How the threat of chaos is ruining my will to play.
My hometown is said to be situated in a small valley. You don’t notice this if you’re walking or driving. But on a bicycle, you can notice an ever so slight decline.
Tearing down that road towards home one evening, I was keenly aware of a building entropy. The speed was exhilarating, but my lack of clear sight on the cars pulling out of roads and driveways to my right unnerved me. Barely managing the speed I was going at, I decided it was best not to risk whatever accident lay ahead.
Twenty or so years on, I’m feeling that same apprehension sat at my PC. This time, though, it’s slightly different. There’s no physical danger looming. But I feel my will to play building to the point of imminent collapse. And all I’m doing is deciding where to place this fountain in Islanders.
I need it close to the mansions and houses I’ve already built to maximise the points I’d get. But doing so would lock out that space for any buildings to come. One small miscalculation creates inefficient foundations for this entire island. One wrong move could spell disaster.
The island I’m placed on was empty to start with, until I was granted a choice between two sets of buildings. Placing these buildings with wild abandon has filled up the island nicely. They each have a sphere when deciding where to build them and anything within this sphere contributes to my points total either positively or negatively.
Shaman huts, for example, don’t like city centres but love houses. I’m tasked with building this island according to a very fine line of balance, keeping everything ordered and optimised with each placement.
Islanders, therefore, expects me to meet every goal it sets. At the bottom left of the screen, I’m treated to a delightful reminder of how far away from the required points total I am. With every successful ascension to the points summit I’m granted a new set of buildings and another goal… placed farther away, of course. Setting down the fountain for maximum points gave me a head start on the next goal, but where am I supposed to place a lumber yard with no trees in sight?
With each goal relying more and more on my past actions, the game is scrutinising every decision I’ve made until then. By planting down houses near to the city centre for massive point boosts I uprooted the trees that would give me points for the lumber yard, but I did reap huge benefits with that fountain because of it.
I’ve stopped pedalling but the decline has caught me in its grasp now.
I’ve reached such a high points total and that could all collapse with the wrong placement again. 5,000 points gone because I set the city centre too close to the cliff. To reach this goal again I would need to start from the very beginning and go through this same inexorable rise in pressure. With no end in sight, I consider where I can squeeze in a temple.
Or I could just apply the brakes, get off my bike and walk home.
The ‘lusory attitude’, coined by Bernard Suits, is important. It’s basically the will to play a game and abide by the arbitrary rules of that game. That will is rarely dampened for me. If anything, high-tension, high-stakes games elevate that will. But the feeling of entropy which builds in Islanders has the opposite effect the longer it goes on.
I can trace the feeling of playing Islanders to many sources. Triple Town is an obvious comparison for parallels in space conservation, but it plays fast, with a tempo that can swiftly get you back to the points total you so easily threw away. Dungeons of Dredmor is a more apt comparison. After a six-hour game of plodding carefully through the dungeon, coming face to face with the final boss sent me straight back to square one.
Permadeath is an odd mechanic to incorporate into a city builder like Islanders. It would ordinarily make something feel more arcade-y. But the meditative pace of the game defies this. It’s a slow reset back to the first, lonely island. And so the combination of slower pace and permadeath creates an unsustainable entropy the longer the game goes on. It challenges my will to play until I just walk away instead of staying to experience that inevitable failure.
Entropy is present in the roguelike Dungeons of Dredmor, but that rising pressure doesn’t feel out of place. That feeling of rising chaos and risk in a city builder is contextually foreign to me. I decide when the earthquake swallows my capitalist beacon to the world in SimCity. I can correct that decline in my hometown within Cities: Skylines.
These capitalist sandboxes don’t reject me, they just fold me in deeper with loans to bail out my stupid highway placement. When I send the meteor down on these cities it’s helplessness swirling into apathy for the systems that once enthralled me.
I can’t see the cars pulling out of the side roads in Islanders. But the rising tension of potential failure is created through looking at all my past actions and showing me their folly. It’s a fair game and if I don’t go back, those 5,000 points are frozen in time and I technically haven’t failed yet.
Ryan Young escaped from the PhD basement in 2017 where he worked on the theoretical links between games, play and narrative. He can be frequently found playing any genre of indie game he can get his hands on and yelling at people on the street about how cool ancient board games are.