Other: Islanders (video game), Tacoma (video game)
Islanders (video game)
This is the 2019 city simulator from Grizzly Games, in which you build communities on a series of idyllic islands.
This game gets full marks for aiming to do one very specific thing very well.
We can start by talking about the things it is not. It is not exciting. There is no combat, there are no deadlines. There are no alerts that bleep or blink or otherwise demand your attention. It is not deeply strategic. You can kinda figure out the basic rules of it in a few minutes, and those rules do not vary over time. Granted, there are lots of games that have light rules but heavy strategy. But in this game, the *strategy* is light, too. There are maybe a dozen tricks to getting better scores at the game, and you figure them out in a few hours.
The general idea: placing a building gets you points. How many points you get depends on what kind of building it is. A placement can give you bonuses by being near certain land features: a lumberjack gets you more points if you put it next to trees. It can also provide bonuses based on nearby buildings: a sawmill gets you more points if you put it next to a lumberjack. And that can go the other way, as well: a holiday resort gets a penalty if you put it next to a sawmill.
Every so often, you meet a scoring threshold, and you get rewarded with a new pile of buildings you can place. The thresholds scale up slowly but exponentially, and you eventually run out of new buildings. But not to fear, there's also a threshold that, when tripped, lets you abandon your current city and go to a new island. Those thresholds *also* scale up slowly but exponentially, so you eventually run out of buildings *and* run out of islands, and then you lose.
And that's it. That's the whole game. That's the whole range of its strategy.
Instead, the game is designed to be peaceful. The islands are pretty. The musical score is calming and pleasant. You hear ocean waves lap against the shores, and see occasional skeins of seabirds fly over the mountaintops. There's just enough strategy there to hold your attention. It's a like a mellow, pretty screensaver with just a hint of gaming to it.
I played it for a few weeks.¹ It was something I'd play in little ten-minute breaks when life was feeling stressful. I highly recommend it for that.
Tacoma (video game)
This is the 2017 "walking simulator" in which you explore a abandoned space station. It's from Fulbright Games, their follow-up to the classic Gone Home.
And that sentence alone can tell you if you're up for playing this. If you're one of the Men On The Internet who got mad about Gone Home's lack of combat, or *gasp* gay characters, this will not be for you. For everyone else, this is a great chance to see them take the same general concept in a somewhat new direction.
Specifically, this feels a little more like "breadth, not depth". Gone Home followed four characters, and created layer upon layer of backstory, to the point that there was entire horrrifying storyline that I completely missed on my playthrough, even though it was practically spelled out for me in the house's detritus. There was just a lot of story piled up, over the decades, and encapsulated in a very small space. Gone Home was a game of "wait, let me look closer at this, maybe there's something I don't quite get".
Tacoma has you playing back AR recordings of six crew members, one shipboard AI, and their beloved pet "Margaret Catwood". It's all centered around one event — a very clear, propulsive station disaster strongly reminiscent of "Out of Gas" — but there's still a lot going on. You pick up lots of bits of evidence. There are the AR recordings. There are the computer records — emails, IM chats, random photos. There are the personal effects strewn around the station. Nothing you find is oblique or requires strong powers of inference — it's all pretty straightforward — but there is a very lot of it. So you find yourself juggling all this information — okay, this person was having this conversation on this date, and, right, he'd just had a fight the day before with someone else, and what he doesn't know is that this officer knows a secret about him... and on and on it goes.
You find yourself building a mental murder wall of the breakdown at Tacoma.
And to be clear: that's very fun. It's like being a detective. The spotty history sketched out by your sparse AR recordings leaves a lot of intriguing holes in the story, and lots of room for reversals and surprises. It's fun to piece it all together as you go. And the mass of information adds complexity and world-building to a straightforward spine of "the ship broke and things were dire".
In the end, the story is very moving, and actually has something to say, thematically — which is not what you'd expect from the "exploring an abandoned space station" genre, but is what you'd expect from Fulbright Games.
It runs about four or five hours, and you'd do well to take notes as you go. If you can abide a walking simulator, this one's a must-have.
For next week: watching Star Wars: Rebels on DVD; watching the first season of Club de Cuervos and the second season of The Tick on streaming, reading Best. Movie Year. Ever. and some Spanish-language comics, and catching up on podcasts.
¹ I'll have you know I'm now something like the 4000ᵗʰ best Islanders player worldwide.