Northern Soul

Exploring the North via video games

April 6, 2021 Arts, Gaming Comments Off on Exploring the North via video games
The Occupation, houses

I have a unique sense of kinship with my home town of Manchester, mainly through the music of bands like The Stone Roses and The Smiths. Every time I listen to these artists, I’m reminded of where I’m from and how that’s shaped me into who I am today. 

Video games can offer people the same feeling, whether that’s through their settings, characters or cultural inspirations. In this regard, the North is no exception, with games using the place many of us call home as the backbone for how we experience them. Let’s take a closer look. 

The modern iconography of Forza Horizon 4

Forza Horizon 4 is set in a world where ‘driving festivals’ are the equivalent of the World Cup – except instead of football, it’s street racing. Each entry in the series puts this festival in a different visually rich location. Developer Playground Games finally brought the series home when it set the fourth instalment in the UK. Granted, it’s a heavily condensed approximation as it situates both Oxfordshire’s White Horse and the city of Edinburgh as a 10-minute drive from each other. 

Playground Games logoBut that doesn’t mean love wasn’t poured into this game, with dry stone walls, roundabouts, accurate road signs (minus the place names) and pubs all looking like they came right out of the Northern countryside. While I was driving, I even managed to snap a picture containing hay bales, power lines and a wind farm all side by side. The picturesque nature of the game world speaks to long drives across the North, except here I don’t stick to the speed limit.

My ‘unsafe’ driving culminated with me having to put an end to my Top Gear escapades because I found myself trailing behind a tractor. Many people would drive past it without a care in the world but, as anyone from the North can tell you, running into a tractor on the road and having to painfully trawl behind it is something we’re all too used to.

These are the details that make the world of Forza Horizon 4 feel so lived in and relatable. Rolling hills may look nice in isolation, but adding in accurate looking buildings, roads and even wheelie bins really does add up. 

Exploring a medieval North in Assassin’s Creed Valhalla

Assassin’s Creed Valhalla also uses the North as a gameplay backdrop, minus the bountiful colours of wheelie bins. Set at the start of the Viking invasion of Britain, you can explore, complete quests and even go full-on Viking by raiding settlements.

Assassins Creed ValhallaThis is where Assassin’s Creed allows us to do something impossible – we can explore the North of more than 1,000 years ago. The game flaunts cities like Anglo-Saxon York and Roman ruins that would’ve blended in to create a melting pot the likes of which we’ve never seen. This differs from documentaries, television and books because you explore the world of the game, you are your own guide. This type of engagement is only possible in a video game and, to my mind, allows us to appreciate where the North was during its early cultural development. 

While there’s a lot of modern British iconography in your face in Forza Horizon 4, Assassin’s Creed Valhalla doesn’t have that luxury. The connection comes from the fact that you can step into the North’s past, even using the games map to find where you live (roughly) and see how the developers think it would’ve looked over a millennium ago. Even if it was just a foxhole.

The North of the 1980s in The Occupation

Finally, we have a game and development team that are both rooted in the North. Developed by Manchester’s own White Paper Games, The Occupation is set in the North West in 1987, where you play as a reporter trying to uncover a sinister plot around a ‘new controversial act’ being forced in after a supposed terrorist incident.

The early parts of the game see you wandering around an unspecified city in the North West. It’s incredibly effective. I’m not sure entirely how, but White Paper Games have expertly created the bricks and mortar we associate with the North.

The Occupation canal. The White Papers. Image by Will Nelson.Weaving between canals, exploring the buildings and walking through the neighbourhood all feels natural in its design. While I didn’t live through it, the showcase of early computer technology, 80s music and political unrest all feel decidedly real. It doesn’t come across as trying to completely recreate the culture, society and technology of the 80s, but instead demonstrates what you thought it was like, whether you were alive at the time or not.

The Occupation presents us with something so close to the place we call home that every house and object feels familiar yet slightly foreign. The visual storytelling that serves both the narrative and Northern setting reminds players that while this isn’t real, it’s pretty close.

All told, what we’re left with are games that allow us to explore the North in its many guises. With artistic renditions of times past, games offer us something no other medium can: a chance to appreciate the culture and environment of the historic North first-hand.

By William Nelson

Main image: The Occupation. Image courtesy of White Paper Games.

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