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Game On

In ‘Islands,’ a parking lot isn’t just a parking lot

Thanksgiving weekend, particularly in light of recent events, might be a good time to escape the world completely for about an hour. If that’s what you’re looking for — and you’re generally amenable to artsy, goal-less games, download “Islands: Non-Places” right now. It’s just a few bucks and it’s worth it.

“Islands,” created by Carl Burton, an artist and animator whose work has been widely published in outlets like The New York Times, is a short, memorable journey. The game’s press materials describe it as “a surreal trip through the mundane” in which you “reveal the hidden ecosystems of 10 unusual environments” and “unlock an atmospheric experience while exploring strange yet familiar scenes.”


“Non-places” is a perfect partial title, because “Islands” unfolds in the sorts of boring environments that wouldn’t normally make for much video game fun, unless there was a firefight going on: Think bus stops and parking lots and lobbies. The game’s interactivity is limited: “Islands” drops you in one of these places but doesn’t even let you move around. All you can do is rotate each of the scenes and click on parts of the environment that light up.

When you click, or click enough, the scene will transform in surprising ways — not to give too much away, but maybe gears and levers will reveal themselves or a seemingly inanimate object will become lifelike. Each setting has a detached-from-the-rest-of-the-universe feel to it. The palettes are stark, and there’s a gauzy fog. The sound is really, really well done — “Islands” recommends headphones, and you should in fact wear them. Sometimes the ambient noise is cars in the distance, sometimes it’s conversation. The clicks and whirs and other noises from the transformations as they occur are all quite satisfying.

The most immediate influence I detected was “Myst,” a classic and/or infamous game that also involved fairly static scenes, hunting for the right place to click, and so on. While “Myst” was a technical marvel when it was first released, I found it too opaque and frustrating. “Islands” isn’t trying to stymie you or psych you out with puzzles. It’s always pretty clear what you’re supposed to do, and the game’s general ethos is: “Here, let me show you some cool stuff.”


So what does it all mean? Who knows? Who cares? It’s pretty and interesting and contains many moments that will stick with you. It may even crowd out the dark thoughts likely to flood your brain when you flip off the game and check the news.

I kept thinking about molecules when I was playing “Islands.” Bear with me: Even the most boring stuff all around us, stuff we never give a moment of extra thought to, contains remarkable hidden microscopic structures. The fabric of the universe is fascinating and invisible and makes everything a little bit magical. I doubt that’s exactly the point Burton was trying to get across, but whatever: His hugely original game took me on a brief but absorbing ride, and I enjoyed it.

Jesse Singal can be reached at jesse.r.singal@gmail.com.