How video games are reimagining Britain for the Brexit era
Since Theresa May invoked Article 50, there has been a mystifying surge in video games set in Britain. They come in all shapes and sizes, from Nintendo’s Pokémon Sword and Shield, which riffs on the architecture of Oxbridge and London, to PanicBarn’s anti-Brexit polemic Not Tonight. Most began development long before the EU referendum, but they are useful explorations of national identity at a time when what Britain stands for is hotly contested.
Gary Younge has described the Brexit debate as a clash between stories about Britain’s past and our ideas of Britishness. How, then, might these video games help us think about what Britain is today?
In the 9th-century, Britain was not one but several nations, a mass of warring Anglo-Saxon, Celtic and Viking kingdoms. This is the backdrop to Creative Assembly’s Total War Saga: Thrones of Britannia, a turn-based strategy game whose political turmoil unfolds across a verdant table-top diorama. Territories shift from season to season, rulers are murdered and their successors overthrown. The beautiful interface imposes calm; it’s inspired by artworks from the period, notably, illuminated manuscripts such as the Book of Kells.
Thrones is a raucous reminder that today’s borders are the product of centuries of invasion and migration. There are Welsh tribes in the game’s Scotland and Viking communities scattered from present-day Northumbria to the Irish coast. Creative Assembly was especially keen to capture the impact of Viking expansion. “The old political order was completely swept aside by them, leading to the rise of Alfred the Great,” says Jack Lusted, game director. “It shaped how the nations of these islands formed. We also wanted to capture the variety of the time period, the many different groups and peoples that called these islands home.”
Paradox Interactive’s Europa Universalis IV – whose Britain-focused expansion, Rule Britannia, launched last March – takes place centuries later, after England’s conquest of Wales and the establishing of what is now the Anglo-Scottish border. It’s a strategy game like Thrones, but it puts you at a greater remove, guiding a single nation within a formidable simulation of global politics. The game is a love letter to European imperialism, boosting your domestic standing when you seek war, but it’s also a useful portrayal of interdependency, teaching that nations are defined by more than their terrain.
To build a prosperous England, for example, you’ll need to attend to the great European cities that feed trade routes across the North Sea. Like May’s struggling government, you’ll need to consider your responsibilities towards expats, who may drag you into bloodshed if another nation lays claim to their city. Like Thrones of Britannia, the game draws on historical record and asks what-if? There’s a timeline of fixed events, including the hundred years war but you are free to depart from it. You might decide not to form the United Kingdom at all, or conquer England as an Irish ruler.
Where Europa Universalis IV romanticises conquest, Failbetter’s exploration game Sunless Skies is a different cup of tea. It’s an eldritch, steampunk send-up of 19th-century Britain, in which Queen Victoria has extended her rule across a curiously vegetal solar system. There are drifting factory worlds, inspired as much by Einstein as Dickens, where time is slowed so that labourers can work more hours and side stories that recall English attempts to erase the Welsh language from British education. There are also jokes about blue passports.
The game’s deconstruction of empire draws on consultation with Indian designer Meg Jayanth, and is lent venom by an awareness of how Britain’s colonial crimes have been whitewashed. “It’s very easy when you’re writing a period piece like this to slip into the myths of empire, the idea of it being all thrusting and entrepreneurial and admirable,” says Chris Gardiner, narrative director at Failbetter. He suggests that these myths are more common today than in the 19th-century, as nostalgia clouds condemnation: “There were conversations in parliament, letters written to newspapers. It was an active topic of discussion and now it feels less so.” Failbetter is able to stand apart from all this, Gardiner suggests, because its audience is largely made up of Americans, which obliges it to consider Britain’s imperial fantasies through non-British eyes.
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Windrush Tales, a forthcoming illustrated text-based game from Chella Ramanan and Corey Brotherson, is another investigation of Britain from the outside in. Set in the 1950s, during the formation of the Commonwealth, it is the story of two Caribbean migrants adjusting to life in the UK. Besides celebrating Caribbean influences on UK culture, the game aims to convey the day-to-day experience of racism. “When you get turned away from the church because you’re black, you get to decide how you respond to that,” says Ramanan. “Are you resigned to it? Are you angry? What do you do?”
Ramanan and Brotherson are of Caribbean descent and their game was once a troubled ode to multiculturalism. “The Windrush generation was the founding generation of the NHS,” Ramanan says. “There’s the legacy of all that labour – it helped build Britain.” In the wake of 2018’s Windrush scandal, the project has taken a bleaker turn. “My dad and uncle are no longer here and I’m glad they can’t see where we are now, because it would make them so sad and feel betrayed. I think people will know that the experiences that people had then, that are seen in the game, are experiences people are still having.”
Where Windrush Tales reminds the player that racism is commonplace in modern Britain, Canadian developer Compulsion’s We Happy Few makes forgetfulness a theme. It takes place in a Kubrickian parody of the 1960s where conformity is taught through regular rounds of Simon Says and grinning bobbies clobber anybody who looks glum. According to Compulsion art director Whitney Clayton, this speaks to a running theme in British TV and film where “everything is sort of rigid and perfect, but it’s all just surface.” The game’s influences stretch from Keeping Up Appearances, Roy Clarke’s 90s satire of class pretensions, to Edgar Wright’s clownish village adventure Hot Fuzz.
If We Happy Few exposes the link between nationalism and the burying of history, it is also a hopeful game that revels in the social revolutions and counterculture of its era. “Enthusiasm for the future was a big theme I ran with for the art direction, and it made for really strong metaphors,” says Clayton. “You have these crumbly old Tudor buildings and then you have sleek plastic technology.” There’s a desperation to this optimism, however, as a country estranged from its own past casts about for distraction. “They’re looking toward the future in this really extreme way.”
Set in the 1980s, White Paper’s narrative adventure The Occupation calls to mind another British dystopia, the grimy bureaucratic nightmare of George Orwell’s 1984. As it begins, a rightwing government passes a repressive law following a bombing allegedly carried out by an immigrant. You play a reporter investigating the attack across four hours in Turing, a fictitious city inspired by White Paper’s native Manchester. Besides celebrating British music with an original score of faux-80s punk and pop songs, the game examines the role of political reporting before the advent of round-the-clock news.
“People generally believed what was in the papers,” says Nathaniel Apostol, narrative and audio director. “And if the only information they had was what they were given, how interesting would it be to play as a journalist who’s going to decide what the player sees?” The Occupation feels just as relevant to today’s media ecology as that of the 1980s. It channels the information overload of the smartphone age, asking you to parse a mass of contradictory evidence against the clock.
The final stop on our tour of virtual Britains is Forza Horizon 4, the work of Leamington Spa-based Playground Games. A racing game that unfolds across the British countryside, it reduces the country to its geography, minutely recreating the effects of rainfall and summer heatwaves on dry stone walls and purple moorlands. With no residents, save cheering bystanders, this is a postcard Britain that exists out of time and which seems to tell no story at all.
The portrayal is rife with intriguing ironies, however. It removes London from the picture, coincidentally recreating the socio-economic and, arguably, cultural gulf between Britain’s capital and the rest of the country. And for Playground Games, designing Forza Horizon 4 has been an opportunity to see Britain through different eyes and consider it as part of something bigger. “It was kind of a rediscovery for me and our team members of what Britain is like, its beauty and history, and it’s been refreshing to hear how British people respond to that,” observes Ralph Fulton, creative director. “And to hear how people from other countries respond to it as well. The funny thing is that although we probably don’t think about it while we’re living here every day, Britain is an exotic, interesting place.”