On The Road To Rapture

Dear Esther was also among a group of titles in recent years that shepherded in a focus on quality narrative and experiences. What was the driving force behind crafting an experience like Dear Esther?

Jess: It really started from the same question. Dan is a huge FPS fan, and we’ve always said what Dear Esther did was take a lot of classic FPS design ideas and push them sideways slightly. For us, it’s no accident that our favourite games are ones with really strong stories and really powerful worlds - System Shock, Deus Ex, STALKER… so it was really inspired by those games, where just being in the world and soaking up the atmosphere is incredible. We also wanted to focus on making story, music, and environmental storytelling all work together really closely and focus on the emotional experience you are having as a player.

Dear Esther: Nighttime on the island.
Dear Esther: Nighttime on the island.

You’ve mentioned in the past that Everybody’s Gone to the Rapture has been in the making for quite some time – how and when did the initial idea for the game come to fruition?

Jess: Well, we started early prototyping and ideas back in 2011 while we were making Amnesia: A Machine for Pigs with Frictional Games. There were two big ideas behind it – first, there were more story-driven games coming out, like Gone Home, Ether One or Dream, and like Dear Esther, they were linear corridor experiences. We wanted to push things a bit further for ourselves and go for something non-linear – Dan was playing a lot of Skyrim and Red Dead Redemption and wanted to look at how this kind of game would work in that kind of open world. And then we were both really interested in doing something different with the apocalypse, something that was smaller, quieter, more about people. It grew from there.

Your team undertakes painstaking efforts to create such finely detailed environments – it also looks like you’ve gone the extra mile by being accurate to the 1980s. What was that process like – was there a little bit of digging up old photos, some research, some nostalgia, or a little bit of everything?

Jess: It’s been strange and a bit of revisiting our childhoods. Yes, capturing something that felt really authentic was important, because we really want you to identify strongly with the characters, really see them a real people and we think that having a convincing world is a big part of that. It takes a lot of work, there are gigabytes of reference material sitting on our server, but the really big challenge is not just making something that is finely researched, but something that still has a real distinct, individual feel. It’s like how Clint Hocking has talked about Africa in Far Cry 2 – we wanted the valley of Yaughton to be a character in the game.

Yes, capturing something that felt really authentic was important, because we really want you to identify strongly with the characters, really see them a real people and we think that having a convincing world is a big part of that.

The events of Rapture take place in 1984 – a very familiar year to those who know their Orwell, but a lot of the real-world feelings at the time echoed that novel’s themes. How does Rapture tap into that mindset of unease, among other things, and how you do convey that in the game?

Jess: We grew up in that late part of the Cold War and it was an uneasy time – there was a lot of fear about nuclear war still. For us, we had TV shows like Threads and books like When The Wind Blows that were really scary as kids (they still are). It was before the internet existed in the public domain in any real way, there were only three TV channels in the UK – so you could genuinely get cut off from the world. There was a hurricane on the South Coast of England in 1987 and it cut off the village Dan grew up in – no electricity, phones, television, road access. The world could have ceased to exist for the day or two it took to clear the roads. I think those kinds of memories are there in the game, and the way characters respond to events we’ve tried to draw very much from our own experiences. The really important thing is that we identify with them, they are real people.

The title is Everybody’s Gone to the Rapture, but you focus on a small set of characters – without spoiling too much, what was it like crafting and creating these individuals and their paths through such life and world-altering events?

Jess: It’s been an amazing journey. We really did start with characters – my mum was a soap opera writer (for UK readers, she wrote Brookside and House of Elliot), and she’s always said the important thing is characters, not plot. We got to know our main characters – Wendy, Jeremy, Frank, Lizzie, Stephen and Kate – and then a lot of the writing came from asking “what they would do if…” This goes for the other characters as well. We felt that if these were recognizable people, then their stories would matter, even if they weren’t big dramatic moments in the plot. Some of our favourite moments in the game are really quite small, but they’re so human, it’s really lovely. Everyone on the team has a favourite character, we hope that players will also get that. And because it’s non-linear, it means you can go back again into the game a second or third time, once you know what’s happening, and it really changes what you might think about a character that time around. My favourite character is Wendy, Dan loves Charlie and Rachel, who both play quite small parts in the story.

Some of our favourite moments in the game are really quite small, but they’re so human, it’s really lovely. Everyone on the team has a favourite character, we hope that players will also get that.

What was the inspiration behind the name?

Jess: That’s such a hard question! Sometimes I think names just arrive and you think “that’s the one”. We knew we wanted to have this empty world, but one that was perfect and beautiful, not destroyed and classically post-apocalyptic. There was definite inspiration from the cosy catastrophe books there – for all of the horror and end-of-the-world images in novels by people like Wyndham or Christopher, there’s this real beauty in the world and we wanted to capture that. It just arrived and seemed to perfectly capture that sense of eerie beauty we wanted in the game.

Aside from movement and button inputs, the game has ‘tilt’ events that utilize the gyroscopic features on the controller – where did that idea come from?

Jess: We really wanted to something that would feel different, and it ties in conceptually with the tilts themselves, that rolling ball of light. We didn’t feel like buttons would map well over to that, and we’d been talking a lot about how the game is set in a really analogue time, and we were talking about the way you used to have turn the dial on TVs and radios to tune them – as so much of the story is based around signals and radios it was just a perfect fit.

The Chinese Room at work in the office...
The Chinese Room at work in the office...
...and in a recording studio.
...and in a recording studio.

Over on The Chinese Room’s blog and Twitter account, you occasionally muse upon games that you’re currently playing and your thoughts on them – do you have a personal favorite that has come out of Santa Monica Studio and our partners?

Jess: I really love Journey, it’s a beautifully crafted game. Austin Wintory’s score is wonderful and the art is really inspiring too.

Final question – you’ve created a gorgeous Scottish island in Dear Esther and now a detailed village in the British countryside for Everybody’s Gone to the Rapture. Any ideas as to what you and the rest of the team would like to craft next?

Jess: That’d be telling. We’ve got a pretty good idea of what we want to make next, and it’ll be very different. We’re so close to finishing Rapture, so that’s getting all of our time right now, but once it’s shipped and we’ve had a rest, we’re straight back into things and can’t wait to get started again.

Everybody's Gone to the Rapture releases for PS4 on August 11th. Visit the website for exclusive content and updates, and don't forget to visit The Chinese Room's own site. You can also follow them on Twitter and Facebook.

topics: development, game
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