Everybody’s Gone to the Rapture

Game LogoDeveloper: The Chinese Room
First Release: 11th August, 2015
Version Played: PlayStation 4
Available: PS Store US | PS Store UK | Steam

Everyone has disappeared in a small village in Shropshire. All that remains are the things they left behind and a mysterious light.

This is an exploration game, where the story of the apocalypse is uncovered by searching around for scenes. These act out what went on before and during the event. The people are made from light, showing it’s a memory of what’s happened, not something happening in real time. Each area is named for a person, and finding all their important scenes unlocks the finale to their story.

Though it’s a story about strange events, it focuses much more on the human side. It’s about how people in the village cope with what’s going on. It’s about their relationships and history. Tying it all together is the story of Kate and Stephen, the scientists working at the local observatory. Kate is African American, a woman with a doctorate, and kept her last name after marriage. All things that don’t go down well in an insular village. Stephen, her husband, is a local lad. He doesn’t really understand the issues Kate is facing.

I enjoyed the way the story unfolded, from finding the first blood-stained tissues to the final revelations. There are some answers, but there’s also a lot left open to interpretation.

The village is a great setting for the game. The beautiful countryside is a strong contrast to the horrors. There’s a feeling of isolation from walking around the empty houses and streets. It’s also a little surreal due to the way time moves around the player. Each area is at a different time of day, so the sun swings around quickly at the transitions. Then it waits until the player moves on. I felt as though the light was trying to explain what happened, though why remains a mystery, as the character controlled by the player is never revealed.

A farm field in the game

Image Caption: An open gate leads into a field of golden wheat, ready for harvest. Trees surround the field. A barn and a windmill are in the distance.

Accessibility is a problem, due to the terrible save system. There’s no manual save. The autosave only happens at points where the player has to tilt the controller to see a scene. Nothing else makes the save happen, including story scenes that happen when close by (the majority of them), listening to radios, and finding collectibles. As there are a limited number of tilt scenes, this means it’s very easy to lose progress. My first two goes at the game, I didn’t get very far before I had to stop due to motion sickness. My next attempt, I avoided activating the tilt story scenes. Instead, I kept a list, and only backtracked to them when I needed to stop. Being able to save frequently is really important for people who need to keep playtimes short.

There is a decent density of things to find for the size of area. There are also quick routes to previous areas if required. However, the game does have collectibles and players may need to search for missed scenes. Which means the lack of a proper run to backtrack is an issue. There is sort of a run, as holding one button down will eventually increase the speed, but it doesn’t help much. Restricting players to walking speed only really works when there’s no need to go backwards. I probably felt this more because of the need to backtrack to saves all the time (often whilst feeling sick, so getting there quickly would have made it a lot more comfortable).

I realise developers do these things because they think it helps immersion and makes the experience more magical. So to be clear, this does not make me feel immersed and does not improve my gaming experience. Nothing kills the mood more than having to keep lists of where I can save and hoping I can get there before I vomit on my PlayStation.

In terms of story and setting, it’s an interesting game. It relies on creating a chilling atmosphere, rather than jump scares and the like. There’s some blood and dead animals, but it doesn’t go heavily into gore. It’s likely to appeal to anyone who likes that quiet horror feel. I only wish some of the technical aspects, such as running and the save system, had been as carefully done. It feels like the way someone who doesn’t play games might design those features, which isn’t very practical for actually playing.

Gone Home

Gone Home CoverDeveloper: The Fullbright Company
First Release: 15th August, 2013
Version Played: PlayStation 4
Length: Short
Available: PS Store US | PS Store UK | Xbox One | Steam

Katie returns home after touring Europe, only to find the house is empty. She has to piece together where everyone has gone from the clues left behind.

Though Katie is the character controlled by the player, this is primarily about her sister Sam. Finding notes and other objects triggers journal entries, written as though they were letters to Katie. Sam is a teenaged lesbian in the 1990s, and her story touches on dealing with her parents and finding her place in the world. In addition, Katie finds out more about her parents and the previous owner of the house.

There aren’t really any puzzles in the game, as it’s focused on story and exploration. It doesn’t get more complicated than finding a combination to open a lock.

I enjoyed the story. The voice acting was good, and it avoided a lot of the negative tropes that come with lesbian characters. I was a bit surprised it wasn’t a horror game, based on the way it’d been described to me. This is firmly based in the reality of family relationships.

The atmosphere in the house is well done. Floorboards creak whilst a storm rages outside. These things are on random timers, giving them an organic feel. There’s attention to detail with the rooms, making sure they have the expected everyday objects. Each family member has their own style, which shows in the things they own. That said, the realism of the house also means there isn’t anything very surprising around the corner.

I grew up in the 1990s, but in a very different environment to Sam. The whole angle of the feminist punk movement was new to me. The game has music (on cassettes that can be played), fanzines and badges for the bands. The commentary mode includes some thoughts from Corin Tucker, the singer from Heavens to Betsy. There’s a lot of interesting stuff in the commentary in general, so it’s worth playing a second time with it activated.

Accessibility is reasonable. The game has options to remove head movement, and has a crosshair in the centre by default. This helps reduce motion sickness issues. Subtitles and text overlays for notes are also options. There are a few flickering lights in places, but the flickers are short and don’t create a strong strobe effect.

This is an interesting game about growing up and relationships. The emotional narrative and attention to detail stood out as strengths. The short playtime could be an issue for gamers on a budget. There are themes of anti-gay prejudice in the main storyline, and child abuse is implied in the side narratives, though none of that is very graphic.

Among the Sleep

Among the Sleep CoverDeveloper: Krillbite Studio
First Release: 29th May, 2014
Version Played: PlayStation 4
Length: Short
Available: PS Store US | PS Store UK | Steam

On a two-year-old’s birthday, something goes very wrong. An unseen force enters the house at night. Armed only with a teddy bear, it’s time to find Mommy.

This is a game about creepy horror, rather than blood and gore. The world is a very scary place for a toddler. In an early stage, a strange noise sent me hiding under the furniture… only to realise it was the gurgling of a radiator, as heard through a toddler’s ears. That feeling of vulnerability meant I was carefully trying to climb down from furniture, as I was very aware that large falls could be an issue.

But as the game continues, the world gets increasingly unsafe. Those scary sounds might actually be monsters, and the only thing a toddler can do about them is hide. Sometimes escaping meant having to drop from heights, or climb things I wouldn’t have wanted to climb, because things would be worse if I didn’t.

Among The Sleep_20160313040514

Image Caption: A trophy achievement screenshot for “Baby Mozart”. A toddler’s view of themselves and a xylophone on the ground. The crosshair turns into a hand over the xylophone.

The gameplay is relatively simple. Puzzles are within what a toddler can do, such as moving chairs to reach door handles and throwing objects. The main focus is exploring and unravelling what’s going on. You can crawl (the fastest movement speed) and walk (not so fast, but better for seeing things). And run, but I didn’t find any need for that, as crawling is a lot faster and safer. Teddy is carried on your back most of the time, but can be hugged to provide light. He also occasionally offers advice on what to do.

Each of the levels has a different theme, but all of them have elements from the toddler’s home. A forest has furniture in it and a playground has decorations based on the child’s owl toy. It made things familiar, yet also strange. In addition to the main story, there’s a prologue giving more backstory on the relationship between the child’s parents.

Among The Sleep_20160406000948

Image Caption: A backlit playground, with an animal rocker. The crosshair is just about visible in the centre.

I felt the game did a good job of capturing the powerlessness of being a young child. It’s not just about physical strength and ability, but a lack of control over life. There are hints at family troubles from the start, but the child has no power over that. They can’t escape when things turn abusive. I also liked that it reinforced that no one is too young to be hurt by the bad things going on around them. They might not understand it in the same way as an adult, but that’s not the same as saying it doesn’t matter if they’re hurt because they won’t understand or remember it. I remember things back to when I was a baby, so I’ve always had a dim view of the idea that someone can be too young to be hurt.

My main criticism is the climbing mechanic. There’s a button to press to climb things, but at times it doesn’t work for no obvious reason. I had to shift around until finding the magic spot that would start the climb.

A small area of the closet level has flickering lights, which creates a strobe effect. It can be passed quickly, but it’s good to be ready for it. This game is also high on motion sickness triggers. The toddler gait sways. There’s a lot of camera movement climbing up things, and going from crawling to walking and back again. Despite that, I didn’t find it too bad on that front. There’s a crosshair in the middle of the screen, which helps to provide a stable point of reference. The sections are short, meaning it’s easy to schedule breaks. The crosshair and subtitles were on by default in the PlayStation version, which makes a nice change.

This is a great choice for fans of short atmospheric exploration games. It captures the feeling of being a scared child, and offers a perspective that’s rarely explored in games. Note that it does include themes of child abuse and alcoholism, as well as supernatural threats.

Beyond Eyes

Developer: tiger & squid
First Release: 8th September, 2015
Version Played: PS4
Length: Short

 

Beyond Eyes is a short exploration game, about a girl called Rae going to find her missing cat friend.

The marketing descriptions for Rae’s backstory are a bit of a mess, and don’t line up with what’s stated in the game. In the game, Rae is blinded in a fireworks accident. She becomes reclusive, staying in her garden, as a reaction to the trauma of the accident. That summer, she befriends a cat she calls Nani. The seasons travel through to winter, Nani starts to visit less and less often, and by spring he’s disappeared. Rae heads out to find him.

The difference is the marketing versions say she’s been blind since she was a toddler. However, the game shows her as near the same age (and wearing the same clothes) when she has her accident. The passing of the seasons would make it about a year later when she heads out. This also fits better with her general level of skill in moving around. If she had been blind since she was a toddler, it would come across as strange that she wasn’t more skilled at moving around. This would mean she’d been blind for most of her childhood, which just doesn’t fit.

But anyway, if I hadn’t read those descriptions, I’d have said this takes place about a year later.

The strength of the game is the way the world is painted around Rae. As she uses her other senses to navigate, she imagines the world, and it appears around her. This means she sometimes gets things wrong, such as thinking cloth flapping in the wind is a clothesline, when it’s a scarecrow. She might imagine a gate as closed because it was when she first encountered it, but someone’s opened it since then. As this representation exists only in her mind, it’s also influenced by her current mental state. When she’s frightened, the colours are less bright. When she’s confused, areas can disappear.

Though there are some sadder/tenser moments, it’s overall a gentle experience. Rae’s world is an idyllic village with flowers and birds singing, rendered in watercolour. The threats she faces are common ones, such as crossing the road or a loud dog.

I liked that Rae’s accident was not portrayed as the end of her life. Withdrawal is a normal (though not the only) response to trauma. The key here is it’s also showing her facing that, by leaving to find Nani. Life carries on.

There were two things I noted as not ideal in the portrayal of blindness. It’s odd that Rae’s eyes are closed all the time. Even in cases where the eyes are removed, the eyelids are not usually sewn shut in humans. I wonder if this was done to avoid showing damaged or absent eyes. The second point also doubles as a gameplay issue. There’s a misconception that blind people can’t move quickly. That blind children don’t run when they play, adults never run for the bus, and even a fast confident walk is seen as out of the question. This isn’t true. It’s natural for someone who is re-learning how to navigate to be cautious, but slow movement speed is not inherent to being blind.

The gameplay issue being Rae moves slowly all the time. For the initial exploration, this speed is fine. But it gets painful when backtracking to explore all the areas, which isn’t a good gameplay choice for an exploration game. It makes sense both from a real world perspective, and a game perspective, to have her pick up the pace in areas she’s already been. Even a cautious child is going to move faster going back down the path she knows is fine. It also would have been a nice touch if her basic walk had slowly increased in speed during her adventure, as she got more confident.

In terms of gameplay, I would have liked more events. There were some already in the world, such as being able to feed flowers to a cow, and finding memories of Nani. But there were also places that felt empty. Some of these had objects that could have triggered events. I didn’t feel the balance of things to find, versus the time taken to explore, had been hit.

Accessibility options for blind players would have been good, such as the option to have a narrator reading the story (it’s text only) and controller vibrations when hitting obstacles. Also worth noting the undiscovered areas are white, which can be a migraine or motion sickness trigger for some people. If you’re in that category, keeping game sessions short is advisable.

Overall, Beyond Eyes is a nice addition to the exploration genre. It has some strong points, such as the way the world is painted from Rae’s perception and the beautiful artwork. I would have liked a faster backtracking speed and more things to find, but this didn’t stop me enjoying it. Fans of quieter exploration games and walking simulators are likely to enjoy the game. It took me around six hours to finish everything, including reruns for trophies.