The German writer and academic W. G Sebald, rooted in England, left a select number of writings which mix travel literature and fiction, he also is known for the introduction of photographs in his books, which serve both to evoke a sense of real and also as a memory stimulant, almost as if those images burned in our retinas.
In what is his most critically acclaimed book, “The Rings of Saturn”, Sebald writes an almost auto-biographic story of his walks through the English Countryside, namely the small roads and prairies of East Anglia. The slow prose and the usage of images keeps the reader at all times with a sense of strange longing for the peace of the country, the fields in which hard labor is rewarded with the fruits of the earth. The walks of Sebald’s narrator certainly become even more palpable with the interactive world of 2015’s Everybody’s Gone to the Rapture.
At the very start of the game you see the sun shining upon a beautiful small town down the valley, this image burned within our retinas which transmits bucolic solitude is recurrent during all of your walks within the game, there are no people with you, the inhabitants of the small town are long gone, all that’s left are vestiges of them, through the flickering and dancing lights that roam the fields and streets you can glimpse the citizens of the town, their interactions and their stories, but the player is irrevocably alone, promenading through the fields and cobblestone streets, watching the beautiful nature together with the remains of civilization. Cars, bicycles are all left on the streets, cigarettes still lit in a pub’s table. These silent walks are key in achieving an effect which Sebald himself was very fond of, this strange, delicate and sublime nostalgia, a feeling of something lost which cannot ever be brought back, but that at the same time lingers on, as the lights of the small town, carrying only a glimpse of things past.
Another German literary critic writes about this strange state of things. Hans Ulrich Gumbrecht, in his book “After 1945” searches for this strange feeling of latency, which has permeated our imaginations and our very perception of the world during the years after the end of WWII. This feeling, which is built upon the almost subconscious understanding that something is lost, as if under the surface of our lives, brings about an anxiety for its emergency, for the thing lost to reappear. Gumbrecht writes that this may never be resolved, as we don’t even know what we lost, hence we may never recognize it, even if it reappears just under our noses. His argument is that this strange sensation has crawled in an everlasting list of literary and artistic works, I would argue this list would surely include both Sebald’s work and The Chinese Room’s last installment in video game experience.
The loneliness of our avatar in Everybody’s Gone to the Rapture replicates that of Sebald’s narrator, one can feel almost as an alien astronaut, exploring a strangely distant, yet familiar place, as in a dream. This oneiric apocalypse landscape, well-constructed within a beautiful cry engine 3, is of course a very strong representation of the kind of relationship with nature a pastoral literature was built upon. A feeling of vague void, a simple feeling of slow suffocation within the city limits, that usually forces the metropolitan men and women to dream of a natural, rural landscape. A nostalgia for open spaces, walks by the sunset and unity between man and nature. The pastoral imagery, very attached to the history of British literature couldn’t be absent from a game set upon the English countryside background.
Even with the small notes of science fiction and cold war paranoia within the universe of Everybody’s Gone to the Rapture, I do believe the game makes itself very effective through its lonely walks permeated by ghost-like memories of the citizens of Yaughton, bringing forth a very unique experience of the sublime within the world. The lights and the stories they tell are certainly sublime by themselves, but what really draws attention is the way the environment is constructed as a beautiful, enlightened place, drawing from the romantic imaginations of the Garden of Eden.
What both Sebald and Everybody’s Gone to the Rapture teach us is the pleasure in the exploration of the outside, not just as a moral order to “get out of the house”, but as a very conscious construction of nature as a refuge and walking as a redemption act, knowing that movement brings with it a cathartic dimension which serves well in freeing our minds, in reliving (and relieving ourselves from) old memories, without losing sight of our very own presence in the world. In a way, we all have something lost, so the response to this loss is to get lost within the world, in an ever longing search for our own Yaughton.