Election fever had not come to Leafy Dreading. In fact, life had left it long ago. It was a perfect rustic idyll, in its way. Perfectly lovely, nestled between the grassy fields. Perfectly quiet, as only dead places can be. Perfectly still, because a player careless enough to create a disturbance might attract the robotic hunters. Big Robot’s Sir You Are Being Hunted had, through the digital governance of its landscape generation algorithms, somehow perfected the British countryside. Leafy Dreading was just one of its infinite variants.
In the real British countryside, rural quiescence is as prized as it is sometimes threatened: the Campaign to Protect Rural England has even mapped geographies of tranquillity; rural calm in coolest green, urban chaos in angry red. Sir’s stealth mechanics are a twisted parody of the naturalist’s soft tread: stay down, keep low, and don’t disturb the wildlife.
Centuries of class struggle; industrial encroachment and division
Sir’s geographies, procedurally generated at the start of each new game, offer infinite permutations. The real British countryside is famously finite. Occasional building sites in the game’s industrial biome are the sole reminder that urban expansion nibbles at the edges of reality’s rural expanses. Even where pylons loom overhead and slag heaps squat upon the ground, Sir’s simulation of the rural UK is mostly made of open grassland. The distorted cells of a mathematical pattern become fields, sometimes edged with hedgerows or fences or dry stone walls: the fundamentals of British farmland in procedural form.
Change will never come to Leafy Dreading, though it will come to Britain’s real country villages: with Brexit comes removal of the European Union’s Common Agricultural Policy, and the prospect of new and different times in rural affairs, for better or worse. Rural decline can be all too real: economic ebbs and flows, rather than a robot apocalypse, have produced stories about population flight to seek work in towns. In Sir’s procedurally perfect, mathematically timeless British shire, everything is over: chimneys in the industrial biome keep smoking somehow, but the wind turbines stand bent and motionless. Grounded boats can occasionally be found in the fens. It’s the too perfect tranquillity of stagnation and abandonment.
A mockery of the stereotypical class identities and hierarchies of its former inhabitants
Indications are everywhere that things happened here once: in the castle biome the land is littered with majestic ruins, duly attended by gift shops and the brown signs that direct tourists to public attractions. Players who use the hedgerows and walls to hide from robots subvert the structures which landowners have long used to claim control of open spaces, some of which were formerly common pastures, and to keep animals in and other people out. Britain is made of layers of its own history, and in Sir they take on a grimly museological flavour: the iconic red telephone box, notably, is now a rare sight in the real world. Some of the robots are designed to suggest a traditional fox hunt, a controversially banned practice in the real Great Britain.
Leafy Dreading has achieved perfect stability, enforced by the robotic squire who keeps it under his eternal vigil. Hard and soft Brexits are not debated in its pub. Election posters will not grace its windows. Metropolitan élites do not set foot there, or perhaps the robots killed them too. Sir’s or Madam’s visit is the only thing to have happened to Leafy Dreading since the vegetables began to rot. Sir twistedly suggests sleepy rural Britain as one might have seen it on television: not for nothing is a BBC show about buying nice houses called Escape to the Country. For those seeking escape from weeks of campaigning that promises ‘strong and stable leadership’ for the Brexit negotiations under Article 50, the mechanical squirearchy of Leafy Dreading and villages like it takes the slogan to an absurd conclusion, once and for ever.
Sir evokes Britain’s layered past since prehistoric times: each game begins and ends by standing stones, the legacy of the Neolithic. It recalls the Britain encountered in visits to historic sites and conservation areas; though in this version there is no heritage industry left to arrest the pervasive atmosphere of decay. In Sir the setting becomes Britain after the end of history, populated by robots that parade about in a mockery of the stereotypical class identities and hierarchies of its former inhabitants.
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. Yet violence also reflects the unsentimental aspects of the rural economy, where animals are bred to be eaten and even conservation can involve mass culling. Today’s rustic idyll may after all be yesterday’s battlefield, and tomorrow’s too. Walls and hedgerows to keep out poachers reflect Britain’s centuries of class struggle; industrial encroachment and division. Sometimes tranquillity is the calm before the storm.