Everybody’s Gone To The Rapture

‘Show, don’t tell’.

It’s an important piece of advice when telling a story. If you give the audience the means to put together the information for themselves then they’ll experience those tiny moments of euphoria. The story will then resonate with them. Have somebody do that bit for them and explain each step and they will feel patronised and stupid no matter how detailed a world you’ve built up.

rapture3 Everybody’s Gone To The Rapture is a rare thing in a few regards. It’s probably the only game ever to be set in a Shropshire village and it’s a game that tries to suppress some of the standard video game mechanics we’ve come to know over the years in favour of story telling. There may well be things from outer space coming down to Earth but you won’t be shooting them at any point, in fact them seem fairly non-aggressive towards you all the way though. Everybody’s Gone To The Rapture wants you to see the human drama going on in this small, English valley.

The town of Yaughton is mostly comprised of pubs, a church, a farm and some thatched cottages. About the only modern building is an observatory up on the hill, not far from where you begin the game. It’s in this building that two scientists, Kate and local man Steven, have discovered something heading our way. As the game begins there is no human life left in Yaughton at all. The village has all the signs of being cut off in an attempt to contain what they thought was an outbreak of influenza but doors are left open and cars sit in the middle of roads unlocked. The only life that remains are floating orbs of light which either show you the way to go or take the shape of human bodies in order to act out events that led up to all this. The 1980’s setting gives the game a definite feel of British sci-fi around that time, it’s very much like Peter Davison is about to step out of the TARDIS at any moment.

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Great efforts have gone into giving Yaughton all the details from the time and making sure it’s a convincing setting. This is just as well because the actual walking speed of your character is glacial. Holding down R2 does build some speed and momentum but it’s not that far removed from the slow walking pace. The Chinese Room have made this place, they’re making damn sure you study it.

Despite being so well detailed there’s also very little you can actually do with anything you see in the village. Only some doors can be opened, those that can’t are usually signposted by a government poster or just generally locked. You can go into the local pubs but you cannot walk behind the bar. The local church is off limits as is the shop. Picking up items is impossible and doors open towards you often pushing you back as if you shouldn’t be there. Yaughton isn’t a place you inhabit, it’s a museum exhibit being shown to you.

Each section of the game focuses on one character and details their side of the narrative. There are two stories that reach over the whole thing, one being the invasion itself and the other being a love triangle between three residents of the village. Each time you see a globe of light in front of you there is a need to twist the controller at a certain angle to activate the cut scene. This is the most interactive thing Rapture does.

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There are some wonderfully touching moments in the story. At one point you have an echo shown of a Mother who has taken shelter in one of the houses because her children and husband had become tired and were getting nosebleeds (an early sign of the ‘infection’). Her husband and the children had gone upstairs to rest but that was six hours ago and she’s too scared to go up and check on them. You go upstairs to see a room in which the beds have been disturbed and there are bloody tissues on the floor. This would seem a fair conclusion but the truth is you’ve seen the same tissues in the previous five houses and you’re well used to them by now. Before long every single one of these stories ends in the same way with you looking at blood stained tissues. It becomes repetitive to the point of you not really caring. The voice acting is of an extremely high quality and the orchestral soundtrack gives feeling and mood but when it’s attached to a story which continually repeats itself in this manner, which leads to the same conclusion each and every single time, it feels wasted.

Everybody’s Gone To The Rapture feels like it should be about exploration and finding a story out for yourself. The exploration element is stunted by the fact it takes forever to get anywhere. You might be able to see a building in the distance but walking there will take the best part of ten minutes and when you get there you’ll probably be presented with one cut scene and more bloody bloody tissues. You’re also not finding out anything for yourself instead being told about it by somebody else each and every single time. It’s possible to find radios and telephones that give some of the character’s conversation but it amounts to pressing a button to hear a short clip. You’ve arrived too late as all the good stuff happened when people were still here.

Games can tell good stories, we’ve surely reached the stage when this is a given now. Bioshock’s story was so effective because you were actually part of it, The Walking Dead’s story worked because you were shown human characters you could identify with and your decisions effected them. Everybody’s Gone To The Rapture treats its players as mere bystanders to be dictated to.  Whilst The Chinese Room are to be commended for trying to create something different from the usual shooting and flying in alien invasion it seems they’ve missed the mark when it came to thinking of the player, of you experiencing what they’ve made.

‘Show, don’t tell.’.

It’s important.

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Love and Skateboards

Here’s a short tale about love and skateboards.

It’s also a little bit about the value of nostalgia but we’ll come to that in a short while.

Back in 2001 I’d used a vast chunk of the first installment of my student loan cheque to buy a Playstation 2. This wasn’t the brightest idea in retrospect. The first night I brought it home I hooked it up in the shared living room and we played Gran Turismo 3 until late on. Upon deciding it perhaps wasn’t a good idea to keep an electrical device I’d bought near anybody drinking beer I moved it into my room where it took pride of place below the 14 inch Sony TV I had at the time.

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One evening my girlfriend was round and she asked me to teach her how to play a video game. She’d had a Master System and a Mega Drive when she was growing up but had never got into games the way I had. I asked which she wanted to play, she said any would do. It doesn’t sound like the most romantic of things I know but I appreciated her efforts to get involved with her boyfriend’s (sometimes quite anti social) interests. We settled on Tony Hawk Pro Skater 3 because it was easy to get into initially but more parts of the game opened up through practice. She soon took to it completely, skating around the Foundry level in an attempt to find the secret tape. We kept playing it together on a fairly regular basis from then on. My girlfriend became my wife, we’ve been together 14 years. Pro Skater 3 holds a special place in my heart because of that.

Now for the value of nostalgia bit.

Activision recently announced that the art style has changed for the upcoming remake/reboot/sequel Tony Hawk Pro Skater 5. After a good few years of trying to get involved with peripherals and motion control, all with pretty much no success whatsoever, following up with mothballing the series for a few years so we could all forget about the horror Activision have brought back Pro Skater. Instead of coming with a gimmick this time they promised it would be back to basics, a simplified score attack game just like the good old days. Activision hoped that feeling we all got with the first few games in the series would mean we’d let this one have a clean break.

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They weren’t prepared for the initial reaction to screengrabs though. Pro Skater 5 looked like it had been made quickly, on demand, with somebody whipping the developers across the wrists each time they put some originality into it or updated something for modern tastes. We were supposed to take this new game into our hearts and welcome it back like an old friend. It was looking like being as welcome as a phonecall in the middle of the night.

Changing the game with only a month or so to go until release is risky at best and retail suicide at worst. Activision are desperate to dress this up as something from the good old days. They want me to spend money on this thinking I’ll get back that feeling from the student bedroom of 2001 teaching my girlfriend how to manual. They want my feelings of nostalgia to be greater than any kind of negative thought towards this game. They’re willing to do anything to make it like the good old days and it isn’t really happening.

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I don’t often like to predict the future but I reckon Pro Skater 5 (which as we all know isn’t the fifth in the series by a long stretch) will still come out because it’s got too much riding on it to be cancelled now but it will arrive to a tepid welcome. It’ll sell a few copies but nowhere near enough for Activision to ride the tidal wave of cash to the bank like they did before making Pro Skater the unofficial Jackass simulator it became. Pro Skater and I had some good times but there’s no going back now.

The Knight’s End

The following entry contains spoilers for the story of Arkham Knight (2015) and Arkham City (2011). Only read if you’ve finished the main campaigns.

Arkham Knight was always going to have it tough. As Rocksteady’s final part of the Arkham trilogy and being the first on this generation of hardware it had a lot to live up to. A bigger chunk of Gotham was expected, the Batmobile was confirmed fairly early on and Scarecrow’s looming face during the Sony presentation at E3 2014 confirmed that the alter ego of Jonathan Crane would be the main antagonist this time around. Doubt however remained in some, perhaps soured by the taste of Arkham Origins which felt more like a stop gap than a fully realised Gotham we were hoping for. Rocksteady quite simply couldn’t do it a third time of asking.

They did though, for the most part anyway.

I played through Arkham Knight’s main campaign and a fair few of the more interesting side missions within two weeks after release day. It wasn’t because of the fact I wanted to rush through it and get it traded in and I’m not usually in any position to be playing games for a few nights running as I have other stuff to do. I made time for Arkham Knight though, I wanted to see what would happen next, the story certainly led me through the game. I liked thwarting the bank heists organised by Two Face and I loved chasing Firefly through the streets in the Batmobile. I even took enjoyment from hunting down Manbat once I’d worked out where the heck he was in the skies above the city. Arkham Knight started to fall apart towards the end though, just when the Knight really begins to get desperate.

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During the development of Arkham Knight we were informed that Rocksteady had worked with DC in putting a brand new character into Batman lore. Many theories were banded about to explain any number of characters the Arkham Knight could be. There was the possibility it could be Joker who died a little too close to a Lazarus Pit in Arkham City for comfort, another suggestion was Hush who had something of an unresolved participation in City and would have probably been open to the idea of being an alternative Batman. I remember at the time also reading a left field idea based on the Arkham Knight being Alfred, possibly taking revenge for Bruce Wayne always leaving his dinner to go cold.

Jason Todd is fairly heavily sign posted throughout the game as Bruce Wayne’s fearful nightmares about losing the second Robin at the hands of The Joker play out at certain moments in game. Most of the events in Arkham Knight are about Batman’s loss. The loss of his parents as the initial cause of his desire to keep Gotham safe, the loss of the people who help him now such as Oracle and the loss of those who have helped him in the past. Scarecrow is acutely aware of this throughout the entire story and so the recruitment of Batman’s one time companion as his new nemesis makes sense but the moment the Arkham Knight takes off the visor it’s more a ‘oh right’ than ‘oh my god’ exclamation..

In the lead up to this scene you’ve battled the Arkham Knight indirectly in what feels like hundreds of situations. There’s been the section in which the Cloudburst has spread Scarecrow’s fear toxic throughout Gotham, then the part where you have to work with Poison Ivy to protect her plants from attack by tanks and drones sent by Arkham Knight, then comes the Batmobile section when you have to sneak up on all the Cobra tanks before getting to the Cloudburst tank itself four times to make it overheat, then it’s the Arkham Knight’s base itself, then the tunnels underground in which the Knight tries to destroy you with an industrial drill and finally the face off with Jason Todd himself which is broken down into three separate predator sections. After all of this Jason Todd vanishes, only appearing back at the end to shoot Batman free from Scarecrow’s ‘media presentation’. I began to actually tire of the whole thing when I was hiding from seven Cobra tanks in my heavily armed Batmobile for about the third attempt. It seemed in places that Rocksteady had three ideas of how to end Arkham Knight’s story, thought long and hard but ended up choosing all of the above and trying to cram them in.

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With Scarecrow finally locked up in GCPD I spent some time flying around Gotham trying to get rid of all the strongholds the Arkham Knight’s forces had set up. Having access to all the gadgets now made these a lot of fun and it wasn’t too long before there were no red lights patrolling the skies anymore. After that I had to read up how much more was left to do, Catwoman would have to stay locked in the orphanage with Riddler, the thought of trying to find every Riddler trophy in the game was a little too much to bear. The bombs would have to stay planted in the roads as I’d grown sick of the sight of tanks as well. Even the Red Hood and Harley DLC, given away with the PS4 version, has remained unused. Gotham is a wonderful game world but I think I’ve had my fill for now.

Arkham Asylum is the smallest of the Arkham trilogy, taking place only in one island and two or three buildings but there was a tension there that forced the story along. Batman was isolated from the mainland of Gotham city and had to work towards getting the Asylum back in quick order. City expanded the formula but was still set in a contained area. Knight meanwhile proves that giving the player a huge map sometimes dilutes the story a little. It’s hard to go off and find Riddler trophies when you’re well aware there’s a bomb about to go off that will spread fear toxin throughout America’s coastline.

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Knight is still a great game and a fitting ending to Rocksteady’s time at the helm of DC’s most iconic hero (sorry, Mr Kent). Sometimes however, a little less goes a much longer way.