A muted exploration of the modern city that detractors might describe as a non-game, Islands: Non-Places has mastered the Windosill-like wonder of surrealist interaction and focused it on another familiar target: the urban landscape. It’s the kind of game that sits comfortably alongside the Mountains of this world, albeit with a little less meditation and a little more movement.
Across ten vignettes a new vision of the urban environment is put forth, one that is both magical and menacing. By building each one of its self-proclaimed ‘artscapes’ from the unitary building blocks of contemporary urban life (the bus stop, the waiting room, the escalator) Islands induces a familiarity that only strengthens the realisation of ‘non-place’ – that we could be anywhere and we would still be entombed in these transitory, purgatorial-yet-recognisable spaces. It seems in these liminal spaces that the late, great Zygmunt Bauman’s ‘liquid modernity’ rears its ugly head again. As fluidity of place, occupation and community become commonplace the urban environment has homogenised in an attempt to cushion the turmoil of constant transition. Instead of any real sense of place we are given the perverse pleasure of living constantly in the depths of the Uncanny Valley.
“We could be anywhere and we would still be entombed in these transitory, purgatorial-yet-recognisable spaces.”
Islands captures the unease of a fluid modern life in its heavy depth-fogging, its rendering of the mundane – pared down to the very edge of abstraction – and ultimately its magical mechanical interactions. Shadow forms of the urban landscape come looming towards the player as we try to adjust our view, to gain some sense of perspective on these unusual oases. As in the everyday, focus and form combine to obfuscate function, though Islands has the good grace to address function eventually, in its own idiosyncratic way.
In Henri Lefebvre’s The Production of Space the rather bold claim is made – via etymology and a cutting diatribe on the classical stylings of corporate banking – that ‘façades are fascist’. Arguably by the same logic so is having a face, but we can let that slide for now. The broader point is that – like fascism – the uniform, endlessly reproduced aesthetics of the urban environment seeks to disguise function. The drive towards sleeker, more seamlessly produced space further distances us from the mechanics of the metropolis, from the tasks that define our everyday lives. This is equally true of videogames.
“Contemporary game design trends endlessly towards the slick and stylish.”
Contemporary game design trends endlessly towards the slick and stylish. From cinematic post-processing to the subtle auto-aim of Call of Duty or the invincibility frames of Street Fighter, Dark Souls et al., all are aimed at glossing over the monumental amount of computation, or work, that is going on underneath the hood. A huge amount of toil is dedicated to concealing the minor mistakes of players, to correcting the errors of action, calculation and reaction that arise between the joypad and the screen. Then yet more work goes into hiding the guiding hand of the designer. ‘Never simulate something you can fake with randomness’ is a sentiment I have seen bandied around game development circles. Computationally sensible but intellectually dishonest; we deserve better than Skinner’s pigeons.
Islands makes this issue licit. If anything it seeks to exaggerate the disconnect between action and result. Though interaction with its environments is minimal, each click of the mouse or tap of the screen returns some strange response: a parking space becomes a home, a waiting room transforms into a dilapidated aquarium. Each result is enticing and unexpected, mocking the illusion of direct causality that we’ve become accustomed to in playing today’s frenetic generic-action games. Islands by extension is mocking us. It mocks our feigned ability to perceive the relationships. It mocks our inability to see past everyday objects to the systems that they serve – systems that lurk beneath polished veneer and Plexiglas.
“Islands by extension is mocking us.“
In its evocative reproductions of contemporary mass-produced urban space Islands finds a solution for our immersion in the uncanny. Formal façades must be unpicked to reveal function. In Islands those functions are as captivating and mysterious as the structures that hide them, walking a wobbly line between comedic literalism and surrealist metaphor. The game’s functional playfulness suggests a shared kinship not only with Lefebvre but also with the Situationist concept of the dérive and psychogeography. These ten vignettes feel as much a set of situations, musing, or imaginings – brought out by transition or relocation – as a forthright attack on the fascism of contemporary architecture.
We might have found hope of reversal, of architectural honesty, in the trend towards the ‘authentic’ in contemporary culture, but this movement has so quickly become universally co-opted as to be almost completely meaningless. Perhaps a sequel (if such a thing is ever made) will be set in deli-grey rooms with faux-patina oak chairs, its bus stops will be adorned with vintage enamel signs, its streetlights replaced with Victorian reproductions. Perhaps a sequel might reflect our fluidity not just in identity and place, but in time as well.