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September 13, 2015

My little problem with armageddon

Note: in general I don't warn about spoilers, except for the general heading above, Caveat lector but in this case I'll reiterate: there will be spoilers of Everyone's Gone to the Rapture below. It is a game that I think is best played without foreknowledge of its events. So take care.

I am a child of the 1980s; that's where my teens were spent and where I did most of my growing up. And I think that's why I have this problem of always worrying about the coming apocalypse.

When I was young, that worry was over nuclear arsenals -- the news was full of nuclear fear and rarely optimism. There were big television events (back when television was appointment viewing) like The Day After and Testament, the latter shown on PBS and absolutely the most terrifying thing one could watch at thirteen and already a bit afraid of the future¹. When I was in middle school, I honestly didn't think that humanity was going to survive until I was an adult. I genuinely believed this. We would talk about it, a friend of mine and I. We were well past the time when simple solutions (Duck and Cover!) were in any way empowering for children, and there was the underlying nagging worry that somewhere forces well outside our control or even understanding were going to kill us all.

Thankfully then there was perestroika, glasnost, and ultimately the fall of the Soviet Union and the Berlin Wall and all of that, though the former has come with some uncertainties of its own. And, truth be told, not a little bit of being busy really growing up, going to college and starting an adult life. The twentieth century came to a close with a still thriving human populace, despite all my earlier expectations.

But like all things that we first encounter as children, I've always had a small problem with the apocalypse, there's a fear there lurking deep inside in some part of me I can't do much about. I don't worry too much about terrorism -- the fear trumped up around that is so clearly manipulated for political gain, though I wonder what effect that constant message in our culture has on my own children. Nowadays my own fears are about climate change; the fear doesn't go away, it just changes targets. Anyway.

It was with this worry deep in my heart that I picked up Everyone's Gone to the Rapture, the latest walking simulator from British developers The Chinese Room. In it, the player is embedded into a small Shropshire valley in the year 1984 or so -- right at the height of my adolescent fears. It is in the first person, and there is no indication of who the player represents, if indeed there is a "who" that the player represents. The setting is absolutely lovely, a gorgeous and lush representation of the natural world, peppered with human artefacts: homes (nicely alien to me being non-American), telephone boxes, bus stops, a playground or a camper park, even a small old church on a hill.

There are no people. Instead, there are ... sorts of afterimages of people, constructions of pulsing particles of light that replay elements of their last few days of life, and vague disembodied voices that play over phones. They have conversations in either case, in pairs or trios or even on rare occasions, alone. And there are a handful of main characters whose stories we have a chance to encounter in full -- one the priest or parson for the town; Wendy, an older woman who has lived there a long time (and mother of Stephen, to follow); Lizzie, a young woman who is rekindling her love with her old fiancé, Stephen; Stephen is himself a main character who is a scientist at the local observatory; and the superior scientist Kate, his wife and a village/valley outsider, who has somehow managed to start this whole catastrophe rolling.

The catastrophe has come in the form of some sort of alien intelligence, referred to as "The Pattern," which has traveled to Earth via the radio towers of the observatory where Stephen and Kate work. The mechanism is unclear; it appears at the very least to be a creature of energy and light, and while its intent is unknowable, the result of its encounter with the human race is that all sentient creatures (or perhaps all mammals) have ultimately been subsumed into it.

None of this really matters all that much, I suppose. What entranced me in playing was the ways in which the story was played out geographically rather than linearly; encounters would appear as you passed near a location, with or without a little bit of input from you². The feeling is almost like taking a tour with an older relative through a place they once lived, hearing about past events, in the sense of not knowing exactly when they might come up -- but instead, getting small scenes which act them out.

What comes through most through the storytelling is a sense of melancholy and loss -- not so much for the human race, and more on that in a moment, but for each of several couples whose love can't be fulfilled. There's Frank, whose wife died of cancer and at whose bedside he was too overwhelmed to sit in her final moments. Wendy's husband is gone too. Most touching for me was a young couple who had plans to run away to the Continent, because her parents wouldn't approve of their love, but who stayed behind because a lot of adults had disappeared, and they felt responsibility for the children left behind. There's Stephen, too, who has in a sense lost his wife to her research and the pattern, and rekindled this romance with his former fiancée, and he's racing around trying to find a way to contain the Pattern and yet find a way to let her escape it (even though he himself will not).

And yet of course, we know how this all ends, in a sense, from the very start -- we are examining the past that has led to the present state, where everyone has already gone to the rapture, while also exploring a past of our own real present, that 1980s and its nuclear fears. I found myself delighting most in the little things, the pleasure of walking on a country path or through a field of yellow wheat, encountering details of a world we've already lost just in the passing of time. Phone boxes. Stiles, entirely alien to us in America, and yet I loved seeing how they are actually constructed. A pub and a pint where everyone knows you and maybe throws a dart or two. Beehives.

The last thing I came away with was a renewed wonder for the beauty of our natural environment, trees and birds and flowers and bees. I came away with this sense that even though the human race may later or sooner disappear into oblivion, our planet will still be a stunning place to see, as will much of the architecture we've left behind. Some day there will be no one to look at it, which just makes me want to make sure I see a bit more of it while I still can. I think I'll go take a walk, and untether myself from the normal pattern of my life for a bit.





¹Seriously, that movie: gutting. Seeing that when I was a early teen was like seeing Old Yeller when I was six.

²The mechanism on the PS4 was by using its accelerometer to tilt the controller back and forth; it feels a bit like tuning in a radio station on an analog dial (a rare circumstance these days, but still a common one in the 1980s).

Posted by Brett Douville at September 13, 2015 06:07 AM

Comments

I still recall paddling a canoe on a New Hampshire lake in those days, surrounded by fellow Boy Scouts, looking into the infinite blue sky threaded with clouds, and thinking, "They could have started the War, and we'd never know. We're away camping, and the first news we'll hear is the bombs landing."

Posted by: M.A. Masterson at September 14, 2015 03:58 PM

The Testament had the most impact on me. Maybe because it was set near where I lived. I was in 7th grade when The Day After was broadcast and we were asked by our teachers to watch it. We talked a bit about it in school, but I never realized the impact it had on policy makers and adults around the world.

In high school I devoured post-apocalyptic fiction whenever I found it. The Earth Abides is still my favorite book and I re-read it every 5 years or so. :)

Posted by: Chris at September 23, 2015 08:41 PM