It's a minute before I realise my mouth's hanging open, "catching flies" as my mother might say. I'm just staring at what's before me, soaking in the sight, the splendour of it all. It's gone 1am and Brighton-based studio The Chinese Room's Everybody's Gone to the Rapture is in its final moments, and above my virtual eyes the aurora borealis dances before countless stars, colouring up to the creases of my pale, late-night skin. Stirring orchestral music swells around me, carrying my feet that never appear on the screen, up steps and towards an observatory, fulfilment, finality, the end. I snap back to reality and reposition my slack jaw, somewhat unwillingly – this is a game that I'm not sure I want to see the credits roll for, so enthralled by it have I been for the past five hours.
And yet, ...Rapture is one of those releases that has some gamers asking, arguing, is this really a game at all? For the first hour or so of its bucolic embrace, my wife sits beside me. "So, you just walk around, and open doors?" There's slightly more to it than that, but, essentially, yes: if you played one of The Chinese Room's previous games, Dear Esther, you'll know all about the restricted interactivity of the experience ...Rapture offers. You, the player, is as much viewer as active participant, controls limited to moving, looking and a single "action" button that can switch on radios, answer phones and open doors and gates around its rural Shropshire setting, an almost-too gorgeous rendering of the British countryside that could only have been built by a domestic team that understands the small details: the empty pint glass on the pub garden bench; the claustrophobic interior of a holiday park's stationary caravan; the predictably puerile marker pen graffiti of an English country bus shelter. An environment that is devoid of any human life.
'Everybody's Gone to the Rapture', launch trailer
It's hard to write all that much about ...Rapture without giving away spoiler-rated aspects of its steadily emerging storyline, one that builds from a curiosity-piquing (very) small-town tale of kitchen-sink dimensions to something with repercussions on a galactic scale. But the preview campaign for the presently PS4-exclusive game talks about the apocalypse, about the end of days, certainly for humanity, so it's giving precisely nothing away to confirm that you – whoever "you" are, and that's open to interpretation (again, I won't say anything more on that for fear of influencing how you might personally read the game, but I have my own ideas) – are the sole human-like presence left behind after everyone else in the local community, and quite possibly further afield, has vanished, leaving behind nothing but Redacted For Spoilers, Redacted For Spoilers and the overall impression that fate came quickly. The very title of the game can be taken literally, to explain the abandoned houses, halls, stores and farms.
And it's worth repeating the G word: game. Everybody's Gone to the Rapture is very much one, and that's clear in its gamified use of crackling radios and ringing phones – the chunky mobile ones, incredibly expensive in the 1984 of its setting, suggesting that this fictional spot of Shropshire, on the line between the very real Shrewsbury and Wrexham, wasn't short of affluent residents – which serve as story-expanding audio logs. These can be found in any order, as the game world's effectively an open one (save for its final sequence), but assuming you follow each of the game's character- and chapter-specific orbs of light down the lanes and up the public footpaths, they generally make a sort of sequential sense. And it's worth paying attention, closely, to everything that's said, both in these recordings and when glowing disruptions in the air are found. Tilting the PS4 pad when close to one of these causes it to expand and explode into an almost holographic display of events that previously occurred in that exact location, conversations between members of this close-knit but secrets-withholding community. Listen carefully, as it's in these (unrepeatable) exchanges where clues for where to head to next can often be found, and the past becomes a palpable present.
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Death is soon enough everywhere in ...Rapture, as deceased birds begin to litter the roads as the story develops, but "you" cannot die. There's no threat to the player in this particular post-apocalyptic scenario, and the same is true of Submerged, a recently released game set in a flooded world, made by Australia's Uppercut Games, a small independent team featuring talent that previously worked on the Fallout and BioShock franchises. In this danger-free adventure, viewed third person, you are Miku, a young girl who arrives amid the (seemingly) abandoned skyscrapers of a city long-since drowned by a spectacularly raised sea level with her injured brother. The object of the game, which is seen and done barring the optional extras within four hours, is simple: get him better, whatever the cost to yourself.
Which is nothing much at all. Miku's skin begins to change, taking on a slightly stony complexion, over her days in the mostly submerged city, but it's ultimately nothing to worry about because she can't die (and besides, something happens later on, but that too must remain Redacted For Spoilers). Looking after her brother means scaling tower blocks only reachable by boat, the climbing a simplified version of what you'll see in the Uncharted games, or even Shadow of the Colossus, without the worry of falling to your death. At the top of these buildings there are supplies – water, food, bug repellent, pain killers, all of which "unlocks" in the right order however you tackle the small open world's targets – and once you've found them there's no need to make your way back down, as the game merely cuts to your base camp. Repeat the process a total of ten times and it's game over, roll credits.
'Submerged', launch trailer
There's more to do: landmarks to spy for achievements, creatures to spot with your telescope and clip right through if you're close to them (at least, that's what happened to me when one of the game's species of whale surfaced beside my vessel, but it's inconsistent). Miku's boat can be upgraded, using spare parts spread around the map, leading to longer speed boosts, and small, shining collectibles fill in a purely pictorial tale that explains why the world is in this state. Everything's very pretty, but unlike ...Rapture's somewhat linear central narrative, which keeps you moving to very different parts of its world, Submerged's go-anywhere-straight-away freedom stifles its storytelling. It's easy to just drift on the ocean, missing supply points, going in circles. And the climbing soon becomes a chore – no building is particularly difficult to get up, but every one of them features the same array of ledges and drainpipes, balconies and windowsills. Once you've done one, you've done them all.
What Submerged, and ...Rapture for that matter, does very well, though, is manifest in the player, at least to begin with, a queasy unease with its surroundings. Both games are beautiful, but for all the wrong reasons – it's the lack of life that's led to this enveloping isolation, these wonderful spaces free of society's droning hubbub and the hubris of humankind. I could feel my skin tingle during my first half-hour within ...Rapture – I knew no harm could come to me, but walking amongst these strange, spectral shadows had me on edge. Submerged takes a turn for the (ever so slightly) sinister around its halfway mark, when it becomes apparent that Miku is being watched by Redacted For Spoilers. That eeriness dissipates quickly, but while it lasts it gives Submerged something extra, the possibility that this simple, meant-as-meditative-but-more-like-mundane game could be as memorable as, say, Journey, another game of zero risk but massive emotional resonance.
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"The Mourning Tree", from the soundtrack to 'Everybody's Gone to the Rapture'
...Rapture's sci-fi-meets-the-supernatural (via a healthy wallop of religiosity) creepiness, lurking just beneath its pastoral veneer, remains for its entire duration. Perhaps it's the Englishness of the experience, but I'm reminded, for its first few hours, of a great Doctor Who episode that's yet to be, probably Mark Gatiss-penned, a story where the Time Lord arrives at an abandoned village and has to suss where everyone's disappeared to, perhaps never quite finding the complete answer. (Or, just maybe, a supremely surreal tangent to the long-running radio soap The Archers, also set in the English midlands.) And certainly, come the climax of the game, it's likely that many players won't know for sure what's happened – and I felt that the dénouement was as much a warning as a wrap-up. But that's almost beside the point – it's how you get to the end that matters, and the path you follow, stunningly soundtracked by in-house composer Jessica Curry (given Journey's score by Austin Wintory got itself a Grammy nod, this definitely deserves to be in the running for a whole bunch of awards), is never dull.
Could it be travelled faster? It could, and can be, but if you're rushing your way through ...Rapture then you're playing it in entirely the wrong way. Take your time: The Chinese Room's gentle apocalypse is one of the most magically immersive experiences that gaming in 2015 is going to provide, but a second playthrough won't ever be as special as the first. Step slowly, and surely. Stall beneath the stars and, for a second or two, just wonder about what makes a video game. ...Rapture has fewer traditional elements of player agency to it than Submerged, but I know which of the two impressed me most on a first play, and which I'll happily, albeit with the mystery lifted, sit through all over again. There's no need to run – the credits won't begin without you.
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