There is a phenomenon of culture that I’m not convinced has a name. Living in the UK, the vast, vast majority of the media I consume is from the US. And nearly always has been. While television was more localised, all my life the films and games (and indeed an awful lot of the TV) I’ve watched and played has not only come from America, but been set there, or created by people whose perception of life is based there. And, while we may share a decent proportion of a common language, we really are very different countries and indeed continents. The result of this being, the media I watch that comes from the US is in many senses alien, to the point where a film set in an American high school might as well be set on a spaceship for all the familiarity it will have to my own lived experiences.
Which makes playing Forza Horizon 4 a really bloody weird thing. It’s… it’s British. Which is causing my double-takes to do double-takes.
I’ve been to the US an awful lot. By a rough count, maybe forty-five times. While I’ve never lived there, I’ve had some pretty varied experiences, from dozens of press trips to identical hotels in a dozen different states, to sleeping on the couches of friends of friends in unknown cities. I’ve spent most of my time in Chicago and San Francisco, while also visiting Seattle, Boston, New York, North Carolina, DC, Baltimore, LA, Indiana, Philadelphia, and all the others I’ve forgotten. I’ve spent enough time in the States to know how that list looks fine to anyone not living there, but the muddle of cities and states will annoy anyone who is. And yet despite the frequency, I’ve yet to have a single experience over there that hasn’t felt a little bit like I was on a movie set.
Now, it might at first seem like it doesn’t have a great deal to do with an open world racing game, but let me begin by using the example of secondary education: While there are plenty of parallels, the US and UK education systems are really radically different experiences. In the UK we trudge to our state-run comprehensives in school uniforms for 9am, unique lessons each day, subjects splattered all over a varying timetable, sport a thing you’re forced to do one or two mornings a week, perhaps after school for the dedicated few when the day is finally over between 3.30 and 4pm. There are no yellow school buses. There is no high school (American) football team, or cheer squad, the chances are there is no school paper nor radio station, and we’ve frankly no idea what “color guard” is. We do have proms these days, but they’re a weird hybrid simulacrum of what was called a “school dance” in my day, and what people have seen on the telly in US shows. In fact, so entirely based on US media are the UK’s attempts to incorporate such ideas, I’d not be the least bit surprised if every British prom ended with the tradition of pouring pig’s blood on the prom queen. Because that’s what they do, right?! Oh, and no one is called a “freshman” or a “senior”, because you’re Year 7 or Year 13, and yes, secondary school is six years long, not four.
I’ve been to US high schools. I’ve friends who teach in them, and I’ve sat in lessons at 8am when teenagers are barely conscious yet impossibly at school. In the lesson they have at 8am every day that week. For weeks. Stripped and stranded teaching, like their TV channels, entirely unlike our own. Everyone in their own clothes, clearly in tribes, leaping up out of their seat when the bell goes even though the teacher is mid-sentence. IT’S LIKE ON TV! It’s astonishingly, impossibly, utterly like on TV. To go into a US high school, to walk down those locker-lined corridors that stretch to vanishing points, is to step into fiction. To see the jocks, the nerds. They’re real things! I’ve been to a high school football game! It’s Friday Night Lights! It’s all fiction come to life!
Except of course, no it isn’t, if you live in the US. It’s just life. It’s just normal, everyday life, with fictional stories and characters projected on top. For the UK viewer, American high school teen dramas are closer to being a show set on an alien spaceship’s education center than they are to anything “normal” or familiar to us. As, I can only imagine, would be an episode of Grange Hill shown to a teenage US audience.
It gets even flipping weirder when you walk through a US university campus. The first time I did that, in Washington State University, I genuinely felt dizzy. Group after group of students walked past delivering corny dialogue from a crappy script. “Are you going to the game tonight?” To stress, UK universities don’t have “a game tonight”. They might have a soccer team, but no one knows what it’s called unless they’re in it. They certainly don’t change the colour of the town clock to the team purple when they win, as I saw once in Evanston, Illinois, when staying with friends at Northwestern University.
That first time I was in Evanston, staying with a friend who had just started at the university, I saw a group of girls walking down the road that looked like clones. Identical long blonde hair, identical outfits, identical facial expressions, and I, completely perplexed, asked my friend what that was about? “Oh, them?” she replied offhandedly, “Sorority chicks.”
OK, at that point I may as well be on the Enterprise and I just got told they were “Romulan chicks” for all the sense it made. I looked around me, saw blue post boxes (mail boxes, sorry), red fire hydrants stood in gleaming white sidewalks, those metal boxes that contain newspapers bearing headlines that deliver crucial exposition for the scene, and if you’d told me it was a prank, that I was on a film set, I’d have believed you.
The point of all of this is, when we Brits (and presumably the rest of the world too) watch US media and play US games, we internalise all this, we suspend our disbelief and accept this fictional setting. It’s not until we physically set foot in that fiction that the jarring madness of it all becomes apparent. Otherwise there’s just regular school that we go/went to, and there’s pretend school from the TV and the movies. You know, the one where a senior is throwing a keg party on the last day of school. BUT THAT IS ACTUALLY A THING THAT HAPPENS! I checked! I asked real actual Americans and they aren’t just pretend!
You, real actual Americans reading this, you’re either laughing at me or think I’ve gone mad. But that’s the point! We’re from entirely different continents, and the overlap of our realities is just enough that it looks like it should be familiar, but absolutely flat-out isn’t. We are two nations divided by a common uncanny valley.
Which is all to say, the experience of playing Forza Horizon 4 is like a mad redoubling of this strangeness.
When I play a racing game, a Burnout Paradise or a Need For Speed XXXVIII, I nonchalantly, even unthinkingly, step into the American Driving Universe. Despite regularly driving a car around British roads, fairly consistently on the left side, when I play a driving game I automatically drive on the right, no conscious effort. I recognise (ignore) US traffic light patterns, I barely acknowledge the US street furniture, I follow the green road signs that tell me to which city I’m heading, and don’t notice that they’re not blue, on my way to Vajazzle City and not pointing to somewhere like Bummingtonshire.
So playing this, every single time I see something undeniably British, which is approximately every 1.6 seconds in Horizon 4, I double-double-take. Every one of those black-background-white-arrowed “this bend is bendier than you’re expecting” signs makes me snap out of my expected fictional experience and realise this is real life. Red phone boxes are fairly easily ignored, because in actual Britain they’re pretty much an anachronism in all but the most smugly middle class pokey villages (of which Horizon 4 is mostly comprised), and red post boxes, while a daily reality, also show up in every horrible Hollywood depiction of a British street for them to be acceptably pretend. But those grey-white gas meter boxes on the outsides of terraced housing that look like the were artexed in the 70s? That’s too much.
More modern telephone boxes with those faded purple panels across the middle, not being used for anything other than people who need a wee? They don’t belong in games! Bus stops that are just a pole with an empty green metal frame where the timetable information should be? This isn’t escapist fantasy! And green and red mans on the pelican crossings! Honestly, this is how it works in my brain:
Real life = red/green man on the pedestrian crossing
Video games = white man on the pedestrian crossing
Actual America = pretend magic land from off the telly
You can’t go having the real life ones in a game!
This cognitive dissonance in me bounces back and forth in an infinitely recurring confusion. Because this is normal, except it’s not normal that it’s normal, so this doesn’t feel at all normal, and does that mean what I see as normal for being not normal is just regular normal for all normal Americans playing nearly all normal games? Is… is the world of fiction significantly less fictional for Americans, in ways they can never know they are experiencing?
I mean, British cinema is so grimly miserable, or craptacularly posh, but it’s never nonchalantly British. British cinema is still novel because of its very existence. It’s always about being British before it’s about anything else. At one end of the scale, Billy Elliot isn’t about a working class British boy who wants to dance… ON THE MOON. Brassed Off isn’t about a brass band that prevents a volcano from destroying Yorkshire. They, and their identikit brethren, are just a dreary sepia-brown dirge of a fucked up nostalgia for when things were slightly worse. At the other end of the scale, Notting Hill is about repulsive British people being repulsively British at an American lady, which is Bridget Jones, which is Love Actually, which is whatever wretched smug horror Richard Curtis shits out next. What I’m saying is, you couldn’t just consume British cinema and start to get used to the normality of Britain, because it’s all so self-obsessed and navel-gazing that it may as well be screened on the side of a novelty teapot.
British-set gaming is… well it doesn’t exist! OK, it sort of does, but again with its Britishness as novelty. Your Sir You Are Being Hunteds, and your Time Gentlemen Pleases, are flag-wavingly British, in a way that, to pluck a game out of the ether, Watch_Dogs is not flag-wavingly American. It IS American, it needs to be American to be what it needs to be, but it is so without self-consciousness. And yet half the games you play were probably made in Guildford – just never set there. Oddly it’d be the ideal place! I grew up in Guildford, winner of Britain’s Most Mediocre City. The town motto is, “Guildford: It’s fine.” No one hates Guildford, because it would have to have done something interesting to warrant it. Guildford is the perfect setting for gaming, because it’s more painted background than actual place.
So my contention is that Americans simply can’t experience this double-whiplash of bemusing familiarity. But hopefully when playing Forza Horizon 4, they can at least take the first step toward it: an authentic experience of Britishness, that isn’t reliant on stereotypes, just utter ordinariness.
While Horizon’s geography of its segment of Britain might be based on tearing up an A-Z and then sellotaping it back together at random (the Uffington White Horse is in the South of England, 376 miles and a 7 hour drive from Scotland’s Edinburgh, which itself is 146 miles from the Lake District’s Ambleside…), you certainly don’t drive past Big Ben every 13 seconds as in every other UK-set game. While the Leamington Spa-based developers, Playground Games, might have somewhat exaggerated the networks of dry-stone walls that line the North of England and South of Scotland (which here all appear to be one county/country), they’ve avoided the easy landmarks, the Beefeater stood outside Buckingham Palace eating fish and chips off a cricket bat that would usually front the UK scene in a Roland Emmerich movie. Edinburgh Castle is a beauty, and Arthur’s Seat is a tourist spot, but no one’s using them as establishing shots for an international audience.
But forget the castle. Forget that they’ve so lovingly reproduced some familiar streets of Edinburgh. What matters here is that they’ve put those tiny yellow “no parking” signs on the 30mph poles. It’s that they have the derestricted speed limit signs heading directly into single-lane country roads, implying you can tear around those blind corners at 60mph.
I celebrate the ordinariness of Forza Horizon 4’s bucolic Britain, the tiniest details that give me a mental whiplash of confusion. I had assumed, when learning this game was to be set in the UK, that I’d just experience a driving game like Americans experience all of theirs – that the ordinariness would be, well, ordinary. It turns out I’ve been so ingratiated into the ubiquitous Americanness of driving games that this was an integral part of their vocabulary for me. Who knew normality could be so novel as to be distracting? And I’m bloody glad of it!