Townscaper: A delightful build game in a soothing watercolour palette

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Townscaper is proof that you do not need demanding and complicated graphics to deliver a sophisticated building experience.

Anyone who enjoys playing games in the “build stuff” genre will probably be familiar with the question “but what is the point?” which usually come from a variety of puzzled observers.

In some cases, the point is to keep the people of your virtual town happy. Or to recreate something you saw in a glossy magazine. Often, there is not a point. And there does not need to be one. Well, not a tangible one measured by objectives set by the game anyway.

Townscaper, released in June 2020 as an Early Access Game on Steam, is one such seemingly pointless, yet utterly satisfying distraction from the relentless demands of the real world.

Described by the developer as ” an experimental passion project” which is more of a “toy rather than a game”, it allows players to build colourful towns on an irregular grid that floats on a vast body of water.

Unlike other building games, players do not get to choose what their creations evolve into – not entirely anyway.  Although, as I would learn later on, perhaps somewhat befitting of the theme of there being more to things than what first meets the eye, you can remove bits you’ve already placed by simply right-clicking. Once you’re aware of this simple, but profoundly useful mecahnism, building in Townscaper becomes even more enchanting.

Townscaper is underpinned by an algorithm which automatically turn those blocks into cute little houses, arches, stairways, bridges and lush backyards, depending on their configuration.

The result is a sort of relaxing digital Lego, delivered in watercolour shades without the agony of adult colouring books (for those of use who can’t stay between the lines).

It might sound overly simplistic. It is, to an extent. But in these times where existence has often felt overwhelmingly complex, Townscaper is a delightful reprieve.

Our executive function has been overworked with so many choices for the last 12 months, so having these completely harmless ones made for us feels like a luxury, even if you are built out of control freak blocks like this writer.

Everything is controlled by a clean interface. Not that there is that much for players to control. The pastel palette adds variation to the builds, without being an assault on the senses.

As you build, clouds meander in the background, the water ripples gently and the reflections of your creation float on the surfaces beneath. The ability to adjust the light to simulate time of day adds a morsel of realism and you can watch your world change as the light does.

Expanding the build is as simple as click and go. While the option to extended the pathways by dragging the mouse would be useful, there is something cathartic about the monotony of it all.

There’s no need for overtly demanding graphic details, but don’t think that this means there is no sophistication in the game’s visuals.

From the bobbing birds on the roofs, bobbing outlines filled with shades of grey, white and yellow to the post boxes, boots, benches and ladders that line the houses – there is a level of detail around every corner.

A Townscaperbuild shared by a player on Steam.

Townscaper can be as simple or as infinitely detailed as you wish. On the game’s Steam page, players share screenshots of their builds which serve as a reminder of just how much our perspectives and interpretations of the same view can differ.

Townscaper build shared to Steam by a player.

At this stage of its development, Townscaper is completely uninhabited, barring the birds. Some players have noted that this is one of the game’s drawbacks. In a year where we have had to isolate, the quiet streets of the colourful towns can feel stark and lonely.

But perspective is a funny thing. Are the expansive builds remnants of something that used to be or could it be behind the bright walls, there are lives with stories untold, limited only by what we imagine them to be? Afterall, the lights keep shining through the windows in Townscaper at night-time.

Townscaper is available on Steam for around US$6. The developer is encouraging feedback from players, giving everyone a chance to help shape the direction the game takes in future – perhaps the perfect metaphor of the connections we share, even if they are not always physically visible.