What’s the meaning of a game? Is it the essentially human nature of interaction? The intricacies of the universe’s fundamental laws? What does it mean to be human? What is the universe? What’s the meaning of life? These are the questions Islanders Console Edition came to us to answer. Woah.
In Islanders, you build mellow settlements on tranquil islands. You do this by placing serene buildings so that the right kinds of chilled-out things group together. Houses for example, benefit from proximity to things like markets and circuses. Unlike in city sims, you don’t lay infrastructure – no tarmac, no cables or pipes, no zoning – and there is randomness determining which structures are available to place at any time.
Your settlements don’t generate any revenue and there are no citizens to keep happy. Your choice of location for each building just earns points at the time you place it. Good placements score well and open up opportunities for later placements to score well – if the right buildings come along. Score high enough and more buildings are unlocked. Settle enough of a township and you can whisk yourself off to a new island.
The playing experience is more Tetris than SimCity: finding the best arrangement for the pieces that arrive, setting yourself up for the key piece to deliver that big score. However, there’s no increasing tempo, no inevitable descent of piece after piece. Islanders progresses only when you decide you want it to, after idly surveying your island for the ideal spot for a seaweed farm.
Islanders is at home on Switch. Its low-polygon style looks fantastic docked or handheld – staying smooth even as you fill up the island – and the interface suits TV or portable play. Grizzly Games told Nintendo Life this month, “We really hope somebody gets to play Islanders Console Edition on a deserted island under a palm tree someday”. Well, brace yourselves because we went one better and tested it whilst looking at a tree (non-palm) from a window on a rainy day in Coventry. It really is a go-anywhere game.
While Islanders works for short sessions, each high score run can take several hours in total. Having to finally go back to zero doesn’t hurt too much, though: you can see the end coming, and let it happen when you’re ready.
After putting in those long hours, the game’s systems become entirely transparent. Rather than building towns, the play experience consists of feeling around for the right pixel coordinates to achieve just one more point before moving onto the next piece. You’re thinking at the level of individual pixels but, over time, a gorgeous, ramshackle habitat consumes your whole island. It’s at once bitesize and epic.
Islanders is an elucidation of how games build meaning from abstract systems. However, more than that elucidation, Islanders gave us the time to ponder. It’s a repetitive, extended, calming experience that uses just enough power of just narrow enough a collection of faculties to induce a half-aware presence in reality. Which is when you think up all the dumbest questions: could it be that contemplating the meaning of life is the meaning of life? Woah.