Ghosts of Neoliberalism | The Signal From Tölva

The landscape of Britain is full of ghosts. They don’t take the form of spectral shimmers or occult presences. Rather, they’re manifested in the feel or mood of places, which emanate a particular sensation of eeriness, an ache of loss. These ghosts in their eerie form are everywhere, from the architecture of the distant past to ultra modern edifices, in places whose original function has since ceased but is still keenly felt. Think of the neolithic burial mound, Bryn Celli Ddu, on Anglesey in Wales. It’s a seemingly innocuous mound covered with mottled grass, its entrance leading to a hollow core. But catch it during the summer solstice and a beam of light will flood through its passageway, illuminating the back chamber. Suddenly, we are close to the lives of those who used it, if only for a moment.

Urban explorers have begun to take an interest in more recent abandoned spaces like the newly closed Camelot Theme Park in Lancashire. The hook is clear—these spaces offer a snapshot of our ruinous future yet exist in the present. In some way, they defy the logic of time, allowing us to confront our own societal mortality. Nikolaus Geyrhalter’s recent documentary, Homo Sapiens, expands this approach. In it, he explores abandoned spaces throughout the world, revealing the post-apocalyptic landscape that lives around us.

A neoliberal cull of what the government perceived to be dead weight

The Signal From Tölva is full and empty of spaces like these, but it’s the landscape, at least initially, that is unsettling. It appears off-kilter, eschewing parallel lines. Set against its milky blue skies and cold yellow sun, the grey slate of planet Tölva’s rock formations slant and skew in unusual ways. Strange spotlights focusing on debris—some natural, some not—illuminate your first steps in the dark, and past those lights is the unmistakeable soft glow of fireflies. But while Tölva’s landscape might be alien, it is also familiar. Jim Rossignol, the game’s designer, has spoken about channelling the mountainscapes and ruggedness of the Scottish highlands based on his time hiking there. The planet’s copper grasses hug the ground like the vast swathes of purple heath in the Cairngorms. Squat trees punctuate the landscape, strongly rooted, minor protests against the harshness of the environment.

Scattered amongst Tölva’s naturalistic landscape are the remains of former inhabitants. Giant, crestfallen robots whose humanoid mechanisms are half-submerged and half-visible from the surface of the planet. Metal ribcages sprout from the dust and rusting fingers curl across the contours of the land. Other objects are lodged in the earth, protruding upwards. They’re metal, still, rusting slowly, but so ripped apart as to make their previous form unidentifiable. Through this, the landscapes of Tölva speak of some catastrophic, disruptive event, yet its precise nature is cloaked in mystery.

What is clear is that the planet was subjected to some kind of intensive industry at one stage in its history. The structures start out small. One looks like a shipping container but realigned vertically, its paint peeling and exterior bashed. Another appears to be some kind of oil drill, angled down so that it might penetrate Tölva’s hard exterior. And then, in the corner of the map, there’s the System Trench, carved into a rock valley. There’s more industrial drills but this time they’re lined up carefully, flanking the entirety of the valley, sat on top of gigantic concrete platforms. It looks like a quarry or a mining facility, but one that ceased to function long ago. It is eerily quiet.

In his 2016 book, The Weird And The Eerie, the late cultural theorist, Mark Fisher, wrote that the “sensation of eeriness clings to certain kinds of physical spaces” defined by either a noticeable “failure of absence” or “failure of presence.” Everywhere Tölva is defined by the latter. Some wildlife still manages to eke out a life on the planet but it’s curiously limited. The robots are nothing more than shells by which anonymous factions compete for territories and resources. The vast ruins of the humanoid machines speak of lives long ceased, while the abandoned industrial spaces and objects of Tölva are monuments to past industry.

The post-apocalyptic landscape that lives around us

Derelict industrial sites like those found in The Signal From Tölva are pervasive in Britain. Arguably the most visible and numerous of these are the mines, factories and shipyards of the 1980s that fell victim to Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher’s policy of economic modernisation. Enacted as a response to financial stagnation of the previous decade, Thatcher sought to make Britain’s national industries more profitable by introducing market competition. National industries were sold off to private contractors and those sites that weren’t deemed to be profitable enough were scrapped. It was a neoliberal cull of what the government perceived to be dead weight.

In 1985, during the Miners’ Strike, 23 coal mines were shut down. A further 17 were closed the following year. In total, 138 sites were discontinued by 2004, a network of hauntings spread throughout the entirety of the country, although mostly consigned to the north. Sites like the abandoned Swan Hunter shipyards punctuate the coasts of Britain. Its Neptune site was closed down in 1988 with the Wallsend Yard following in 2006. Comments accompanying photos of the abandoned shipyards on the Newcastle Photos blog read like elegies to a former life. Some share anecdotes and memories reflecting on the good times but each note is heavy with sadness and regret at their closures. Angelus 71 wrote: “It’s sad to see it like that. My Granddads, Uncles and Father, all worked in the yards. I thought I would have too, but it was starting to be closed down when I was leaving school back in the 80’s.” Car factories such as the Longbridge MG Rover car factory succumbed to the same fate but the reasons remain part of the same concerted effort to deindustrialise, driven by a staunch faith in the market to secure the best—read profitable—outcome.

The loss of jobs and the depression of communities accompanied all of these closures. The sites around which lives were built now lie abandoned, typified by Fisher’s eerie lack of presence. Tölva’s derelict industrial spaces feel similarly empty. But there’s another symptom of neoliberal economic policy that the game touches upon. There might not be a single human in the game but there are robots. Many of them. The game’s workforce is entirely automated aside from you, the player, who has managed to hack into the Surveyor network, able to assume control of a drone and exercise some semblance of agency roaming the wilds of the planet. The two other factions on the planet—the Zealots and the Bandits—are hostile to the Surveyors. Firefights break out but they’re curiously muted affairs. Tense but lacking drama, the game maintains a cool air of disinterest about the proceedings. If death arrives—of the glitchy, frazzled motherboard variety—you simply patch into another robot at one of the game’s many military bunkers.

The Signal From Tölva exhibits an acute anxiety over the process of automation. Its robots are an expendable workforce. People in the real world, cast aside by automation, are deemed equally as inessential. Neoliberalism at its core provides an instrumentalised view of the world, one in which the wellbeing of citizens tend to get cast aside in pursuit of corporate efficiency, flexibility and profit. And in allowing you to dispose of each robot as and when you choose, the game exudes a cold detachment to its own workforce. It would be callous if the robots weren’t rendered with such warmth and generosity.

Suddenly, we are close to the lives of those who used it, if only for a moment

But what of the titular signal, your reason for exploring the Tölva’s rugged landscape? It becomes clear the planet is not just home to one signal but many strewn across the environment. Tap a button and a filter materialises, coating everything in digital psychedelia accompanied by the persistent crackle of white noise. Each signal glows with black flailing tentacles, easier to see and easier to hack into. Landscapes, of course, leave traces of their past, provided you know how to look for them. So too does architecture. Data, seemingly existing in the ether, also carries a watermark. The Signal From Tölva refers to some of its signals, the data of its environment, as “Snooped Datum”, perhaps a nod to the “snooper’s charter” enshrined in British law in November 2016. The legislation requires that web and phone companies store every inhabitant’s web browsing history for 12 months, allowing the police, security services and official agencies unfettered access to the data.

Tölva’s secrets, like those that make up our privacy, are no longer sacred—data everywhere is ripe for exploitation. Not just from governments but also the lurching mega corporations that create, store and sell it on to other organisations. Your motive behind investigating these signals is murky but your tip off, the information broker, is clearly driven by financial incentive. And as you trawl the planet for these signals, digging them up amidst the flora and fauna, the game makes you complicit in the mining and subsequent stripping and ripping of Tölva’s data. Neoliberalism has a habit of commodifying everything it touches, even the data of a distant, future planet.

In one of the game’s most surprising and enduring images, a robot lies kneeling beneath a giant red cylinder, another artefact of Tölva’s industrial past. Its head is dipped and its arms are held aloft. It is praying. At another site, two more robots are engaged in the same act, this time kneeling in front of a generator lodged into an outcrop of rock. They’re moments of rare intimacy in the game, exuding a peculiar stillness. These robots, made of metal and praying to metal, are worshipping a spectre of a past industry, feeling both its loss and allure as keenly as the British communities left behind by Thatcher’s England. They’re haunted and captivated by the ghosts of neoliberalism just as much as we are, its long tail chasing us far into the future.

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