Townscaper might be about the simplest game I’ve ever played. It’s a game about building a town and the only buttons you have are to build and unbuild and select a colour. There’s no discernible aim to the game other than to make your town look nice. And that’s it. It’s mesmerising.
It helps that it’s gorgeous. You simply cannot build an ugly town. You cannot even build in a straight line. It’s as if the game adheres more to the warm, wobbly lines of your imagination than it does the cold angles of real life. Even if you try to build a square, the edges bow and warp.
What I love most is how you’re never sure what’s going to appear. I mean, broadly you know. You know if you build in the water that a kind of harbour block will appear, with nice red trim and fences for safety around the top, and you know if you build on top of it, a building will appear. But exactly what kind of building depends on what’s around it. Things clump together in Townscaper. Build a row of houses and they clump to make a terrace, build in a square(ish) pattern and they make a bigger kind of house. Build upwards to make a tower.
You can’t do anything wrong because there are no rules, and you can’t make it look wrong because the game adapts gorgeously to whatever you do. Build out over the sea a few floors up and you won’t see an ugly and impossible corridor jutting out but one supported by metal stilts stretching down into the sea. Similarly, if you use the unbuild tool like a chisel to chip away at a building like a sculptor, what’s left won’t be a jagged ruin somehow suspended in midair, but a rounded-edged marvel of archways and properly supported flourishes. Every time a building dynamically adapts to what you’re doing, there’s a delightful tinkling of tiles and a popping noise, and an animation that reminds me of a blob assimilating another blob like slimes do in fantasy games.
What’s more, buildings self decorate. They’re gorgeous to begin with, with rows of daintily tiled roofs and chimneys sticking out, seagulls perched on them, but when you make space around them, little benches and potted trees appear. If you make verandas, chairs and pairs of wellies appear, as if people have been sitting out on them. Build close together and washing lines are strung between them, drying little clothes.
Yet there are no people, only this impression of life. It’s very clever because it gives Townscaper meaning. All the time I build, I do it thinking what’s best for my people? I can’t possibly put that building right up to the edge of the harbour because how will the people who live there get in? And it’s no good putting a house there because the tower nearby will block it – the people who live there will get no sun.
I’ve even found myself obsessing over the weather. Maybe it’s because I live in a coastal town in real life, I don’t know, but I do know that if I don’t provide my people with some kind of buttress against the wind then it’s going to whip through that town mercilessly. They’ll be blown away. And I’m not even going to entertain building a tower in such wind, and I dare not think what the wind and rain and sea will do to those houses in a few years’ time.
It’s all made up – I made all of that up. There are no people and there is no changing weather. It’s always a slightly cloudy coastal day in Townscaper. I could probably build a teetering tower to the moon if I liked and it would hold. But that’s not the point. I imagine the people and the weather to give me something to do. They shape my play. I’m like a child again, in my room making up stories for my 80s toys, and Townscaper is the parent giving plenty of space so it can happen. I’m lost in my own world and I love it.