religious

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.

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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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Criticism vs. Marketing: A Response to Colin Moriarty’s ‘Evil is Good’

by Jed Pressgrove

Months ago, I provided my definition of criticism: “[C]riticism is sharing reactions to something without sounding like a commercial.” In a response to criticism of Far Cry 4 box art, IGN writer Colin Moriarty sounds like a commercial. We should examine the marketing implications of what Moriarty and other game critics have said about Far Cry 4.

First, none of us are innocent when it comes to giving Far Cry 4 attention and, thus, potential for more sales. The box art debate is exactly what Ubisoft wanted. With the Far Cry 4 box art, Ubisoft knowingly used the tact of an immature schoolboy to get people curious about the game. This consumer curiosity might take the form of “How will Far Cry 4 the game actually handle its themes?” or “I can’t wait to shoot some bad guys in Far Cry 4.” There’s nothing wrong with these curiosities, but I believe that Ubisoft used racially and religiously charged imagery — a clear play on post-9/11 anxieties — to get us talking. In this respect, Moriarty’s talking is no guiltier than any other critic’s talking.

The problem is that Moriarty takes word-of-mouth marketing to a more troubling level. I immediately disliked the “Evil is Good” headline because it sounds like a phrase from a dumb movie trailer. Unsurprisingly, the phrase ties into Moriarty’s assertion that a “potentially controversial bad guy” is something powerful that can challenge us. To support this conclusion, Moriarty makes several banal, obvious comments about the importance of bad guys in art. Once you get past all of this philosophical posturing, you get to what Moriarty’s article actually says: “Buy Far Cry 4.”

The evidence is especially clear in the third paragraph:

When I first saw this artwork, I had a few thoughts. My first thought was, “man, I can’t wait to play Far Cry 4.” I absolutely adored Far Cry 3. It was an exceptional game, one awash with a host of non-linear, explorative qualities, solid gunplay, and a surprisingly engaging story. It deserved every one of its 9 million sales, and I was so pleased to see that Ubisoft would follow it up so quickly (Far Cry 4 is slated to come out this November).

I’m sure Ubisoft executives love this passage, which doesn’t represent a critical reaction so much as evidence that Ubisoft has a loyal ally. While I can’t call the passage’s honesty into question, Moriarty gives Ubisoft exaggerated praise when he brings up the sales figure. The idea that a game “deserves” all of its sales shows a flagrantly uncritical mindset. It doesn’t consider that some bought Far Cry 3 and thought it was garbage. It doesn’t consider whether sales provide insight into game quality in the first place. Indeed, such considerations are unimportant when the critic becomes nothing more than a mouthpiece for a game company.

Moriarty enthusiastically supports Ubisoft’s marketing purposes with the Far Cry 4 box art. From a sales perspective, the fact that the box art contains racially and religiously charged imagery is irrelevant. The most important point is that the image looks edgy and violent. Greg Magee’s line about the box art’s “gun porn all over the place” provides insight into Moriarty’s approach, which is revealed in the second paragraph of “Evil is Good”:

In the artwork — seen below — a person in a fine pink suit is leaning on the head of a subjugated man cradling an M67 grenade. An AK-47 rests to the left, an RPG-7 to the right, and some ammo is strewn about.

From a technical standpoint, Moriarty’s specificity about the weapons is impressive. It also raises a question: does it really matter what kind of grenade the darker-skinned guy is holding? Moriarty’s fixation on weapons plays into Ubisoft’s strategy of appealing to the classic shooter theme of power through weaponry. The racial and religious imagery is only icing on the cake and therefore easily dismissed by Moriarty as window dressing for a “good, believable antagonist.” Of course, given that he has yet to play Far Cry 4, Moriarty has no critical reason to suggest that the antagonist is “good” or “believable.” The effect of Moriarty’s article appears to be selling a game for Ubisoft under the guise of engaging in a critical discussion.

Moriarty also markets the edginess that Ubisoft was going for with the following proclamation:

Far Cry 4 isn’t an innocuous, inclusive children’s book or an afternoon Nick Jr. cartoon. It’s an M-rated video game, made for adults, and it may just deal with some brutal realities of the world. What if this blond man is, in fact, a shameless, violent, narcissistic racist? Doesn’t that give you a strong reason to dislike him, and a powerful motive to chase him through Far Cry 4’s campaign? Isn’t that more compelling than some vanilla, sanitized antagonist with no noticeable personality flaws or nefarious motives? Racism is, unfortunately, a very real force in contemporary culture, so why should gaming ignore it? I love that Far Cry 4’s writers are treading down the same path the previous games did, making for an experience that may just be, at times, totally uncomfortable. Maybe Far Cry 4 will give you pause and make you question your own motives in the process. Isn’t that a positive in a landscape flooded with the same old thing?

Notice that Moriarty begins by casting aside the nonexistent argument that Far Cry 4 is a children’s book or Nick Jr. cartoon — hey people, this game is “M-rated.” Such language reminds me of my childhood in the early 1990s when games like Mortal Kombat made me feel like I was playing something mature and original. Looking back, my feeling as a kid was legitimate: as a fighting game, Mortal Kombat had a unique approach to violence. In contrast, Moriarty’s words should be interpreted as marketing, not a legitimate feeling, because nothing he predicts about Far Cry 4 is a unique idea. Far Cry 4’s blonde man will not be the first violent, narcissistic racist in video games. He will not be the first game villain I’ve strongly disliked during a chase. He will not be the first villain with personality flaws or nefarious motives. And Moriarty knows this. He admits Far Cry 4 is “treading down the same path.” Then he turns around and gives us that now-classic slogan about questioning “your own motives.” If it weren’t clear that Moriarty is marketing Far Cry 4 rather than engaging in criticism, I would wonder whether Moriarty has played any of the numerous popular or underground games — everything from Fallout to Traitor — that encourage players to question their own motives.

On a broader level, Moriarty makes a mistake that game critics should try to avoid: suggesting conclusions about a game that nobody has played. Regardless of our reaction to the Far Cry 4 box art, we don’t know what the game will do. But there’s a deeper problem with Moriarty’s approach. In instructing people to be excited about Far Cry 4 rather than skeptical of its conniving marketing, Moriarty betrays the purpose of criticism and journalism. With the Far Cry 4 box art and the discussion it continues to inspire, Ubisoft doesn’t need any help from Moriarty.