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A game for our times: Townscaper

Indie game Townscaper is a delightful, relaxing escape from the real world as you build your own crisis-free city.

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Townscaper is everything I need right now. It's a relaxing, adorable escape from the real world. It's an outlet for creativity, and at the same time, evokes a longing for a place that doesn't really exist. You're transported to a world that you create, from a tiny island fishing village, to a pseudo-steampunk, multi-layered city that couldn't exist anywhere but sci-fi. 

Oh, and you do this all with a single click to build up, a handful of colors, and a brilliance of design that bigger games could only dream of having.

It's $6 on Steam and you should buy it right now. But if the photos don't sell you on it, here's a bit more.

Sim-plicity

Townscaper is the work of a single developer, Oskar Stålberg. He has an impressive track record making little gorgeous diversions like this. If you're reading this story on a beefy enough computer, check out the web-based Planet, which has a similar vibe to Townscaper. It's a tiny planet creator, but doesn't quite have the same creative opportunities as this new game.

And I suppose "game" is a bit misleading. If your idea of a video game involves a story, puzzles, exploration, lots of pew pew, etc, this isn't it. It's an interactive distraction in the best possible sense.

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Your blank canvas.

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Once you load in, you're greeted by a greenish-blue expanse that disappears to a horizon populated by some friendly looking clouds. Your only choices are ones of color: red to purple, plus some stone-like earth tones and a soft white. There are no building choices. A left click builds a single square up. If you want to remove it, right click.

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Your first click. The start of your island, islands, cities, whatever you want.

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That first click pops a platform into existence in the endless sea. I do mean pop; the audio effects of the game are one of its many charms. This platform looks to be made of stone blocks, with a little railing. Click on top of this, and you get a little house! It has tiny windows, a little door, even a mailbox. 

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A house! Hmmm... might need some neighbors.

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Click on the roof, and now you have a two-story house! Three clicks for three, or as many as you want. 

Now it's time to get creative. You can right-click, as in remove, the ground floor. Now you have a house on stilts on a platform in the middle of the sea. Remove the original platform, and you have a house that's like someone took a home from a magical sea-side village and plopped it down on top of the Maunsell Sea Forts.

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At least you won't have to worry about waves.

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From here, the possibilities are surprisingly endless. The game generates buildings and much more based on the context of what's around it. Put two houses of the same color next to each other, they'll combine into a single, bigger house. Keep going like that and now it looks like something that might be a warehouse or factory. Go vertical, and the roof changes into something that might be a lighthouse. Delete a section over water, and it becomes an arch or a bridge. Enclose a flat area, and morphs into a yard or park. Trees, stairs, birds, benches, even little beehives appear as your island grows.

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My favorite creation so far. I'd very much like to live here.

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I alternate between two styles, depending on my mood. On one hand, I like making somewhat realistic fishing villages. Quaint and quiet archipelagos where I could live with my friends and family. I create buildings that, in my mind, are stores and factories, others that are hotels and houses. It could all sort of exist in the world somewhere off the coast of Cornwall or Cape Cod

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Another early creation. This is tame compared to what is possible.

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Then the sci-fi writer in me takes over and realism goes out the door: Multitiered, cross-platformed islands that defy all building codes, cantilevered houses 10 stories above the water, islands with densely packed buildings that make Battleship Island look like a day spa, Mont Saint-Michel analog done up in myriad pastels. 

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A lovely and elaborate creation by my friend Jonathan. You can easily share towns with your friends or strangers online. Then a copy of their town will be on your computer to explore or alter.

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And what's truly incredible is what people with actual artistic talent can do. I love my little creations, but looking online I marvel at what others have created. I am so impressed. There's no competition in any sense with Townscaper, mind you. This is entirely just a fun way to make cute creations and if you want, share them with friends or the world. You can grab screen shots, or share a code with someone and they can explore and build on a copy of your town on their computer.

Early Access

Technically, Townscaper is part of Steam's Early Access program. In this case it seems that means Stålberg plans to add more features. It's playable now as he intended. Or as he describes it, "Townscaper is an experimental game. Or more of a toy really. I want to see how people interact with Townscaper to help me figure out what direction to take it and what features to add."

Some of the features discussed in the Steam comments and on Twitter are things like more greenery, more camera options, the ability to create or delete more than one block at a time, music, maybe even the ability to choose different building types. However, I feel like the more this becomes a "real" city builder the higher the risk it loses one of its greatest attributes: simplicity. You're painting your own little world, with happy little trees, one click at a time. 

Some have mentioned the desire for little Townscaper denizens (Townscapians?), but I hope if this is implemented there's the ability to turn it off. I like the quiet emptiness of it. I would love a sort of first-person camera so I could walk around my creations, however. That would be amazing.

I know Steam reviews are a poor metric for a game's quality, but the "Overwhelmingly Positive" rating is telling. If you like building things in games, this is that, stripped of everything unnecessary.

For $6, it's a wonderful, satisfying escape and a near-perfect oddity that is a testament to creativity, both the designer's and your own.

Townscaper is available now on Steam.