Most of the games I generally play are traditional in a sense. Puzzlers, simulations, adaptations of popular board games, adventures titles, RPGs, you name it I played it or at least tried it. This time however, Islands: Non-Places is from a type of genre that I have started dipping my toes into slowly overtime. I would call this an interactive art piece or even a gallery where you are watching what happens on the screen with very minimal interaction with the program itself. There are those in the gaming community that decry these types of projects by saying they are not games. This is completely true as they are not games, they are interactive experiences or sensory journeys that I’ve read some people call them. I completely agree with this but it doesn’t detract from the fact that they can be extremely enjoyable to try and most of them do create a sense of wonder and invoke a reaction.
What is the Game About?
As described by the store-page on steam, Islands: Non Places is an “interactive artscape”. Meaning this is a game where you interact with the artwork you see on the screen. How this is done in this case is by you spinning the scene around using the mouse and at points, you will be prompted to click on lights that will glow and in some cases emit noise. Besides clicking on the lights and spinning, there is no other gameplay whatsoever, so the real meat is in the experience itself and how the scene unfolds.
In total, there are 10 scenes. Each depicts a normal, real-world scenario with typical sounds around you that one would expect to hear. All of them are situations like going to a store, waiting for your bag at an airport baggage claim, parking your car and going home, or taking out money from an ATM.
The artwork itself is on the minimalist side which uses a single color but in multiple shades as well as mist that hangs over all around the scene. As the scene continues, the world suddenly shifts and you don’t recognize what exactly is going on. The ATM machine flies out of its case to save an ATM machine that is broken. The baggage claim plays music and looks like an instrument. All these scenes are about the mundane view of life becoming something spectacular or strange. As if when our minds wander the world around us changes.
One of my favorites scenes was one of the first three. You start near a fountain in a busy shopping center. You hear the sounds of people chatting and walking around you. Slowly as you progress through the scene, the fountain breaks down so its lifted to fix the pipes that is pumping water into the fountain. However, the pipes go down all the way until you start seeing less of the mall and more of trees, vines and bushes as if you were in a jungle somewhere. The sounds of the people around you fade away and you only start hearing the sounds of the trees and animals. After you manage to fix the pipes at the bottom, the sounds fade back to the mall and you ascend back to the top where the fountain is back in its place. The water starts flowing again and the sounds of the people return in full.
You’re suddenly in a different space but technically as shown at the end, you’re still at the fountain and in reality nothing has changed. The sense of surrealism which is warping reality is interesting and also calming as you watch it. Its truly an almost out of body experience as you watch these scenes.
This game is an experimental art-piece in every way. Minimal gameplay but tons of atmosphere and character.
Would I recommend this?
Just to be clear, this is not a puzzle game or any kind of video game you would expect. This is an art piece and if you’re someone who loves interactive art and/or surreal imagery, I completely recommend Islands: Non-Places. When it comes to vaporwave, its a surreal musical genre that takes something as mundane as a shopping mall and 1980s lounge music and turns it into art. That is also what is happening in Islands, it takes the every-day world we know and transforms into into a bizarre alternative reality and then slowly sinks back to normal.
This type of experience is not something everyone will like and you do have to pay for, as it is $4.99 USD. Replayability is also low as once you have watched all the scenes, its hard to make sense of why you would do it again. Its also very short, as the whole game is only roughly 45 minutes. So its up to you to justify if 45 minutes is worth your $5. Again its a fantastic experience but take it knowing what this game actually is.
Who is Carl Burton, the Developer?
Mr. Burton is an animator and visual artist operating and living in New York City. Island was his first video game as he mostly does animations (including gifs) and digital illustrations. Recently, he did commission work for The American Life website, where his art was featured on the front page for their podcast on May 17th this year. He has also done artwork all across the internet for various news publications and websites such as Medium and the podcast Serial among others. His animations, gifs, and artwork has completely captured the public imagination. As his style according to media outlets is described as surreal, science fiction inspired, and mesmerizing.
As for his background, according to an interview conducted by Joel Couture on Gamasutra.com in 2017, Burton started at the Experimental Game Lab at the University of California San Diego in terms of his video game experience and overall his professional experience is in experimental animation. He got the idea for Islands after he completed Shelter, a short animation that won numerous accolades where he said this:
“My previous work was an animation called Shelter and I think there is a connection with the idea of a familiar space that reveals a hidden structure. Some influences are Marc Auge’s book Non-Places: An Introduction to Supermodernity and Chris Watson’s field recordings.” (Couture, Road to the IGF: Carl Burton’s Islands: Non-Places, 2017)
“The environments in Islands are all based on places you might pass through without thinking. They all blur together in memory, which makes them feel dreamlike. I wanted to see what would happen if those transitional spaces revealed an unusual depth or system behind them.” (Couture, Road to the IGF: Carl Burton’s Islands: Non-Places, 2017)
Overall the project took 6-8 months and despite Burton not having a programming background, he was able to create and then distribute Islands on PC as well as a mobile version.
Overall Burton created a unique experience unlike any other that ensnared the average gamer for a brief moment into a strange world where nothing as it seems.
If your interested in reading up on Carl Burton or following his future projects, I linked his Twitter and website below. He is also active on Tumblr. I also listed the various news sources where I found the interviews he was in as well as other articles about his work. I highly recommended the KILL SCREEN and Gamasutra articles as they have a wealth of information on Burton.
References and Citations:
Couture, Joel. “Road to the IGF: Carl Burton’s Islands: Non-Places.” Gamasutra Article, February 7, 2017 https://www.gamasutra.com/view/news/289745/Road_to_the_IGF_Carl_Burtons_Islands_NonPlaces.php
Priestman, Chris. “Carl Burton’s First VideoGame Reveals the Surral Secret of the City” KILL SCREEN Article, https://killscreen.com/articles/carl-burtons-first-videogame-reveals-surreal-secrets-city/
Jobson, Christopher “Surreal Monochromatic GIFs by Carl Burton” COLOSSAL Artcile, May 11th 2016, https://www.thisiscolossal.com/2016/05/surreal-monochromatic-gifs-by-carl-burton/