Neural Rural – Exploring British Wistfulness
The British countryside has become the sweet jam smeared upon the crunchy toast that is the VisitBritain marketing campaign. Because that’s a thing we do in this modern age; advertise our isles as if just another poxy manufactured product that A-list celebs can grin alongside to for a cash exchange.
The reason why the wild outdoors of our windy nation has been dangled before the polished camera lenses of eager tourists is simply that they are easy to romanticise, just as they have been for hundreds of years by countless poets and authors. That’s not to imply that the British countryside isn’t an absolutely wonderful place, gosh, no. Quite the contrary, in fact. Perhaps one of the most joyous things to do in the UK is to grab a big stick and hike up a grassy hill in order to admire how green and brown everything is below you. You have to be in the right mood, though.
To be fair, you can explore the scenic forests and lakeside stretches of any country…at your own risk. Yet, the British countryside is given special attention; as if the worldwide consensus were that it was the most beautiful, the most fascinating. True, our nation has an affinity with the “great outdoors”. We go fishing, clay-pigeon shooting, used to go hunting, foraging, gardening – we bloody love flowers. Kids make mud pies to fling at each other, we have worm charming competitions and chase a round cheese down a hill once a year.
We also like to think we have some of the best farmers in the world. Probably not those incomprehensible types who scratch their knotted beards while rubbing their inner thighs during your ill-advised ‘conversation’ with them. Instead, to see the public face of UK farmers, take a trip down your local branded supermarket, grab a pack of chicken breasts and you’ll see a jolly, rosy-cheeked farmer grinning back at you with a reassuring thumbs up.
There’s also a deeply entrenched history here, as the many landmarks remind us – Stonehenge, Hadrian’s Wall, Caerphilly Castle. They serve as reminders; as colossal gravestones of lives lived and lost. Quite often they refer to times of grief, as tombstones and as instruments in battles fought. The National Trust has a relevant list of the things they protect and preserve (from us hooligans): “historic houses, gardens, mills, coastline, forests, farmland, moorland, islands, castles, nature reserves, villages… and pubs.” The British ethos is informed in part by these surroundings – the natural beauty and historic stone blocks that seem so iconic when slapped on the front of a postcard.
English novelist, E. M. Forster, realised the potency of the British countryside referring to it as “a genuine and tragic theme.” It may not be too far-fetched to say that on-foot exploration into the countryside, and exploration in general, is directly associated with these themes to a British native. They are one of the same. Venturing into an environment, despite the beauty and wonder it might contain, is tied with a pensive reaction and an underlying sense of sorrow. Of course, that’s a brash statement and has little to back it up – it’s said more as a viable possibility rather than any form of fact.
The British countryside, then, is engrained within the active mind of the population – as a place of remembrance, retreat and beauty. It’s unique being and secrets upon exploration informs part of the national psyche and it may have crept into the creative minds of a number of British game developers.
“I feel like I’m seeing this trend of “British wistfulness” among British developers.” – Robert Yang.
Spotting trends seems like such a rudimentary task but this one barely requires any effort to show its form. Games in which the main task is to explore environments and not much else have been causing people to question whether they even qualify as “games” at all. Yet, they keep coming and a vast majority of them are being produced by British indie game developers. It’s not just any environment though; we’re talking ones that come under the following adjectives: forlorn, lonely, tragic, distant, dreamy and dark. The overcast sky that citizens of the UK are so familiar with hangs heavy over these titles. Is there something behind this or is it all just a massive coincidence?
A conversation about Proteus between Robert Yang and Ed Key led to this subject being touched upon. It was this conversation, particularly what Robert said, that has inspired this article. He noted that it seemed British developers were creating games that were tuned with a sense of “wistfulness” that could only come from their native culture. Ed disagreed, saying that he didn’t think it was a British thing particularly. However, the ideas that Robert raised regarding the British character in games seems to be forming a stronger argument as more and more of these types of games are being produced by British developers.
The proof is in the pudding, as they say, so the proposition is to take a look at the games that fit the description. The focus will be on: taking a look at the environment, the purpose of the narrative and how the player and environment interact to achieve this. Not all of these games are set within the countryside, but they have been picked out for being of an ‘explorative game design’. The idea will be outline how these games use the exploration of their environments to achieve a gameplay that might be inextricably British, as we have discussed.
“We need the tonic of wildness…At the same time that we are earnest to explore and learn all things, we require that all things be mysterious and unexplorable, that land and sea be indefinitely wild, unsurveyed and unfathomed by us because unfathomable. We can never have enough of nature.” – Henry David Thoreau, Walden: Or, Life in the Woods”
“The British account of the “sublime” is more this bittersweet thing, like the mushrooms in Proteus – they’re making cool sounds, but when you walk closer to them, they disappear. They don’t care; the mushrooms don’t want to be part of your “amazing gameplay experience.”
Having touched the hearts of thousands by now, Proteus has gained a reputation for being a serene retreat from the complexities of your daily life. Not everyone appreciates its form, but those who do talk about it like they would an old lover; canvassing how relaxing and beautiful its audiovisual experience is. Referring back to the start of this article, consider it no great coincidence that developer Ed Key treats Proteus’ fictional, if tangible, island like a real holiday destination. The website is visitproteus.com, which seems like a fairly obvious reference to the VisitBritain campaign. Ed has even made postcards of Proteus that feature its pixely landscapes for those who have visited to remember and for those who haven’t to admire its complexion.
How is it, then, that we might argue that Proteus is wistful in any way? Surely this is the glorious opposite – but no, as Robert Yang points out this is a lonely experience in which the surrounding nature tries to escape your presence. Frogs hop away to a delightful note, magical rabbits leap huge distances and the dancing plants shy inwards upon your approach. Occasionally you might see a small cottage or what appears to be a castle, but as you near it becomes clear that these are deserted monuments rather than a place of life. People may have once lived here, but not any more it would seem. Then you have the statues that sit atop hills. From a distance they appear to be living beings. However, when you reach their position you’re left with a relic that once tricked you into thinking that a conversation could have been had. Instead you’re left circling peculiar forms with no indicators of what you should do to progress.
It’s a limbo state, one you’re happy to exist in, but ultimately a lonely and personal one. Ed says that Proteus was inspired by his youth in the Lake District; a beautiful area that people have lived in since the end of the last ice age. As stated on the Lake District website, “the landscape reflects a long history of settlement with many traces of prehistoric and medieval field systems”. Undoubtedly, this much seems to have translated into Proteus, due to its discoveries which only emphasise the idleness of it all. Things may have happened here long before the grass grew over it all. The statues especially, give a hint of a lost civilisation that lived upon this island – yet you cannot connect with them despite your search for signs of life or progression. Moments like this produce that wistful nature across your journey. No interaction can be had and it seems that all other life has abandoned you, or is in the process of doing so. Eventually you learn to just enjoy what is around you – not like it’s hard – thus making the visit one encased in personal healing.
“A deserted island… a lost man… memories of a fatal crash… a book written by a dying explorer.”
The updated version of Dear Esther that was released earlier in the year was met with a confused reaction. Some people fell in love with it and reportedly played it for many hours, while others spent an hour with its inviting visuals and were left a little cold. Regardless, when it comes to instilling the sense of loss and isolation that we’ve been focusing on, Dear Esther nails it by illustrating its narrative through a coastline setting. Thistles blow in the breeze, the beach is cold rather than inviting and the cottage you stumble across is vacant. The only accompaniment to your journey in Dear Esther is an inner voice that attempts to piece together the things you find along the way.
Again, we’re situated on an island and its state as real or imaginary is left open to debate – we’re in limbo, if anything. Relics of memories are strewn across the land waiting for you to discover them. This “ghost story” concerns a fatal car crash and a lover, anything more than that is completely personal interpretation. While Dear Esther denies the player to fully explore the island on their own merit, it does entice the need to examine its environment for clues to what may have happened.
The concern is a past event and a tragedy envelopes the thoughts of the protagonist. Loss, grief and melancholia are the ingredients with which Dear Esther stirs the plot. Pensive the player becomes as they gradually learn more details but struggles to piece them together. By the game’s notorious ending, the player is more than likely left with no clearer picture of the events of which the game seems so concerned. Instead, they are left to ponder their time with the game as they are whipped across the memories upon the island that are embedded in its cliff edges, rock formations and shorelines.
“Montague’s Mount is a first person psychological rollercoaster ride through isolation, desolation and one man’s tortured mind; all set against the bleakness of an isolated Irish island.”
Perhaps the game that fits our focus the most here, Montague’s Mount takes place on an island once again. This one, however, is stated as being just off the shores of Ireland rather than being a fictional one based off British landscapes like the previous two. Playing as a survivor of a shipwreck, you awake upon this island with many questions and only the intricacies of the environment with which to solve them. Like Dear Esther, the island contains a mystery and pieces of memories that the player will attempt to form a narrative from.
The experience is a more tactile one this time around as the player can grab objects for a better look and with which they will solve small puzzles. Exploration is the main aspect of the gameplay though, as the player questions whether any life can be found beyond the gravestones. A particularly prevalent sentence supplied by the developer to give an impression of the player’s thoughts as they play the game seems almost to fitting with our focus on British wistfulness:
“Where is everyone; is the island really uninhabited; what is lurking within the isolated caves; and what is that building on top of Montague’s Mount?”
Though we still have to wait to play Montague’s Mount, it’s undoubtedly a game that slides into the lonely, pensive exploratory narratives that we are attaching to British indie game developers. The search for life, for answers and for resolution are common across all of these games but Montague’s Mount seems to really epitomise it.
“Routine is a first person horror exploration game set on an abandoned Moon base. Your job is to find enough data to uncover the truth behind the strange disappearance of everyone stationed on the Lunar Research Station.”
Routine’s surroundings are entirely disconnected from any sense of British identity – it’s set on a Moon base. With this separation, it further suggests that British games about exploration, in general, tend to be of a certain ‘wistful’ nature. As opposed to just the ones that take place within a deliberately British location. One thing that can be said about the Moon is that being located upon it would induce a sense of abandonment; more so than many other environments due to its distance from the rest of mankind.
Though Routine does take exploration as one of its key elements, it has a more traditional approach to gameplay with the need to run and hide from something lurking within. Adapting the permadeath system of roguelikes with this survival gameplay introduces another form of exploration. In this, players are constantly pursuing answers within the environment but are often denied progress due to an untimely death. Going over initial environments may become a chore but the non-linear exploration elements helps to diminish that.
Deserted meetings around tables, papers strewn across the floor, narrow and empty corridors as well as dead machines contribute to the disappearance of life. What happened here? It is tragic and a longing for life is formed as the pursuing terror hunts the lonely player. The secrets of the uninhabited Moon base, of the missing persons, will be uncovered in a different order by players – they may not even come across the same ones.
“Enter the lost world of Kairo. Explore vast abandoned monuments. Bring strange and ancient machinery back to life.”
With Kairo, we start to move into the more abstract locales but the sentiment remains the same. Exploration and a minimal amount of interaction seems to be what’s on order. Puzzles are prominent once again, as if there are hidden secrets to be found within throughout the game’s narrative and setting. Everything is old in Kairo and owes itself to a previous life. Like the relics in Proteus and the gravestones in Montague’s Mount, Kairo’s grand machines serve as reminders of the past and of lives lost.
The strangeness of it all creates an alienating effect. Much like the lack of indicative elements in the other games we’ve focused upon, the player’s unknowing of how these ancient machines work chisels in an isolation. Curiousity will accompany every twisting staircase, staggeringly high column and floating block. The huge castle of Ico springs to mind upon gazing at some of Kairo’s structures, which is a notoriously vast and isolated setting in gaming history. The player is made to feel small when compared to the scope of their surroundings.
“Confront Howard’s mislaid concerns in the form of nightmares and reconcile the loss of his uncle.”
In what seems to be bred out of the situation many young adults our finding themselves in, Dream concerns a recent graduate as he enters a dream world. Apparently he’s become obsessed with the mysteries held within the abstraction of dreams and nightmares; who can blame him, reality sucks after all. Like all of the previous games, the environments in Dream have been meticulously crafted by the developers, so as to make sure the player has secrets to find and interesting assemblages to shift their eyes over.
More defining about Dream is the greater variation throughout its environments. The other games are concerned with a specific location and style, while Dream is more interested in diversifying every moment with different visual cues and structures. One of the more fascinating touches and a common element in the majority of scenes in Dream is the juxtaposition between natural beauty and fragments of modern life in the form of artistic structures. The barren and rocky deserts that feature piles of televisions strikes as being particularly iconic, as well as easy to compare to the ancient relics and statues found scattered across the landscapes in the other games.
Moments passing through candlelit crevices are similar to Dear Esther’s eerie night time scenes. The modern office spaces and desktop machines indicate a once-alive place that has been met with a sudden departure. Once again that sense of abandonment persists throughout and with it a loneliness, a pensive wonderment that serves into our focus on wistful exploration.
“Dirac is a first person multiplayer online survival/exploration game set in a strange surreal world. “
Easily the darkest, most disturbing and most abstract of all of the games listed here; Dirac is a surrealist painting. Style over substance certainly seems to be an apt description of Dirac, though, this may not necessarily be a bad thing in this case. Stretches of black land lay before the player in pretty much every visible direction throughout parts of the game. The direction they choose to go is often a random one informed by inkling rather than a visible pursuit of something.
Interestingly, Dirac is a multiplayer game, meaning that it is possible to meet up with players within these strange lands. An encounter is highly unlikely though, even if the players are communicating with each other, due to the lack of distinct landmarks and the near impossibility of tracing steps. The game oozes mystery, intrigue and the later discovered spaceship like interiors and weird caricatures indicate that there is a lost civilisation of a sort, or at least that the environment contains a history.
“He stood staring into the wood for a minute, then said: “What is it about the English countryside — why is the beauty so much more than visual? Why does it touch one so?”
He sounded faintly sad. Perhaps he finds beauty saddening — I do myself sometimes. Once when I was quite little I asked father why this was and he explained that it was due to our knowledge of beauty’s evanescence, which reminds us that we ourselves shall die. Then he said I was probably too young to understand him; but I understood perfectly.”
- Dodie Smith, I Capture the Castle
While recognising that British exploration games may share many common themes, we also have to realise that it doesn’t necessarily make it a particularly British thing, as Ed pointed out when conversing with Robert. No more can this be proved by pointing to other games that share the same exploratory gameplay elements.
TRIP, Journey and Fibrillation are ones that spring to mind almost immediately. Each of these sharing that sense of idleness, interest in antiquarian pursuits and testament to exploring environments to achieve wistfulness. Still, there definitely seems to be a trend amongst game developers, British ones predominantly, in exploring game environments to a particularly forlorn and dreamy tune.