In the study of English Literature, you’ll often hear us talk about the difference between description and analysis. Description is when you’re essentially just repeating parts of the plot – it’s kinda just summarizing, if you like. Analysis, on the other hand, is when you put a text under a particular lens and make it do interesting shit. If we put a Freudian lens over Hamlet, we might notice that Hamlet’s hatred for his uncle, Claudius, is a sort of displaced Oedipal hatred for his father. That’s a way of getting meaning out of the text – it explains something about why Hamlet is doing what he’s doing. It gives a particular meaning to the text – a nonsense meaning, in this case, but still meaning.
The problem with talking about video games, then, is that in many ways we still don’t have a fully functional lens. There are moments where it seems like meaning exists, but we lack the framework for talking about it. Take ISLANDERS. There’s something in there, some fascinating little gem – but it’s unspeakable. We don’t have the framework to fully express what it means. We just don’t have the language. And when we’re in that situation, what we end up with is basically just description. That’s what we have here today.
ISLANDERS is a city-builder where you’re trying to earn points. You’re given a pack of buildings, which you place strategically for points to unlock the next pack of buildings, and repeat. If you don’t make enough points to reach the next unlock-stage, the game is over – unless you’ve built up enough points overall to progress to the next island. When you choose to progress, your current island is lost and you’ll never see it again – which, by the way, is fucking sad. I put so much into those little fucking cities and they all just vanish into the mist.
And that’s basically it. The game doesn’t get much more complicated than that – just going through a bunch of islands, creating these cities, and then moving on. It’s compelling, in its own weird way, and – I’m not sure why. But there’s something in there. For a while now, I’ve been working around the idea of spatiality in video games. I’ve been approaching it from a narrative lens, because that’s my background, and I’ve had some success with that. There are some games where space is linked into narrative in a really productive way. But with ISLANDERS, there isn’t any narrative to speak of. It’s closer to chess than it is to Dear Esther. And that’s what I can’t get my head around. The space in ISLANDERS is clearly doing something interesting, but I’m not convinced I have the intellectual resources to talk about what it is.
Let’s start with some description, just in the meantime. ISLANDERS is a game about the spatial relationships between things. For instance, in the image above, I’m preparing to place my first building on a new island. The building is a Lumberjack: it gains one point for each tree within its sphere of influence. I have two Lumberjacks to place from this first pack of buildings, and one Sawmill. The Sawmill gains seven points for each Lumberjack within its sphere, and further points for other buildings, such as Warehouses or Statues. It also loses points for any other Sawmills that fall within its sphere. The same goes for Lumberjacks: they also lose points for any other Lumberjack within the sphere of influence. It’s all meant to reflect a wider set of economic processes. Lumberjacks cut down trees, and if too many are in the same area, tree-cutting operates with reduced efficiency. There are too many Lumber-cooks, and they are spoiling the sawdust broth. The same rationale applies to Sawmills.
However, not all buildings demand distance from others of the same type. Both Houses and Mansions provide increasing rewards for close-knit uniformity. You end up with suburbs, huge clusters of housing to maximize points. And then other buildings feed into that at higher levels, offering staggering numbers in reward for that extended clustering process. Circuses, Taverns, Jewellers, and a few other buildings all work best when placed near closely grouped housing.
To preserve the aesthetic emphasis of the game, the duller, more pragmatic elements of city planning have been stripped out. You can mine and log with impunity: resources are inexhaustible. Humans, too, have largely disappeared from the picture – the city exists, but there are no roads, no cars, no little people walking around. Issues of livability give way entirely to aesthetic concerns.
What you end up with, then, is a spatial aesthetic of proximity and distance. It’s almost like watching the interplay between magnetic fields – buildings slide in and out, rotate around each other, all depending on their various relationships. Some buildings fit together in larger conceptual clusters, like the individual notes of a chord. The city becomes a spatial opera, logistics an expression of musical harmony. Each new start is energised by the randomly generated geographical constraints of a new island; the cities here are responses to unique environments, rather than the slightly deflated cities stemming from the wide, flat, uniform plains of SimCity or Cities: Skylines. One never plays ISLANDERS the same way twice.
The sense of impermanence around the whole thing only adds to the game’s musical qualities. For a spatial game, ISLANDERS is weirdly temporal. You play with an island for a certain amount of time, maybe shorter, maybe longer, and then it finishes, and you move on. You will never play that island’s song again. Contrast again the structures of SimCity or what have you, where you can save and reload from various stages, tinkering with a city more or less forever. ISLANDERS understands the value of an ending. Endings are sad, in a satisfying way. They reflect our real experiences. All these cities, these buildings, these harmonic resonances wired across the web of structures – they won’t last forever. And ultimately, neither will we.