Guiding Light

If there’s a single moment of video game design I could use to encapsulate why I remain in thrall to the medium, it is one unannounced and largely unmentioned moment about two thirds of the way through Everybody’s Gone to the Rapture.

Released in 2015, EGTTR (as no-one was calling it) was the follow-up to Dear Ester, the game still viewed as the progenitor of the ‘walking simulator’ genre of narrative experience games. Although initially coined as a negative description of Ester’s lack of interactivity, the moniker stuck and behind it came a plethora of new experiences under the newly concocted genre. The tenets of said class include the aforementioned lack of typical gameplay mechanics, shooting, puzzle solving, any major obstacles to continued progress, as well as a focus on moving through heavily curated spaces in order to follow a relatively linear narrative.

These experiences can therefore afford to be extremely focused in their storytelling, employing multiple ways to tell their tale as effectively as possible. Most tend to exploit this focus to tell sombre stories of interpersonal relationships within a given context, fantastical or not. Dear Ester, by far one of the most esoteric examples, dealt with the interplay of the titular character and a person who enters her life in the most dramatic way imaginable. The player assumed the role of an unknown observer, a person or entity exploring a barren Scottish isle as the story came to them through dreamlike hallucinations. The game used both audio and visual storytelling wherein a radioplay like series of snippets played out against a backdrop of images and landscapes. Gone Home on the other hand, perhaps the most celebrated example of the genre, took a far less ambiguous route and placed the player as specific character in the narrative: a woman exploring her old family house after returning from vacation. Here the majority of the plot was written, found in notes and letters scattered here and there about the map.

EGTTR was created by the Chinese Room, the developers of Dear Ester and is something of a mix of these two extremes. Set in 1984, the player is again positioned as an unknown explorer this time tasked with wandering the tiny village of Yaughton in Shropshire, England. Gone are the philosophical noodlings of Ester however, replaced by discoverable dioramas of townsfolk discussing everything from personal affairs to the crisis rapidly overtaking the town. These play out as ethereal mini-plays, each person represented by a shimmer of anthropomorphic light. Beside these ghostly echoes you are alone in this world and your objective, if indeed there is such a thing, is to unravel the mystery behind the lack of humanity in this very human environment.

The spaces here are far larger than Gone Home’s family mansion or Dear Ester’s tiny speck of Scottish rock. Indeed, as you continue through the game you are given free reign over several contained but open areas that, were you left to you own devices, might prove overwhelming. Lucky the developers incorporated several mechanics to subtly, and not so subtly, guide the player through the world.

The first and most obvious are the Lights. Each chapter is named for a villager and as each name reveals itself at the start of the section so does your guide. Represented in game as floating balls of light, these ethereal wisps dart around the camera playfully, occasionally uttering garbled syllables of English in the voice of their associated townsfolk. They act as the game’s breadcrumb trail, often darting ahead of the player, their long tails of light acting as a beacon.

Other more delicate devices also help the player navigate. Maps are placed diagetically about the world as they would be about a small village full of public footpaths, and mysterious markers have handily been scribbled over places of interest. Path design subtly leads you to your next destination and out again, making sure the next exploration point is placed in-camera just as you’re wondering where to go. Clever map design means your final destination for each section, a church in one, a windmill in another, is clear from the start and almost always visible. Finally, audio cues direct the player to radios and telephones that dole out story snippets, and once all dioramas in an area are uncovered a final cue will play, telling players to continue on with their journey.

All of these are unobtrusive and work within the game’s fiction but it is the Lights that have the greatest impact, both narratively and atmospherically. They are a constant presence in the game and the further in you get the more you recognise their individual traits. The longer you spend in their presence the more you recognise small details encoded into each. For example, during the second chapter the Light is far more talkative.

Occasionally the Lights will emit mini flares, an AM wave written in sunlight, and with its corresponding audio this suggests some attempt at communication. The second chapter is named for Wendy, an elderly lady both outspoken in her views and constantly willing to share them. The flares for Wendy’s Light come far more frequently than for the others. Once I figured this out I found a new camaraderie with my guide, finding her constant admonishments to drop what I was doing and follow her (or so I interpreted them) incredibly endearing. In contrast the next chapter, Frank, concentrates on her curmudgeonly farmer brother and his Light is far larger and more complex, but almost silent.

These mysterious companions are never explained in the game’s story. There are implications made, and suppositions can be gleaned from some occurrences, but the air of magical realism around them never fades. Are they a reincarnation of each villager? A remnant? Are they something else entirely merely imitating the essence of each character? A line of dialogue from a character sums it up well: “Some things we ain’t suppose to know.”

All of which brings me to that one moment of game design. EGTTR is an experience of extremely charged emotions brought on by wonderfully drawn characters and the haunting church-choir soundtrack that anchors everything in a very specific place and time. For me these emotions peaked at the start of the chapter four, and to explain why it was I had to place my controller on the ground and step away from my screen for a full 5 minutes, I’m going to have to get into specifics.

Minor spoilers from hereon out.

The story of the game revolves around a large and varied cast, however the main plot focuses primarily on two people, Steven and Kate, a married couple working at the observatory close to the town. Steven is the prodigal son of Yaughton, returning home after many years away and Kate is his new wife. Another central character is Lizzie, Steven’s childhood sweetheart. She is married too, but the game wastes no time in revealing the affair she is having with Steven behind her husband’s, and Kate’s, backs. This side plot is handled as beautifully as every other, with characters commenting on the scandal as they would in any small-town ‘traditional’ community, with whispers and murmurs and noses out of joint.

The fourth chapter of the game is named for Lizzie and as I rounded the corner from the previous chapter I searched for her Light that would guide me through the next area. Sure enough, it appeared within a few moments. But this Light was different. Around it orbited another, much smaller globe, playfully spinning around its mother like a moon.

The game never comments on this. It never explains it. But upon seeing it I understood its significance immediately and promptly burst into tears.

This is a game where everyone is dead. Not just dead, erased from reality. There are no bodies in Rapture just the remnants of lives lived and occurrences long since concluded. Lizzie had been a character stuck between two worlds, of conformity and normalcy with her drunkard husband or excitement and liberation with her former flame. She is presented as a sweet, nurturing presence in the village and I had already been dreading the resolution of her story. But this. This was unexpected. No mention of her pregnancy is ever hinted at except for this one, small detail and it is devastating.

I’m currently playing through the game again for only the second time and it is clear it has a place amongst my favourites. It is an oddity even now, a representation of a place and time so alien to the American dominated games market that even 5 years after its release it feels fresh and new. There are no puzzles to be solved or enemies to be thwarted but it remains one of the most emotional experiences I have ever had with a game.

Not bad for a walking simulator.