Someone made an RPG that made my hometown out to be a grotty drug-infested cesspit. So, I asked all the locals what they thought of it.
I live in an area of Dorset best known for sinking millions of pounds into developing a surf reef that, if anything, inhibited the production of good surfing waves. It's nestled in between the tourist hotspot of Bournemouth and the Sandbanks Peninsula, which is one of the world’s most expensive places to live. Considering its neighbours’ status as desirable places to live, it's probably not a surprise that the place I consider home is looked down upon by those nearby as notoriously undesirable. Despite that, I've always been proud to live in Boscombe.
It’s an area most often overlooked entirely, so I was caught off guard when I discovered someone had used RPG Maker to create a game set not in the sunny town of Bournemouth but in my nearby home. It was called Boscombe: The RPG. I crossed my fingers and booted it up hoping to see some of the landmarks I've grown to love. Sadly, it was pretty clear that this RPG, and whoever made it, were not afflicted with my nostalgia for the area.
“This is your home, the place where you grew up. It is also a place full of Chavs, Crackheads, Whores and Drug Dealers. Not that you can pass judgement”.
From the very opening moments I knew this wasn't going to be a game about MY Boscombe, but more focused on a version of Boscombe that to my knowledge only existed as an image in the heads of the particularly well-off. It's full of all the familiar landmarks I've grown up with, but every one of them is twisted so that it no longer looks like anything resembling reality.
In Boscombe: The RPG, Boscombe is a place that nobody would ever choose to live in. It's an area of poverty, devoid of purpose and only there to be escaped. If you live in Boscombe, it's only because you've not made enough money dealing drugs to move away yet. The game has drug addicts asking you for weed in practically every shop, you'll get attacked by vicious dogs without warning and there are seedy brothels on the high street staffed by sex workers who appear to be children due to lazy design on the part of the game’s developer. Getting a tattoo is likely to get you a fatal infection; police rob you of your money on a regular basis; every local business has some link to drugs, sex work or, at best, poor service.
This is not the Boscombe I've lived my life in.
The game opens up inside Pokesdown Train Station, covered in anarchist graffiti and filled with people either attempting to buy drugs or angrily shouting about late trains. Back in the real world the station does contain a large wall of “urban art”, but it’s a commissioned depiction of the area’s history. Sure, it could do with a little upkeep, but what small town station isn't a little under-loved?
From the vintage clothing store Clobber (Clobbah in game) to the tiny little Asian Food Store just off the high street (with the sweetest owner I've had the pleasure to speak to), several small local businesses appear in the game in ways that don't remotely line up with my experiences of them. In-game, The Asian Food Store is run by a white man who sells typically English foods alongside heroin. Clobber is weirdly suggested to sell Superdry hoodies, which seems to clash a little with its real-world status as a vintage clothing store. Generally the game is made up of locations that steal a name or thematic idea from a real world small local business, but the resemblance ends there. Boscombe: The RPG twists them into something I barely recognise.
The worst victim is Scribe, a tattoo parlour and piercings store next door to the train station, cunningly referred to in-game as Scribed. In Boscombe: The RPG it's depicted as being a literal hive of infection and poor practices. You speak to someone twitching by the counter who has just had a tattoo and he talks about how inflamed, infected and swollen the tattoo is becoming before literally exploding from the force of the infection. If you buy a tattoo in game you'll instantly be notified that your tattoo is infected and you'll have to go seek medical help or your character will die pretty quickly. (As it happens my mum is a customer of Scribe - she’s never had anything but glowing things to say about them.)
I reached out to Caroline, the owner of Scribe, who was shocked to learn about Scribe's depiction in Boscombe: The RPG. The developer never attempted to make contact with her pre or post release; she’s now speaking to her solicitor about whether she has grounds to pursue action for libel or defamation.
I took a little time recently to sit down and chat with the game's creator Bert Burnell, a 27-year-old events organiser who has lived most of his life in the town. Eager to learn a little about the kind of person who would create a game depicting Boscombe this way, the only thing I was really able to learn directly from our interview was that he is a member of SHIT (The Band), known best for their beautifully titled track The Rape Song. All I really got from him was a surname and the impression he wasn't necessarily the most traditionally friendly person, but I didn't glean any real insights into his views of Boscombe.
One thing from his interview that did stand out to me was that I was sure I had seen his surname somewhere before in my research for this article. Following some digging, I later unearthed that he appears to be the nephew of a Mark Burnell, owner of the only local business I found that had legitimate reason to be linked to drug use in the game, The Hemporium. The Hemporium is a business that sells drug paraphernalia in real life, while very much making it clear they do not sell drugs.
In the game, though, The Hemporium is frequented by NPCs that make no secret of their drug use and sell substances including “Magic Steroids” to their customers. I did attempt to go into The Hemporium and request an interview with the owner, but my request was politely declined. I was not given a reason, nor could I get a clear indication of whether or not I was speaking directly to Mark Burnell. I confirmed the relationship between the two Burnells initially by viewing Facebook accounts that linked them, then approaching the topic with Bert who confirmed that they were uncle and nephew. I could not find out whether his uncle knows about his business being in the game or not, but it was certainly interesting to know that this RPG’s creator is viewing the town through the lens of someone whose life is likely closer to drug paraphernalia than the average person living in Boscombe.
I don’t have a problem with the idea of a satirical RPG, of course, even one about a place that’s dear to my heart. But Boscombe: The RPG picks on my home, a place I would defend to the death. I’m not blind; I know Boscombe can be a bit grotty in reality, but that’s not what I see when I look around the area. I see all the hard working wonderful businesses run by genuinely lovely people, I see happy memories of my childhood. I see a fundamentally different Boscombe to the one Bert Burnell apparently sees. It doesn’t really matter in the end which of us is closer to a hypothetically true view of Boscombe: this is where I grew up, and it’s home to plenty of other people, too. To me, erasing everything beautiful and valuable about the area feels like a needless attack.
We all love our hometowns (well, most of us, anyway). I don’t like the thought of people playing the Boscombe RPG and having that as their only reference point, their only idea of what the area is like. I want to go out there and prove that there is beauty to be found here.
After all, it’s my home.