Everybody’s Gone To The Theatre

Are games going to become more like plays as plays grow more like computer games?

A simple line drawing transforms into a detailed, colourful countryside. You are standing on the outskirts of a village in Shropshire on a peaceful summer evening in 1984.

As you start to explore, it swiftly becomes apparent that something strange has occurred. In the pub, drinks have been abandoned, and half-finished cigarettes still smoulder in the ash trays. Toys and bikes lie scattered in the playground, and someone has dropped their crutch outside the church.

The eerily empty village of Yaughton in Everybody’s Gone To The Rapture

All the people have disappeared. But you are not alone: a swirling light is leading you, triggering glimpses of past conversations between the villagers, shown in hazy star-like outlines.

So begins Everybody’s Gone To The Rapture, the creation of Brighton-based developers The Chinese Room.

It is a game, just about. You can only experience it on a PlayStation 4; you move around its world in the same way you would in any first-person shooter; you need to press a button to open doors; and occasionally you have to tilt the controller at different angles to unlock certain flashbacks.

However, as a player, you can change nothing that occurs. You are a mute audience member, who is allowed to shift around the rooms to get a better vantage point, but cannot disrupt the actors.

This experience will be familiar to anyone who has been to an immersive play, especially one by the theatre company Punchdrunk. Their shows set the same compact with the audience. You can wander freely about the vast sets they have created, and need to do some legwork finding and following the performers if you want to string together any sense of a story.

As an audience member you are part of the show: in their Masque of the Red Death, you are one of the masked ballgoers. But you are more a ghost than a participant; you are not really there to interact with the actors, and need to get out of their way as they move along their pre-set paths.

Playing Everybody’s Gone to The Rapture I felt like I’d wandered into a Punchdrunk show for an audience of one. Indeed, it is the kind of play they might produce if they were given control of a handful of villages and commissioned to create a dark cross between Lost and a Thatcher-era episode of The Archers.

As a result, I loved it. It may blend soap opera and sci fi, but it offers moments I found surprisingly moving — assisted by a powerful choral soundtrack composed by Jessica Curry (who was also co-creator of the game and joint head of the studio that produced it).

However, not all players have been as delighted. Those expecting more of an interactive experience have griped online that it is little more than a “walking simulator”.

So going in with the right expectation is key. And just as I enjoyed the game more because I was expecting theatre, I think I have appreciated immersive theatre more because of computer games.

This struck me three years ago after seeing Punchdrunk’s The Drowned Man, staged over four floors in a vast former postal sorting office in London. Two of my colleagues had utterly hated it. They had both had long days, and gone expecting they would be able to sit down and have a story presented to them for their passive consumption. Wandering around a part-empty town, a forest, a film lot and the many other sets in the hopes they might spot one of the cast was annoying, so they stuck for most of the evening in the bar.

Just one corner of the vast sets to explore in Punchdrunk’s The Drowned Man

In contrast, I realised that I had treated the play — rightly or wrongly — as a computer game. Just as I had wandered around Bioshock’s underwater city of Rapture trying to find clues in the graffiti and audio diaries, here I was gleefully hoovering up moments of performance to try to piece the story together, and scouring the empty parts of the set for clues.

Given that computer games get accused of having a negative affect on young people’s attention spans, the idea that they could actually create more attentive and engaged audience members has tickled me.

I admit, though, that the gamer part of me wished for just a little bit more interaction in the Drowned Man, even though the theatre-goer knew that would have been wrong for the play. Happily, there are other theatre companies out there that scratch that itch, with yet more immersive experiences. In London, many of these have been hosted by the terrific Theatre Delicatessen. I missed Heist by the theatre company DifferencEngine, in which teams of seven play at being criminals, but was swept up in Shelflife by HalfCut — a show in which audience members undergo a series of experiences from birth, to school, the workplace, and eventually an old people’s home

These plays are not necessarily better — or lesser — than more traditional sit-and-watch productions. Similarly, just because Everybody’s Gone to The Rapture echoes theatre, it does not automatically make it a superior piece of art to games that do not. Indeed, normally I would actually argue that games are at the best where they create an experience that cannot be replicated in another medium, such as films or books. One often-cited example here is Papers Please, which places the player in the shoes of an immigration official in a fictional totalitarian country. It portrays how easy it is for good-intentioned people to become a cog in a corrupt machine in a way that a novel cannot, because the player makes each choice themselves.

In credit to Everybody’s Gone The Rapture, several parts of its story would be hard for any drama company to recreate, no matter how generous their Arts Council funding. This is not just a matter of its special effects — the mysterious lights, or the way night and day can suddenly switch. Fundamentally, the game is designed to be a solitary experience, putting you in the isolated place of the protagonist, instead of the shared experience of theatre. And you the player do not necessarily know who “you”, the character in the story, are.

While the game may hark bark to an older form of entertainment, it also provides a glimpse of the future. Within the next year, Sony’s Project Morpheus and Facebook’s Oculus Rift are likely to turn virtual reality (VR) headsets from novelties into standard kit for gamers.

Those headsets will obviously change games, but should also create demand for new types of films and television. While the viewer will feel physically located in the middle of the action, they may have no opportunity to interact — as the point will be to witness an authored story.

For an advanced preview of what that kind of virtual reality entertainment will be like, pay a trip to the Shropshire village in Everybody’s Gone To The Rapture’s.

Or, alternatively, seek out one of the many theatre companies now producing immersive plays. It will be a long time before VR can catch up with their graphics.