Islands, as its titular addendum ‘Non-Places’ insinuates, is a game about those non-descript patches of no-man’s land through which we all pass en route to where we’re going. It’s the baggage carousel in the airport, with its melancholy conga of luggage. It’s the bus shelter, with its plastic seats, bathed in the white light of an advertising screen. It’s the hotel lobby, with its deep chairs and bowed pot-plants. This is a surrealist study of architecture’s supporting cast in which you’re forced to consider and prod, at length, at the places that nobody ever cares about, or thinks about, or notices.
The presentation is as utilitarian as the subjects. There are ten scenes, visited in sequence. Each one is a dusky, tonal diorama, around which the camera can be rotated on a fixed circular path. As you wheel around the scene, you gain new perspectives on the objects, which, like a surrealist study, can allow you to reflect on the familiar in an unfamiliar context. In tactile terms, the extent of your interaction, beyond rotating the camera, is the option to click on light sources (lamps, laptops, televisions and so on) in order to produce interesting effects, unexpected animations, or pleasing snippets of audio. When you’ve clicked enough lights to finish the scene, it’s on to the next one. So it ever was, when you get down to it, in video games.
Despite the mundane façade, Islands is in fact playful, humorous tour. Its most interesting and curious effects come from its juxtapositions, between the bizarre and the ordinary, between the fabricated and the natural, the city and the forest. In once scene, a bus pulls into a stop and deposits a line of bouncing eggs. As the vehicle descends, on a previously hidden elevator, into the ground, the eggs congregate in the shelter, whose sides rise to form an incubator. Another reveals a gaggle of palm trees riding an escalator, reaching the summit then cluttering up the exit point. Some scenes infuse everyday objects with fantastical behaviours: the carry cases that rise and fall through the air, like horses on a carousel; the detonation of bank notes, freeze-framed alongside the ATM, like butterflies frozen in flight.
There’s menace here, too. In one diorama you must nudge an unseen businessman through his evening’s routine, helping him to park his car in the garage, flicking between the TV channels (tapped at through a gap in the window), brushing his teeth (and finally switching off the bedroom light. The eerie way the next car trundles up to the neighbouring house thereafter speaks to the jarring asynchronicity of modern life; the cloistered way in which we live in cities, so close, so apart.
The ambience is not only heightened by the game’s soundtrack but is often swayed by its own sonic juxtapositions. The whisper and footsteps of the hotel lobby are first mingled with a rainstorm, then obliterated by an air-raid siren. There’s the repeated note on a piano, mixed with the idle chug of a stationary car’s engine. In audio, as in pictures, Islands combines unlikely elements to create unexpected effects.
A few years ago, when Jonathan Blow was in the early stages of developing The Witness, he complained to me about Sony and Microsoft’s unwavering stipulation that every game must feature trophies and achievements. These extraneous incentives, Blow argued, forced a certain and limiting definition onto games, specifying that they must all have clear, winnable goals, and obvious ways in which players can excel over others, and be rewarded in ways that allow us to show off that excellence. Islands supports Blow’s argument that not every game must work in the same way; that the ultimate goal of play should not always be victory, but can, at times, be something else.
Undeniably Islands sits to the far left of the sliding scale that runs between digital art installation and Call of Duty. That only adds to its transgressive appeal. It expands the definition of what games can and might be. The obvious, uninteresting criticism is not only that this is a game that cannot be ‘won’ (and therefore is not a game in the formal sense) but also that its vocabulary is too limited, its rules too flimsy and malleable (sometimes clicking on a light source does nothing at all). But that’s to misinterpret the author’s goals. Islands is a brisk study on the simple pleasures of human engineering and nature’s eagerness to unpick that endeavour. Enter with an open mind, and you’ll leave with renewed certainty that there is wonder to be found in the mundane, if only you take the time to uncover it.