Electron Dance
30Aug/2110

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?

  8. OK, so you mentioned becoming a master in Monster’s Expedition and that is a game which clearly has levels of mastery; there is finishing the game, which is a decent amount of mastery itself, and lots of optional content, and some optional content which is just absolutely sick, like it might be one of those puzzles that’s spread all over an extensive map but you don’t know where it is? I don’t know, I haven’t done it.

    And I want to post about why Monster’s Expedition is Good and it eases you into an amazing amount of mastery before the point where, if you want to really punish yourself you can. And also to say you should do the expansion because the new puzzles are in between the main sequence ones and the really brutal ones, and some of them are hard but you know where they are. And from the playlist in your last newsletter it looks like you’re probably doing this. But I need to talk about how the expansion ABSOLUTELY GASLIT ME, probably being Apple’s fault.

    See, I downloaded the expansion and started it up, and it seemed like a lot of trees were back in their original positions, even though everything I had uncovered was still uncovered. So I played around, redoing puzzles–I don’t mind that at all–but it was incredibly disorienting, because I didn’t know what I had done, or what was a new part of the expansion, or–this is important–how I had ever gotten to some of the islands in the first place, especially the ones that were now reachable by Monster Post.

    And I couldn’t figure out what was new. Some of the trees had changed into birches (the white ones) and I thought they were new but some of them clearly were not. I went through a part that was obviously new and the trick it involved was strange and disorienting (this part goes from the snowman right by the beginning and lbh unir gb ebyy n ybt bagb na vfynaq jurer vg oybpxf cebterff naq gura jura lbh erfrg gur vfynaq gur ybt qvfnccrnef, V qvqa’g rira ernyvmr vg jbexrq gung jnl). It didn’t help that I got stuck on the next puzzle and wasn’t sure whether it was even solvable or whether I had found an exploit that messed things up. It was solvable, but I didn’t trust myself anymore. That’s why I say I felt gaslit. (In fact the birches had something to do with this part, even when there weren’t any around.)

    Eventually I tried to retrace my path from the beginning of the game, which I thought involved getting to the end of the game and starting over, and reaching the end with the islands all reset is nontrivial; and I got lost about halfway through figuring out how I had reached one part. So I started a new save and went to the end, which took me eight hours and gave me one big insight that will go into the Why It’s Good post, and then explored some more, and reached a landmark (the merry-go-round) that I had prominently not reached before, and wasn’t sure whether I had got to it by a path that was new in the expansion, so I fired up the old copy to see if it was new, and when I went back to my new save THE TREES HAD ALL RESET THEMSELVES AGAIN. I think this may have something to do with how Apple shares its save files. Fortunately I was able to go into the old version and use its “load backups” feature (which I think is gone in the new one?) to the endgame, and redo my progress, and do the optional stuff which is cool. But yikes. Also I can see that there are secrets I discovered in my old save that I haven’t rediscovered, and it’s still pretty disorienting.

    Anyway Monster’s Expedition is good and admits of varying levels of mastery and the optional content is optional, and some of it is probably stuff Alan put in to show us who’s boss. I don’t know. There really is a lot of it I haven’t solved.

  9. You probably thought I had forgotten that I wanted to post about why Monster’s Expedition Is Good, but I had not!

    The obvious thing about Monster’s Expedition is its gentleness. In the sounds, in the humor, in the character design. And in the puzzle unlocks too. This is not a game, unlike Some Games, that wants you to clean every bit of your plate in one area before you get to go to the next. (Andy tried that and he had a bad time, because there’s some parts that there’s just obviously no way to get to.) This is a game that says “Explore where you like, everything you can do will open up something new for you.”

    This is in the very idea of what it is to solve something: The goal is always to get to a new place, again unlike the games that lock you in somewhere and tell you not to come back till you’ve grilled every bit of those sausages.

    It’s in the smallest things, the way that doing something futile like walking into water or trying to move sideways off a log in the water will reward you with a playful animation instead of an “uh-uh” sound. (Which happens to me a lot, because the controls are a bit slippery like in Puddle Knights.)

    Of course it’s in the early signature moment of the game by the windmill, when doing something obvious to solve a puzzle turns out to accomplish something completely different that opens up all kinds of possibilities.

    It’s in the overarching puzzle structure. When I tried to retrace my steps without starting over, I got lost in one central area that always seemed to lead back to itself. It turned out that there were three ways you could go from it, and if you go all three ways, eventually when you return you’ll have changed the original place in a way that that sends you off to a new place. But there’s no way you could possibly plan to do this! You just have to do things, and hope something nice will happen. The way to the endgame is like this too, there’s no way I saw how the thing I did was going to set it up.

    And–this is the thing I realized–it’s in the way the puzzles work. Think of a sausage in the middle of a field, or a block in the middle of an open space. You can push it anywhere. To make a puzzle, the designer has to make a way for pushing it to get you Stuck. Which leads to fear and trepidation; if you have a Great Tower of sausages in the middle of an open field it certainly leads to Agoraphobia.

    Now think of a tree in the middle of an empty island. You can push it over, and then… either you push it back where it came from (if you even can) or you roll it to the side, and it rolls all the way into the water and you’ve obviously either failed or solved the puzzle. So the default is for a move to take you either into an obvious failure state or an obvious repetition of where you were before. Which means… a lot of the puzzling is figuring out maneuvers that will take you out of this (how do I push this tree over so it can roll somewhere and get stopped before it reaches the water?) Which in turn means… that when you have accomplished one of these things, it’s usually something you want to have accomplished! And this isn’t claustrophobia because the Bad Thing happens so quickly you can undo it right away.

    At least at the beginning; soon you get puzzles where there’s a couple ways to do this, and one of them gets you stuck, but quickly, so you can try the other; and more complicated things, and ones where the obvious failure state isn’t actually a failure state, and so on.

    But what this means is that the game can make interesting puzzles without Turn One Dick Moves; you could make Dick Move puzzles in this framework but you don’t have to. And sometimes you don’t even have to plan ahead to see the end goal; just keep doing things and the end goal will come into view. Sometimes you have to reconsider your idea of what the end goal might be and plan for that! But sometimes things look impossible and you do something, anything you can do, and the thing you can do solves the puzzle in a way that you could never have foreseen! And by the time you can get stuck in more elaborate ways, you’ve built up a lot of knowledge of how things work, so you can see farther in to when you’re Doing Something and also when you’ve just stuck yourself.

    And the secrets… some of them are just a matter of seeing “Hey, I can do something different here” and when you do it opens up something nice. At least one just automatically opens up if you go back to replay a puzzle, I think. There was one from the expansion I solved which was just a triumph of me seeing I could do Something Weird in the vague area of an undiscovered island, and it didn’t obviously accomplish anything, but I kept discovering One More Weird Trick to change my state a little until I got to where I could get somewhere new. And then some require some planning from 1,000 feet, and it can get a bit grindy… I have a fear that there are some where you really have to back out and make some plan across the whole map or something. But I’ve done a lot before I get stuck on those!


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