During these strange and in times of stress, more of us than ever before are playing video games. For some, the high-octane shooter offers liberation, the anxieties of the day dissipating alongside the cacophonous explosion of virtual matter; for others, adrenaline-pumping sports titles do the trick. But for gamers who want their heart rate to go down rather than increasing, there’s a growing crop of games that feature quiet, no-frills DIY. Top-down view, gently swaying music, and the careful placement of buildings accompanied by a pleasantly tactile plonk – these are the hallmarks of a serene, minimalist approach to the so-called city builder.
The reasoning is simple: what if you simplify the classic city building game (Simcity, for example), even going so far as to split it into real citizens? What if there were beautiful buildings just for beautiful buildings, naturally springing from virtual rock, meadows and water? The cumulative effects of these assumptions have melted into a series of trance-like game experiences in recent years; the slowly expanding cities cradle the mind, relieving stress in a way quite less frenetic than blockbuster action titles.
Islanders arrived in 2019, followed by Landscaper, Cloud gardens, and Dorfromantik, none are precisely alike but share a desire to declutter, and perhaps shake up the urbanism that is usually found in video games. On Zoom, Paul Schnepf, a third of islanders development team, describes their game as a compendium of the “fantasy” offered by series such as Anno and Age of empires– the way they allow you to build your own kingdom or kingdom, to “be the god of your own little world”. But to the casual observer at least, these games of long-term civilizational progression are often of impenetrable complexity, filled with extended (if not exhausting) production chains and micro-management of resources. Islanders is a merciful respite from such demands, designed to be played in windy gusts of 20 minutes.
Start the simplified game and you are presented with a small land mass surrounded by turquoise water. Maybe you are going to build a seaweed farm or a lumberyard, their placement on the landscape accompanied by numbers floating in the lower left corner of the screen. Islanders is not entirely devoid of numbers, but it redirects them around a simple puzzle game: create a pretty island, earn points, go to the next one, an archipelago loop that gives the impression of daydreaming on a Beach. Of course, there’s always the sandbox mode, which makes the game’s city-building core even cooler; there is no score to worry about, just the aesthetics.
Perhaps remarkably, given its undoubtedly polished form, Islanders is the product of an undergraduate program at the University of Applied Sciences HTW Berlin. In fact, it is the same university that Dorfromantik emerged two years later, the two small studios becoming informally involved in each other’s work. As Islanders, Dorfromantik is the city builder reimagined as a puzzle game, but with a more obvious debt to tabletop strategy titles like Carcassonne and Settlers of Catan. It swaps clean minimalism for a more comfortable and hand-drawn aesthetic, close to the cottagecore. Quaint villages, waterways filled with steamboats, and fields of golden corn organically stretch across hexagonal tile pieces like a bucolic vision of pre-war Europe.