Explore a series of surreal and graceful dreamscapes.
PC Release: November 17, 2016
By Ian Coppock
Although the new year has gotten off to a raucous start in virtually all sectors of life, the same cannot be said for Steam. Sure, it’s only day three of 2017 as of writing, but the store has kicked off the new year in a pretty sluggish fashion. With nothing noteworthy yet available on Steam, it’s time to review another game from last year. Something that’s been out for a little bit but that, for one reason or another, didn’t make it onto this page when it released. Something that, in light of how stressful last year was, offers up a much-needed dose of relaxation and reflection. Something like ISLANDS: Non-Places.
ISLANDS: Non-Places is an hour-long slice of surreal created by Carl Burton, an indie game designer and possible ballet coordinator (we’ll expand on that in a bit). ISLANDS is an abstract yet thoughtful game propelled by very simple puzzles. It could also be classified as a “zen” game, if anyone can actually agree upon what that term denotes. It’s relaxing, so zen game fans will have that to agree on, at least.
ISLANDS: Non-Places is presented as a series of interactive scenes, where players uncover the secrets of a colorful little vignette using only their mouse. Players can also use the A and S keys to rotate the scene from side-to-side, though there’s no means of moving up or down. Each scene contains a sequence of lights that must be clicked in a particular order or rhythm. The more lights clicked, the more the area changes.
Most every setting in ISLANDS begins as something banal, like a bus stop or an ATM. Though each vignette starts off unassuming, ISLANDS subtly invites players to uncover more by clicking on lights located throughout the scene. Doing so triggers some pretty trippy events, like a series of eggs getting off a bus, or luggage on a conveyor floating in a wave pattern. Each event allows for more events to follow, if the player can find and click on all of the lights.
Although ISLANDS‘ gameplay could be characterized as simplistic by some, it’s not a puzzle game at heart. Rather, it’s meant to evoke a feeling of relaxation. ISLANDS: Non-Places is a very graceful game, because it takes simple visuals and moves them in a masterfully hypnotic fashion. From soda cans floating in the sky to trees ascending elevators, ISLANDS: Non-Places presents some very graceful visuals. It’s dangerous to write them off as weird, and harder still not to get lost in them.
The primary factor behind ISLANDS‘ grace is how fluidly each animation plays out in the screen. Every movement is gradual, but not slow. These animations start out simple; as jarring as the sight of it is, eggs coming off of a bus is not a complicated animation to perform. However, they become more elaborate with each vignette, evolving from raising and falling lights to streams of letters and clouds of light. Hitting lights secreted throughout the scene will trigger each animation and change the environment, sometimes drastically. The scene is over when all lights have been clicked, all changes made.
ISLANDS‘ visual power also stems from its use of color and fog-like effects. Each scene is painted in shades of a single color that gradually darken as they approach the screen. These vividly monochromatic colors add to the surreal feeling of each vignette, on top of being simply beautiful. These colors also do a good job of setting the mood in each scene. As a consequence of their use, the blue and purple vignettes feel more subdued, while the bright red and orange sets feel more lively. Call it basic color theory, but basic color theory is put to great use in ISLANDS: Non-Places.
Equally impressive as ISLANDS’ bright colors and sharply defined objects is Carl Burton’s attention to sound design. It is because of the masterful implementation of music as much as visuals or anything else that ISLANDS: Non-Places has such an intoxicating atmosphere. Each stage in ISLANDS also contains ambient sound effects one would expect to hear in that environment, like conversation around a drinking fountain or, well, rain during a rainstorm. Each of these effects is crystal clear and implemented to complement every stage of the scene. It thus becomes easier to lose oneself in ISLANDS. As has been stated countless times in other reviews, keen audio design is essential to good atmosphere.
Now – it’s one thing to find the proper sound effects for a given scene, but it’s quite another to arrange those in a manner conducive to relaxation. Anyone can play a clip from a rainstorm, but Carl Burton does a good job of bringing in and dimming down each sound effect so that they seamlessly coalesce. One vignette depicting someone getting home and going to bed features a well-choreographed set of driving, walking, and television sounds that evokes the off-screen movements in the player’s mind. Couple this with a few persistent, ambient sounds, and ISLANDS: Non-Places presents an alluring soundscape.
So what exactly is the point of ISLANDS: Non-Places? What narrative or concept does its imagery present that can’t be replicated by another surreal work, or someone spouting off a list of random objects? It’s true that ISLANDS‘ scenery is far from clear. Even if the player can figure out that a water fountain needs to be fixed, that doesn’t explain the jungle growing under the fountain. The key to a compelling “zen” game or surreal game is not to fill the screen with random objects, but to arrange those objects in a certain way. ISLANDS: Non-Places is relaxing not because of the choice of objects, but because of how those objects move.
Consider one stage of the game in which a maze of roots grows flowers beneath a ceiling fan. As a sentence, that concept is random, maybe even ridiculous. But in the game, the roots and flowers are arranged in a spread pattern that spins gracefully upon the vignette’s completion. The idea of soda cans floating in the air looks ridiculous on paper, but on the screen they’re animated in a gentle, relaxing wave. The sight of eggs getting off a bus only to enter a cooker disguised as a bus stop sounds silly, but is animated in such a way as to be wistful. ISLANDS isn’t surreal just for the sake of being surreal. There’s a purpose to the choice of objects and how they’re all arranged: a feeling of relaxation. And this game provides that feeling in droves.
So is there anything that ISLANDS gets wrong? Well, there are a few things it could do a lot better. The options menu is the same pitifully small “good, beautiful, fantastic” Unity menu endemic to many indie games, and it’s heartbreaking. The only options are for resolution and graphics quality, the latter of which is tied together with the game’s anti-aliasing option. A peculiar choice. ISLANDS: Non-Places is not a graphically taxing game, but AA can be much more difficult for some machines to run than visual fidelity. Tying the two together is… different. Better to keep them separate.
Apart from that, it’s hard to find a flaw with ISLANDS‘ gameplay. The controls are simple and smooth, the animations are fluid, and the game runs well on newer and older machines. The game’s graphical simplicity keeps it from requiring a monster rig to run (though the point about tying AA together with graphics quality still stands) and the clickable lights are anything but obtuse.
The reason why Carl Burton was called a ballet coordinator at the beginning of this review is because ISLANDS: Non-Places is the ballet of video games. It is an elegant, well-polished movement of many pieces that is absolutely mesmerizing to watch. The game’s graceful animations, coupled with its masterful sound design, result in one of the most relaxing gaming experiences of all of last year. It doesn’t have a traditional narrative, but its movements will entice all the same. ISLANDS deserves a spot in every gamer’s library, especially as a change of pace from horror or action-intense video games. The purpose behind each piece of the game is as moving as the surreal final composition.
You can buy ISLANDS: Non-Places here.
Thank you for reading! My next review will be posted in a few days. You can follow Art as Games on Twitter @IanLayneCoppock, or friend me at username Art as Games on Steam. Feel free to leave a comment or email me at firstname.lastname@example.org with a game that you’d like to see reviewed, though bear in mind that I only review PC games.