A new indie gaming movement rejects the usual adrenalin ride in favour of a more peaceful serenity. They treasure what’s calm and invite users in to escape not the mundanity of reality, but rather its overload of drama and chaos.
A formless void and darkness across the face of the deep – where better to start? If it works for God … But this void isn’t a screaming nightmare of bottomless chaos. It’s a pleasant, comforting sort of void, like the frame of a peaceful dream. There’s a gentle musical cue, no more than a sprinkling of soft notes. And the game begins.
If it can be called a game, that is, and that might be debatable. But the comforting void is obviously important. Townscaper begins with an open ocean as flat and calm as a snooker table. Cloud Gardens unfolds its tendrils of enjoyment in a deep bed of sunset-tinged cloud, as befits its name. Islanders has both – we fly to our destination through thick fog, and find it in a gently lapping sea. Wherever we are, it’s away from everything else, safely embedded in that pillowy nothingness. Somewhere – a space we craft and shape for ourselves – we can relax.
These are all computer games – but they’re also somehow more than that by virtue of being less than that. The legendary games designer Will Wright, creator of SimCity, draws a distinction between computer games and computer toys. A game has challenges, jeopardy, progress, goals. A toy, meanwhile, is just fun in itself – you can play with it, tinker with it, or simply watch it run, without a particular end in mind. The great strength of SimCity was that it could be played as a game, but at heart it was a toy.
Wright’s game/toy distinction makes it easier to understand Oskar Stålberg’s Townscaper (2020). There is no purpose to Townscaper. There are no tasks to perform, nothing must be earned and nothing is at stake. The player is plonked in the middle of a boundless yet placid ocean, and click by click can build up a little settlement using simple architectural blocks.
The games term for an open-ended experience like Townscaper is a ‘sandbox’, but in some ways it’s more of a paintbox. The enjoyment it creates is purely aesthetic, both in the moment-to-moment satisfaction as blocks are added and removed and the results change, in the cumulative effect of those decisions, and (if you please) in the pleasure of working towards a self-imposed design goal.
What Townscaper provides is relaxation. It’s an immensely calming and peaceful game. As such it fits into a curious but expanding niche of what might be called architectural soothe-’em-ups: indie games that use construction and built space to consciously calming effect – little corners of peaceful control and gentleness in a fraught world.
Islanders (Grizzly Games), for instance, is on the surface a fairly normal city-building game. You have a small, colourful island with a stepped landscape, attractive vegetation and perhaps an enigmatic ruin or two. On this you build a simple settlement. It’s not a simulation – your city does not live. Instead you accumulate points depending on where exactly you place your brightly stuccoed, slant-sided buildings. Some building types like to be grouped together – houses will score more next to other houses, fields get bonuses for being next to windmills and so on. Others have negative effects: shamans want to be away from urban centres and amid nature. Quaint hugger-mugger placement will score better than spacious Grand Manner planning. It is a generator not of civic majesty or economic life, but the picturesque.
Islanders is recognizably a game, against the pure paintbox that is Townscaper. Cloud Gardens (Noio) is harder to place. You are presented with a floating cube of land, on which rests a corner of ruined urban fabric: a rusting billboard and chain-link fence on a patch of stained parking lot, for instance, rendered in a nice, lo-fi, pixelly style. On this, you grow weeds. That’s almost all there is. Their growth can be stimulated by dropping bits of urban detritus, such as tyres, empty bottles and signposts, around them. The abandonment and desuetude of the game environments gives them a melancholy, post-apocalyptic feel, but it’s not a downer.
On one level the appeal of the soothe-’em-up is fairly obvious: they provide moments of respite in an increasingly fraught world. Though none of them have been made with a pandemic obviously in mind, they are ideal lockdown games. But games in general offer escape and stress release, even the high-adrenalin ones. They always have done. The qualities that soothe-’em-ups share suggest a deeper connection. They are architectural bonsai, miniaturist aesthetic pursuits. And in a time of upheaval and dread, they offer a wholesome corner of control.
by Will Wiles