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I Found A Hedgerow, Stationary In Air Like Water, Hung Like A Drowned Train

August 22, 2013

How an English landscape is grown and known; reproduced from the Big Robot website.

Of all the people who have ever written about the English landscape, and the trepanning pressure that such a landscape has on their own brain, distinct from everybody else’s, the most revelatory, and devoid of mawkishness, is the poet Ted Hughes. I have adored him ever since I found my mother’s copy of Crow, the cover dominated by the unshaved talons of the titular bird, picked out in Scarfe-like ink, and turning to a page at random read my first of his phrases; “utility coat of muscles”. How could I not love him, after that divining glance?

As only a cursory glance at both of us will satisfy, I have climbed up by his impressive tail and into my own writing. There are certainly differences; I wish that I was knapped out of chert like he was, saturnine like an idol. Every time I read my work or his aloud I stove in the words with a hobnailed, patent tongue, all London consonants and Oxford vowels. Listening to him read his poetry on record, his tongue was like a fishtail, or the paw of an otter, wet and clever and naughty. As a Yorkshireman and, later, a long-time inhabitant of England’s wisdom-tooth counties in the South West, he perhaps understood better than any other the length and breadth of the various British landscapes, and what gave them meaning and gestalt. Landscape, as any amateur psychogeographer worth his site-specific salt will attest, is a political, anecdotal, circumstantial, psychological and traumatic gumbo of stuff, far more than the sum of its parts. Hughes was intimate with that knowledge, and the quality of his work shows that; Seamus Heaney, also introduced to me through my mother’s ancient copy of North, dubbed him “a guardian spirit of the land and language”. Consider the following lines, the first-ever from his first-ever poem in his first-ever collection, The Hawk In The Rain:

I drown in the drumming ploughland, I drag up
Heel after heel from the swallowing of the earth’s mouth,
From clay that clutches my each step of the ankle
With the habit of the dogged grace, but the hawk
Effortlessly at height hangs his still eye.

A man, for all the controversy and the ease of forgetting in his own life, who was after my own heart, years before it had been germinated. His death in 1998 went past unnoticed, as I was only ten years old, and busy playing commissar to my brother’s comrade in the back garden. I would have mourned him, if I had known. A man who both loved and very rarely hated the English landscape, who could not really live without it. He was, by passion and topography, within it, much of the time. Through his art he compartmentalised it in a yet-vast breadth of life, a canon of work that weighs down the table next to me, as I type this. On paper it is thicker than my two arms. A man so divorced from machinery that did not require petrol, or the piston of a human foot, that he is more like an ettin, or an elemental, in my mind. I cannot even imagine him using a kettle; Hughes was not a man of high technology.

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Now, it is very typical, amongst contemporary commentators, to be assured of the fact that a historical figure would have “adored” a certain technology, had they only been alive to see it. Jane Austen would have loved Twitter, they say, Newton would have loved Wolfram Alpha, and Gilgamesh would have been a media-savvy archon, allowing himself to be papped leading Enkidu from the wilderness in a blacked-out Jeep.

I think this is a dreadful rhetorical tactic, but I am now going to make an assurance of my own; I think that Ted Hughes might have hated the idea of Sir, You Are Being Hunted, a videogame about upper-class robots where a new England is generated for every game, every stile, hedgerow, moor, tor, weald, ward, county and side of country calculated with mathematics. I think that he might have hated it because it conducts a bowdlerisation of what it means to stand in a field in England, a typically English field, and how to speak about it.

This is precisely where I cleave away from my maker, and get severely interested in what Big Robot Games are attempting here, what their attempt at a truly “local” exercise in procedurals denotes.

I am not writing this to preview Sir, You Are Being Hunted, or offer a critique on its “Stalkers and Walkers” aesthetic, or give much opinion on a game that I have only glimpsed in alpha, over the shoulder of somebody who has actually paid for it. What has interested me about this game is the phrase “procedural English landscape”, and how the accompanying philosophy to that phrase seeks to align a modern dichotomy; the generic outputs of procedural generation, and the colloquialism, and specificity, of a digital England, with a jolly big E.

I am also not seeking to compare the efforts of Big Robot and Ted Hughes side-by-side, or ask which is superior. You will have your own, most likely guessable, conclusions on this matter.

Hughes often focusses on an apolitical, personal, subjective view of landscape. Another poem, this time “The Thought Fox”, a confluence of the writer and a vulpine immigrant:

I imagine this midnight moment’s forest:
Something else is alive
Beside the clock’s loneliness
And this blank page where my fingers move.

Through the window I see no star:
Something more near
Though deeper within darkness
Is entering the loneliness:

Cold, delicately as the dark snow
A fox’s nose touches twig, leaf;
Two eyes serve a movement, that now
And again now, and now, and now

Sets neat prints into the snow
Between trees, and warily a lame
Shadow lags by stump and in hollow
Of a body that is bold to come

Across clearings, an eye,
A widening deepening greenness,
Brilliantly, concentratedly,
Coming about its own business

Till, with a sudden sharp hot stink of fox
It enters the dark hole of the head.
The window is starless still; the clock ticks,
The page is printed.

Though no specific landmarks are mentioned here (as in many other of his poems), Hughes here conflates his process with his inspiration, that view, that night, just outside the window, in an England full of its own semiology. His self-generation of England is directly connected to his experience of it, interpreted through the gaseous, widening influence of the brain. This is where procedural generation and specific art concerning landscape, personal to the author, comes into contact; both are imperfect semiological systems. In his book Mythologies, a collection of essays concerning the symbolic significance of mass culture, the French philosopher and cultural commentator Roland Barthes wrote about the differences between the sign, signified and signifier; how the representation of something is different from the meaning of something, and how to measure that difference. Barthes uses examples as diverse as soap adverts, professional wrestling and a patriotic photograph of an Algerian soldier to discuss his views, but the concept of “the English landscape” will do for our purposes just as well.

In poetry and in algorithm, the landscape of a place has its signified and signifier very close together; without descending into psychogeographical masturbation, the landscape as it is and the landscape as we represent it are close, but not the same. One is distilled from the other. So, we see that both poetry, Hughes’ chosen form, and computer maths backed by artistic direction, use abstraction to create a “personal” view of landscape.

Now, I am aware that Sir, You Are Being Hunted takes a more ribald and at times atlanticised view of the English countryside; the ‘Englishness’ extends out from the dead trees, moorland, hedgerows, ambient soundscape and foul weather and into more political, humano-centric stereotypes, such as the passive-aggressive village signs (randomly generated, of course), the granite war memorials, the specifically English foodstuffs, the tweed, and the class-war paradigm between humans and robots.

I thought of Tess of the D’Urbervilles, Dickens, Austen, Withnail And I and indeed Hughes himself when poring through screenshots of the game, and it is likely, given the nature of the developers, that this is deliberate. The developers have stated that the game is a “mockery of the English country gent and his ecosystem”, and the the core mechanics certainly back up this claim; the player is a human, hunted for sport across Hebridean islands by upper-class robots, utilising stealth, scavenging and manipulation of the classist paradigm to survive. It skewers English inherited privilege quite nicely indeed, and the introduction of middle-class “squires”, as well as numerous peasant non-combatants, could create an environment of which the player is only a small part. However, such a political message requires a stage to set it, and this what the splatmaps and Voronoi diagrams and almost-endless coding provides; a billion billion different stews, of all the ingredients that make England English.

This coding provides the game’s islands with hedgerows and walls which, in the real England, would be the product of thousands of years of land law and primogenital gerrymandering. It brings into being randomised villages whose roads would have been linked by utility, festival, tradition and desire over centuries. The algorithms are extremely elegant, nested one within the other; the islands themselves, and their fractal, eroded litorals, are dotted with towns, dotted with houses, their gardens, and each informed by the other, by a set of rules that will produce, unfailingly, until the internet’s wake, a googleplex Albions. And within each of these algorithms are qualities that paint the stones with moss, the trees without leaves, and the wind with its whistle.

I believe that these qualities are commonly called “lived-in-ness”.

They are one of the El Dorados of videogames; a set of systems that will artfully, and infinitely, create the signifiers of heritage in a gameworld.

Bethesda Softworks used Speedtree, a propritary flora-generation tool, as well as their own in-house technology, to create softly rolling wealds, skittish venery and rich copses of biologically appropriate species in their games Oblivion and Skyrim.

Minecraft utilises the concept of biomes to create worlds that give the loosest signification of true landscape, while creating a separate semiology all of its own.

And Sir, You Are Being Hunted loads, albeit very slowly, a new country with every boot, using Perlin noise and what they call “blurring and dithering”.

And so procedural generation creates, if not a different poetry, then its own take on the narrative co-opting of landscape. Though the technology was developed in the late 20th century as a solution to memory issues in the hardware, procedural generation has become a staggeringly popular tool in game development, and is an unpredictable, zesty component in the debate surrounding “ambient storytelling” and the way that games can herd narrative without becoming extremely attractive cattlegrids.

I do think that Hughes would have hated the process, perhaps seeing the most sacred of English traits, to be witnessed within their context and subsumed by their uniqueness, reduced to a series of sliders in a development suite, or patterns that can be replicated over and over again into nonsense. However, there is something telling about the developer’s focus. They begin their apologetic for their game with the words, “we live in the English countryside”. In these words, they become as valid interpreters as Hughes ever was. Whether they, and the technology, succeeds in telling an adequate story of English landscape remains to be seen; perhaps that is not their aim. I will still love Hughes more, but that is my prejudice. This game is, at least in its technology and direction, an inheritor of a literary tradition of abstracting one’s environment. The difference between it and Hughes’ oeuvre is one of method, not message. Hughes pulls the thought-fox from his head and lays the tools, one by one, down on the page. Big Robot lay the thought-fox in an orrery, containing the elements of Englishness in constellation with every other, and set the spheres turning. Of course, sometimes the spheres clash, and a village is drowned in a lake by faulty contour mapping, or a hedgerow hangs rootless twenty feet above the ground, but perhaps this is where the artistry lies; in the bug queue.