Electron Dance

Every Click Has Meaning

I shared some videos of Townscaper (Oskar Stålberg, 2021) on Twitter a while back because I was quietly impressed with it. It was like the Canabalt of creative games: clicking was building.

Townscaper took care of all the detail bullshit so, regardless of where you clicked, everything remained coherent. Click on top of a house? Let’s make the house taller. Click next to a house? The single house becomes a bigger house - well, unless you’ve changed the colour in which case you get separate houses.

I wasn’t planning on picking up Townscaper when it slithered out of the primordial early access soup because I didn’t think I’d get too much out of it personally. But the launch price was so agreeable that my gut ached with guilt; I nudged it into the Steam cart and the deed was done. I expected Townscaper would be a good fit for my daughter, who was recently diagnosed with terminal Minecraft-addiction, so the purchase wouldn’t be wasted currency even if I got bored after about 30 minutes.

I got bored after about 30 minutes. But that ain’t the whole story.

After installing Townscaper, the first surprise was zero tutorial, meaning Townscaper is initially a journey of discovery. What happens when you click? What happens when you click more? And Townscaper does have its secrets. It’s crafting with clicks! Special structures await those who cast the correct click-spell. Some of these can only be created by subtracting blocks from a larger structure.

The second surprise was of the negative variety. I expected I could just drag-click to draw structures as the fast pace of building in the trailers implied such a thing was possible... but it was not. This was initially a disappointment but I became accustomed to it: one click at a time sets the pace of Townscaper.

And after a mere half an hour of exploration, I began to tire of it. Have you heard of Burj al Babas? It’s a stalled Turkish luxury housing project which looks as if a Disney procgen algorithm went rogue. Townscaper made me feel like I was clicking a more colourful version of Burj al Babas into existence. The creative palette seemed too limited but, as a last roll of the dice, I had a sneaky peak at what other Townscapers were showing off out there on the internet.

Wait: how have you people got fields in your towns?

I reopened Townscaper immediately to figure out green spaces. Oh, “I’ve seen everything,” have I? I’ve never eaten words so fast. There were more click-spells to uncover than I’d prematurely assumed, such as a lighthouse I later found through sheer accident. And if you want a wild spoiler, check out this YouTube video.

But Townscaper is not a game about finding secret structures. Like cult hit Starseed Pilgrim (droqen, 2013), dubbing it a game about discovery denigrates it. Yes, there’s joy in figuring out Townscaper click-crafting recipes, but once you’ve got enough knowledge under your belt, it’s time to lose yourself in actual townscaping.

There’s no tutorial but there is a period during which you’re figuring out Townscaper’s scope and I had downed tools far too early. After going back and graduating from Townscaper school, I found myself working on larger towns which require time and care. Every click contributes, every click has meaning. I have to hand it to Stålberg, Townscaper is a pure zen pleasure.

And the more you build, the more you uncover. I’m developing an appreciation for Townscaper’s non-uniform grid which confers a more organic look to your towns than grandad's bog-standard square grid could muster.

Naturally, I have some niggles, the main beef being camera control. I like to place the camera as if I’m taking a photo from within my freshly-clicked town but the camera is designed to facilitate creation. It's like trying to line up a perfect shot when your camera tripod has been erected on an ice rink.

It’s funny. In recent months, my life has been like trying to keep dozens of plates spinning and, with that going on, videogames can seem like too much trouble. An imposition instead of an escape. And when I’m trapped in this sort of mood, it can feel like you’re really playing the same games over and over again - with just the names and faces changed. I’m living the Burj al Babas of videogames. Where is that compulsion that I last saw with Death Crown (CO5MONAUT, 2019)?

But Townscaper...  this is something else. I’m not going to claim I experience withdrawal symptoms when I’m away from Townscaper but it is filthy easy to click open the Steam shortcut when I have a few idle minutes. Perhaps this really is the medicine I need right now.

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  1. “What happens when you click? What happens when you click more? And Townscaper does have its secrets. It’s crafting with clicks! Special structures await those who cast the correct click-spell. Some of these can only be created by subtracting blocks from a larger structure.”

    I always feel a little unplaceable lack when I play around with something like Townscaper. This quote is what dragged me in – made me want to try it. I love a good click-spell that I can fold into deeper mastery. (Haha, when I bought Townscaper with leaving this comment in mind, I had skimmed over the part where you link your Starseed Pilgrim video. I guess I do have a taste.)

    There is some distinction I’m trying to work out, still, but for a long time I’ve considered it to be the dirty underbelly of games whose name you can’t speak — ultimately they’re all pointless frivolities! But no, I think it’s just stumbling upon a tool that doesn’t particularly speak to me as a creator. The impulse to create is just different in us all. I liked learning it, the thrill of comprehension, but once comprehended — well, do I actually want to exercise the tool?

    I had the same problem with Cinco Paus. Loved learning it, but didn’t enjoy being a master.

    And I think that’s alright. Makes me feel better about making things that I love to be a master of without worrying that everyone will, and makes me feel better about the idea of trying as many games as possible — in the hopes that after learning a hundred I’ll have stumbled upon at least a few I love to play around with after mastering them.

  2. (p.s. not to say that I ever became a ‘master’ of Cinco Paus, not even close, but once it got to the point where I was spending more time exercising mastery than discovering and building it, it just became less and less for me. i’ve always felt a little regretful of that, until… well, until right now.)

  3. Droqen, let me be honest, I don’t expect to get too much out of little sandboxes like these. Cloud Gardens was cool but after I’d shot through a dozen levels, I didn’t know why I was continuing. I’d made enough scenes of urban decay overrun with plants. Cloud Gardens also tried to turn this artistic sandbox into a game by locking levels and assets, and making you achieve a growth goal with each scene. I kept going because I assumed the game had locked away more cool stuff, but it turned itself into a treadmill.

    There’s no game design parable here: some people will lap up something like Townscaper. But I was surprised to find myself still toying with it after a couple of hours. I’ve obviously been suckered into Minecraft in the past, but that’s a big old beast with a lot of different ingredients, quite different from the limited but brilliantly-executed sandbox of Townscaper.

    I wonder, occasionally, about the grey area between dabbling and mastery in many games. I suspect most players exist in this area but I don’t know if we have a label for non-hardcore. Normal? Average? Like I enjoyed A Monster’s Expedition but there are some frustrations with becoming a master and I suspect I should just uninstall it; the game is done, the rest is just masochism for me. And it doesn’t mean, necessarily, that I have failed the game or the game has failed me.

    I’ve become uncomfortable, however, with my fallback line of “if you’re not enjoying it, just stop playing it” because it gets us back to “a game has to be fun” and it doesn’t, does it? I think I need to re-articulate it as “if you’re not getting something out of it, just stop playing it”. There, that’s better.

  4. Joel: I think there is something really real that a person could get out of a game like Townscaper, though; there is something really real that people must! It’s exciting to see a game like this stripped of its treadmill still succeed, and there’s got to be a game design parable there somewhere.

    I’ve adopted a strictly subjective viewpoint which I hope makes sense. The ‘lack’ I speak of isn’t interesting to me because of what it says about games, but because of what it says about the relationship I have to games: what I like about them isn’t what people like about Townscaper. I appreciate the lack of treadmill because it removes my ability to excuse it away – oh, there’s nothing of value here, people are just in love with the gamification. No! There is just something that people love to do here that I don’t connect with.

    We certainly haven’t failed each other. I agree that “getting something out of it” is the bar I’d like to keep looking for.

  5. Sorry to delve into the “is this a game” discussion, but I find it fascinating. This project wasn’t started as a game, and the end product is framed as “more of a toy than a game”. From the article I gather you (totally fairly) made a game out of exploring its capabilities, then its “secrets”, and then its limits, and only later treated it as an “activity” — a way to relax by creating pretty little towns in.

    This made me think of several things:

    1) Do you see any similarities between Townscaper and Dorfromantik? They both try to convey the same coziness, but Dorf tries to wrap it in a game. Mastery in it is about getting the highest score, going against that coziness, rather than making something aesthetically pleasing. By popular demand, a newer version added a “creative mode” that removes the game constraints — it’s much less expressive than Townscaper, but I think it’s still popular.

    2) There are several other toy-tools I can think of, like Mario Paint, Microsoft’s 3D Movie Maker and Creative Writer, that tried to make these activities fun to mess around with, but I think you’d be hard pressed to call them games (??). If you agree with that, what is Townscaper doing differently to elevate it to “game” status?

  6. “if you’re not getting something out of it, just stop playing it”

    Yeah, I like this. I was recently playing Mu Cartographer and was twiddling knobs to manipulate a waveform for the umpteenth time and was like ‘…what am I doing?’ The story crumbs were sort of interesting and piecemeal, and the cryptic map UI was nice to fiddle about with at first but it started to feel like busywork for a little jigsaw piece payoff so… I stopped. I’m getting better at this.

    My ’30 minutes’ with Townscaper lasted 43 minutes according to Steam but that was when it first entered Early Access so I was a bit reluctant to delve into it too much. A bit like Cloud Gardens. Both hit v1.0 recently so I’m looking forward to returning to them! I know Cloud Gardens is more objective driven. I’m trying to think of other similar sandbox-y toys and all I can think of is Engare (which I haven’t played yet, but I believe that has a drawing and puzzling component?). Oh, Electroplankton on the DS! https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=ttFoK8BTXM4

    @Ori Dorfromantik reminds me a bit of Islanders. It’s weird because I think they’re still cosy but I totally get the conflict between that and the scorechase. I find a small part of the appeal for me is trying to find an aesthetically pleasing solution that gives me a decent score! Eventually you run out of road with that approach but I want a nice island damn it!

    My general feeling is that stuff like Townscaper, Electroplankton and Engare is that they’re creative toys or tools that lean so heavily into accessibility that the end result isn’t necessarily the point, it’s about the joy of the process–which is a sentiment I love and I wish I could get back to that place with creating for myself! :)

    It’s a bit like Lego and Minecraft. We only had a few sets, and they were indeed expensive dust magnets, but almost all our playtime was spent with old crates of random pieces bought from car-boot sales! We just loved messing about and seeing what we could make. This is one of the reasons I love the Lego Movie(s) so much! (And I totally relate to your newsletter last month.) I can’t begin to imagine how crazy over Minecraft I would have been as a kid.

  7. I’ve been taking time off work for the purpose of “holiday” – in fact, this post was written while I was “on holiday” – so I haven’t really had a chance to come back to these comments until now!

    Plus, I’ve been mulling over for the last week about putting down some personal thoughts on “what is a game/toy” more formally in the next newsletter instead, so I won’t respond directly to those comments here.

    I’ve been working on a large Townscaper structure since I wrote this post and it’s more of a brief distraction to quiet the mind. I add a few blocks, with no real reason or craft in mind, other than to click and see it grow. There is a minor aesthetic sensibility about it – blocks are deleted too – but it wasn’t designed. I just clicked. And clicked. I’ll probably share some screenshots on Twitter at some point.

    I don’t have any intention to sit down and click the hell out of a megastructure or design something. At least not right now. I don’t want to turn Townscaper into an “evening eater”. It’s lovely where it is, perched on the edge of actual purpose.

    I don’t feel it has much kinship with Dorfromantik; there’s pattern-matching involved there and is much more gamey whereas Townscaper just doesn’t care for all that (disclaimer: I only played Dorfromantik’s demo). I also feel Dorfromantik’s game is functional compared to Cloud Gardens, where it is an uninteresting treadmill. Perhaps if it didn’t lock assets into a long campaign it wouldn’t be, but I definitely feel “overjustification effect” damage here.

    I like Gregg’s very personal Dorfromantik game which is to get a decent score without breaching aesthetics. That’s a wonderful outside-the-box condition which I imagine completely changes how that can play out. Reminded of my uncomfortable tension of good-looking outfits vs clothing bonuses when playing ShadowHand – if you put together something that looked good, you’d fail the combat!

    And Gregg, I think I would have lost my mind inside Minecraft at a young age. Would that have been good? I don’t know! I have a habit of dabbling with too many things and not focusing on one (uh, like a newsletter, two books, a film, a website) and my childhood was mostly an example of this. But I like having that messy but rich background; I don’t know if I’d want to go back in time and turn half of it into Minecraft. Is this an irrational fear? Would this actually have happened?

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