Early in November 2012, in the United Kingdom, an indie game developer called Big Robot began a crowdfunding campaign. Later that month, one of Her Majesty’s ministers announced plans to tackle housing shortages by building heavily on greenfield sites.
The crowdfunding led to the release of Sir, You Are Being Hunted,
brought to life by what we call The British Countryside Generator: a procedural engine that means [the game] takes place in a recognizably British landscape, the inhabitants of which are a mockery of the aristocratic gent and his ecosystem.
Housing, meanwhile, remains under pressure. Immigration, a cause of population growth, was a factor in the vote for Brexit.
Sir limitlessly generates what in reality is a finite (though extensive) resource with people fighting to preserve it. Its
Platonic British Countryside offers a boundless green belt, largely unthreatened by urban sprawl. Even its industrial biome, where pylons loom overhead and slag heaps squat upon the ground, is mostly made of open fields between the villages, even if a few look like building sites.
Such sites contrast with the castle biome, strewn with ruins which come complete with gift shops and the brown signs that indicate public attractions. Memorials often stand in the villages: an accessory so essential that one real town has erected a blank one, just in case. Adding to Sir’s museological flavour is the iconic red telephone box, nowadays a rare sight in real life, though there is an adoption scheme.
The hedgerows that line the boundaries of many roads and fields, and are so useful for hiding from hostile robots while being hunted, are another celebrated feature of the British countryside, and another one that is actually in decline. Whereas buildings and telephone boxes are placed in spaces on Sir’s landscape once the land has been generated, fields and the hedges, fences and dry stone walls that demarcate them form the basic structure of Sir’s environments: the
cells that are distorted to create a landscape. They too evoke the historical developments that gave the British countryside its shape: many such boundaries reflect how communal fields were expropriated and divided through enclosure. (Since the enemy robots parody the landed gentry, players using walls and hedges as cover effectively subvert the structures which landowners use to keep animals in and other people out.) Others are far older still, some even tracing banks dug in the Bronze Age.
What emerges is a game that is aesthetically very aware of the historically layered nature of the British countryside, yet programmatically approximates it through the mathematics of patterns and noise functions. This isn’t a Dwarf Fortress that builds its history through simulation: it’s an infinite remix of rural Britain as we know it or at least may have seen it on T.V.
It’s obvious that some of Sir’s robots parody grouse shooters and fox hunters. (Hunting on horseback with a pack of hounds, which long provided the vividest image of the rural toff, has been controversially
banned and not quite banned at the same time in Great Britain, and is routinely prosecuted; an organisation called the Countryside Alliance campaigns to overturn the ban. Britons following the news have been treated to long arguments about whether the ban is a worthy blow for animal welfare or the meddling of ignorant townies and class warriors.) Yet its stealth mechanics offer a parodic element too: part of the appeal of the countryside is that (when the hunt is not on) it can be quiescent, a rustic haven compared to the busy pace of urban life, to the extent that the Campaign to Protect Rural England has mapped a geography of tranquil places. Tranquillity itself is an object of conservation, and in the game it is part of conserving your life. Skilful play can resemble a nature documentary, another medium through which the countryside reaches the popular imagination: stay down, stay quiet, and don’t disturb the wildlife.
Now countryside management is in the news again: beside the long-running question of whether Britain’s rural population is set to decline or recover there now sits the much newer question of how a post-Brexit countryside, outside the European Union’s Common Agricultural Policy, should be managed. Sir’s robot apocalypse is not coming, but change in rural affairs very probably is, for better or worse. On Sir’s islands everything has settled into a state of gentle decay because the human population is no more: chimneys in the industrial biome keep smoking somehow, but houses are full of rotten food. Wind turbines, majestic emblems of renewable energy or a danger to birds and bats depending on what kind of environmentalist you are, stand bent and motionless. Grounded boats can occasionally be found in the fens. It’s the too perfect tranquillity of stagnation and abandonment.
Find a suitable weapon and you too can become a hunter, stalking the wildlife, killing it and roasting it on an open campfire. Find a man trap and you can employ the landscape as your weapon, hopefully to the disadvantage of any robots in pursuit. This partly reflects the logic of any stealth game that lets players use weapons and turn the tables (creating a split in play styles at least as old as Thief: The Dark Project and its enforcement of pacifist play on higher difficulty levels). Yet violence also reflects the unsentimental aspects of the rural economy, where animals are often bred to be eaten and even conservation can involve culling: it’s a hard and sometimes short life, even for the most dangerous game.