There are still bed sheets hanging on the clotheslines in the deserted streets of Shropshire. They sway lightly in the wind; the ethereal vestiges of a place that once was. In many ways, they're the perfect analogy for Everybody's Gone to the Rapture, an experience which is astoundingly gorgeous in a subtle, unassuming, and overwhelmingly sad way. This is a game which feels unlike anything else that you've ever played, one which will masterfully wrap you up in its gentle and heartbreaking world, and one that you won't be able to stop thinking about for days after its completion.
There are six major threads running through The Chinese Room's latest storytelling venture, each of which focuses on a different character as the world slowly begins to implode in on itself. To talk about them in any detail would be to ruin the experience of the game, but needless to say, they are well drawn, cleverly written, and often heartbreakingly close to home.
The writing itself is breathtaking. These are characters with enough depth that you could have detailed arguments about their motivations and intentions. They are real people, with real problems, and real flaws, which makes them utterly compelling. Cleverly, you're always given just enough information for you to be able to join the dots, but not so much information that you don't have to think. In other words, this is game which assumes that you're intelligent, but also manages to never feel pretentious.
The narrative also makes it clear that the Brighton-based studio has used some of its expertise from Amnesia: A Machine for Pigs here, as while the atmosphere is often heartbreaking and forlorn in a truly expert way, it can be equally tense and horrifying.
This story is revealed to you through flashback-esque vignettes as you walk around the large open world of Shropshire valley. The characters themselves obviously aren't present, but rather are represented by clusters of an almost liquid light. Each of the six main areas focuses on one character, and as you progress you'll see more and more of what they were up to in the weeks and days before the rapture. Once you've seen enough, you're shown a final scene which provides closure for their section of the story. Often this final scene is signalled by a subtle auditory clue, so you're never left wondering if you've seen and heard enough.
There are also radios and phones scattered throughout the levels which slowly reveal the stories of the two main characters, as well as the source of the apocalypse itself. Without giving anything away, this isn't just a cheap narratorial trick – these snippets are very well contextualised.
But to be clear, there's no shooting to be done here; no killing, or jumping, or running. You simply walk from building to building, from tree to tree, from empty desolate place to empty desolate place, all the while witnessing the last moments of the valley of Shropshire, and slowly piecing together the stories of its main characters.
Exploration is the name of the game, then, and in this area the title excels. Each of its main areas feels unique and lived in. They're all deserted, yes, but there is the very real sense that there was life there mere days ago. They ride a perfect balance between appearing naturalistic while also still working as video game levels. To this end, you'll almost never be stuck not knowing where to go next.
There are also town maps scattered throughout the valley, which give you a vague approximation of where you are, and where you need to go. Interestingly, though, you don't actually carry a map around with you, meaning that this is truly an exercise in pure exploration. As mentioned, you'll never get lost, but there are times that you'll lament this lack of an on-hand guidebook, as the idea of missing any of the game's exquisite content seems truly criminal.
All of this obviously means that it isn't a title for everyone. It's comparatively slow and meandering, and it isn't terribly interested in being an exercise in mechanical precision. But if you're on board for four to six hours of gentle, unhindered exploration, then you're likely to find almost limitless joy here.
Speaking of limitless joy, the title's presentation is downright astonishing. Much has been said about its technical prowess, and it does indeed deserve praise in this area. But there is also just as much to be said about its art design, which makes skilful and subtle use of the 80s setting to create an atmosphere of unease and melancholy. Similarly, stunning lighting, impressive particle effects, and varied weather keep things dynamic. In truth, there is some intermittent pop-in, but you'll all too often be too awestruck by your surroundings to notice or care.
This brings us to the game's soundtrack, which may just be its single strongest component. Mixing orchestras with the occasional jarring synth, it features a suite of tremblingly beautiful songs which deftly move from angelic to melancholy, and just about everything in between. What's more, the title makes clever use of motif, so that certain themes and melodies conjure specific areas and moments.
Perhaps most impressive of all, though, is the way that all of these elements work together. Indeed, there's a notable sense of thematic and symbolic consistency throughout the entire experience. The story, the exploration, the graphics, the atmosphere, and the music – it all blends to create something which feels remarkably whole and complete.
Everybody's Gone to the Rapture is a masterwork – a gorgeous and subtle experience, which treats you as an adult, without ever indulging in pretence. It cares about its characters enough to give them interesting and meaningful things to say, while also playing host to some truly breathtaking art direction and music.