you did not find the same appreciation of these elements of the story as I did. Partly, perhaps, the grounding in the form of The Archers might be necessary for context, but I suspect the larger problem is one you flag but also perhaps misunderstand: the word ‘Rapture’ writes a cheque the game then seems unwilling or unable to cash. You want a spiritual or theological theme to be touched upon, and the developers have no interest in this. In this regard, we come upon this game from opposite directions since I am British and you are from the States. Frankly, I am worn down by decades of British sci-go being prejudiced against Christians (see my 2009 serial Religion in Science Fiction, for detailed discussion) such that your dismissive thankfulness that “a church isn’t used to communicate shallow negativity” lands even more positively in my experiences of the game. I come to every British a sci-fi artwork these days expecting it to excoriate yet another shallow stereotyped portrayal of people from faith traditions. So when I come across a clergy character like Jeremy, who actually has some nuance in his relationships with his parishioners – especially, as you note, with the dogmatic busybody Wendy – it’s more than just a breath of fresh air, it’s a blessed relief.
Let me state this bluntly: no British videogame is ever going to tackle any kind of theological issue, because the only kind of theology practiced in our game developers is the kind of prejudicial atheology premised on childishly simplistic views on God or gods. Yet in the case of The Chinese Room, they treat their ‘Father’ well. Mind you, it’s quite clear that neither Dan nor Jessica are actively part of any Christian tradition, but I’d hazard a guess that at least one of them (I failed to catch up with them last time I was in Brighton to find out whom!) is presumably a ‘lapsed’ Catholic, or otherwise has some familial link to Roman Catholicism. You see, the Church of England (which, given the nature of British parishes, must be the denomination Jeremy belongs to) do not call their vicars ‘Father’, at least not officially. This is a term used primarily by Roman Catholics, and these churches are never not accompanied by a C of E church in the UK. Yet there is only one church in Yaughton, which cannot therefore by a Catholic church. More tellingly, the concept of ‘the Rapture’ is never touched upon in Church of England sermons as it is wholly a Roman Catholic concept. These are the kind of small details that make it clear that, as ever, the developers are ‘outside looking in’. But at least they are looking in kindly for once.
I write this not to persuade you to change your view but to offer a different way of looking at this game. You complain about the absence of discussion regarding “spiritual and religious themes” in the reviews for Everybody’s Gone to the Rapture – but then you too neglect to engage in this capacity, instead decrying the ‘secular’ (in this case, I might say ‘positivist’) position of the game’s creators. But since when have you been bound by authorial intent in your reading of a game? Irrespective of Dan and Jessica’s metaphysical positions, the game is still inviting a theological interpretation that is available but offered by no critic so far, including you. For the unanswered question remains: who is the player that is bearing witness to this calamity...? Not one of the ‘victims’ of the Pattern, certainly, for whomever we might be playing, we are still embodied. And the sci-fi intentions of The Chinese Room can’t resolve this question without conceptual gymnastics, whereas a theologian has many choices in interpreting the game. Yaughton might be seen in terms of the Catholic concept of Purgatory (its residents are certainly not at peace, nor yet in any kind of hell, except perhaps for Stephen); the player could be seen as some kind of divine observer, in keeping with a concept of God as an ephemeral being that empathises with human suffering but cannot get involved without betrayal of its own values; or the player may yet be a sign that this catastrophe is not final after all, but that some salvation may yet be possible. It simply doesn’t matter that the game’s creator’s don’t intend any such theological interpretation – it is there to be found by those who seek it, and indeed, it is crying out for such a reading precisely because, as you point out, the title invites it.
Ultimately, my experience of Everybody’s Gone to the Rapture was caught between two stumps. It was not the sure-footed follow up to Dear Esther I was hoping for, but neither is it the soulless train wreck you accuse it of being. It is, I dare say, a bold experiment in game narrative that cannot quite deliver on all fronts because it has taken on too much and lacked the resources to succeed with its focus thus divided. But I would so much rather play a deeply flawed attempt to transcend the typical like this than another meaningless exercise in corporate monetisation. I’m quite sure the same is true with you, whatever your specific disappointments with this game.
Critics are sometimes rebutted by the ludicrous claim that they have produced nothing and therefore have no right to comment upon the work of those that have. Yet the critic produces something of deep value: a measured response to artworks that opens possible new perspectives on those pieces to others. Your work is at its best for me when you can see in a game what others have overlooked, which is why I always share your positive reviews, and I seldom share anyone’s negative ones. You perhaps cannot change the way you feel about the games you have already played, and even in your most venomous take-downs I find authentic evidence of the work of a critic or, rather, the evidence of the work of an authentic critic. I’m sad that you might be engaging less with games in the future, but I suppose not surprised. We share a general disappointment with the artistic state of the media we call videogames. But how much harder it must be for you when even the interesting titles, like the two walking simulators these letters discuss, leave you unsatisfied! If I am more forgiving of these games than you, it is only perhaps because I am hungrier for even the attempt to break through the stultifying norms of the games industry, and too acutely aware of the terrible limitations that make game development far harder than any player outside it can appreciate.
With unlimited love and respect,