You could argue that the "game" portion of Everybody's Gone to the Rapture is trying to piece it all together. The Chinese Room's latest so-called walking simulator is not especially mechanically dense, restricting much of its action to the DualShock 4's two analogue sticks and a single button. This is a title that's all about atmosphere, then; it's an experience where you simply soak up the story rather than line up headshots. But given the nuanced nature of the plot, what exactly is this quaint English jaunt all about?
As with any half-decent piece of fiction, you can divide this release into two parts: the literal and the figurative. Given the way that the story's presented – through exposure to disjointed character interactions – neither aspect of the plot is immediately obvious. Not every conversation is mandatory either – there are many optional exchanges that you'll simply stumble upon as you wander around the world – so you have to ensure that your ears and eyes are open at all times in order to soak it up.
Of course, if you've just watched the credits roll and haven't a clue what's going on, then we have a few theories of our own about both the events in the story and their underlying meaning. It goes without saying, though, that if you've yet to beat the game and don't want certain events to be spoiled for you, then you should look away now. Seriously, we're going to blow the whole plot wide open, so tickle that 'Back' button on your browser quick. We should also stress that all you're about to read is just this author's personal thoughts – we'd encourage you to debate and discuss in the comments below.
A strange loop
So, let's begin with the top-level stuff: what's the game actually about? This is a good starting place because it's been largely evident since the first trailer: it would seem that the main theme is about how we, as people, live on beyond the expiry of our physical selves. As explained above, the narrative is relayed through a series of memories, giving the partaking cast life after their death. A code at the conclusion of the credits confirms as much, as it translates into a quote from cognitive scientist Douglas Hofstadter's novel I Am a Strange Loop:
"In the wake of a human being's death, what survives is a set of afterglows, some brighter and some dimmer, in the collective brains of those dearest to them. There is, in those who remain, a collective corona that still glows."
In other words, those who remember us prolong our Earthly existence long after we've left our bodies behind. But who is it that's observing the occurrences in Yaughton, and why? Why is the traditionally sleepy village in quarantine? Why are people disappearing? And what's up with the bloody handkerchiefs strewn across every front room? You may choose not to look too deeply into these aspects of the narrative, but the developer has left enough bread crumbs to make this area of the escapade worth examining.
The key characters in the plot are married couple Kate – the American heard through radio broadcasts – and Stephen, the short-tempered Brit. Both protagonists work at the observatory, though Stephen's ties to Yaughton are a little more deeply rooted; he grew up in the area before moving away, and has now temporarily returned to his home town with his wife in tow. The couple are conducting experiments focusing on data that Stephen has found, and ultimately happen upon some form of otherworldly 'entity', which subsequently travels to the village. Many residents recall an interstellar event, which is likely the arrival of the alien being.
A series of events escalate from here: birds begin to fall from the sky, while livestock later dies. Meanwhile, elderly villagers gradually begin to disappear – transformed into light motes and ashy substances, it transpires – while younger humans begin to contract strange flu-like conditions. The village is eventually locked down due to an "influenza" outbreak, but Dr. Wade – the village practitioner – laments that he's never seen anything like it in all of his years as a quack, while there are many references to people seeing "liquid light". It seems certain then that the 'entity' is attempting to either communicate with the people, or find a host.
Stephen realises this and uses his connections to order a chemical strike on the village – the intended outcome being to wipe out all of the people and subsequently the 'entity'. He considers the extraterrestrial substance hostile, but laments later that he could be wrong; the foreigner may simply not realise that it's hurting people, and he likens this to his own childhood encounter with a fox. Irrespective, he immolates himself, despite sensing Kate's presence in the 'entity' at the last minute. We later see Kate and the 'entity' fusing, suggesting that at this point they were one.
If we assume this to be accurate, it seems likely that you are playing as the 'entity' after it has established full communication with Kate. This introduces a handful of additional themes: Kate, for example, is frequently treated as an outsider in the village – and subsequently seems able to empathise with the 'entity' more. Also, with Stephen engaging in an affair with childhood sweetheart Lizzie, she's the only person in the village without a significant other. A lot of the sub-dramas in the story revolve around relationships, so this seems to be a key motif. It just so happens that Kate ends up being matched with the 'entity' rather than another human being.
Only in Emmerdale
So, what of these sub-plots? A lot of the game's mini-dramas perhaps wouldn't be out of place in an episode of Emmerdale, and are generally standard British soap opera fare. But it's unique territory for a video game, and they add a little more grounding to the surreal nature of the overarching plot. Jeremy, the village's pastor for example, grows increasingly weary of his inability to protect his flock over the course of the story, and as he rings the church bell to summon his parishioners only for no one to arrive, he collapses at the altar and eventually succumbs to the 'entity'.
There's more to Jeremy than meets the eye, however, as it's heavily implied that he played a part in the assisted suicide of terminally ill Mary, the wife of farmer Frank. It's pointed out throughout the story that Frank promised to be present during his other half's final moments, but he backs out at the last minute. Subsequently, when he learns that Stephen has requested a chemical strike on the village, he initially considers warning everyone to escape, but he later looks down upon the town as the bombs fall, seemingly unwilling to make the same mistake that he made with his wife and leave his friends behind.
The final major character is Lizzie, who's the childhood sweetheart of Stephen. Despite them both marrying other people – and Lizzie suffering an accident leaving her disadvantaged – they embark upon an affair, and it's hinted through the unique nature of the guiding orb in her section of the story that she's pregnant. Interestingly, by the end of the plot, Kate is aware of the affair, and she seems to bless it with her final words.
Of course, there's even more to the game if you look for it: the ongoing butterfly motif and the ubiquity of the infinity symbol, for starters, which one would assume are intentionally linked. There are also numerous references to classic science fiction, such as the word VALIS – which is the name of the observatory – and appears to be inspired by a 1981 novel by American author Philip K. Dick. On top of that, we're sure that there's plenty that we've missed; one ongoing theory suggests that there may be a hidden message in the numbers read out by the radio signals, for instance.
Either way, it's clear that The Chinese Room has packed a lot into Everybody's Gone to the Rapture, and while we feel like an English A-level student at the moment, we've definitely had a lot of fun discussing our theories here at Push Square Towers over the past week or so. Clearly the game's proven very divisive – the opinion's even split here in the office – but it's refreshing to play a title that can provoke these kinds of reactions, even if it's clearly not for everyone. What are your thoughts? What did we get wrong? Let us know.
What do you think Everybody's Gone to the Rapture is about? Are there any key themes that you think that we missed? Do you feel that we've misinterpreted parts of the plot? Enlighten us with your perspective in the comments section below.