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A Tale of Two Walking Simulators (2): Everybody's Gone To The Rapture

YaughtonDear Jed,
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,


A Republic of Bloggers letter written to Jed Pressgrove of Game Bias and Stop the Pressgrove. Feel free to join in with our discourse via comment or blog post.

A Tale of Two Walking Simulators (1): Firewatch

FirewatchDear Jed,
Ever since 2012, I’ve been an instant convert to the ‘walking simulator’, a reclaimed derogatory term (much like ‘queer’) that ill-advisedly reinforces two notions that we would be better off without: firstly, that ‘simulation‘ is the best descriptor for the aesthetic qualities of videogame fiction, and secondly that violent videogames are ‘murder simulators’. We should resist any temptation to go down this line of thinking, but nonetheless ‘walking simulator’ is the term that has stuck, and it is a perfectly serviceable descriptor.

If we put side to side the artgame achievements of the walking simulator, broadly construed, it marks bold new possibilities for the media that share the name ‘videogame’, new paths that in no way invalidate (and indeed, help illuminate) our more familiar player practices. 2005’s The Endless Forest – Tale of Tales’ landmark ‘massively multiplayer screensaver’ – not only led to thatgamecompany’s Journey but revealed new potential for the encounter play that had been inherent in table top-role playing games but had struggled to find expression in any visual form. Ed Key and David Kanaga’s Proteus, perhaps my favourite game of this century, turns walking into a magical experience using only the tricks of the nature documentary and a cunning alliance of sound and vision. But it is perhaps The Chinese Room’s Dear Esther that especially helps shed light on contemporary games by being built upon the skeleton of an FPS yet stripped of its guns and violence. It delivers a wondrous ghost story whose thin play seemed to open the door to new narrative possibilities in videogames by denying the necessity of challenge – for which it had to be ostracized as ‘not a game’ by legions of aesthetically conservative players.

But... what happens next? It is a matter of some importance to me whether we are talking about a few momentary blips in the otherwise predictable flight plan for videogames, or the start of a movement, style, or genre that would stake a claim for the new, or else regress into familiar territory. Gone Home, despite its popularity, had disappointed me both by resorting to puzzle-solving (and thus defaulting back to well-worn adventure game territory) and by being more interested in its bait-and-switch twist than in its characters, relying on political posturing rather than following the story where it led.

Such is the prologue to this two-part letter I have wanted to write to you for quite a while. August 2015 saw the release of The Chinese Room’s follow up to Dear Esther, which I will discuss in the second half of this missive. For now, let us fast forward six months to February 2016, and the release of Firewatch, the most hyped walking simulator to date, soaring on the back of the popularity of Telltale’s The Walking Dead by virtue of inheriting part of that company’s writing team. You pretty comprehensively slated Firewatch in your review in October 2016, so you could be forgiven for assuming I wish to defend it – and I suppose in part that I do – but not, on this occasion, because I disagree with anything you say. Rather, I feel there is merit to the game beyond its rather shocking array of flaws.

The biggest surprise for me in Firewatch is that it was made by people with a background in game development, since playing it I would have sworn that at least one Hollywood screenwriter was involved in the writing process. From top to bottom, almost every design decision seems to flow from that shallow perception of the merit of games shared by most screenwriters, namely an array of choices presented to the player, none of which express any tangible agency at all. The player’s greatest option for self-expression is which cap to wear next – and since these are encountered one at a time, the answer is of course ‘all of them, as you find them’. It is very much that kind of game: the team know everything the player is going to do in advance, except which photos will be taken on the disposable camera, which of course has no effect upon anything. Even deciding where to watch the sunset in a GTA game feels more involved.

Alas, I cannot disagree with your assessment of the story overall, which seems to attempt the same sort of bait-and-switch as Gone Home, except in Firewatch the illusion of an absurdly implausible conspiracy is revealed to be an even more ludicrous situation that strains credibility far more than the game story can hope to bear. Despite this, the dialogue (as you admit) is actually rather good, and the voice talent delivers it well, even if the ‘choices’ offered are largely meaningless throughout. Add to this an attempt at a genuinely mature theme, namely the horrifying situation facing someone whose spouse develops early-onset dementia, and I would defend Firewatch in spite of its abundant weaknesses as a genuine attempt to escape the infantile storytelling standards of videogames where ‘mature’ is typically a phrase used to warn about the kind of humour that amuses teenage boys. That it falls below the standards we would expect in literature, theatre, or film ought to be weighed against the very possibility that such a comparison could be entertained, however fallaciously. Hitchcock it certainly isn’t. But at least it aspires to be more than a recycled action movie.

The most disappointing aspect of Firewatch is also something remarked upon in your critique: that it purports to offer you hiking in the wilderness, yet our character is entirely incapable of doing more than walking along pre-prescribed pathways. I found myself endlessly galled at the thought that someone who has chosen a life outdoors would be unwilling, much less unable, to scale rock faces even my youngest son would find unchallenging. No, out of some mistaken commitment to a concept of immersion rooted solely in animation fidelity, the game constantly uproots its plausibility by making the player climb the same rock objects again and again rather than let them for one moment experience the wilderness as something wild. And yet my experience of national parks in the US has often been of this kind of ‘packaged nature’: pre-prescribed paths in a ring-fenced theme park for nature. Hiking on trails outside such spaces offers a wildly different and far more rewarding experience, but in selling us the shrink-wrapped version of the natural world, Firewatch is only echoing the conceit that lies behind a great many such places in the United States, entailing the same kind of lie about humanity’s relationship with the world around it. It is unfortunate that the game does so in earnest, and thus can make no deeper point about the artificiality of these stage-managed encounters with the wild.

Yet despite this glaring and saddening failure to offer any freedom to the player, or any authentic experience of hiking, there is something astonishing about Firewatch that does not even warrant a mention in your discussion: this world is beautiful. Lighting and colour is used throughout to create breathtaking vistas that almost make the player forget (or perhaps, fail to notice) the unnecessary constraints imprisoning all movement to the official pathways. If we let ourselves exist in these manicured spaces solely through our eyes and ears, if we ignore all the pretensions of the story, if we set aside our gall at two female ‘characters’ whose primary purpose appears to be to titillate male players with their overemphasised yet unseen nudity, if we just enjoy the sights and sounds of the forest presented to us, Firewatch is triumphantly beautiful. To not mention this – or perhaps, to fail to suspend critical judgement long enough to allow yourself to enjoy this – is something akin to a critical failure. Thus while you avoid the traps of other reviewers in your insightful and accurate criticism of the game’s failings, I think perhaps that you also fail to appreciate why the walking simulator can be so powerful an aesthetic experience. I do not doubt you have an explanation, a reason this aspect of the game does not work for you – yet I fear at heart it is simply that you have not allowed yourself to engage with this game in a way that would make this appreciation possible. You are so perceptive about the myriad failures of artistry in the media we call videogames, I wonder sometimes if your critical insight is also blocking you from appreciating some of our greatest successes too.

It is a theme I also wish to pursue in the second half of this letter.

Next week: Everybody’s Gone to the Rapture

A Republic of Bloggers letter written to Jed Pressgrove of Game Bias and Stop the Pressgrove. Feel free to join in with our discourse via comment or blog post.