In their small studio in sleepy Preston Park, north of Brighton on the South Coast of England, The Chinese Room are developing a game about a very English apocalypse. Even in the short teaser trailer for Everybody’s Gone to the Rapture, alongside the abandoned town square and idyllic but ominous scenes of nature, we hear the sound of a public service announcement in unmistakable BBC English: “Keep the doors shut. Do not go outside the house until you are told it is safe." The beautiful environments, the atmospheric score and the absence of non-player characters will be familiar to fans of Dear Esther and Amnesia: A Machine for Pigs. In this case, there’s an obvious reason for the emptiness. As the tagline says: “This story begins with the end of the world."
Dan Pinchbeck, co-director of The Chinese Room, loves post-apocalyptic games. It’s the kind of setting that is “very suitable to game worlds,” he says. “There are scarce resources, you’re scavenging, you’re on your own a lot, there aren’t too many complex interactions with other characters to navigate. It’s easy to make that into a powerful and rich game world.” The apocalypse, after all, is ripe with audio-visual possibilities; it is inherently cinematic. He talks about bands like Mogwai and how that kind of instrumental music sits perfectly within an end-of-days setting.
Leigh Alexander recently posited the idea that Myst might have been a big influence on the current generation of exploratory games, with their abandoned environments and eerie post-apocalyptic touches. Not so, at least for Dear Esther; Pinchbeck tells me he hates Myst. “I just really hate puzzle games. I find no joy in solving puzzles at all.” He thinks that Myst is one of those games that was “more influential in theory than in practice,” and that today it could be accomplished without the puzzles entirely.
It’s shooters, in fact, that inspire Pinchbeck’s decidedly gun-free games. The first post-apocalyptic game he mentions as an influence is Doom but he also enthuses about S.T.A.L.K.E.R. (“I know I talk about that game all the time”), saying it was a big influence on Dear Esther. The environmental storytelling of Metro, too, directly inspired some of his team’s work on Amnesia: A Machine for Pigs.
People are not playing Mass Effect for the shooting, he says, but for the world in which they’re doing it.
If The Chinese Room’s games can be connected to something beyond the first-person shooters whose conventions they challenge, it would be games like The Last of Us and Mass Effect. “It used to be that the world was a way of delivering the game, but now the game can be a way of delivering the world,” he says. People have criticised his games for their lack of mechanical intrigue, but he feels that they exist on a spectrum along with Mass Effect. People are not playing Mass Effect for the shooting, he says, but for the world in which they’re doing it.
Many games, after all, make a lot out of a little. Doom 3’s mechanics were “the absolute bare minimum," he says; if anything, The Chinese Room strives to find how much more minimal they can take things. If you could do Myst without puzzles, he thinks you can also do Doom without guns. He recalls how terrifying the anticipation was in Justin Fisher and Richard Love’s Aliens TC mod for Doom, where for the first level and a half, nothing happened. “You’re walking around thinking, ‘This is Doom. Any second now…’”
It’s this sense that unifies their games, then: the wandering, the sense of growing unease. This appears in a lot of games, of course—Pinchbeck cites the Tibetan village sequence in Uncharted and pretty much all of Shadow of the Colossus—and also in the post-rock that works jives so well with the apocalypse. But it seems that Everybody’s Gone to the Rapture will place that sense of anticipation centre stage. After all, what sets it apart from the crowd of post-apocalyptic games is that it’s not post-apocalyptic at all but pre-apocalyptic. It’s about the moment before the very worst happens. Anticipation is built into its very title.
There’s also something colloquial and mundane about that name, which may tap into its more British influences. On January 11th, an article appeared in the Shropshire Star claiming that Everybody’s Gone to the Rapture was bringing “Shropshire to the video game world." Pinchbeck denies that it’s supposed to be any specific county but that the setting is rural England, sort-of Shropshire, in the year 1984. This recalls the “cosy catastrophe” school of fiction of John Wyndham and John Christopher; it’s a very English kind of apocalyptic literature that creates a stark contrast to something like Cormac McCarthy’s The Road, which Pinchbeck describes as “basically a poorer version of A Wrinkle in the Skin." In these books, everything remains ordinary despite the apocalypse, which Pinchbeck finds more “truthful." He refers to Primo Levi’s If This is a Man: “He’s saying that these extreme circumstances don’t ‘make or break you.’ The day to day brutality of the camps is sort of boring, sort of mundane.”
The reason the world is ending isn’t really the focus. Since you can’t do anything about it, it doesn’t really matter why it’s happening.
In Eichmann in Jerusalem, Hannah Arendt writes of the “banality of evil,” arguing that the great evils of history were carried out not by extraordinary people but by ordinary, everyday people. The cosy catastrophe genre, then, seems to evoke the banality of a catastrophe. The flipside of the lack of supervillains is the lack of superheros, something Pinchbeck and his co-director Jessica Curry are very aware of.: “In apocalyptic games,” he says, “you’re always a superhero saving the world but, if it actually happened, the chances are you wouldn’t be. Nobody would be.”
The 1980s setting of the game suggests that the apocalypse in question has been brought about by a nuclear attack, but the reason the world is ending isn’t really the focus. Since you can’t do anything about it, it doesn’t really matter why it’s happening. Pinchbeck refers to Metro again: “The reason for this great disaster is kind of irrelevant. All you can do is respond at a small-scale, local level." By choosing not to put a gun in your hand, the Chinese Room are avoiding giving the player some idea that the “apocalypse is a problem to be solved.”
I wonder what draws us to imagining the apocalypse: religious millenarism, nuclear paranoia, environmental anxiety. Is it our natural instinct to find patterns in our world and draw definitive conclusions from them? This, of course, is the very pleasure node pushed by many videogames and stories. Storytelling, at its core, is about predictions, ways of coping with possible futures. What if Hansel and Gretel’s mother died and their father remarried and the stepmother was evil and abandoned them in the woods? Imagining those things is an important process for us to go through. We can’t live in denial about bad things happening.
It may not be a total coincidence that Everybody’s Gone to the Rapture is set in the same year that Threads first aired in the UK. Barrie Hines’ BBC docudrama about the impact of a nuclear attack on the Yorkshire city of Sheffield had a profound effect on a generation. (As Pinchbeck puts it, “We were shit-scared in the 80s.") He showed Threads to the rest of the team at the time when they were all working on A Machine for Pigs, saying, “They could barely sit through it." The horrors of Amnesia were nothing on that bleak, unrelenting vision of nuclear fallout. For every generation, for every culture, there’s a bogie man. The Cold War just had the coolest visuals.