Englishness

Warning: in this piece I’m primarily talking about Everybody’s Gone To The Rapture, which isn’t out on PC as yet, though I’ll willingly devour at least one item of clothing if it doesn’t walk this way eventually. Anyway, I talk about STALKER and Dear Esther too, so everything’s OK.

Playing The Chinese Room’s new game, Everybody’s Gone To The Rapture, what strikes me almost immediately is not the mystery, the science fiction trappings or even the extreme prettiness. It’s that I’m in England. A very particular England.

Many have made apt comparisons to The Archers, but for me it evokes camping trips. It’s the small villages you wander through when you leave the campsite, those pristine, proud little communities you ramble through and to, almost everyone in them dedicated to order and attractiveness in a way that’s profoundly uncommon in cities, where clamour and business effectively forbid it. In these middle-England villages, it’s all community noticeboards and floral front gardens, cars left unlocked and he said, she said tutting.

These villages are people’s homes, their lives, their drama, their pride and their outrage. For me and my camping companion, they’re simply attractive structures to support a charming pub at which we may consume a crusty bread-based lunch and sample a local ale with a name that was probably hilarious to old men in the 80s, like Knee-Trembler, or Betty Flourbags. We will think we are in paradise, but suggest that we spent years of our lives in a place like this and our comfort will turn to terror. The conservatism. The Conservatism. The clear expectation to be the same forever.

They represent a partial fabrication of Englishess, the one certain newspapers claim is perpetually under threat by migrants, but which has only ever existed in these between-places and their tiny headcounts, is not and cannot be true of the cities and towns which hold the bulk of this nation’s population. What seemed blissful suddenly seems stifling. The only reason I wanted to run in Everbody’s Gone To The Rapture was when the fear that I might end up trapped in a place like that overwhelmed my admiration for how painstakingly it had recreated one.

I’m amazed that a PlayStation 4-exclusive game would be emulating this. I’m amazed – the tax breaks it gains the developers aside – that it would go so full-on in creating a very English fantasy, which can only mean as much as it does to a tiny fraction of the world. I see that hanging pub sign, that warped stile, the hogweed by the roadside or I hear the clipped, fussy tone that denotes a busybody and I know them intimately. All of these things and more immediately mean to something to me. Surely, for an American (for but one example) it’ll be like visiting another planet. Which, I suppose, will be part of the appeal.

And perhaps that’s why I appreciate STALKER so much. The distinctly Russian and/or European design of its buildings, a very particular starkness even if the science fiction weren’t there, the stoic determination, an overwhelming sense of silent strife: it is another world, and I am fascinated by its otherness. For a native, is it like me and those camping daytrip sights in Everybody’s Gone To The Rapture? Are its underpinnings disconcertingly familiar? Is it eerie because it is ordinary?

Rapture is a natural follow-up to the developer’s earlier Dear Esther, not because it ratchets up the graphical technology or the complexity of its narrative and interactions, but because it’s exploring another facet of British existence. Esther was the forlorn seaside walk, the existential crisis on the lonely clifftop, the ramble in damp weather, the soggy sandwiches eaten among the heather bushes. The coastal holiday that’s supposed to relax you but leaves you introspective and anxious, that reminds you how much you need people but makes you feel more you because you’re away from them.

If there’s any justice in the world, the Chinese Room’s next game will be set in a musty one-bed flat in a terraced house, in which you try to drown out the sound of the couple next door alternately arguing and screwing by watching Bergerac repeats at high volumes, and sometimes you watch people take their dogs to shit in the patch of ownerless scrubland outside your back window. But they’ll probably go further into the sci-fi thing instead, I guess. Or try this grand-scale recreation again, with some part of America. That would be fascinating.

I’m rambling, I know. Both Esther and Rapture to that to me, leave my mind gently spiralling, chewing over dim feelings of loss and regret, hankering for solitude and fearing its effects. STALKER does too, but it does it somewhere entirely alien. I’d like to experience that with and from other cultures. Are there wealthy, protective villages in the middle of Germany? What is it like to stroll along a cliff path in the exterior of Egypt? Who lives on the islands just off Spain? Technology has reached the point where it can meaningfully evoke these places and these experiences, where the land rather than the people is what tells the tale. I hope Englishness is not the only culture to enjoy the resources necessary to recreate itself on a screen. And I hope Everybody’s Gone To The Rapture comes to PC soon so I can write more about it, and how it makes me feel.

This feature was originally published last week as part of, and thanks to The RPS Supporter Program.

56 Comments

  1. Premium User Badge

    SputnikSweetheart says:

    I thought it wasn’t coming to PC due to Sony helping to fund it. I hope that isn’t true, I like a good explore ’em up.

  2. Premium User Badge

    Harlander says:

    I submit that Milton Abbas, in Dorset, is the paramount example of the kind of aesthetic the tiny-village-Englishness described in this article produces.

  3. Premium User Badge

    distantlurker says:

    Lovely article Alec, most touching.

    To save CR from answering your questions…. :P

    “Are there wealthy, protective villages in the middle of Germany?” That’s a dictionary definition of Bavaria. It’s extraordinarily beautiful, very conservative (both c’s) and scary if you stay too long.

    “What is it like to stroll along a cliff path in the exterior of Egypt?” Elba national park, along the Suez. Stunning. I wouldn’t recommend visiting Egypt just at the moment tho.

    “Who lives on the islands just off Spain?” Coincidentally, also a national park! Galician Atlantic Islands Maritime-Terrestrial National Park! (never been to that one).

    • Premium User Badge

      Bluerps says:

      I feel like Baden-Württemberg (the rest of southern Germany, next to Bavaria) has a lot of those villages too. Though I’m not entirely sure since I haven’t really left the cities I’ve lived in that often.

      • SgtStens says:

        Can confirm that BW is definitely peppered with many such villages, with same eerily conservative and insular properties described above. ‘Tis beautiful, tho. I will miss it sorely when I part ways later this year.

  4. Premium User Badge

    basilisk says:

    I’m not from that far east, but I grew up surrounded by stark socialist architecture and yes, the buildings in Stalker often felt like a strange echo of home, deeply familiar in a way that, I fear, nothing else ever will be. I have spent a long time lovingly exploring the research station in particular, with that huge mural on the side that is so characteristic of a whole era. I think I understand the feeling that you’re writing about, Alec.

    City 17, too, is a more real place to me than (I suspect) to many; there are parts of it that I’m sure I have visited. The Striders weren’t home, though.

    • Ross Angus says:

      What took me a long time to realise was that STALKER reminded me of Fife in the eighties. The landscape, weather, electricity pilons and architectural brutalism all strongly evoke that time and place for me.

      Make your own Gordon Brown joke here.

  5. Cochise779 says:

    Fantastic article. This is the kind of writing why I’m supporter.

    I’d be interested to see them try to do this with an American town, though, without a car. The road and the car are fundamental building blocks of the modern American quaint town, the kind conservative folks never leave from.

    • Sarfrin says:

      Agree. Exactly the sort of thing I want read. Well done Alec.

      • caff says:

        Ok the explanation of XHTML when you post comments is crap. Sorry. Next time I’ll try using regular HTML code…

      • Eight Rooks says:

        This is one reason I loved – really, really loved – Assassin’s Creed: Unity, for all its flaws. The sheer size and scale of it are absolutely unrivalled by any other videogame to date, as are the crowds – sure, they’re glitchy and imperfect and you can see the cogwheels that power them creaking away but the sheer numbers on the streets in places and their myriad little bespoke animations create a sensation of “life”, of the urban throng, that I find absolutely stunning.

      • Zephro says:

        Great article! I really want to see this now, though having grown up around these kinds of villages I think Gone to the Rapture sounds like a terrifying horror game. Those places are so overbearing and oppressive in some way, more so than wandering around brutalist estates in the cities.

        Also a Londoner and I’ve never seen anyone even vaguely capture the city. I’ve seen it in books so many times but never a game.

        It’s always twee tourist bullshit, cockneys, guardsmen in silly hats and red phone boxes. GTA in London would be interesting, though weird as nobody drives here, maybe GTA: The Sweeney set in 70s London.

        I think maybe Dishonoured captured it in Dunwall, at least partly. A sort of magical realist Victorian London, but not quite.

        Yeah a game that really captures London. The pubs, the bustle, the amount of cultures.. Or just capturing a rainy moment at 1 in the morning, watching all the life pass you by as you drunkenly order a kebab.

        • Zephro says:

          Or something like Neverwhere by Neil Gaiman or China Mieville books. That weird sense you sometimes get that tube tunnels lead off somewhere magical or that the city is somehow alive and has been there longer than people.

        • Eight Rooks says:

          I lived in London for a few years, right in the middle in a crappy two-bedroom flat in King’s Cross, and though I haven’t been back in ages (and the last time I went it had changed an awful lot) it still winds me up something rotten seeing utter nonsense like the opening to Uncharted 3.

        • Geebs says:

          There’s nothing wrong with village life, and frankly I’m sick of townies or, even worse, Londoners clutching at their pearls about how boring and stifling it is.

          Fact: most people who live in towns and cities are just as boring and reactionary as the ones who live in villages; they major difference is that they have worse carbon monoxide poisoning.

          Fact: people will voluntarily live in Reading.

          • Zephro says:

            Well nobody is going to defend Reading ever.

            However, as I said, I grew up in small places like that. I fucking hate them from experience. It’s not an objective fact, just an opinion. Though that ought to be obvious.

          • Universal Quitter says:

            Clearly, you’ve never been to Austin. Sometimes, the reputation of a city’s folk becomes a sort of self-fulfilling prophecy, attracting people that really do march to the beat of their own drummer.

            I generally agree with your point, though. Folk are usually just folk, wherever they lie down to sleep at the end of the day.

            Except people who live in the mountains, of course. All weirdos. I think it’s the hypoxia.

        • jonahcutter says:

          The Getaway was a PS2, GTA-type game that was set in London. How’d that do in portraying the city? Even considering its aged tech?

          If you (or anyone) played it, that is.

    • klops says:

      Indeed.
      As a non-Englishman from a non-English speaking country this also opened up a perspective to that partial fabrication of Englishness which isn’t that familiar to me.
      (We do get Emmerdale here, though. Would that be a recommended series to get in the mood of this setting? Probably not. But what would be?)

      • SanguineAngel says:

        Stepping outside the city, probably. Although as Alex states the larger portion of the population live in cities, there are still millions of people living in the countryside in small towns and villages such as these and the majority of the country is not yet covered in urban sprawl. The countryside is still very accessible and you might be surprised just how quickly your town turns into it.

        • SanguineAngel says:

          Ah, I may have misunderstood – if you are not resident then come visit! Otherwise I think a few shows might give you a rough sense (though idealised): Vicar of Dibly. Doc Martin. Broadchurch. Inspector Morse. The Detectorists. Jimmy’s Farm. Countryfile. The Archers (radio).

          Anything set in the countryside probably reveals some facet of the place (even emerdale) but is of course coloured by being entertainment.

          • Zephro says:

            I’d add the League of Gentlemen.

          • Zephro says:

            Oh fuck and Hot Fuzz! that totally gets the utter bizarreness of these places.

          • klops says:

            Thanks!
            Morse I know, he’s the high point of people’s aged 50+ Saturday evenings here. Annd Doc Martin is the on with Martin Clunes. Many of the others mentioned seem to have been shown here as well according to Google.
            BUT:
            If British Countryside has much to do with League of Gentlemen, I stay in london during my visits. That show was great, sure, but…

          • Zephro says:

            Well it’s not literally like that. But there’s a certain truth to it none the less.

  6. tehfish says:

    I’ve been watching a youtube let’s play of this game. Looks very interesting.

    It’s amazing graphically, apart from one of the most over-the-top cases of excessive motion blur i’ve ever seen in a game though. If they ever do a PC port there’d better be an option to disable that, for it overpowers everything with a sea of blur :/

  7. Premium User Badge

    Ninja Dodo says:

    Game worlds are really interesting when they are specific in this way.

  8. Aluschaaf says:

    I liked Life is strange for exactly the same reason: It also strongly evoked a feeling of a place I’ve never been to, especially in combination with that soundtrack by Syd Matters.

  9. Robert The Rebuilder says:

    I liked the realistic environment that The Astronauts created for The Vanishing of Ethan Carter. It was an Eastern European setting populated by American-sounding people, which made it seem otherworldy – quite appropriate for the game. [Your experience may vary depending on your respective localized copy.]

  10. biggergun says:

    >For a native, is it like me and those camping daytrip sights in Everybody’s Gone To The Rapture?

    Yes.

  11. hiddnsaccade says:

    Which item of clothing? You shouldn’t make promises like that without being specific.

  12. Geebs says:

    I would argue that Dear Esther was trying harder to be Bomb the Bass’ “5 ml barrel” than a clifftop walk in the UK.

    • iainl says:

      Having spent most of my summers on the Isle of Lewis as a kid, the Hebridean feel was uncanny. Sure, there’s more going on from a plot point, but it’s just right.

      Of course, that’s partly why it worked so well for me – it’s invoking the memory of a windswept isle more than the reality.

  13. kud13 says:

    I was born in Ukraine a few years before the collapse and I lived the first decade of Independence there before my parents moved to Canada.

    S.T.A.L.K.E.R’s vistas are familiar to most, as they are the remnants of a country-wide industrial complex that ground to a halt in mid-80s and has been decaying at a variable pace ever since. Most places you go in UA, you’d inevitably see children playing hide and seek, or “War” in the brick and concrete abandoned or unfinished buildings–at leas that’s how it was back in the 90s, I can’t really be as sure now.

    The Socialist message and slogans are still in many places. Though I am strongly anti-Soviet, even in western UA where I’m from, in the countryside there are still murals glorifying the worker and labour-and that’s not smth I would oppose. Just as you’d see the soviet-era signs “protect the forests”, discouraging forest fires. Though these things are less visible in big cities, where they ARE actively being replaced, they remain familiar. Seeing Pripyat in CoP felt no different from seeing any rayon centre.

    But what really makes the game resonate to ex-Soviets is the “attitude”. The people. The way they all speak with a dour pessimism. The way they all talk of “life outside”. soon after Independence day of the first privately-owned TV channels ran a campaign “we are 52 million”. Recent census pre-annexation of Crimea and the war put the number closer to 46. The country lost at least several million (some say as many as 10, considering all the illegals) as work migrants, both to Russia and the West. And stalkers are just another type of work migrant-doing dangerous, unpleasant jobs, because there’s nothing for them on the “outside”.
    For that reason, S.T.A.L.K.E.R remains special. It’s realistic, even if uses a farfetched setting, and has mutants and anomalies. The place is real, and the people are real. The rest are minor details.

  14. Jason Lefkowitz says:

    As an American, I read this and wonder: are there games that capture “Americanness” in the same way S.T.A.L.K.E.R. captures “Russianness” and Everybody Goes to the Rapture captures “English-ness?”

    The ones that jump to mind for me in that respect are the modern Fallout games, with their vast empty spaces bisected by lonely highways. But that’s a very particular kind of Americanness.

    • TheAngriestHobo says:

      American Truck Simulator is pretty sure to do so. There isn’t much more identifiable with America (IMO) than the sight of a grizzled, red-eyed trucker pulling into a rest stop to catch a few winks.

      Possibly some of the GTA games, as well, though those are obviously distorted by a Hollywood-style lens. That said, if you’re talking about outside perceptions of “American-ness”, then you have to at least factor in the influence of Hollywood, so I think they still stand.

      As a Canadian (and one who grew up in an extremely rural area), The Long Dark is the game that evokes that sense of “home” the most. Wandering the snowy wilderness, seeing your breath fog the air in front of your face, watching the sun set over forested hills… these are some of the most vivid memories I have of my childhood, and it feels pretty surreal to relive them in a video game.

  15. twaitsfan says:

    If they wanted to find a place where everyone has left they should’ve just picked one of the many small ghost towns of the American midwest. They are amazing and scary and sad.

  16. Shazbut says:

    This article is the real fucking deal. Thank you for this, Alec.

  17. MattMk1 says:

    It might sound funny, since they’re fantasy, but I’ve often felt something similar when playing the Witcher games.

    It’s mostly little things – a bit of architecture or landscape, an NPC’s face, a particular turn of phrase – but it adds up to something very Polish, and makes me really nostalgic.

    Sometimes the Novigrad skyline will line up just so, half-hidden by the trees, and it’s like a postcard from home. link to fotoforum.gazeta.pl

    • TheAngriestHobo says:

      Oh, yeah, the Witcher. You have to admire the subtlety with which they’ve woven Polish culture and history into the game. The Novigrad harbour and the markets branching off of it brought back some vivid memories of Gdansk, and the temple district reminded me of Wawel and its many, many stairs. And that’s just the architecture of one city – as you say, all three games are full of little nods to the culture that created them.

  18. Laurentius says:

    “I’d like to experience that with and from other cultures.”

    Oh yeah ? I call BS on that. Because 75 % of times such game emerges, english speaking gaming press (RPS inculded) is tearing that game a new one.

  19. Dave Tosser says:

    Games that have a distinct British character to them? Beneath a Steel Sky’s Yorkshire factory owner always seemed familiar. As did Undying’s dark Irish coast with its standing stones and old mansion. Some locations in the first Witcher remind me of little Welsh towns, Amnesia is reminiscent of all sorts of English Heritage sites I’ve trundled through. Fable has a twee Little England built entirely around the player. But there really aren’t many essentially English games these days in the same way there’s the likes of Pathologic and Stalker for the Eastern Bloc, or Realms of Arkania and Gothic to Germans.

    I suppose back in the Speccy/BBC Micro days you had all sorts of really English games, and maybe something like Hitchikers Guide or Discworld Noir might be worth looking at for that.

  20. Jakkar says:

    The strangest thing about this article, for me, was to read that you identified STALKER as an alien experience, as distinctly ‘Russian’.

    As a life-long denizen of Swansea and the Welsh valleys, having grown up in the nineties and zeroes exploring the ruins of this post-Industrial, post-WW2, post-Thatcher wasteland, STALKER felt anything but alien.

    Summer wanders in a climate prone to fog, heavy rain or blazing sunshine by the moment, surrounded by red-brick ruin, crumbling abandoned farm buildings, rusting railways untouched by trains for decades, and populated by emaciated, betentacled bloodsuckers through my youth were utterly indistinguishable from my later experiences in GSC’s ‘game world’.

  21. Doubler says:

    Besides Euro Truck Simulator 2 I can barely remember a game that even features the country I live in, let alone any local or cultural features that would be remotely recognizable. I think the original Witcher game of all things probably came the closest.

  22. MadMinstrel says:

    Anytime you feel the urge to write “I’m rambling”, please, go back and edit the original text rather than just stating the obvious ;)

    • Jakkar says:

      I prefer to write and to read an organic process of transcription from brain to screen, as you might on paper.

      I come to RPS for this kind of informality and honesty, disorganised authenticity of thought. I’d like to call it their speciality, though it wavers as the years roll by.

    • Chirez says:

      The rambling, and the awareness of the rambling, was one of the central points of the article… Pretty sure it doesn’t mean ‘I should have written this differently but editing is for suckers.’

  23. trn says:

    Did these feet, in ancient times, walk upon crisp packets, fag ends and get decked outside Ladbrokes by a bloke in a shell-suit… The truth is that a ‘jaunt’ through a pedestrianised town centre on a Friday night probably wouldn’t produce anything quite so thought-provoking. Having grown up in the north-west in the eighties, I can definitively say that the England of ‘Rapture’ is as alien as the landscapes of Xeno Clash.

  24. Chirez says:

    Honestly, there are plenty of non-English Anglophiles out there who’re at least as fascinated by that imagined England as anyone who claims English nationality. The number of American tourists who love the Queen in a way none but the most rabidly royalist Britisher can match is quite disturbing. Though seeing it from outside is never the same; so few people actually live in those places even where they do exist outside of conservative historical fantasy that the insider perspective is all but non existent.

  25. fupjack says:

    I think the funny thing is that you have to already be familiar with the location a little bit for a video game trip to be evocative. STALKER is neat because I have that Cold War memory of what collapsing Soviet architecture should look like. The same exploration of modern Egypt or someplace in Spain, even if accurate, probably wouldn’t affect me the same way because I wouldn’t already have that expectation in my head.

    Most of the comments here on what people found location-specific start with linking it to prior impressions or experience. This is not a bad thing; just a thing.

  26. Mi-24 says:

    Enjoyed this article, another game set in surreal british countryside is Sir you are being hunted (You can even drink lukewarm tea). Also Chernarus from arma 2 felt very real, the designers tried to create a country with real towns and villages in it rather than a video game level like most open world games.