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.

No Man’s Sky

Game CoverDeveloper: Hello Games
First Release: 9th August, 2016
Version Played: PlayStation 4
Available: Amazon.com | Amazon UK | Steam

A traveller wakes up by a shipwreck on an alien world. A message is left for them by an entity called Atlas, and sentinel drones patrol for unknown reasons. It’s time to fix the ship and go exploring.

Procedural generation is the core of this game. Every planet is a bit different. Animals are constructed from putting together basic parts, there are different plant selections, different climates, and so on. The art style looks rather like old science fiction landscape covers. It’s somewhat realistic, but much brighter and bolder.

My first planet was an idyllic world with green almost-grass, reddish-orange trees, and lovely weather. As I woke up next to my broken spaceship, I was told something by the exosuit voice that I couldn’t understand, because the voice is difficult to pick out and it didn’t have subtitles. This fortunately becomes less of an issue after that, as the suit voice is just reinforcing things shown on the screen.

Image Caption: My starting planet. The foreground has green grass, and a larger tree on the right with red-orange leaves. The distance has patches of brown earth and more grass, with a forest stretching into the distance. The sky is a pale green colour. At the top, there’s a black curve, which acts as a compass.

The game prompted me to fix the ship. After a long journey for minerals, and an encounter with angry crabs, I got it done. But I still left the ship behind, as planets are made for walking. This became easier when I realised I could call the ship from certain locations, so I didn’t need to worry that I’d wander too far. I quickly got the hang of the different things I could find, like ruins with alien backstory, and drop pods to upgrade my suit inventory. I looked for new animals on the way, to find all the species on the planet. It is a little strange that I was discovering things on a planet packed with alien outposts, where spaceships were flying above me. These things already had names, and there were logs from travellers who’d been here before me. But my traveller liked to think they were the first to discover it, so I wasn’t going to argue.

Just when I was wondering where I’d find the last few creatures, I had a stroke of luck. As I crested the rolling hills, I spied a flock of majestic penises bouncing along on their testicles. It’s said that players given an open creation tool will always make genitals, but it’s maybe time we cut them some slack. Procedural algorithms are no better. It was also at this point I decided that naming everything after what it resembled was a bad idea.

Eventually, it was time to head into space. This was an odd experience, as space was a thick coloured cloud with asteroids everywhere. The controls were like trying to fly in treacle. Planets were all very close, making it feel more like a pretty menu for the planets than being in space. I do give credit for it being a seamless experience, as I could go from space to the planet’s surface without obvious loading screens. It just didn’t feel like space.

The galactic map, used for jumping between systems, was awkward to use. I really wish it had a cursor I could move over the stars, rather than having to move the sticks around and hope it moved to the star I wanted to view. It’s unlikely I could ever find my way back to systems I’d previously discovered.

After jumping between a few systems, ships would sometimes attack in space, but I still felt like I was selecting planets from a menu rather than flying a ship. The combat was nothing special. There wasn’t any depth in weapon choices, with only two kinds of weapon with a few upgrades. Having to go into the inventory to recharge shields was a pain. All round, space combat was something to do for the game milestones (which also link to trophies), not because it was good.

My early experiences were generally fun. I liked exploring, and it wasn’t too difficult to mine stuff to keep my exosuit running. Inventory space is a little tight at first, but it can be expanded. The biggest issue was the game didn’t want to explain anything. Controls were only shown in a diagram in the options menu and there was no explanation of what icons meant. For example, selecting options requires holding the button, not just pressing it. A red shield icon appears on the screen, but it actually means the inventory is full, not that the shield has a problem. Scanned plants and animals have to be uploaded after scanning to count, and again after all animals are found. There’s no air of mystery in withholding basic game functions from the player. All it meant is I paused the game to search for the answers online, which was time I wasn’t spending playing the game.

As the game continued, I got the hang of the interface, and it was mainly down to exploring. I enjoy mining and exploring in games, so I didn’t mind wandering around looking for animals and gathering resources. It’s a relaxing thing to do. There were a few more exciting moments on planets with threats, which were also fun in their own way. I spent a long time on a planet with sentinels that attack on sight, as part of a set of milestones for surviving on extreme planets. I think the family were a bit boggled as I walked slowly over the landscape and said, “I can’t stop. A killer robot is chasing me.” Sentinels aren’t the fastest robots out there.

Encounters with aliens were mostly rather similar, but there were a few that stood out. There was the time I stuck a killer slug up my nose because of a misunderstanding between “don’t stick this up your nasal passage” and “stick this up your nasal passage”. I’d have liked more of those, and less of aliens needing some basic resource for their equipment. These alien encounters could be a good way of showing how their society is now, in contrast to their ancient history, but the game never really got there.

The planets were the highlight. I found rocky deserts with strange plants and stone pyramids, ocean worlds with swimming eyeballs, and lush planets with plants everywhere. Some things do repeat a little too often, such as there being a limited range of items that grow in caves, and resource items looking the same on most planets. Those zinc flowers are like an invasive species that have found a way to populate nearly every planet in the galaxy. But mostly, I was finding planets that couldn’t have been mistaken for the one before.

Another planet

Image Caption: Another planet, which contrasts starkly with my first planet. Giant red leaves twist towards the sky, growing from a bare rock surface. The air is hazy and orange. The compass is visible, and there’s a white dot in the centre which acts as a cursor in the PS4 version.

Animals have areas where the variation really works, such as individuals in a herd varying. They might have babies with them, for example. Some species have very different individuals, to the point that it takes a scan to see they’re the same species. I did get a feel for some of the elements used to make the animals, as some noticeably repeated. Angry crabs were pretty common on the worlds I visited. The range of animal sounds was also small. But I was always finding new things. The best was when a big animal was given tiny butterfly wings, and it flew along like the universe’s most clumpy fairy.

As might be guessed from the clumpy fairy, the biology isn’t realistic. Herbivores can have carnivore teeth or a planet might only have herbivores. Animal behaviour is not very detailed. There were some nice moments though, like the carnivorous cow trying to chase one of the faster herbivores. There’s a good reason why cows aren’t mighty hunters. I’d like to see more of that kind of thing.

My discoveries

Image Caption: A collage of some of my animal discoveries, showing the range of things found. Animals include a mushroom with eyes on their stalk, a bird with three butterfly wing segments, a biped bird-dinosaur with a unicorn horn on their nose, an eyeball with tentacles, a mite with six legs and a crest on their back, and a green zebra-striped pigcow.

Much as I like exploring, the game promised a story. The strongest point is the lore about the past. Ruins reveal the history of the main alien races. Old logs tell the story of an ancient traveller. Any player can find these by exploring, regardless of other choices.

Things aren’t good when it comes to story where the player participates. The crash site had an item that let me talk to Atlas. This suggested there were two main story paths: helping Atlas and rejecting Atlas. It turns out that wasn’t the case. By rejecting Atlas, I’d opted out of the story, rather than choosing a different story. For those who do follow Atlas, the additional story it unlocks is sparse. There’s also a little bit of information that can be picked up by talking to two other characters, which again, doesn’t add a whole lot.

The game also strongly suggests that getting to the centre of the starting galaxy would be significant. All systems are marked by how close they are to the centre, there are black holes as shortcuts to the centre, and the galactic map really wants to show the player how to get to the centre. But the game sets players up to be disappointed, as it doesn’t follow through on the promise of something special.

The central problem was a lack of satisfying rewards for doing any of these things. That would mean getting a reasonable chunk of story or visiting a unique place. The game could have done with taking a good look at walking simulators. Those games have using story and setting as a reward, often in non-linear ways, down to an art. It’s clear that’s what this game was trying to do, but it didn’t succeed.

There are accessibility issues with the game. The character head movement can’t be turned off. This is particularly a problem as the character sways when standing still, which removes my usual trick of taking a motion sickness break by standing still. Red and green dots are used to mark animals when scanning, which is a colour blindness issue. The dots are also tiny. Making the dots bigger, and putting a symbol in the dots, would make them a lot more usable.

The game has a wide variety of genders for the animals found, including rational, asymmetric, orthogonal, none, and non-uniform. Some aliens are referred to using gender-neutral pronouns. There aren’t any humans, so there isn’t a direct comparison to how well it handles human genders. However, all but one of the trophy descriptions are named after stories by men, which isn’t a good sign in that direction (the exception being short story “Symphony For a Lost Traveler” by Lee Killough).

A concern for how endless the game will be is the design decisions for galaxy creation. My top update would be more types of worlds to explore, more alien races, adding more assets into the pot for the procedural algorithms to use, and other things that mean there will always be more to find. But the universe is already created, so that’s unlikely to happen. It would mean remaking the universe, and destroying people’s discoveries in the process, which I’m sure they won’t do (and I wouldn’t want them to either). I’d have rather the game started out with a single galaxy and had new variations in future galaxies, than to have infinite galaxies that will all be the same.

This is a game that has its extremes. The weak areas, like the story and the space flight, are very weak. The strength is the range of planets produced from the procedural algorithms, which is something unique. It will appeal to anyone who wants to wander alien planets. I loved finding the animals, swimming in the oceans, and naming everything. The main thing is for players to know what they’re getting. Exploring other worlds and seeing strange creatures, for sure. A story that explores the mystery of the setting and great space combat, not so much.


Submerged Cover: Miku carries TakuDeveloper: Uppercut Games
First Release: 4th August, 2015
Version Played: PlayStation 4
Length: Short
Available: PS Store US | PS Store UK | Xbox One | Steam

Miku’s brother Taku is badly hurt. When their boat drifts into an abandoned city, she hopes to find supplies to help him recover.

The setting is a flooded city in a post-apocalyptic world where the sea levels have risen. Despite the main aim of finding supplies for Taku, there are no time limits and the player can take as long as they want to explore. Miku travels around the city in her fishing boat, and can climb the buildings sticking out of the water.

I liked the general feel of the game. Rather than showing the decay of the city as destruction, it’s something that’s brought new life. Sea creatures swim through the streets and jungles grow on the buildings. There’s a day and night cycle, as well as the occasional storm.

The past is told through picture sequences. Finding supply crates unlocks the story of Miku’s family. Finding books unlocks the story of the city. The present story is told through brief cutscenes. This all worked well enough, but the present story is very short. It ends abruptly just as it’s getting going.

Image Caption: Miku driving her small fishing boat through the city. Miku is a tween/young teen wearing clothes made from old cloth (baggy shorts below the knee, a strip of cloth over her chest, and a long scarf). She has light skin and brown hair. She stands in the boat with her back to the camera, and a hand on the tiller. The city has overgrown buildings, with trees on top, sticking out of the water. There are game icons at the bottom of the screen and a compass at the top.

Gameplay is repetitive. The main activities consist of finding the crates and secrets by climbing buildings, and exploring the city by boat. As the story is on the slim side, and the buildings are generally similar to each other, there’s not much that’s very surprising around the corner. I’d have liked more unique areas on the buildings, new animals appearing as the story progresses, or something else like that to reward exploring.

The game has subtitles for Miku’s language, though little that’s said is really needed. It’s mainly to reinforce what needs doing as shown in the cutscenes. The storms produce a few flashes on the screen, but it’s not compulsory to play during the storms if they’re an issue. It’s third person, cutting out most motion sickness issues, which is perhaps ironic given the length of time spent in a boat.

I did enjoy wandering around the city. Driving my boat over the rolling waves, with dolphins following me, was a relaxing experience. My favourite animal was the giant whale shark that appears in some of the deeper channels. It’s not a bad game for players looking for short non-combat experiences. But I felt there was a lot of potential it didn’t quite reach, particularly in terms of story and things to find while exploring.

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.