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Dan Pinchbeck on rapture, religion, and "The Chinese Room" feel

The Chinese Room has always made games about discovery. 2012’s Dear Esther and 2013’s Amnesia: A Machine for Pigs appear pretty different on the surface–one is a melancholy journey across a naturally beautiful landscape; the other is a terrifying descent into the grimy bowels of an industrial horror–but both are ultimately about uncovering hidden truths.

The studio’s upcoming Everybody’s Gone to the Rapture looks to continue in this vein. Set in a rural English town, lovely but disconcertedly abandoned following an unspecified apocalypse, Rapture tasks players with learning why, exactly, everything’s gone to ruin.

We spoke to Dan Pinchbeck, The Chinese Room’s Creative Director, about growing up in 1980s England, small towns, religion, and why he (and everybody else) can’t stop thinking about the end of the world.

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KS: Why the Rapture rather than a generic apocalypse? Is there something specifically Christian in the game’s approach?

No, it’s not a religious game (although there’s a couple of religious characters in it). There’s something so powerful about the idea of an empty world. That sense of isolation and mystery is pretty universal—the idea that everyone has vanished and left you behind. It taps into a very basic set of human fears and emotions and that’s what we really wanted to work with. So it’s less about the Rapture than a Rapture if that makes sense.

What’s interesting about the game to me is that the actual apocalypse is only one part of it—what we’re really focusing on is how these very different people, that we’ve tried to have representing a wide spread of society, try and understand what is going on. So you’ve a local vicar, who frames things in a very religious light, but then you’ve also got very different takes on it from other characters.

KS: That’s interesting. But the “Rapture” itself is still a specifically religious term. Is it more just the idea of the “left behind” concept that appeals? That people are left trying to understand why this enormous change has happened?

Yeah, that’s true. It’s an idea that has quite powerful and specific connotations, but it’s a way of describing something, of understanding something, that reaches more widely and deeply, I think, into the human psyche. Definitely the aspect of being left behind is part of it. But it’s also about the question of what makes a life, how you value an existence, how you ascertain good or bad, right and wrong, the actions you take.

That idea of judgment is also very much part of what we wanted to explore with the game. Ultimately it’s a game about people, and belief systems and faith or atheism, or philosophy—wherever you stand on these things they are defining features of what it means to be human.

KS: I think that’s probably the most basically human aspect of the Rapture story. You don’t have to be religious to wonder if there’s a sense of judgment—divine, mundane, whatever—to huge changes in the world.

Absolutely. Trying to find a framework for events we can’t control or comprehend . . . to place ourselves in some meaningful context next to them—that’s something people have been grappling with for thousands of years.

KS: Was it a conscious decision to discuss this in a game set (it seems quite explicitly) in 1984? I’m thinking about the mid ’80s as being defined by the Cold War, the political right’s power in the West, technological innovation, etc.

Yes, absolutely. There’s a few reasons for that. It was a very uneasy time. I grew up in the ‘80s and there was a distinct sense of end times about the whole thing. There was an absolute shadow of the bomb, AIDS, huge social unrest, burgeoning new technologies . . . . But at the same time, particularly here in the U.K., there was low bandwidth of global communications.

“For many people, the ‘world’ had a range of a 10, 20, 30 miles.”

Communities could be very isolated, quite backwards. That made it very interesting from the perspective of this idea of trying to understand these huge global events—you just didn’t have the same access to information, to travel. For many people, the ‘world’ had a range of a 10, 20, 30 miles. That’s interesting. So setting the game in this isolated valley—this remote community—was a way of being able to play off the epic and the intimate, to make the events feel very close, very human. You don’t have to deal with an entire world vanishing, this is about a handful of people you know and care about. And in a very real sense, that’s actually your world.

So, yes—the ‘80s was a time of real upheaval of a lot of those ‘traditional’ values against a very uneasy, troubled political backdrop.

KS: Whereabouts in the U.K. did you grow up? Rapture‘s Yaughton is meant to be in the Midlands isn’t it?

It’s set in Shropshire. I actually grew up on the south coast, but still pretty rural—rolling green hills and farmland. We spent a long time finding the perfect county that we felt had the right mix, aiming for the bucolic idyllic England that actually never really existed in many ways.

KS: Was that part of the concept? To evoke an England that was more ideal than the time period?

Well, it was an England that was certainly being presented during the time period. And sold overseas.

KS: Right.

You’d still have this green and pleasant land of contented sheep and cricket on the village green, but at the same time you’ve got Protect and Survive leaflets; you’ve got whole communities being targeted for destruction by the government because they are mining towns and unionized; you’ve got gay culture being blamed for creating a disease that’s going to kill everyone else.

KS: Was there much of a sense, in the U.K., that things like this—economic problems, the spread of AIDS—were in some way deserved? I’m thinking of the United States of the time, which was full of this awful homophobic rhetoric from the Christian far right that disease, drugs, wars, etc. were a punishment.

Well, in the case of AIDS, there was definitely that kind of rhetoric for sure. And although I don’t think we had the same intensity of religious right leaders in terms of welcoming an apocalypse as a good thing—in terms of it heralding something new . . . .

“We tend to hiss our rage quietly in corners and avoid actual conflict.”

I don’t know. I wouldn’t want to speak for an America I didn’t grow up in. Certainly, the English are pretty reserved. We tend to hiss our rage quietly in corners and avoid actual conflict. But even then . . . the miners and other strikers were “traitors”; if you were gay you were “filthy” and “brought it on yourself.”

KS: Do you think the game brings the politics of the time into its story? I’m thinking about your team creating in the tradition of A Machine For Pigs, which, I think, presented an extremely clear political message.

Well, we’ve tried to capture a sense of a real community, so we’ve tried to represent all of those politics through that filter. It’s less didactic than Pigs for sure. I think it’s subtler. Pigs had a really strong political rage to it—it was absolutely a game that we wanted to make a political statement with. Rapture is much more about people. So there’s a wider spread of politics and concerns in there, from a whole bunch of perspectives. There’s certainly a political theme at the centre of it, but it’s hard to talk about that because it’s such a strong part of the story.

KS: Yeah, I get that.

So yes, I think we’re interested in people and that means you are interested in politics by default. So we’ll always be quite a political company—but it’s definitely part of the mix in Rapture, not the core theme.

KS: Well, that makes me wonder, too, about the focus of the storytelling. Dear Esther was a game very much about the personal, Pigs about an entire period of history, and Rapture seems to be increasing the scope to an even larger scale. When you talk about the “wider spread” of politics and concerns, are you trying to represent a sort of a cross section of humanity? Or maybe just a cross section of people living in rural England?

Funny, I’d say Rapture is the most personal game we’ve made. Dear Esther for me was intensely private, trying to really get inside one person’s life as it fell apart. Weirdly, Pigs followed through with that I suppose. It’s still very much about one man coming to terms with himself and his actions.

“It’s about caring about the people in the story.”

Rapture is definitely wider in that it’s much more of an ensemble piece—it’s about a community and the relationships between people—but maybe as a result of that it’s much more accessible. It’s more like a radio drama or a TV mini-series. And it’s actually designed so you can play it like a mini-series, in hour-long blocks. It’s about caring about the people in the story.

KS: I see.

We were really interested—probably coming from the cozy catastrophe novels that were at the centre of the inspiration—in this idea that if the world ended, it would still be the small human things that mattered. You can’t conceive of a city going up in smoke, but you can empathize with a parent waiting for their child to come home from school. Or a missed train, or washing burning on the line, or a loved one getting sick.

So, Rapture is about those moments, and more characters gives us more opportunity for you to find the character, the story you really identify with. Which alongside the different style and language definitely makes it our most accessible game so far I think.

KS: Well, the one logo-type image at the end of the trailers—the couple holding hands—presents the idea of basic human emotions holding up in the face of these cosmic catastrophes.

Absolutely, that’s definitely what we wanted to communicate.

KS: Which is one of the most humane, life-affirming images you can get.

“We wanted to do something about the good in people.”

That’s good to hear! Yeah, it’s the humanity in the face of whatever comes that we really wanted to capture. Not heroics in the usual game sense, but genuine everyday human heroics—the small acts of kindness or togetherness that make life worth living. After Pigs, which had a pretty unrelentingly bleak take on human nature, we wanted to do something about the good in people.

KS: That’s good to know. Pigs was deeply unnerving.

Yeah, it was quite harrowing to work on.

KS: Is there any of the sense of fear that was in Esther and Pigs in Rapture?

DP: Yeah, it’s still very eerie and definitely has that “The Chinese Room tone” we seem to get in our games. It is about the end of the world and we don’t shy away from that. There are some really pretty disturbing moments. More than Pigs in many ways, because it isn’t overt horror, but is much more about just being in the room with frightened, confused people trying to comfort each other as best they can.

And that’s important to me—you understand how powerful and amazing the small acts are because it’s not about saving the world or being the hero, it’s more about someone saying “it’ll be OK” to comfort another person when they know full well it won’t and they are biting down their own fear.

Fragility was a really important term we used a lot in development. Life is precious because it’s so fragile.

KS: That makes me think a lot of apocalyptic stories like The Road or even parts of Murakami novels—the idea that the most important thing is kindness in the face of possibly cosmic changes.

DP: Absolutely.

KS: Do you engage with the background of the Rapture at all in the game or is it never a primary concern? Like the cause, nature of it, etc.

Oh yeah, the central mystery really is what has happened. We see it like one big open-world jigsaw. All the information is there, but it will depend on what scenes you discover, how you explore, who you chose to believe or engage with. We want it to be a story that you assemble from the pieces we supply, which is, in one sense, the way we’ve always tried to handle story. But I think this is on a level of sophistication above what we’ve done before. We’re trying to get away from the idea of us telling you a story to be much more you discovering one.

Which in a way, is a big move towards traditional game narrative, but without this story having to serve a mechanical goal. It doesn’t have to work with any other systems, it’s just there for itself. Which is really liberating obviously.

KS: So you expect players to have a real sense of what caused the end of the world and what the state of the world is by the time they’re done? Or if they poke around/think about things enough?

They should. But there’s a lot of world and story. It’s possible to complete the game without finding half of it, and you won’t always understand a character’s motives or actions if you miss some scenes. So, although you’d probably have a good sense of what caused the end of the world, you might not have the same story as another player in terms of the details. And that’s really interesting for me.

KS: I wonder how you design a narrative that way in order to make it satisfying for all types of players—those who really dig in and those who essentially just try to get the “main” portion of everything.

It’s a long process of iteration . . . .

KS: I wanted to talk to you, too, about the realism of the game’s environment—the really accurately modeled town—and the sense of history imparted by these sort of timeless rural English villages. In Canada there isn’t the same sense of history to our buildings—most everything still standing has been built within the last 300 years. And when visiting the U.K. and Ireland there’s the sense, when you get out of the cities, that so many lives have been lived before you.

I was wondering if you think there’s anything to that. If something like the ghostly sparks of light in Rapture tie into that idea of so much history having passed just beneath the surface.

Yes, I completely agree. That sense of history and the land—that very English pastoral tradition is really important. It’s very clear in Jessica [Curry]’s soundtrack, which really works with those traditions, pulling in pastoral classical, folk, choral traditions. But it’s right the way through the game.

With the characters, we wanted them to feel like they grew out of this land. You can find a farmer like Frank in any country village, a nosy pensioner like Wendy. And that sense that this place probably hasn’t changed much in the last thousand years. Change has passed it by. And that ties back to the political and social stuff we were talking about earlier. An Asian family moves into the village and you’d think the world has literally ended because it’s change and change is terrifying. I remember when Boy George first popped up on TV when I was a kid, and it was like cultural atom bomb going off.

And you need that sense, that weight of history, I think to capture that fear of change.

KS: So, there’s the idea that any departure from tradition is terrifying/apocalyptic. Does that tie in at all to technology? There was one trailer I was thinking of that seemed to pretty specifically focus on technology. It had a computer boot-up at the beginning of the footage.

Yeah, I think history is littered with that battle between tradition and change. Especially science, which plays a big part in the story. I don’t know if you’ve seen any of the content we’ve been putting up on the gonetotherapture.playstation.com site, but that’s really all about science and the impact on progress. So it’s very central to the game’s story.

One of the characters in the game sums it up: “There’s some things we’re not supposed to know.” That’s a timeless fear, the letting of the genie out of the bottle and its effects.

“There’s some things we’re not supposed to know.”

KS: Do you err on that side? That we’re advancing technology faster than we should?

Nope. Corporations being allowed to manage technology without restraints scares me. Science in itself is the greatest of all human endeavors. But you can’t escape from the political and moral questions of its applications, and I don’t believe a free market is the most suitable architecture for figuring out consequence. History doesn’t exactly support that idea.

KS: That doubles back to Pigs a bit, too.

Yeah, I seem to loop around similar subjects from different angles I guess. It’s like the faith question: I’m an atheist, but was raised a Christian, so I think there’s a lot in my writing about me working through my own issues with faith—and why I don’t have any when I was raised within that.

KS: It’s interesting, too, that there’s a secular reading of the Rapture that actually sees it involving the singularity—no actual definite cataclysm but just humans making humans obsolete through tech.

Don’t want to go too much into your last point there. Again, I’d point people at the Rapture site if they want to think about singularities . . .

KS: What your earliest idea of the end of the world/Rapture? Was it was informed by a Christian upbringing?

It was nuclear war. No question. I remember strongly being genuinely terrified that the bomb was going to drop.

KS: And so your idea of an apocalypse was an irradiated wasteland? Or the detonation itself—those images of nuclear winds blowing doors off houses . . ?

Well, we were all made to watch the TV movie Threads at school. There’s some of the most horrendous images in that movie: milk bottles melting on a doorstep, an old woman having all her hair blown off in the blast (I think: I remember that but I might have made it up), an electricity pylon melted over to a 45 degree angle.

Familiarity is what makes it frightening. The things you know being shredded and discarded. I struggled with The Road because I didn’t really identify with the characters in it. It felt very emotionally flat. I’ve a strong belief in the good in human nature. I found it’s pathological refusal to find moments of kindness utterly unrealistic. And I think you need those positive moments to really create a convincing sense of loss.

KS: You didn’t see kindness in the relationship between father and son? Or was it just their interactions with strangers?

Yeah, but it was very distilled. It felt like an exercise—only presenting one relationship with any worth to the expense of all others.

KS: I get that.

A novel like The Death of Grass is more interesting because it doesn’t deal in technical absolutes. There is both good and bad in every character. It gives the tragedy depth because you identify with even the dislikable characters. You understand at least why they behave as they do, even if you can’t agree with it. In The Road it was artificial that literally everyone in the world apart from the father and the son had turned into a Fallout ghoul.

KS: I wonder if it’s just McCarthy’s view of America. The ruthlessness of the frontier is in all of his work.

Yeah, I’d agree with that. And trying to square his innate machismo into a situation where it would be utterly irrelevant. He still wants to believe in the lone hero/frontiersman pitched against the forces of fate.

KS: In some ways, for sure. That’s definitely an American worldview as well. Which is interesting actually when you compare something like Rapture to other apocalyptic games. You seem interested in community as the redeeming human force whereas typically apocalyptic games focus on individuals getting by with violence and grit.

Absolutely. I’m a huge fan of the Ukrainian shooters S.T.A.L.K.E.R and Metro. There’s a very specific worldview in those games that makes them really unique. Yeah. I’m not interested in the apocalypse as a problem to be solved.

KS: Just to go back to the religion aspect one more time: where you taught the Rapture and judgment growing up Christian?

No, I was brought up Church of England, so we didn’t get too apocalyptic. Very English. Don’t talk about the difficult stuff.

KS: So your sense of these subjects was pretty much realistic—nuclear war, etc?

Yeah, I’d say so.

KS: I just want to make sure that I’m not ignoring the “rapture” part of Rapture—so much of those trailers feels, intentionally or not, grandiose in the cosmic, end of days sense.

Oh, for sure. We definitely are looking for those sweeping ideas, that emotional tone. The end of the world shouldn’t be an abstract thing—this is about people, the end of humanity. You can’t escape the hugeness of that as a subject.