Chill. Serene. Relaxing.
All words I would use to describe Islanders, a stripped-to-the-bones city builder game released on Steam a few weeks back. It’s a game all about filling a tiny island with aesthetically pleasing buildings, marvelling at your work for a fleeting moment, then moving on to a new island. There’s no need to worry about transport, or waste, or taxes - the only meter present is points, and when you have enough, new buildings are plopped into your inventory. Build out your island, earn points, move on.
A score based city builder with a nice visual style and chill tunes, that doesn’t rush you and reduces many of the barriers that hinder people inexperienced with the genre. What’s not to like?
(Before we go any further, I do want to point out - I really like this game. It’s well made, it’s got a fun hook, It really is pleasing visually and orally, and there’s a certain satisfaction in leaning back and looking at how the last 30 minutes have produced this individually distinctive mish mash of construction. You should definitely play it if it sounds up your alley! It’s extremely cheap too, which is always a bonus.)
Despite the lovely visage and tranquil soundscape, there’s something slightly malignant beneath the facade. It’s something about this game, which goes out to city builders in general really, that underscores a deeper issue with the idea of how progress is measured, and what success and failure really implies in these types of experiences.
In distilling the city builder down to its essence - removing the tension built out of a need to worry about time or money - the fundamental design of the genre is laid bare. Much like a virus overrunning & consuming everything in its path, city builders present humanity as a continuous never-ending death march of expansion. Nothing can stand in the way of progress. There is only one choice: expand and thrive, or stagnate and perish.
So what happens when there is no more room, no more space to expand? In Islanders, the player simply waves goodbye to the once nature-exclusive land, moves on to a new place to start again.
First, only a little… then a lot… then finally, all, is consumed by your architecture. Another peaceful place becomes a whirlwind of industry. Houses and huts and mansions are packed together as tight as possible. Fishers and lumberjacks and stonemasons imply a devouring of natural resources. Markets and temples and holiday resorts loom large over the landscape. Where trees and rock formations once sat in perpetuity, farms and hop fields propagate.
In less than an hour, the island in front of you has been transformed from an untouched paradise to an overburdened society. For what purpose? Is it all just to gain points; build more wealth? The heart of Islanders is a high-score based system, complete with worldwide leaderboards. Is it simply to compare yourself to others? After 3 different playthroughs I am ranked #2991, meaning there are 2990 that have more, that filled these islands more efficiently.
To be fair, Islanders does allow a little wiggle room - buildings don’t strictly have to placed perfectly, at least in the beginning - but that idea diminishes rather quickly the further along the point path you go. Continuing to succeed means making the most of the tools in front of you; failure means you made a mistake in your planning, and you could have gotten more out of the finite resources you were presented. It’s all about maximising profit from minimal investment.
That’s the crux of the ideology on display here - if you want to win, you must play efficiently. Buildings laid out in a more pleasurable manner propose lost opportunity. Structures only gain bonuses from others that are within a certain radius, encouraging pixel perfect jamming of as much together as possible. Don’t let a single iota of space be wasted, lest you fail on your quest for more.
Your options for play are ultimately limited, even if you wanted to push back on that notion. There is no free mode with unlimited buildings for creating your own ideal island. You can only follow the path set out for you, building more and more until you can no longer. It’s that, or stop, and stagnate.
And when you do stop, there is nothing left for you to do. Nothing but stop and stare at the pretty thing in front of you.