I’ve recently been reading a book called Virtual Cities. It’s a big, glossy tome of a book - perfect for the coffee table - covering 45 of gaming’s most iconic cities, describing and mapping them in detail while shedding light on how each was designed. It’s made me realize two things. Firstly, how many of our favorite video game spaces are ostensibly urban, and secondly, how often these metropolises are some combination of magical, fantastical, and even impossible.
Released to Steam’s Early Access in the summer, Townscaper, the creation of solo developer Oskar Stålberg, is an architectural toy that lets you construct everything from quaint, sea-side settlements to vast labyrinths and impossible towers. In some ways, Townscaper is a city-builder, although not one preoccupied with anything as logical or precise as resource management or plumbing infrastructure. Instead, you're free to just let your imagination run. You start out with nothing but a gentle oceanic void and instantly set about constructing your town atop it.
Everything is created with a single click. A small, neat harbor block will plunk itself down, settling itself comfortably amongst the water. Additional blocks turn the harbor into houses, which eventually combine with one another procedurally in interesting and novel ways. Leave a gap for a lane or street, and clothing lines will be strung out across them by the game’s algorithm. Enclose an area with houses completely, and it’ll turn into a garden or set of allotments. You can also remove blocks, creating even more complex configurations. Delete a block from the bottom of a larger complex and it’ll create a little archway or tunnel, remove another bit from an upper level and it’ll create a balcony, and so on.
Townscaper always starts out small and contained. Gentle seaside towns, with more than a few colorful notes. But you needn’t stop there, you can continue on adding more to your town until you’ve constructed something more megalithic. You can mimic the great virtual cities, sculpting a gothic network of spires, bridges, and archways, like those seen in Dark Souls’ Anor Londo. Equally, you could build a great citadel overlooking a dense metropolis, like Half-Life’s City 17. It’s even possible to create flying cities, chipping away at your town’s foundations until even the iron stilts the game procedurally creates in order to suspend your city up high are gone, and the whole thing floats on nothing but whirring propellers, like Bioshock’s steampunk Columbia.
The game has captured many an imagination, with artists from the community enthusiastically sharing their creations over social media. One person, in particular, caught my attention - Benjamin Sack, an American artist who specializes in drawing immense, spiraling capriccios. Capriccios are a style of artwork that originated in Renaissance Italy and are essentially these grand architectural fantasies where buildings from different geographies and histories are stitched together into a single panoramic tapestry.
Ben tells me that he’s not much of a gamer. He remembers things like Age of Empires and SimCity (he’s always had a thing for construction!) being old favorites, but it was only after seeing Stålberg and others posting about Townscaper on Twitter that his interest was piqued. "I was immediately enthralled. It was like seeing a drawing of mine come to life."
Ben points to things like the “perfectly tuned orchestra that lets your creativity soar," and to how the game “effortlessly captures the same feelings of freedom, play and fun" inherent to doodling, as reasons for the game’s success. As Townscaper is so simple, pretty much anyone can pick it up and instantly set about creating their own imaginary town or city. Essentially, it’s architectural Jazz.
Song of the city
"The architectural style of the game, with its flourishes of the classical and hints of the industrial, was clearly designed with a deep love for the subject… that realism makes it sing. The concern for proportion and the marvelous atmosphere also elicits a very comfortable, inviting feeling," Ben tells me. Regardless of how large your town becomes, there are always those flecks of familiarity. Ben’s work is similar in this regard, it’s infinite whorls can be almost frightening from a distance. It’s only when you zoom in that you begin to be able to pick out elements of the human, with distinct structures and architectural styles grounding the whole.
It’s clear Ben sees a lot of his own awe-inspiring work in Townscaper. "When starting a drawing on a piece of paper, a white void stares back at you." In Townscaper too, you begin with a void, although Ben notes that “instead of a potentially intimidating whiteness, you start where the sky and sea meet, in a calm, dreamlike, impressionistic space." There’s something to the physicality and immediacy of getting going in Townscaper, how “with a simple click, civilization pops into existence."
"The vocabulary of classical architecture, and architecture in general, lends itself to being at times, cold, austere, and detached… In my drawings, I like to bring life to cityscapes by playing with perspective. From that play, something fantastical arises."Ben feels that, "in a kindred sort of way," Townscaper brings warmth and life to architecture. "The stroke of genius is the grid shape upon which the city arises." In Townscaper it’s close to impossible to build to a straight or rigid grid plan. Instead, houses and buildings morph together to form more organic shapes, and the overall structure of the town is fundamentally bowed and crooked. "It’s a spiral - a shape I embrace and imbed wholeheartedly in my own work."
As Ben Sack mentions, there’s a warmth inherent to the coiled fractals of both Townscaper and his own works. One of my favorite things that Ben often shares over social media is the beginning of one of his pieces. It’s when he’s just getting started, and laying down those first few, critical structures. It feels homely. Of course, inevitably, those original pen strokes are dwarfed by what follows. It’s as if there’s an urge to keep expanding. In Townscaper, a town is simply how it starts. A fantastical city often seems to follow.
Townscaper is available now in Early Acess on Steam.