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.