I was a paranoid, hypochondriac child, and when the Second Gulf War broke out in 2003 I was convinced that Iraq was going to bomb the UK. “They don’t have planes that could reach that far,” my father assured. “Besides, they wouldn’t come near us. We’re in the middle of nowhere.”
His words replayed in my head as I explored Yaughton, the fictional village of Everybody’s Gone to the Rapture, this summer. Situated in the real county of Shropshire, West Midlands, it’s heavily based on the rural England in which I grew up, comprising wheat fields, a small pub, a church, and a village hall. Even paltry details, like the signage and the design of the park benches, are replicated from middle-of-nowhere places familiar to me, villages and small towns like Packington, Ibstock, Normanton and Rangemore. But in Rapture, Yaughton, disturbingly, despite its isolation, is not saved from apocalypse.
Having been raised in a place like it, variously assured that any war or global disaster would never extend to a location so mundane, the destruction or at least the quiet end of Yaughton seems to me much more frightening than the typical apocalypse movie shots of the Eiffel Tower exploding, or crowds of people running from something barreling down a doomed New York City avenue. Thanks to popular culture, which too often trades in disastrous spectacle, we expect doomsday to arrive at cities and landmarks. But more frightening is the idea of an apocalypse so total that it reaches the people of landlocked islands like Yaughton. If even this place is gone, the world truly must be over.
Not that the geography of Yaughton is an exact or even particularly close recreation of the actual West Midlands. The aforementioned token signifiers—church, pub, fields, signs, benches—are there, but the boundaries of the village are far too large and the buildings too sparse to pass as a credible facsimile. Bucknell, one of Shropshire’s smaller villages, by reckoning of the 2011 census, houses 717 people across roughly 300 dwellings. So while they congregate in the church and the pub, the people of Yaughton seem to have nowhere to live—compared to real world places on which it is based, the village has an impossible lack of housing.
Plus the roads are too long, and the space between each building is too great. It’s a mistranslation in realistic topography that actually plagues a lot of video games. Where, for example, do the many thousands of people in the world of Red Dead Redemption lay their hats? How can Solitude be the capital of Skyrim when it contains so few buildings, and the majority of those are shops and bars?
Despite some convincing details, Yaughton is every bit the video-game-world. The English village is artificially enlarged to accommodate the player’s enthusiasm for traversal and exploration, and intriguing public places, like churches, bars, garages and holiday camps are given spatial precedent over private houses. English villages both look like and do not look like Yaughton. Just as the New York City of Grand Theft Auto IV (or the Los Angeles of Grand Theft Auto V, for that matter) are condensed, simplified and caricatured facsimiles, Yaughton and Everybody’s Gone to the Rapture are more interested in the tone of rural England than geographical fidelity. And in an effort to capture that tone, the characters (or rather the ghosts of the characters) that you encounter in Rapture are standoffish and untrusting of each another—although, to be fair, that part is pretty much accurate.
Growing up, if I spent what was apparently too much time in one part of the village, I was approached by another local and asked what I was doing there. While standing on public ground taking pictures for this article, I noticed a woman on the far side of a fence staring at me. She was still there as I left. Rapture’s Yaughton is a pleasant looking place, but like a lot of English villages, the attitudes of the people living there are provincial and suspicious. The characters bicker. They have petty grievances with one another. Particularly true is the animosity between the young priest, Jeremy, and one of his parishioners, Wendy, who’s unhappy about his appointment. Especially when I was a child, and due to implicit disgruntlement within the community, we seemed to get through about one vicar per year.
And then there was the Andrews’ house. Everyone complained about the Andrews’ house, it being so large and ostentatious. But at the pub, which was also owned by the Andrews family, and often where they’d go to drink, those same complainers turned obsequious. The bitching would only occur behind Mr. Andrews’ back. Everybody’s Gone to the Rapture is a badly written game—in the vein of an uninteresting British soap opera, it’s revealed that Wendy’s resentment towards Jeremy stems from his euthanising of her terminally-ill sister-in-law Mary. But it attempts to capture at least one truth about country life, the small, incestuous dramas that emerge between people living close to each other, who have nothing better to do than spy on their neighbours.
Yaughton—like the balls of light that in the game are its only remaining inhabitants, mere traces of people—is the essence, rather than a replication of, an English village. Everybody’s Gone to the Rapture’s shrewd details and squabbling characters provide a scrapbook sense of rurality, but the game, like a lot of the UK’s internationally sold entertainment, is concerned more with exporting digestible “Britishness.” Yaughton is a pretty little place filled with pretty little balls of light, all of which relay pretty little stories.
The apocalypse itself, though terrifying in its completeness, is brisk and inoffensive—everyone quietly dies, turns to dust then returns as a fairy. This is the kind of twee and sapid illustration of Britain that makes shows like Downton Abbey successful abroad. Britain is a saccharine, rustic and gentrified country, goes the global myth. The British themselves are so imbued with decorum that even the end of days is greeted mildly—without much destruction at all, Yaughton simply, prestigiously ceases.
Even growing up in the picturesque confines of a converted farmhouse, next to a small stream, on the same street as my primary school, I was terrified by the idea of a doomsday. It is terrifying. It’s one of the worst things to imagine. Yet Yaughton, prettified, peaceful and ornate, suggests almost a yearning for the end of the world. Everybody’s Gone to the Rapture’s visual luster—the very way you interact with the game—is facilitated by an absence of people. There’s a perverse implication that the world is somehow more beautiful, more magical to explore now that everyone is dead. I never imagined the apocalypse that way. Confrontational as they could be, when I was growing up in a village like Yaughton, it was the people who, in my hypochondria, I feared for. They weren’t separated from the location—I couldn’t appreciate that place without also caring about those people. The balls of light you encounter in Yaughton are not people. They’re another example of video games boiling people down to their simplest, basest components.
If Everybody’s Gone to the Rapture has any love for the English village, in my experience of growing up there and worrying about the end of the world, it’s a warped love, a love for geography and buildings over humans and experiences.
Ed Smith is a writer from the UK. You can find him on Twitter @mostsincerelyed.
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