Everybody’s Gone to the Secular Dehumanization Chamber

by Jed Pressgrove

Why do most reviews of Everybody’s Gone to the Rapture not address the game’s spiritual and religious themes?

My best guess is that providence, salvation, doubt, and other human concerns would distract many from picking apart video games according to the boring standards that are applied to electronic toys. Does it walk? Does it run? Does it shoot? What all does it say when you press that button? What does this part do?

In 2013, a secular response was also granted to the rerelease of Earthbound, the most spiritually potent video game of all time. That game criticism underestimated Earthbound’s unifying, nihilism-defying prayer suggests that writers are either scared of criticizing faith or fine with faith being ignored by young minds.

Jim Sterling’s and Brendan Keogh’s long-winded yet insignificant comments on genre recall 2013’s other major secular blunder: the soul-sucking, stupid appraisal of Proteus as another “walking simulator” or “anti-game.” Nevermind that Proteus starts with a walk on water and ends with an ascent to the heavens.

If technology is the savior, and if meaning is gained by what we can clearly see and interact with, spirituality has no place in the gaming world (I wonder, do e-sports athletes pray like other athletes?). Hell may very well freeze over before developer The Chinese Room’s references to faith receive the different interpretations that one might predict based on such a theologically, existentially dividing word as “rapture.”

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We can’t blame everything on critics, as tempting as it is. Critic Scott Nichols stated as much when he said, “To me, the lack of religious discussion in reviews [of Everybody’s Gone to the Rapture] suggests either the game fails or the reviewer failed, but something definitely failed.”

Something definitely failed alright. Everybody’s Gone to the Rapture fails miserably because The Chinese Room internalized the “walking simulator” insult (frequently directed at the studio’s Dear Esther) and, perhaps inadvertently, produced the worst possible parody of the term. With the protagonist’s overemphasized gait in Everybody’s Gone to the Rapture, the developers have made the same mistake as Sterling, Keogh, and countless others, allowing the mechanical (form) to overshadow what defines our humanity (feeling). This repugnant focus on putting one foot in front of the other — though you can’t see the protagonist’s feet — is compounded by the decision to make the complete tale a roughly six-hour exercise.

The most amusing part of Everybody’s Gone to the Rapture is the absurd inclusion of a “sprint.” You must hold a button for several seconds to move a little faster. Expecting anyone to initiate and acknowledge this negligible effect points to the developers’ incompetence at best. Assuming they’ve played the game, commentators who say reviewers overreacted to a lack of speed should consider the possibility that The Chinese Room holds contempt for its potential audience.

If nothing else, the development team’s poor attention to detail can’t be denied. In certain areas, you can walk on things that you can’t walk on throughout the great majority of the game: discovering this during moments of dialogue turns already amateurish drama into farce. Or wait until you spot the numerous ostensibly bendable plants that appear to be as hard as concrete when you get close to them. Someone could defend these and other things as inevitable artificiality, but as much credit as some give to The Chinese Room for starting something different with Dear Esther, Everybody’s Gone to the Rapture seems outdated and lost compared to many recent works, from the good (Off-Peak, 9.03m, Moirai) to the mediocre (Dream.Sim, Curtain) to the bad (The Vanishing of Ethan Carter, Gone Home, The Stanley Parable).

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Everybody’s Gone to the Rapture involves humanity and community, but it’s extremely difficult to feel that just by looking as you traverse the town of Yaughton to activate audio diaries, phone conversations, and flashbacks of a sort. In his great review, Ed Smith skewered (among other things) the game’s reliance on voice recordings, which he compared to the flaccid nature of “pressing a button next to a waxwork of Abraham Lincoln.” But the visual approach is more egregious in making Everybody’s Gone to the Rapture inhuman and, thus, intolerable.

In the quasi flashbacks, the characters are depicted as lines and dots of light. Every person has the same form. This silly construction, like the walk/sprint dynamic, points to a fundamental lack of seriousness. The people-as-light conceit not only makes characters hard to remember (dull names are the primary distinguishing factor) but also implies that The Chinese Room is too lazy to care, which further suggests parody of artsy minimalism. In the best-case scenario, this graphics decision reflects a shortcut that had to be taken for some reason, but it’s up to the developers to have some wit about it, such as when film director Frank Capra opened It’s A Wonderful Life with angels and God as light-up blobs, knowing that it would serve his lighthearted but sincere tone. The sight of the talking lights in Everybody’s Gone to the Rapture is only justified by sci-fi mumbo jumbo.

Going with audio only for the characters might have better suited The Chinese Room’s intention for the audience to use its imagination. At first, one might not suspect Jeremy, for example, is a priest without other characters calling him “Father.” In one of the game’s better moments, Jeremy and an older lady named Wendy trade Bible verses in a talk about holy appearances and judgment, but the artistic inadequacy of their “bodies” distracts from the interaction rather than emboldening it. Similarly, when Amanda expresses her fear and anxiety to Jeremy on a couch, the vagueness of their appearance mocks the emotion. And one can only pretend that a marital affair would matter with sexless figures, yet that’s the preposterous picture you get in Everybody’s Gone to the Rapture.

The environments also reveal an absent-minded, passionless illustration of human life. The Chinese Room wants you to discover a once-inhabited place but forgets that simple things explain existence and a lack thereof. The bar in the first segment brings so much attention to its phoniness that one could reasonably believe the developers have never left their homes at night. Beer bottles sit on tables with their caps on, and multiple taps have the same label, yet a cigarette burns in an ashtray. Even stranger, you can go into a house with the notion of learning about a family, only to see hanging pictures of flowers that also appear in a doctor’s office. Such inconsistencies display a deconstructive purpose that says nothing about the upended status quo. Like the scientist Kate says near the beginning, “I keep looking, but it makes no sense.”

Everybody’s Gone to the Rapture can’t absolve these sins with what some call “pretty” looks. Without a zoom-in, the game doesn’t value fetishization of minutiae like The Vanishing of Ethan Carter, which utilizes more defined ghosts to articulate its flashbacks. However, Everybody’s Gone to the Rapture one advantage over The Vanishing of Ethan Carter does suggest hope: in the former, a church isn’t used to communicate shallow negativity.

———

The soundtrack of Everybody’s Gone to the Rapture should have forever connected it to spiritual experience. The hymns, Jessica Curry’s best compositions, attempt to inspire reflection on the soul, but the story gradually moves away from this foundation, especially the last segments that reveal The Chinese Room’s deception in evoking theological debate.

Despite the misleading term “Rapture,” you can’t say Dan Pinchbeck’s script throws any curveballs. His story is not the first to encourage an interpretation involving an infatuation with extraterrestrial life rather than heavenly beings, but the build-up and the finale lack the emotional power of Steven Spielberg’s Close Encounters of the Third Kind. Unlike Pinchbeck’s tentative and unfeeling word choice of “Pattern,” Spielberg’s allegory for supernatural signs and religious conviction doesn’t confuse ambiguity with subtlety. At the end of Close Encounters of the Third Kind, the protagonist receives a clear reward for his commitment, allowing Spielberg to personalize and transcend abduction cliches. The emotional basis of Pinchbeck’s tale merely evaporates with hackneyed Cold War paranoia and formulae scribblings that are cheap, non-universal, and impersonal.

Jeremy’s newfound supplication and Wendy’s belief in the simplicity of a divine plan can’t overcome the fatalism of the blood you keep finding on the trek through Yaughton. Only the infidel couple of Kate and Stephen take any action against this nastiness, with both insisting that the unearthly visitors don’t mean to bring suffering to humankind (Stephen makes this point with a risible anecdote about his dad’s pet fox). Jeremy’s reawakening in particular gets the backhand during one of Kate’s speeches when she says that Jeremy “lies at peace with his God at last,” as if the Christian couldn’t die soon enough. In the same breath, Kate ridiculously implies a human relationship is experientially the same as salvation.

Everybody’s Gone to the Rapture indulges Kate’s obsession with the “Pattern” just as game critics indulge their obsession with basic form and fan service (and the inert politics that arise from these banalities). Rendering the spiritual overtones of Curry’s score futile, the ending acts as a shrine to Kate’s insensitivity and confirms that The Chinese Room has referenced religion gratuitously, with nothing to say about it other than “Oh well.” Faith may not be a prerequisite for empathy, but I see little humanity and zero truth in this game and the predominate commentary that surrounds it.

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4 comments

  1. Faith is an interesting topic, and despite my standing on the issue I’ve always found it an interesting topic. I think despite all the talk of Everybody’s Gone to the Rapture in this piece it’s core is quite obviously the discussion of critiques from a spiritual standpoint – subsequently approaching a critique from said spiritual standpoint as a rebuttal.

    While its certainly valid to criticize a mass lack of critique that tackles the game’s spirituality from a spiritual perspective, and a lack of depth in critiquing the narrative of a game that is mostly narrative, I find the insinuation that not critiquing it from that perspective is objectively wrong or somehow deficient to be crass. In the context of this piece, I think it’s a fallacy to grant spirituality implicit value by describing a lack of it as a blunder. Just because a game references the spiritual does not mean the person reviewing it has a frame of reference for the concept of spirituality – or even that spirituality in and of itself has value in the critiquing of said game.

    I grew up around Christians, for example, but I can’t honestly say I’ve ever experience spirituality or faith. I may have prayed, but even before I was old enough to question the fact that I only parroted those beliefs because of the authority figures in my life, I can’t recall ever believing that those prayers had any greater significance than me talking to myself in my head. Now that doesn’t make me nihilistic, quite the contrary I have a strong ethical code formed from confronting and examining the professed morality of my surroundings and my place within them. (Unless you’re using nihilism in a purely spiritual context, at which point this conversation ends as you’ve assumed my inferiority to an extent that isn’t worthy of further undoubtedly circuitous argument.)

    Your concept of spirituality, the connection to it or understanding of it that you used to pick apart Rapture, doesn’t exist for me. It’s not something I can comprehend. I can recognize spirituality, yes. Recognize, religious themes. I cannot comprehend them, I cannot fabricate meaning and emotion where it does not exist. Just like I cannot truly comprehend the nature of time, or the infinity of a mathematical line with no endpoints.

    As such something like Earthbound’s spiritual references, and those in any game or series of games – from Mass Effect to a little indie title like Proteus – inspire no reverence in me. No sense of awe. No anger or annoyance at their handling of the concept’s finer points. I could critique the game’s spirituality, but only in the context of how it fits with my non-spiritual reality. You, like many others, would likely see my critique of Rapture’s spirituality from an atheist perspective as cynicism, when in fact I’d only be critiquing from the perspective of my own world view in much the same way as you have here critiqued a lack of spiritually or sincerity in its presentation based on your own.

    I will go even further and suggest that I could turn the idea of extreme skepticism, which goes hand in hand with cynicism in this case, back on itself as what is an argument against my non-religious perspective if not a display of skepticism in regards to its validity.

    I’ll also shortly argue here that an implication of nihilism due to the rejection of theism belies an inability to separate oneself from the type of religious dogma that in itself proposes a decidedly cynical view of the world. IE, I am not religious, therefore my morality has no basis – and as a result should be feared because it is self-determined. I am not religious, therefore I believe life has no meaning because I chose not to instill that meaning in servitude to a higher power than myself – and as a result I should be feared because I do not value life or the lives of others. I am not religious, therefore it can only reasonably be assumed that I question my own existence – and I should be feared because this will ultimately lead to inaction on behalf of others. None of these are true, but all basic premises behind the concept of atheistic nihilism.

    Back on topic: As someone who is not spiritual, who can be nothing other than non-religious, I literally cannot critique the game in the same way.

    I cannot discuss faith or spirituality with the same type of depth, because I have neither. I might be able to feign it, pretend well enough that I fool most people, but anyone who truly understands that idea will find my words on the subject hollow and meaningless. It’s not fear of spirituality that would preclude my criticism from considering it in the same way you do, which would seem to be the only way you see as satisfactory. Just like it’s not fear of race that would keep me from discussing it in the same way as Sidney or Austin Walker, but an overall lack of experience with its more nuanced points that renders anything more than broad swipes at the topic impossible for me.

    I do not fear that I would not be able to adequately discuss the topic in a way that a spiritual person might find worthwhile; I know that I would not be able to do so. Though yes, due to my lack of spirituality, I am personally fine with young minds not examining faith if they are not drawn to it. I consider a faith born of insincerity and fear exceptionally dubious and dangerous, whether its bounds are earthly or not.

    Your example of Proteus early on is a fitting place to end. Outside of a connection to fanciful early human allegory, walking on water and ascending into the sky mean nothing to me. Any symbolism they have is decidedly earthly for me, not spiritual. To call a secular evaluation of Proteus “soul sucking and stupid” is to suggest both that feigning spirituality where it does not exist would be preferred and that my lack of spirituality makes my existence outside of it both ignorant and insidious. Hell, the title of the piece alone labels me subhuman – suggesting that my stance on the topic alone serves only to devalue any meaningful discussions.

    The Proteus point in itself also implies that rote discussion of the inclusion of spirituality is somehow more worthwhile an inclusion than similarly rote commentary on genre. I personally found Proteus exceptionally vapid, and completely unable to offer even the most basic of introspective moments despite its similar neglect of the extrospective. Even were I spiritual, I can’t imagine a critique examining its use of religious symbolism, which is about as nuanced as being slammed in the face with a brick, having any more worth than the standards you decry in the first paragraph – except maybe from the perspective of giving me something slightly different to read.

  2. i feel so much of the world-building relies on the over-whelming englishness of it all. the pub (it’s not a “bar”) does not stand up to very close inspection, but the way it feels is so right. the stupid mary celeste affectation of smouldering cigarettes is nonsense, as is the repetition of pictures, etc, but the broader design evoke so many memories. the layout of the caravan park (of course it’s raining), the cottages, the place names, the bird hides; it’s so many holidays, lost summers, walks to school.

    i had the same reading of the ending to you; kate is a psychopath. i’m not sure why that has to be a criticism, though? is it so clear that the chinese room meant for this to be happy ending? i found lots of humanity in this game, but not through her, or the event itself.

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