Via a blend of its bucolic Shropshire-based setting and the loneliness of its desolate houses, fields and streets, all soundtracked by birdsong, and Jessica Curry’s emotion-stirring, BAFTA-winning score, The Chinese Room’s Everybody’s Gone To The Rapture presented one of gaming’s most strikingly effective depictions of loss. Rapture relinquished conventional gameplay mechanics and – as with its spiritual predecessor Dear Esther – emphasised aching isolation over action, underscoring a world weighted by the omnipresent cloud of absence. Curry’s music was very much a living, breathing characteristic of the game, following the lone player on the wind, framing ghostly re-enactments of past events and wringing out the shifting moods of its pastoral landscape.
Though it was released back in 2015, Everybody’s Gone To The Rapture is still a frequent citation for those pointing to examples of how the interactive medium can explore complex themes, such as grief, in interesting new ways. Yet, as Jessica Curry tells us, its original genesis wasn’t spurred by a desire to widen gaming’s emotional language. “We never had a ‘we must change the games industry’ ethos” Jessica tells us, “we just wanted to tell the stories that we wanted to tell.”
Jessica takes us back to the foundation of the game’s concept, working with her The Chinese Room co-founder – and husband – Dan Pinchbeck: “Dan and I really wanted to try to tackle the apocalypse in a new and very different way. We didn’t want people to play the chisel-jawed hero trying to save the world. Very early on in planning we knew that nobody would survive the experience. We wanted to tell the story of the very ordinary inhabitants of a small village in Shropshire – and yes, I do think we are still the only game developers to have set the end of the world just off the M4.” Curry may have a valid claim there. But why this particular setting? “Dan was heavily inspired by the ‘cosy catastrophe’ fiction of John Wyndham and John Christopher, using idyllic English environments – thatched cottages, country pubs and leafy dells– to conjure a bucolic, pastoral apocalypse.”
Curry crafted the bones of what would become her beloved score early in the game’s development, using this concept as a guiding light. “The game itself was pretty non-existent while I was writing the music, but I had Dan’s wonderful script and I made a huge mood board for the team in terms of how I wanted the game to look.” Jessica reveals, “At the time of writing the music I was studio head at The Chinese Room as well as composer on the project. This afforded me a wonderful opportunity to be involved in every aspect of development and being deeply embedded into the fabric of the game made it so much more possible to ensure that the music was as perfect and fitting as it could be.”
Anchoring the game within a British village in the 1980s initially set Jessica down a more synth-dominated approach, before she re-framed the score to fit the more agrarian feel of Yaughton and its surrounding environs. “The score is based around the pastoral ideal and plays on the Englishness of Elgar and Vaughan Williams.” Jessica expounds, “because the world has already ended I started to think about scoring the ghost of the world, not the world itself. I wanted to evoke nostalgia for an England that has gone, an England that never really existed anyway, one that only exists in the mind. I was inspired by the opening words of The Go Between, a 1953 novel by L P Hartley: ‘The past is a different country: they do things differently there.’ So there is a Proustian remembrance of things past (including my own childhood), throughout the music, and that imbues it with some of its sadness and sense of loss.” This emotively loaded depiction of a rural idyll is part of the reason why the slow amble through the game’s verdant world still holds so much allure even on repeated jaunts, despite the very purposeful lack of action.
Working to deliver her score in a more dynamic way, Jessica worked to incorporate her themes via a range of musical approaches that would be deployed at certain points in the game. “There are four different types of music in the game.” She tells us, “ There is ‘Unique’ – cues that are written to sit under scenes and they play linearly like a film. This was my comfort zone! Then ‘Travelling’ – this music can play randomly whilst you are traversing the world and they can also be broken into chunks both vertically and horizontally. In other words, these cues can play in any order and can also be broken up instrumentally. ‘Arcs’ – each character had their own distinct musical theme. ‘Procedural’ – music that evolved in real-time and no two playthroughs will ever be the same. Meaning that no matter how many people play your game, each one will have a unique and non-replicable experience of the music. It was a very lengthy process, nearly three years all in, working and honing every day.”
Jessica explains how her score needed to operate in conjunction with the game’s sound design. “Sound design formed an integral part of the overall sound world of the game. I think that too often music and sound design are treated very separately but in Rapture they sit very closely together, dancing with, and feeding one another – a wonderful fusion encasing the player in an incredibly knitted-together sound world. We produced what we called the ‘ghost audio’ in the game’s sound world. This functions procedurally. It provides the player with haunting echoes of the music as they walk around the world. These increase in frequency and intensity as you approach the end of each character’s story.”
This care and attention to how the music is delivered goes some way to understanding how impactful and memorable some of these cues are. Throughout the game, the player watches the ghostly retellings of past events – piecing together the details of how a mysterious alien infection ultimately led to a mass vanishing, Curry’s score mirrors both the larger tale of extra-terrestrial contact, and the smaller human stories of the relationships around the village of Yaughton. Tying them together in thematic alignment. Throughout the game, miscommunication is a recurring theme. Jessica sought to underline this via her decision to use a choir.
“The characters (such as Stephen, Kate and Lizzie) have many failings, but they are all doing their best.” Explains Jessica, “I absolutely wanted that to be in the music – that we are all capable of letting each other down, doing hurtful things – we are all human and fallible. But most of us are trying so painfully hard every day of our lives. As a very sensitive person I often find direct human contact challenging and I always feel that I communicate more successfully with people through my music. One of the main reasons I used a choir was that it is a central and powerful metaphor for the message in the game. The human voice represents so much of what this game is trying to say – we are here for such a short time but it’s the connections that we form while we are here that matter. The choir is a perfect realisation of this for me, we are all in darkness but we sing out to create the light.”
Two particularly beautiful examples, ‘I Hope You Find Peace’ and ‘The Mourning Tree’ trigger at the resolution of the Lizzie character arc and the beginning of the Wendy section, both of which serve to portray the emotions driving their respective decision-making. “Each character had what I described as a ‘psalm’ – a piece of music that was their song and that summed them and their story up.” Explains Jessica, “The magical moment in the process of writing the music, and ‘The Mourning Tree’ in particular, came when I was singing with a choir in a concert. The soloist was Elin Manahan Thomas. She started singing and I knew immediately that she was the voice of Rapture. I thank the stars for that concert that brought us together.”
Beloved by its fans, and gaining in respect by those who might have pre-emptively dismissed this story-and-mood angled experience as a ‘walking simulator’ upon its release, Everybody’s Gone To The Rapture remains a high watermark in illustrating gaming’s wider dimensional scope for exploring themes like grief, nostalgia, hope and regret. Yet for Jessica, the industry’s lack of further engagement with more emotionally-driven ideas was a big motivator behind her resigning her position at The Chinese Room. “I do think that there is still so much more scope for telling real, emotional stories within games. I find it really frustrating to be honest!” Jessica admits, “after Rapture we found publishers very averse to carry on exploring deeper stories and that’s one of the reasons that I stopped running The Chinese Room with Dan. The algorithmic profit spreadsheets were just too much for me, I honestly couldn’t bear it. Great art isn’t ever created with a view to the bottom line.”
Jessica went on to compose for The Chinese Room’s enthralling So Let Us Melt and the vivid platformer Little Orpheus, she has also hosted Classic FM’s High Score – the only series on UK radio dedicated to video game music. When asked how she reflects on the making of Everybody’s Gone To The Rapture, Jessica’s feelings are mixed; “Making the game was the best and worst of times.” She admits, “Making the game itself was enthralling, intoxicating and joyful. But in all seriousness the business side of making the game hurt me deeply and it scarred me; scars that I carry to this day. It’s why I didn’t go on to work on AAA games and I’ve laid pretty low since. I never quite recovered in some ways. But artistically I think that the game is what we all strive for creatively – that exquisite alchemy, a knowledge that it has all just come together to form something truly special. I wouldn’t change that for the world – or should I say the end of the world.”