Sitting down to watch a Pokémon reveal trailer and being shown a greatest hits showreel of your homeland is a strange feeling: rolling fields, the clock tower at London St Pancras, a version of the Cerne Abbas Giant but with a swirl of elemental power instead of his colossal … um, club. Flashes of all the things I was supposed to see through the car window on family holidays, except I was too busy staring at my Game Boy.
The message from Nintendo was clear: Galar, the setting of Pokémon Sword and Shield, is a pocket-monsterised version of Great Britain. Studying the official map of the region, which looks like someone turned this sceptred isle on its head, you can make out other distinctly British landmarks.
Various arrangements of standing stones. The ruins of a castle tower. Steam-powered railways. A cityscape with buildings that bear a striking resemblance to Big Ben, the London Eye and possibly even the Olympic Park’s Orbit Tower. And, of course, plenty of clouds.
It’s hard to say how well the game itself will capture a sense of Britain as it is today – whether we can expect a Nando’s serving up peri-peri Torchic or a Wetherspoons wedged alongside the Pokécentres. But it’s certainly telling to note which markers Game Freak, as a Japanese developer, reaches for to communicate the idea of ‘Britain.’
There have been plenty of games in recent years that take Blighty as an inspiration for their setting, and you see certain signifiers pop up a lot. How authentic do these versions of Britain feel, and does it matter whether a developer is adapting their homeland or looking in from the outside?
Let’s start with Forza Horizon 4, where Leamington Spa-based developer Playground Games has condensed Britain into a map that can be raced across within an hour. The place names are mostly real – and some landmarks have been recreated with startling verisimilitude – but in order to make something that’s actually fun to drive around Playground has mashed up, to give just a couple of examples, the Peak and Lake Districts, and the Scottish highlands with the Cotswolds.
Forza’s landscape is painted in broad brushstrokes because, at the speed you’re going, most of it will be a blurry streak anyway. This is an idealised vision of Britain as viewed from the window of a high-performance vehicle – stretches of green countryside peppered with squares of rapeseed yellow, and hot-air balloons dotted above the beautiful horizon.
There is also the joy of occasional jaunts down B-roads into bucolic, sleepy villages. At which point, it’s worth slowing down, engaging the photo mode and playing tourist. There’s something thrilling about seeing familiar road signs, overtaking a bike-rack-toting car on a roundabout, and watching the sky turn to dusk as you feel a pang for summers past.
Forza’s Britain is a rural vision of the country – there’s a single city, Edinburgh, and for all its historical sites, it’s about the least interesting bit of the map to explore.
As someone who has always lived in cities and suburbs, this is a Britain that has only ever existed on caravan holidays and in the rhetoric of people who get a tear in their eye as they invoke the blue remembered hills of long ago.
It’s a cosiness that can almost be too comfortable, a feeling that Everybody’s Gone to the Rapture’s setting of Yaughton taps into wonderfully. Yaughton is a picturesque Shropshire village, perfectly realised down to the pylons, bus-stop graffiti and those little knee-height signs with a yellow ‘H’ entombed in a square of concrete.
It’s all so thoroughly British that Portsmouth-founded studio The Chinese Room hit a roadbump developing the game alongside Sony Santa Monica, when they realised the humble stile – you know, those wooden steps that let you hop a fence along public footpaths – was a totally alien concept to their American co-workers.
This mundane and (provided you know what a stile is) familiar setting allows Everybody’s Gone to the Rapture to bring its eeriness closer to home. Yaughton’s village greens, thatched cottages and back gardens are all deserted. As you explore, you start to uncover troubling details.
Abandoned luggage, a desk covered in bloodied tissues, an unexploded bomb wedged into the bank of a stream. The game is set in the ‘80s, but it pulls double-duty as a pretty compelling forecast of post-Brexit Britain.
This isn’t the only game offering a doomed vision of the country. Canadian developer Compulsion Game’s We Happy Few – set in an alternate-history 1960s Britain where the Allies lost World War II – is filled with all the shiny happy signifiers you’d expect. Postboxes, phoneboxes and buses, all in bright red. Bobbies on the beat and hopscotch games chalked onto cobbled streets.
Until, that is, you stop taking Joy, the Brave New World-style drug that keeps Wellington Wells’ citizens pacified, and reveal the ruined world that lies beneath, where all the pubs and churches are reduced to rubble and the coppers revealed as nasty bastards with truncheons at the ready.
This is a Britain in denial about its own ugly history, and plastering over the resulting cracks in its present.
“Happy is the country with no past,” declares one of the game’s loading screens. Which is, as the internet might put it, a Big Mood.
Being stuck in the past is a common theme among games which weave Britain’s real history into a science-fiction setting. For my money none do it better than The Occupation, released in March by Manchester’s White Paper Games.
With an alt-history setting that combines modern politics and ‘80s Thatcherism, the game’s story revolves around the Union Act. It’s a slightly nondescript bit of government legislation that has something to do with kicking out immigrants and airy promises about extra money for British citizens, and an all-seeing technology company helping the government hunt down its targets.
Where do they get these wacky ideas.
This is indicative of how warts-and-all The Occupation’s depiction of Britain feels. Between investigative stealth sections in government offices you roam Turing, a fictional Northern city, its streets a mix of red brick and grey concrete slick with rain.
I wasn’t quite born yet in 1987, the year The Occupation is set, but I know this world. Pathways that trail alongside canals and leafy snickets round the backs of houses. Graffiti that references the Hillsborough disaster, and the clipped tones of the man reading the news on the radio telling you, for more details, check Teletext.
The only thing missing is a pub. They’re such a vital part of the British identity, and the way they’re presented can tell you a lot about a game. There are a few scattered across Forza’s map, but they’re flat and boxy, cookie-cutter buildings with a swinging sign and a few bottle textures visible through the glass – they look more like wine bars than proper boozers.
The Stars at Night, just off the village green in Everybody’s Gone to the Rapture, fares a lot better, at least from the outside.
The whitewashed walls, sections of brick poking through where the paint has worn away, and wooden tables overlooking the car park, with their lumpen plastic ashtrays and gigantic umbrellas optimistically awaiting a sunny day … this is the classic country pub, the reward at the end of a muddy walk.
But the high watermark of videogame pubs is to be found in Dunwall, setting of 2012’s Dishonored. The Hound Pits is a proper London boozer, sat right on the river. I can imagine myself sat in one of its red booths, eyeing up the brass pumps on the bar, shining under artificial stained-glass light.
Arkane might be based in France, but to create Dunwall the developer mashed up the English and Scottish capitals, and over two hundred years of history, into something that feels unique yet recognisable.
I moved to London around the time Dishonored came out, and as I explored the two cities, I kept turning corners and being greeted with strange déjà vu – a chunk of the virtual world dropped into the real one, or vice versa. Dishonored was set in a fantastical version of the past rather than the early 2010s but, in any place with a history as deep as London’s, the past is always overlaid onto the present. The game’s visual design borrowed primarily from the 1800s, but also as far back as the Great Plague of 1665 and up until the 1940s, with the bombed-out buildings of the Blitz.
If you look at the map of Pokémon’s Galar, and run your finger south to north, you can almost directly trace this same historical lineage. From the bucolic starting areas at the bottom, up through the Industrial Revolution railways and red-brick Gothic Revival architecture, ending up at something that roughly resembles the London of today.
These eras are neatly separated out, like the way Forza Horizon splits its map between built-up Edinburgh and the sleepy Arcadia of basically everywhere else. But perhaps that’s the only appropriate way to represent this contradictory place: across Britain, after all, everything is packed tightly together in one place, the strata of our history constantly excavated and visible.
To return to a phrase: “happy is the country with no past”. And Britain, with its grey skies and red-tops? Britain is very rarely happy.
This post originally appeared on Kotaku UK, bringing you original reporting, game culture and humour from the British isles.