Townscaper on iPad is brain food for my creative side


Just use your imagination (oh, oh)

I’ve been a fan of city builder simulators since the mid-’90s when a friend of mine introduced me to the magic that was Sim City 2000. I was around 10-years-old the first time I laid eyes on it, and I couldn’t believe something like that could be a game. On a dreary Washington afternoon, he showed me around the city he’d been building for the past month, detailing the different bridges he’d named and taking me through the trouble he went through to develop a sufficient water pipe system. We didn’t have a PC at my house at the time (or at least one that could run the game), so I only ever got to experience the joy of city planning when I was hanging out at his place and he wasn’t using the computer to play Red Alert. A love for the genre that blossomed back then is still blooming today, if my adoration for Townscaper on iPad is any indication.

Admittedly, Townscaper is a hell of a lot simpler than anything the Sim City series has produced. It’s not a simulator with goals and scenarios to complete. In fact, I’d be hard-pressed to call it a game at all. It’s more of an interactive art project where you create your own idyllic town in the middle of the ocean. All you need to do is tap the screen for paths and houses to start popping up along the purposefully curvy grid. You can swap the colors of the buildings and change up the lighting, but that’s all there is to it. 

Frankly, it doesn’t need much else. Townscaper is a calming experience. I’m doing something I love—city building—but in a manner that requires no forethought or extensive planning. I’m just tapping my iPad screen, watching a sprawling city emerge from the light blue depths of this shallow sea. Not only does this relax me after troublesome days at work, but as a natural storyteller, crafting this whimsical city gets my creative juices flowing.

My mind has a habit of filling in the gaps when it comes to story and character. When I play an Etrian Odyssey game, for instance, my imagination will draw up extensive backstories for each character that I never really bother writing down, but always carry in the back of my mind as I ascend each stratum. It’s no different with city builders. My mind will just start telling stories about what each building in my bustling city is, and with Townscaper’s minimalistic presentation, there is plenty of opportunities for my imagination to go nuts with details for these crooked conurbations.

Townscaper iPad

Developer Oskar Stålberg intentionally made it so the grid you’re building on isn’t a collection of perfect squares. It curves and bends, forcing your pathways and buildings to mold to their surroundings. You might be able to construct a perfectly square building if you’re on the right part of the grid, but as you build away from it, the world might start to contort and angle, giving your city a look you never really intended. For anyone who might take this seriously as a city builder, it’s not ideal, but for someone who is using this app to fuel the right side of his brain, it helps me see the beauty in the things I cannot control, and give each city I create their own unique layout that only adds to the story my mind makes for it.

My brain doesn’t work all that well these days. I’m forgetting names, dates, and titles more often than before. If anything, all the real knowledge that used to exist in my mind has been replaced by scenes from The Simpsons and a list of things I should be doing instead of whatever it is I’m doing at the moment. According to a couple of TED Talks I’ve seen (thanks, Moyse), this is just a natural part of getting older. The consensus on these talks is that it’s okay to forget, and it doesn’t mean you’re on a one-way street toward Alzheimer’s. 

My fear about this has always been that as my brain goes, so does the storytelling ability. I may not be proud of a lot of things I’ve done with my life, but the pretty powerful imagination engine I’ve had in my mind since the first time I laid eyes on Rugrats and realized the power of playing pretend is something I cherish a great deal. And tooling around with something like Townscaper is only going to help foster that creativity as the hairs on my temples continue to gray.

November was National Novel Writing Month, or NaNoWriMo, something I’ve tried to partake in every year since 2012. I’ve never actually finished a book during the month, but this year, I got pretty far into a novel, and I can’t help but attribute that success to opening up Townscaper every night since late October to get my creative juices flowing. For me, this app is more than a game or a way to pass the time. It’s brain food for my creative synapses, and unlike what I’m trying to do with real food, I actually look forward to gorging myself on it.

[This impressions piece is based on a retail build of the game provided by the publisher.]