City building games can be a lot of fun, whether you prefer the idea of building your dream city here on earth, or taking off into the universe and creating a new colony where the survival of the human race is at stake, there’s bound to be one that appeals to you. Whilst the genre is expansive, most of the games are built on the same foundations; making sure there are places to live and places to work, collecting resources, and keeping an eye on the needs of your citizens. It’s one of my favourite genres, and I’ve spent more time than I’m willing to admit on them, however they can also become pretty stressful. Having ruined one of my beloved builds due to a series of poor decisions that included forgetting to save regularly whilst restructuring a lot of roads, and then accidentally burning down a recently finished part of a city, I haven’t been back on Cities: Skylines for a while.
Luckily, June saw the release of Townscaper, which takes all the stress out of city building. The game focuses entirely on the design aspect, which means no citizens bothering you to request more schools, no traffic clogging up your streets, and no industry polluting the air. Instead you just click away, creating sprawling seaside towns full of brightly coloured houses in the middle of an infinite and still ocean.
In Townscaper all the hard work is done by an algorithm, which means you can sit back and enjoy whatever creation emerges from a few simple actions; select a colour, left click to add a block, right click to remove a block. That’s it. Blocks of buildings next to each other will merge together, while roofs, gardens, and stairways are all added automatically when the program thinks it appropriate. I’ve been able to make big castles with towers, archways, and courtyards, simple rows of houses in clashing colours, and buildings with parts that jut out into the sea held up by pillars.
“No goal. No real gameplay. Just plenty of building and plenty of beauty. That’s it,” developer Oskar Stålberg says in his description for the game. It seems odd to try and market a game by saying there’s ‘no real gameplay’ but it’s accurate and not a bad thing at all, especially as Stålberg describes it as more of a toy than a game. To me, ‘toy’ invokes a childlike sense of wonder, and the idea of playing without having to achieve. Thinking of Townscaper is this way is essential for understanding why it’s an experience built for relaxation and creativity.
Everything in the game is designed to be stress free. From the simple controls, the lovely colours, the calm ocean that surrounds you as you build, and the fact you’re never disturbed by anything more than some seagulls that like to congregate on rooftops. Even the sounds are great, there’s a satisfying splash when you build in the water, followed by ear pleasing pops when you add buildings. It’s minimalist, but like everything else in the game it doesn’t need to be anything more – the sound of the water is enough to transport you away from your screen into your creation.
Beyond this, Townscaper encourages another kind of relaxation, the kind that comes with creating simply to create, creating with no blueprint in mind, creating by embracing imperfection. It’s near impossible to go into Townscaper with a goal in mind and have that goal perfectly come to fruition. The grid you build on isn’t built from standard rows and columns of squares, rather it’s an assortment of odd shapes, meaning you have to accept unexpected occurrences – roofs facing a way you didn’t expect, buildings not being the shape you thought they’d be, or rows of houses never sitting in a straight line. But you’ll learn quickly that this is okay, and in fact, the end result is probably prettier than you imagined in the first place.
To create in this way is a freeing experience, especially when you are creative for a living and so most of your time is spent on projects that have plans and predefined outcomes. Townscaper has been a wonderful reminder for me about creating purely for the joy of it, because there’s really no other point to the game other than having fun – you don’t have to worry about growing a population, making sure you have the right buildings, or any of the other things that come with traditional city builders. It is a toy after all, there to play with, experiment with, and let your imagination run wild.
It’s not a surprise then that Townscaper has fostered a blooming community of people who love to share their creations. Type ‘Townscaper’ into the search bar of Twitter, Reddit, or YouTube and you’ll find everything from replications of famous landmarks to simple streets lined with seaside townhouses. There are even builds that look like something from science fiction, towns built in the air with no ground to support them, instead balancing on pillars in the middle of the sea. Stålberg is fully engaged in the community as well, retweeting creations and supporting the players by openly talking about his plans for the future.
Townscaper has been a breath of fresh air this year, moving away from how we’ve come to think of city builders to make something new. Rather than bogging you down in details and in depth management, it instead focuses on an experience entirely geared towards a relaxing environment that allows creativity to flourish. Stålberg is right to describe it as a toy rather than a game, and in doing so sends a message before you even start playing, that Townscaper is a chance to just make something for the fun of it.
Your town will grow and change, gently guided by the irregular grid and nothing for you to think about apart from experimentation. Soon your head will be filled with nothing but those satisfying little pops, and a wish to be transported to your own isolated and peaceful town in the middle of the ocean.