During this weird and stressful times, being more of us play video games than ever before. For some, the high-octane shooter offers liberation, with the worries of the day disappearing alongside the cacophonous explosion of virtual matter; for others, adrenaline-pumping sports titles are enough. But for players who want their heart rate to go up down rather than up, there’s a growing number of games that put quiet and no-nonsense tinkering to the fore. An overhead view, softly oscillating music and the careful placement of buildings accompanied by a satisfyingly tactile plonk – these are the hallmarks of a serene and minimalist take on the so-called city builder.
The rationale is simple: what if you simplified the classic city-building game (SimCity, for example), even going so far as to split it from real citizens? What if it had beautiful buildings, just for the sake of beautiful buildings, sprouting naturally from virtual rocks, grassland and water? The cumulative effects of these what-ifs have fused into a series of trance-like gaming experiences over the past few years; slow-growing cities soothe the mind and relieve stress in a way that’s less hectic at all than blockbuster action titles.
islanders arrived in 2019, followed by Cityscape, Cloud Gardens, and Dorfromantik, one is just like the other, but shares a dedication to cleaning up the clutter and perhaps turning the city planning commonly found in video games on its head. Via Zoom, Paul Schnepf, a third of islanders development team, describes his playing as a distillate of the ‘fantasy’ offered by series like Year and Age of Empires– the way they allow you to build your own empire or kingdom, to ‘be the god of your own little world’. But at least to the casual observer, these games of long-term civilization progression are often unfathomably complex, filled with elaborate (not to mention exhausting) production chains and the micro-management of resources. islanders is a graceful reprieve from such demands, designed to be played in light-hearted 20-minute bursts.
Fire up the streamlined game and you’ll be presented with a small landmass surrounded by turquoise water. Maybe you’re building a seaweed farm or sawmill, where their placement in the landscape is accompanied by fluttering numbers in the bottom left corner of the screen. islanders isn’t completely devoid of numbers, but it refocuses them around a simple puzzle game: create a pretty island, earn points, move on to the next – an archipelago loop that feels like daydreaming on a beach. Of course, there’s always a sandbox mode, which makes the core city building core even more chilling; there is no score to worry about, just aesthetics.
Perhaps remarkable, considering its certainly polished form, islanders is the product of a bachelor’s degree at HBO HTW Berlin. In fact, this is the same university that Dorfromantik two years later, the two small studios were created that were informally involved in each other’s work. Like it islanders, Dorfromantik the city builder is reimagined as a puzzle game, albeit with a more obvious debt to tabletop strategy titles like Carcassonne and Settlers of Catan. It trades clean minimalism for a cozier, hand-drawn aesthetic that borders on cottagecore. Quaint villages, steamboat-filled waterways, and fields of golden corn stretch organically across hexagonal tile pieces like a rural, antebellum vision of Europe.