I feel like a lot of my opinions about games are built around the fact that I don’t like SimCity. I don’t enjoy the flat, affectless terrain; I don’t like being given a field and being told to go build something. I feel similarly about Cities: Skylines – all those sandbox creation games, really. I much prefer Satisfactory, where you’re exploring this new world and managing resource production – building towards something, towards a goal that’s already given. Sandbox games are all push and no pull. I prefer seeing the systems that emerge in response to a game tugging you in a particular direction. I still think quite fondly about ISLANDERS, for instance. ISLANDERS is a game about receiving packets of buildings and figuring out where to put them. Rather than working on a blank slate, you are constrained by the packets you receive and by the distribution of elements in the environment. The city that emerges at the end of this process feels far more real – it’s not a city designed from the top down, grown under sterile laboratory conditions. It’s a city that emerges over time, messily, through the interaction of different needs. It emerges from the strictures of geography, from the distribution of resources, from the two-way relationships between new and existing industries and building types. Games like SimCity offer a sophisticated, cerebral laundry list of urban infrastructure, to the point where real city planners have been caught using screenshots from these games in their work. ISLANDERS, though mechanically simpler, has more to say about how cities actually grow.
This week, then, we’re looking at Dorfromantik, a 2021 game from Toukana Interactive. Like ISLANDERS, it’s a minimalist city-builder with a cute indie aesthetic. It shares ISLANDERS’ understanding of cities as emergent spaces, as spaces of the multiple, the conflicted, the variant. It understands that a city space isn’t something you orchestrate, down to every final detail – it’s rather something that sneaks up on you as a consequence of hundreds of thousands of individual interactions. Mechanically, Dorfromantik is a little different to ISLANDERS – it’s essentially hexagon dominoes. There are different types of terrain (fields, trees, houses), and you get points and additional tiles by matching like with like. I want to focus on Dorfromantik as a counterbalance to the argument about ISLANDERS sketched above. I think both these games achieve the same effect, but Dorf is different enough that we have to revise the terms of the argument. The way we talked about ISLANDERS just doesn’t fit this game.
In the first place, for instance, Dorfromantik isn’t really a city-builder. It’s not urban. It’s pastoral. The name in its most literal sense translates to “village romanticization,” according to the developers – it’s a game about the “idealized, romanticized depiction” of rural areas of Germany and Switzerland. As mentioned above, the common environment types are things like trees, wheat fields, rivers and grassy plains. The built environment never becomes more complex than a scattering of houses and train tracks. ISLANDERS, while arguably not that urban either, is still much more specifically built around the interactions between different types of buildings. You have lumberjacks, sawmills, markets, circuses, temples, houses, mansions, city centers, giant floating hot air balloons – all of which interact in different ways. Plus, as seen in the ISLANDERS image above, there are times when your island can start to feel crowded. It’s possible to stuff these things to bursting – you get to the point where you can’t even look at the image without feeling jostling elbows. Dorfromantik never has that feeling. It doesn’t care about the interplay of industry and housing. It doesn’t care about the urban ecosystem. But where these games meet is in their decision to depict our lived environment as something that emerges from the interactions of different forces and constraints. In ISLANDERS, you don’t control the order in which new packets are generated. In Dorfromantik, you don’t control the order that the tiles turn up in, or what’s on them when they arrive. There is a sense of co-development, of space as shared and mutual and codetermined.
This basic rule of codetermination I think captures the underlying principle of both games. The difference to games like SimCity and Cities: Skylines is stark – there the principle is that of the architect’s drafting board, while here is something organic, something messier. This codetermination extends beyond even something like Satisfactory – in that game, the player is confronted by a constant opposition between nature and industry. Your production line is superimposed on top of the native landscape. There is no sense of harmony, of mutuality; one is drawn out, reshaped and exploited by the other. There is no sense of co-creation: the relationship is that of master and slave. We have to be careful with these distinctions, which do become quite subtle – couldn’t we argue, for instance, that ISLANDERS also has you superimpose your will on the natural environment? You go to an island that already exists and plonk down a bunch of buildings. That sounds closer to Satisfactory than Dorfromantik, which has you build up the natural environment from scratch, starting from a single tile.
In some ways this argument illustrates the division made above – ISLANDERS is a game about cities, while Dorfromantik is interested in the countryside. Dorf does allow you to engage in co-building the natural environment in a way that ISLANDERS doesn’t. But Satisfactory is at another remove again: it relies heavily on a range of colonial tropes and mechanisms. There is the very explorers-in-Africa trope of fighting off dangerous wild beasts to get to precious resources; and then when you take resources out of the land, you ship them off-world via the space elevator. It’s a game about asset stripping, about the Scramble for Africa. ISLANDERS doesn’t have any of that heritage. It does accentuate the distinction between built and natural environment, but it still operates under a basic principle of codetermination. Satisfactory locks off certain types of machinery so that over time you can become more efficient at ravaging the land. ISLANDERS and Dorfromantik hide future tiles or future packets of buildings to create the sense of a place unfolding over time, to show how its future state blossoms out of the individual decisions before it. Land and architecture come together not as opponents, not as master and slave, but as cohabitants in a shared future. Again, it’s a subtle distinction. There are points of contact that confuse the matter. But I think the clearest difference can be seen in their various end states. When Satisfactory comes to an end, it’s because you’ve taken away a certain amount of stuff. The built space is is almost exclusively that of the production line. Your victory is in what you took from that place. In ISLANDERS and Dorfromantik, the victory is in how that place unfolded while you were there.