Townscaper is a toybox about creating colorful and quirky towns. It doesn’t have guidelines or goals beyond that, allowing players to take it whichever direction they choose. For many, that includes stepping outside the boundaries of the game itself, and bridging that gap has led to many of its best creations.
As often happens in these builder-style games, many players have turned to reality — in this case real world locations — for their inspiration. But Townscaper’s strong and particular aesthetic sense has also influenced where they’re looking. For example, there have been several creations inspired by the French island commune of Mont-Saint-Michel. That’s no surprise, given its geography and architecture reflects the game’s own open water and crowded buildings.
That’s what motivated Reddit user henrique3d, an architect and urbanist by profession, to choose it. “You have a (really interesting and very out-of-the-box) organic grid, a set of houses and towers that can look a lot like Medieval European towns, and a very beautiful and infinite ocean,” he says. “Making a medieval hilly island just made sense to me.”
You May Also Like:
- The 8 Best Stealth Games Where I Just Shoot Guys & Hope for the Best
- How PlayStation 5’s Instant Loading Could Change Video Game Storytelling
- Flash Games Are Leaving Soon, but Their Memory Will Never Fade
#Townscaper is out in Early Access!
— Oskar Stålberg (@OskSta) June 30, 2020
But his design was also influenced by the fact that Townscaper isn’t really designed to make perfect recreations. Developer Oskar Stålberg says that he was expecting people to try this sort of thing, but that it’s actually “quite hard” in reality. “The crooked grid is what it is, and you have to adapt whatever you’re building to that.”
Because of that, Henrique says that they went for “feeling” more than accuracy. Though that didn’t stop them from bringing in tools from their day job to help out. “I went to SketchFab and searched for a 3D model of the town,” he adds. “I took some measures, just to make sure I could keep the proportions of the island right.”
Usually, though, this connection between outside tool and in-game creation goes the other way. This is often as simple as sharing towns online. But even that can cause the game to take off in new directions. People’s paintovers of their villages have been beautiful, for example. And that can feed back into the game itself. “People figured out a way to build floating towns without any supports, and I didn’t think that was possible,” says Stålberg, but instructions are now freely available for architects of the more fantastical persuasion.
Some make their own games within the game. That includes the mazes created by Michael Audish of Gold Plated Games. “Mazes were always one of my favorite ways to spend time as a kid, and I was particularly fascinated by mazes that had an artistic flair to them. The ones that really stuck with me were the ones that looked like actual hedge mazes, or complex towns, or networks of pipes, instead of just solid lines,” says Audish, so he was inspired to try with the stylish art direction of Townscaper.
He explained that making the actual route was the easiest part: filling in the true path first and then the tricksy false starts. But filling in all the buildings took hours. This further surprised Stålberg. “People are building way bigger and for way longer than I thought,” he says. “I feel sorry for people’s poor hands and wrists: I gotta add some kind of fast build tool so you don’t have to click for every single house block.”
Others have been sharing their layouts, not for people to explore the labyrinthine streets, but as exercises in developing fictional back stories and lore. I asked the creator of the detailed city of Seegrad, Yalensky, whether they had ideas in mind before or whether they let the crooked generation of Townscaper lead them. “Both!” they say. “I knew from the beginning that I wanted a northern European Venice-style city, and so I had a list of basic urban features in mind. These included a fort, a town hall, a big church and a few smaller ones, docks, and so on.”
But once those early features were labeled, they saw more that could be done. “For example, during building I made a number of handsome gateways and arches not out of any kind of planning but merely because I liked how they looked and I liked making them. I came to realize that the more grandiose of these archways stood out very prominently on my screenshot-map. They were calling out for lore! And so (for example) the Gate of Neptune was named.”
They also deepened their work by considering how architecture and urbanism actually function in reality. “For example, the idea of a ‘lord mayor’ and a ‘council of burgesses’ came during the labeling phase as I was forced to think about the relations between all these urban features I had built.”
Yalensky was inspired by an earlier in-game city, Port-Jouvence, created by Reddit user Tukata11. Takuta says that they were initially inspired to make something with the feel of the “traditional villages in the south of France where I spent my childhood,” but then decided it would be the perfect setting for their tabletop RPG game. So they added labels and snippets of information to their map.
“As a big fan of role-playing games, inventing little stories for anything and everything has almost become a reflex,” he explains. “When I want to make a place interesting, I simply ask myself where I want the interest to come from. A slightly eccentric or mysterious character like the guardian of the Port-Jouvence graveyard? A legend or a feature connected to the place in itself, as is the case with the palace? Or simply an atmosphere, a profusion of possible activities that would make the place worth visiting for my players or myself?”
Takuta says Townscaper has been invaluable for this, because its “real fun is improvising and not planning anything. I just build and when I look at what I’ve done I’m like ‘Hey, this building looks like a church, so this area will be the church district.’”
The variety of ways to use the game — and the variety of ways to share it afterwards — have made Townscaper a real joy to observe from the outside. I’m looking forward to seeing how people find new ways to bring it into their wider lives as it continues through early access.