An Interview with Dan Pinchbeck, Creative Director of Everybody’s Gone to the Rapture
by Andrew Kuhar
Everybody may have vanished from the slumbering town of Yaughton, but not without a trace.
Across a blindingly bright English countryside, with radios left on, research abandoned, doors ajar and phone booths ringing, Everybody’s Gone to the Rapture explores what life there was like as you piece together a hauntingly calm apocalypse in a most unfamiliar setting: home sweet home.
Previously known for their surreal Dear Esther and Amnesia: A Machine for Pigs, Everybody’s Gone to the Rapture is the latest game from studio The Chinese Room. In my curiosity to learn more about what fueled Rapture’s story, its big questions and the creative drive behind them, I discovered what inspires and compels the team that created it. Dan Pinchbeck, Creative Director at The Chinese Room, graciously took me through their process, the artistic decisions they made, his thoughts on science fiction and the potential for storytelling within video games today.
Note: While it is difficult to discuss Everybody’s Gone to the Rapture without addressing its story directly, this interview turned out spoiler-free — aside from some vague subtext, the mystery is preserved. Though, if you have already played the game, Dan’s insights should only enrich your appreciation for it as it has mine.
This interview has been lightly edited for clarity.
Andrew Kuhar: The Chinese Room’s Director and Composer, Jessica Curry, once mentioned your spark for the game’s concept:
“There’s all these apocalyptic games, [and] you’re always this square-jawed hero, running through and saving everybody. If that were you and me, we wouldn’t be doing that. We’d just be ordinary people, lying dead on the floor.”
For such a wide open idea, the end result has a great deal of specificity to it, especially in terms of Yaughton as a location and the events that transpired there. What lead you to explore the English countryside as the right home for this take on the end of the world?
Dan Pinchbeck: The other major idea behind Rapture was the collision of the epic and the intimate, and we drew a lot of inspiration from the ‘cosy catastrophe’ science-fiction of authors like John Wyndham, Christopher Priest, J.G. Ballard and John Christopher. There’s a very definite Englishness about this work that felt just absolutely right for Rapture. The combination of a sleepy, idyllic English village with this apocalyptic tale just felt like it would get that sense so absolutely.
At the end of each character’s story, we get the rather harrowing opportunity to witness the emotional arc of their final moments. Yet, these set pieces are presented in one of the game’s most memorable aesthetics. How did these moments come together and what inspired them?
Often it’s not a lightbulb moment, but a gentle process of things. We really wanted to capture that magic and majesty of the stars in the skybox, to have that silent, beautiful sweep across the world. With Rapture, the emotional punch comes from that mix of big and small — we’ve talked a lot about the epic and the intimate — so we wanted to have a moment where those really small private moments of connection between people, or something as intimate and extraordinary as someone’s death, were played off against this huge sweeping cosmos and beauty of the drifting lights, to really set it in this magical context. I’m a huge Carl Sagan fan, and he often talked about how the more he understood just how extraordinary and vast the universe is, the most privileged he felt to be alive. We really wanted to make that statement in those moments.
Where did the idea for “liquid light” originate? What design or technical challenges did you face in trying to manifest light into a more tangible entity?
We’re very lucky to have an exceptional VFX artist, James Watt, on the team. He’s a photographer and one of the things that made us want to work with him was when we saw his portfolio — he’d spent time travelling around Asia and had an incredible eye for light, particularly playing amazing landscape lighting against capturing the essence of people he met. I think his ability to find that connection is at the heart of how the lighting and FX work in Rapture and it’s something very unique. We wanted the Pattern to feel genuinely alien and unworldly, but to be accurately rooted in physics — a form of living mathematics — a stream of data complex enough to give rise to consciousness, travelling in a sequence of photons. There’s a lot of inspiration from Douglas Hofstadter’s Godel, Escher Bach and I am a Strange Loop in there.
Nods to astrophysics and space exploration are strewn all throughout the village of Yaughton, in addition to being topics of conversation between Kate and Stephen. Were there any texts or pieces of science fiction the team got a lot out of or referred to?
So I’ve already mentioned the ‘cosy catastrophe’ school of sci-fi from the 60s & 70s, but I was also inspired a lot by novels dealing with the very human angle on the apocalypse — I absolutely love Oryx & Crake by Margaret Atwood, or The Ugly Swans by the Strugatsky brothers. And then the other major influence was the UK TV drama, Threads, about a nuclear attack on the city of Sheffield — it’s absolutely terrifying because it’s about the destruction of the mundane, of real lives, and we really wanted to capture that. From a science perspective, I’m a big pop science consumer — I took a left turn into drama and writing when I was about sixteen or seventeen but up until that point I was heading towards being a mathematician or physicist. So I guess it’s that old question of what do you call someone who is part physicist and part storyteller (Answer: a game developer).
“While it’s a game about a vast cosmic event, it’s really a game about those little apocalypses we all navigate in our lives — the death of a loved one, the collapse of a relationship, the massive change caused by having a child, trying to create a new life in a new home.”
The story reminded me of a theme in another contemporary piece of science fiction, last year’s Interstellar. It was the idea that the more abstract or cosmic realities of the universe could reach us, and change us, in very immediate, intimate and personal ways. Everybody’s Gone to the Rapture was well into development by then, but did you see the movie and did any of those themes resonate at the time?
Yeah, and it was really interesting how there were definitely parallel themes in it, like the idea of how connected we are to each other, and the grey areas where physics become metaphysics. And obviously playing with the ideas of black holes and time. It’s a very interesting movie. I wasn’t as convinced when it started into the whole bit about the future us guiding the present us (I think Looper did that much better) — I felt like that could have been left completely unknown and abstract. That’s what I love about my favourite fiction, that ideas are just floated out there and then have their own lives, not as things to be fully explained or problems to be solved, but just these extraordinary essences that are beautiful because they are unknowable. China Mieville is a master at this — you look at a novel like Railsea and the whole thing is built on a world that is never answered. And of course, the Strugatskys. Roadside Picnic is still probably the greatest science fiction novel built around a fundamentally unknowable, empty core. I’m fascinated by that absence as a story architecture, it’s at the heart of all of our games — and generally it’s something we could do much better as game writers than we currently do. Absence and ambiguity are the cornerstones of sophisticated storytelling.
We don’t often see present-day religion and spirituality explored in video games, but Everybody’s Gone to the Rapture manages to address them in ways that are simultaneously grounded, surreal, yet human in their complication. How did you navigate this?
I think in many ways it was simpler than you make it sound. Rapture is a game about people and how they come to terms with their lives and the events that overtake them. And while it’s a game about a vast cosmic event, it’s really a game about those little apocalypses we all navigate in our lives — the death of a loved one, the collapse of a relationship, the massive change caused by having a child, trying to create a new life in a new home. We wanted to create a community that felt real, that was populated by people you felt like you knew, having genuine emotional responses to events. And some of them were religious or spiritual, so I tried to write them in a way which felt true to that. Whether you have faith or not (personally, I’m an aetheist), whether you look for a spiritual understanding to existence or not (personally, I’m a humanist and a rationalist) — what you can’t argue with is that this is our reality, this is what’s happening to us as a species and how we deal with it, and if you can try and capture the essence of that experience, then you can create something that speaks to people. I’m proud of Rapture for that: it seems to have genuinely spoken to people. You can’t ask for more than that.
The ending and overall “event” or Pattern appear to have a number of viable explanations: some scientific, others religious, but all thanks to the ambiguity of what we mostly hear yet can’t fully see. Does the team have different interpretations among themselves? How did you toe that line and decide to leave it up to the player?
I’m sure they do — what was most challenging about the ending was keeping it open, in a way that didn’t force an interpretation on people but also didn’t feel like a cop out. That comes back to what I’m really interested in as a writer and designer. Games give us the opportunity to collaborate with the player in making a story in a way that no other medium does. Writing games is not about writing stories, it’s about writing architectures for stories to be created in — it’s only natural to try and open that up to player interpretation as much as you can. But that’s also really risky — it’s interesting that with all of our games we have some critics who write about the endings as being really obvious and shallow and others who write about them as being obtuse and too open, too metaphysical, which I guess shows how you can have totally contradictory responses to them and it’s like Marmite, it’s just going to rub some people up the wrong way. But that’s a trade-off you get, and it’s obviously worth it for the much larger numbers of players who respond incredibly positively to it — it’s better to be loved and hated than simply tolerated or mildly liked. Rapture is challenging in a way that most game stories aren’t, but that’s the fun of it, and it treats players like the smart, imaginative explorers that they are. We have never patronised or talked down to our players in any of our games and I’m fiercely proud of that.
Were any of the stories influenced by personal experiences among the team?
No. I guess that things may have resonated with different team members and they certainly put a hell of a lot of passion and themselves into the game, and that’s why it’s so special — you can feel that, I think, in there. They worked unbelievably hard on this title and poured heart and soul into it. But we never talked about personal experiences, no. It’s a work of fiction. You inevitably pull some aspect of your own experiences into that, but I don’t place any value in the ‘artistic expression as therapy’ idea. Games are created by a team of highly skilled craftspeople, and it’s in one sense irrelevant how deeply you are involved in the fiction if you can’t channel that through your technical and artistic skills. If you are lucky, you get rare instances where the technical skills and passion combine, and you get a game like Rapture.
“I’d never use concept art when working on a character, to be honest. I think characters are defined by what they do, and how you understand their interior life, their emotional landscape.”
Everybody’s Gone to the Rapture is delivered a lot like an interactive radio play, given its aural nature. But there is also some connection to theatre — Lizzie’s finale comes to mind, especially — with each story behaving like acts in a play.
Well, interestingly, I did my degree in Drama and worked after University with a theatre company, so I think I’ve always brought those ideas and understandings with me. I was at university in the early nineties, so my last years there were me buried in MUDs and MOOs (and playing a lot of Doom and Quake), obsessing over the idea of performative writing and creating drama in virtual spaces. I think a lot of seeds were sown then in terms of the types of games we’re making now. But what’s really important for me is that we’re making games, and it’s about exploring what is special about games, what we can do with them that we can’t do with anything else.
What was it like designing characters that don’t have traditional concept art to go by, but only a voice?
I’d never use concept art when working on a character, to be honest. I think characters are defined by what they do, and how you understand their interior life, their emotional landscape. That’s critical to conveying proper depth to them. Often game characters are just ciphers, a solution to the problem of delivering information to a player. You will never create rounded characters that way, but most game characters are still stuck at this level — not through a fault of game writing but the conceptualisation of why the characters are there in the first place. The next level is using character to influence a player’s emotional relationship with the system, whether that’s Vaas in Far Cry 3 or Agro in Shadow of the Colossus. They help you care, and if you care, you invest in the experience more strongly. That’s a more effective way of seeing character but it’s still a design solution. The level we really want to be striving for is the one that is central to writing a novel or a film or a soap opera, where the characters become the reason, the centre. You come for the characters, rather than the characters existing to solve the issue of you being there in the first place. That comes from interior life, that sense of inner reality to them.
“Our task was to inspire you to want to explore, not to try and find ways of hiding the fact we were forcing you to engage with it.”
What lengths were taken to capture such impactful vocal performances? Were there visual aids to help engage the actresses and actors with the setting of Yaughton?
We treated it like a play or a film or TV shoot. We rehearsed for two weeks, blocking the scenes physically, letting the actors explore the characters, making script adjustments as we went, just pushing as far as we could for a natural interaction between them all. Then when we recorded, it wasn’t in a booth, but using head-mounted radio mics and booms so they could just act like it was film. We then used those videos as the basis for the animations in game, so I think it really helped capture that very natural sense of relationship that the game gets. Actors are specialists at communication — our voice director Kate Saxon was very good at supporting and gently steering that specialism. The key, like everything else, is working with good people and trusting them to do what they do.
How did you achieve a balance of making sure players hit essential story beats, while affording them the freedom to explore and discover, or even potentially miss, others?
Rapture took nearly three years to make, right…? There’s no magic solution, there’s hundreds of hours of nudging things around, ripping up weeks of work sometimes because it’s just not quite there, trial and error leading to slowly building an instinct for what works and what doesn’t. There was a giant and very complicated spreadsheet tracking characters’ movements around the valley over the days the game takes place in. What was really interesting though, is that once we’d decided it was OK for the player to miss big chunks of the game — the biggest one is probably the holiday camp and Lizzie’s chapter, which you can just walk straight past — it was weirdly liberating. It meant our task was to inspire you to want to explore, not to try and find ways of hiding the fact we were forcing you to engage with it. We could focus on making the quality shine and trusting players to want to get deep into Yaughton.
When we begin to describe video games, we usually talk of them terms of genre, and we talk of genres in terms of gameplay mechanics — they’re usually more concerned with the controller in your hands than the story on the screen. Other mediums leverage genre to suggest the tone of narrative content (i.e., strategy or platformer vs. drama or comedy). Do you think that narrative-focused games would gain anything by taking on the latter approach? How do you approach this as the medium continues to evolve?
That’s a really big question — I’m always a little wary of them as I’ve only got an opinion to offer that and I’m not sure how much that’s really worth (I’m definitely of the old school attitude that we could do with less opinions out there, particularly about games, and more proper critical investigations). I guess from our point of view we might sit within the evolving FPX genre and Rapture might be ostensibly a science-fiction story, but we don’t consciously use those as markers or ways to understand what we do. We wanted to tell this story and everything about the game coalesced around that. It’s the best way we could think of to tell the story and we told it the best we could. Fundamentally, that’s all you can do.
As friends ask about the game, I start by describing it as bright horror. If video game genres as we knew them today were cast aside tomorrow, what genre would you assign or invent for Everybody’s Gone to the Rapture?
I love the term bright horror, there’s an eerie beauty in that and I think it sums up Rapture really well. Not sure I can do better than that. If we were binning off all game genres I’d just say, “It’s a story about people and the end of the world that you explore with a controller in your hand.” Or something like that.
“Writing games is not about writing stories, it’s about writing architectures for stories to be created in.”
Is storytelling the foremost evolution in video games? Where do you see the medium venturing next, and do you see The Chinese Room’s creative drive running parallel to that?
No-one in their right minds would seriously nail their opinion to a question like where is gaming going next! God knows. The jury is out on VR, more than the rhetoric might suggest, if you ask me, but we’ll see. I suspect the design paradigms in mobile will continue to develop, rather than aping console/PC designs and essentially porting that conceptual architecture to handhelds. I can’t see the dominant genres changing radically in the near future. I genuinely hope we continue to see increased diversity of both content and design ideas — and in the development community making games — because I fundamentally believe that innovation and diversity are the lifeblood of gaming and always have been. We’re really lucky to have the opportunity to make the games we love making and fans who support us, and to be part of this amazing medium. We’ll keep at it for as long as we can.
Everybody’s Gone to the Rapture was created by The Chinese Room, and is now available on the Playstation 4. Learn more about it on the studio’s official website: