There’s nothing I can do. I know that, almost immediately, as I take my first steps out into the Shropshire countryside that surrounds me. Nothing I can do, I think, as my slow footsteps creep upon the silent road, emptied of all life. Nothing I can do, as another knock on another locked door yields no response in this ghost of a village. Nothing I can do. I’m powerless.
A sense of powerlessness runs throughout Everybody’s Gone to the Rapture. Taking place after all of humanity has died out, and after anything can be done about it, the game places the player in an ambiguous role: she is an observer and a wanderer, but she is not a character in any story the game is telling, and rather than creating her own, she has a story told to her, one whose outcome she cannot affect or alter. The game limits the ways in which the player can interact with the world, and minimizes what the player is capable of. Therefore, made to look and listen and unable to do anything about the events that have taken place before the game begins, the player takes on a much more passive role, and through this the game weaves a sense of powerlessness that makes itself felt in a number of ways.
The game cements this minimalist design ethos straight away, beginning with minimal narrative and mechanical exposition: one line of dialogue (“This is Dr. Katherine Collins. I don’t know if anyone will ever hear this. It’s all over. I’m the only one left”) and a couple of control prompts, and then that’s it: the game steps back and the player is let loose upon the world. But neither who you are nor what you are meant to do is revealed; the player is a body with no name and no traits, a moving thing, able to look and listen but barely interact with the world she has been dropped into. Right from the start, Rapture creates a sense of unease and of purposelessness; this world I have stepped into isn’t quite right, the player thinks, but I’m not sure what I’m meant to do about it.
One of the most important ways the game weaves this feeling in is through movement. Movement plays a key role in Rapture, and most time in the game is spent simply wandering around the world. The game’s default movement setting is at a walking pace, a slow amble, and it’s something that seems to complement the peaceful countryside that is the world of the game. If you want to speed up, you can, but it takes a few seconds of holding down a button and even then results in a movement more like a jog than a sprint. Alongside this, there is no way to jump, no feature to fast travel across the world, and none of the bicycles or cars found on the sides of roads can be used. It is movement at its most functional, its most basic, and it means that where you want to go, and what you want to do, is strongly dictated by the game. If, like most games, the default movement setting was a jogging pace, with the ability to either slow down or speed up, Rapture would become a very different experience. Suddenly, the world would feel more open, more navigable; somewhere the player could roam free rather than stalk carefully.
The world itself does much to reinforce this feeling. It’s a world full of obstacles and boundaries: paths hidden in shadow that lead nowhere but closed gates, gates that open up to front gardens leading to locked houses, houses where every room stays hidden behind a closed door. The player can shake door handles, rattle gates, knock over and over again but there is nothing to be done, nobody will respond, and there are many places the game simply doesn’t allow the player to go. The act of knocking on doors or rattling their handles is one of the few ways Rapture allows the player to interact with its world, yet remarkably this act is one that ends in failure every time. No matter how many times the player knocks, no locked door in the game will ever open because of the player. By allowing this interaction, and never letting it yield any positive results, it’s almost as if the world is positioning itself in opposition to the player, pushing back at every opportunity, its will overruling that of the player. These physical boundaries that the game imposes all add to the sense of powerlessness felt; despite the world having ended, it is not yours, and you are not there to profit from disaster.
This feeling is even more heightened by the fact that the game’s world is highly detailed, and full of debris from lives left behind. Books litter tables, empty bottles stand in empty pubs; a child’s drawing is left thrown on a bed. But this detail is superficial, painted on. Those books can’t be picked up, those bottles won’t smash if stumbled into; nothing in this world can be disturbed. It’s a museum piece. The inability to interact with these items doesn’t take away from any sense of realism in the game, it simply adds to the ways in which the player is rendered powerless. It’s story told through environment, and every last bit of it is fixed; one missing book, one broken bottle, and that narrative, this fixed final image of the world, is destroyed. In this way, the world of Rapture seems more like an elaborate set, with the player an audience member who can look and listen but cannot touch a thing.
This same feature is not just limited to the player. Reaching a dead end of a lane, two characters may suddenly burst into conversation; peeking into an empty living room, a figure may suddenly appear seated on an armchair; walk into a bedroom and someone may be just waking from sleep. But while these snatches of story are told with human voices, the bodies from which they sound are spirals of light that glow and spark when they speak. These figures of light can travel right through the player, and the player right through them. None of the people you come across are given a bodily presence: they are apparitions, taken over by light, and just like the player, these light figures do not disturb the environments they are found in. Their lack of physical form and interaction reflects and cements the idea of the player’s own powerless body.
The representation of the characters in the game is closely tied to the narrative they are involved in. So often, progress in videogames comes down to what the body is capable of; as the game goes on, more and more extreme physical feats are necessary to progress. Yet in Rapture, the only progression comes in the form of narrative progression, something that happens by reaching the end of a character’s story, which, every time, involves witnessing the final moments of their life. In other words, progression in the game actually involves the body failing, as opposed to triumphing; narrative progression comes at the cost of human lives, of the body falling powerless. Death in Rapture happens over and over again, and every time the body fails, and every time the player is powerless to intervene.
All of this begs the question as to who, or what, the player is. Despite the lack of physical interaction the game allows, the player’s presence is acknowledged in a few ways. As previously stated, the player’s knocks can be heard, and when walking through the world, footsteps too make a sound. Alongside this, the player can brush up against sheets drying on lines, and when walking through water, the sound of splashing is heard, and ripples form around the player. Yet looking down, the player has no hands, and no feet, and when coming across a window, or a mirror, the player has no face, no body, no reflection whatsoever. In this way, the game evokes the sense of a physical presence, without actually allowing the player a concrete, bodily form. If, as the game states, there are no humans left, and the Pattern is all that remains, then perhaps the player is some form of the Pattern. It was, after all, never trying to kill, only to communicate, and so the player, maybe, is some form of everything the Pattern has taken in; the collective memory and knowledge of everyone that came before it, a life form that is not human, but that holds so much of humanity that it can imitate its presence without taking on its form.
What this all adds up to is a game that not only creates a sense of powerlessness within the player, but actually engages with powerlessness as a subject and a theme. We rightly celebrate games such as Brothers: A Tale of Two Sons, Shadow of the Colossus and Journey for the way the player’s available actions dovetail with the games’ larger narratives, and through creating a narrative that focuses on the body failing, and by casting the player as a powerless wanderer, Rapture too creates consonance between all its elements. The experience of playing Rapture, of being in its world, feels fragile and frail. The apocalypse, rather than coming across as shocking or surprising, seems slow, and ambling, and though, in the end, all are powerless to stop it, within the world of Rapture this failure makes more sense than any success would. All are left powerless, including the player.
There was nothing anybody could do. So why should I be any different?