Headshots. High scores. Puzzles. Platforming. Infinite warfare. These are familiar tropes of video games. But sometimes, games are a means to explore art, a place for curiosity to play.
Nowhere is this more true than in Islands: Non-Places ($3), a new iOS app by Carl Burton. You likely know Burton’s work without knowing it–his geometric-forward style, which he often creates entirely from a single color rendered in several different brightnesses–has been featured everywhere from PBS Kids to the MoMA, from Serial to SpikeTV. Now, following six months of development, his animations have become playable in Islands.
Islands, which was featured recently on Prosthetic Knowledge, takes place in a world with no characters or dialog. Instead, it’s a series of muted, peaceful settings. Palm trees, lights, and office furniture makes up one of the interior environments. You can spin the scene with your finger, and tapping the brightest light source will often lead you to the next stage of the animation, the next level of the “game.”
In this sense, Islands is set up like a stereotypical puzzle game–a logical mystery to be solved–but the mystery rarely requires any real deduction than click on the brightest thingie in the frame. “Rather than a brain teaser, in Islands, the focus is on a sense of atmosphere and immersion with casual gameplay,” says Burton.
It’s Burton’s art in tappable form. On an early stage, what looks like a Mies van der Rohe house appears on the screen–nothing but a sleek silhouette of steel and glass. Only when I spin it do I see a bright yellow panel. And it’s only when I tap it, and a bus pulls up, do I realize this house is really a bus stop rather than a mid-century abode. Half a carton of eggs climb off the bus into the structure. I tap a light source again, and the bus stop glows orange, as if warming the eggs in a giant incubator.
The scenes float together with an almost subconscious visual logic; that is to say, explaining it all now sounds absurd. But watching one animation cue the next gives the game a feeling of quiet inevitability. Of course eggs came off that bus. Of course the stop was a giant incubator. What else could I ever have seen in those frames?
Yet not everyone understands what Burton is going for. One reviewer was confused why this brain teaser was solvable in only an hour (when similar games, like Myst, might confound players for months).
“I wanted the interactivity to be very simple, something anyone could play, but for that to lead the player through something more surreal and idiosyncratic than you might expect from a casual, ‘easy’ game,” says Burton. “I’m not really interested in puzzles as difficult obstacles. I wanted a more light and realistic sense of momentary confusion, like when you’re staying at a friend’s house and have to figure out how their shower works.”
Indeed, Islands is that feeling of fleeting misunderstanding, rendered one strangely beautiful place at a time.