He never blinks. The red, glowing eyes of KrazyKillerSheep are transfixed on his widescreen television, and he never blinks. I’d like to say it’s because he never wants to lose sight of what he’s got. His penthouse is a grandiose apartment, full of chic furniture and musical instruments. There’s a swimming pool upstairs, a drum kit in the corner, a long dining table, set for three. A piano sits on an intricate marble floor, surrounded by glass windows that overlook an unreachable skyline. The owner has all this, and yet his crimson eyes are set firmly, unfalteringly on his massive TV. He isn’t worried for his possessions, nor captivated by television. Killer can’t blink because he’s a skeleton.
He’s not the only fleshless human in the world of Tower Unite. This is an online theme park where you can play games like minigolf or trivia between building a home for your character. You buy furniture and props to decorate your place and there’s a handful of templates to choose from. A brutalist beachside holiday house, a suburban family home, an underwater headquarters or, like KillerSheep’s place, an apartment in an opulent skyscraper. But before you enter this doll’s house simulator, you’ll get a character creation screen. You can choose to be an ordinary human being, or a walking pile of bones. As a result, there are effectively three genders in Tower Unite: male, female, and skeleton.
To look at it from afar, you can see traces of house-decorating game The Sims, as well as PlayStation Home, the ill-fated console “social hub” where every visitor was granted the same nondescript apartment, a tautological world in which you could walk into an in-game cinema to watch trailers for new releases instead of simply looking them up on YouTube. Tower Unite has the dolls houses and movie theatres of these two games, yes, but its true origin is Gmod Tower. This was one of the chaotic lands you could visit through Garry’s Mod, the freeform modding kit based on Valve’s Source engine. GMTower had a lobby, houses, kart racing, minigolf, a ‘zombies’ game, a nightclub, a water park.
“[W]e had around 48,000 unique GMT users,” said the creators at one point, and Garry himself once said: “I swear more work has gone into it than has gone into GMod itself.” But in April 2016 it was closed down and the team of modders who created it revealed something new – a standalone successor to their old theme park. Tower Unite.
When I first arrive in KillerSheep’s apartment, I feel like an intruder. In this world, you connect to people’s homes from a server list, and I had just plucked Killer’s condo out of the list because it had the oddest name. “KrazyKillerSheep’s LOADING LOADING LOADING LOADING…” Please note that this is not the condo’s name in full, it’s simply as many LOADINGs as I’m willing to accommodate. As soon as I landed, my host was standing at his front door, talking to a friend, another player called Andreas. Killer was explaining something to him.
“I went to a random person’s theatre condo…”
Then he turned to me.
Now, he’s back to talking to Andreas, who is a plain-faced young man. I don’t mean this in a nasty way. The facial features of every male avatar in this kingdom are identical, likewise those of every female avatar. Andreas seems to understand this, however. While I wear an unremarkable hoody and some jeans, he is adorned with brightly-coloured accessories. A santa hat, a cat-faced backpack, and an inflatable rubber ring shaped like a duck. Also, he is surrounded by small ghosts.
By now both my new acquaintances were running around the apartment, ignoring me and chatting about potions. I took the time to idly play with Killer’s drumkit and his piano, the keys on my keyboard corresponding to the snares and keys on each respective instrument. In the same room there were countless bottles of beer arranged on barrels. On the long dining table lay three untouched waffles.
It’s the most welcome I’ve felt since I arrived in this world.
“Our Customers will be happy to know there have been – zero – casualties this month.”
I’m in a train station, fresh off the tube that supposedly brings players from dreary reality to Tower Unite’s aspirational theme park haven. The voice on the intercom makes another announcement, warning me to stand clear of the track. Above ground, there’s no one in sight. I’m greeted only by an empty plaza with large signs, glowing in the twilight. “Arcade”, “Theatre”, “Casino”, “Boardwalk”. The servers are far from full, the streets of this virtual resort town eerily quiet.
Outside the decadence of the showy apartments, the reality of this unfinished game is in full sight. Tower Unite is still in development – an early access game – and many of the minigames and storefronts throughout town are boarded up. Not in a poetically contrasting way, which might divide this world neatly into Haves living in their marble towers and NPC Havenots on street level. But in the manner of any semi-constructed theme park. Signs are posted outside attractions, reading: “coming soon”. Wooden panels prevent players from entering non-functioning shops. There’s one large building, adorned with wacky font reading “Bumper Cars”, in which you’ll discover an impassable black doorway that leads to nothing.
It’s a half-built world. The streets are hollow, yet miraculously clean. Each edifice and neon sign is shiny and new, and yet the atmosphere is one of abandonment. Imagine an off-brand Disneyland that had just opened on an uninhabited planet with half the rides labelled “out of order”.
There’s one room, at the base of the central Tower, which houses an “art exhibition”. It’s a room of statues, you’ll discover, each stone base boasting a golden plaque inscribed with the name of a real human who financially backed the game’s development. SpongePierre. Cold Finger. SonicSNES. They all paid $500 to be featured in the game. The statues themselves have not yet been sculpted.
I’m back on the streets. And briefly, there’s a sign of life. A player wearing 3D glasses zooms past me in a jetpack. He’s going to the boardwalk, pursued by watermelon. The watermelon is one of the game’s pets. They roll after their owners, wearing gleeful emoji smiles. I run to catch up with both melon and man, and catch sight of the player as he heads into the fireworks shop. I approach and speak to him, telling him I’m new here, but he ignores me. He buys some items from the fireworks employee. A robot with a perma-smile and shower of confetti endlessly cascading onto his body. This NPC is called “Overly Excited Man”.
With the transaction complete, the player sprints past me again and jetpacks off into the sky, his grinning pet watermelon rubberbanding after him all the way. I walk the streets alone once again. I keep my eyes open for someone who might show me around. But all I find are NPCs – a furniture salesman, a bird who sells trees, a bouncer for a nightclub that hasn’t yet opened, a sedentary skeleton called “King Arthritis”. Finally, I reach Tower Casino.
There’s a lonely player standing outside, with ‘AFK’ hovering above them, like a drunk who’s been ejected from the building. The oily black doors of the casino look odd and I peer around the entrance of the casino, trying to look inside. There are no clear windows. I approach the doors and press ‘E’. Do they just lead to a loading screen or –
The doors shudder open like a hungry mouth and I am sucked into a black void. The sound of air wooshes past. The casino has swallowed me whole.
Killer the skeleton is sitting in a wheeled office chair on the roof of his penthouse. The city is spread before us, distant blocks of concrete shrouded in mist.
“Use it on the chair,” says Andreas.
KrazyKillerSheep stands up and points something at the chair. It’s a gun. No, a scaling tool. This little device has just been added to the game and allows you to grow and shrink objects. Want your sofa smaller or bigger? The scaler is for you. It resizes items in your condo, making taser-like clicking noises as the object contracts or expands to an unpractical size.
Andreas has seen Killer standing up from the chair. With his next comment, he seems to roll his eyes at his skeletal friend.
“While you sit on it, of course,” he says. “Otherwise it won’t work.”
Killer appears to understand. He sits back on the office chair and points the scaler directly downward. Finally, he pulls the trigger. Click, click, click, click.
Both chair and skeleton rapidly shrink to the size of a mouse. Killer gets off the chair and scuttles around at our feet like an overexcited gerbil, rapidly squatting up and down to communicate his mirth at being so comically small.
“Works to get bigger as well,” says Andreas.
Killer scampers back to the office chair at once. The clicks of the shrink ray now inverted, quickly becoming a growth ray. The scaling gun, which really does resemble a 9mm handgun now that I can see it so clearly, clicks and clicks and clicks. Andreas and I are soon confronted with a huge skeleton. His top hat, bow tie and glowing red eyes somehow more sinister than ever.
The pair mess around with the scaling gun some more, shrinking each other and scurrying around like insects. Eventually, we get talking about their homes. The apartment and all its furniture – its piano, its microwave, its widescreen TV – it all costs money. Or “units” as the currency is called here. You can earn this by playing the minigames in the plaza, all of which reward you with units. There are no microtransactions, nor packs filled with units. So apart from the price tag of the game itself, everything is earned in-game.
Neither Andreas nor Killer were early backers, they say. No statues for them. But they’ve been playing Tower Unite on and off for a year, so they have the money to buy lots of things. For instance, this trampoline.
Back to normal size, they leap on and start hopping up and down. I join them on the trampoline and continue probing them for answers. What’s the best way, I ask mid-bounce, to make money here? Enough that I could afford a place like this, with all its toys and gadgets.
“If you have a friend,” says Andreas between bounces, “I would say just repeat doing lasertag. Easy 100k in around ten min.”
“Is it fun?” I ask.
“Yea but if you farm it, it’s never fun,” says Andreas. “LOL.”
Killer has been using the scaling gun on the trampoline as we’ve been speaking. This has caused the trampoline’s effects to be increased dramatically. We’re now bouncing many times higher than before. White smoke is erupting from something on one of the pair’s bodies. Both my fellow bouncers have each equipped a gun that sprays confetti and makes relentless party noises. The whole scenario has become a foggy mid-air migraine filled with “boing” sound effects and hooting party horns. It’s too much, I must get off. At the zenith of my next bounce, I step sideways to escape the noise, aiming to land back on the roof. But I’ve misjudged my position, and go sailing off the edge of the skyscraper.
The casino is an assault on the eyes. Garish red and yellow carpet lines the floor. Huge signs spin sluggishly above banks of video poker and auto blackjack. The jingle of spinning fruits and the jangle of coins erupts from the slots. There are 70 of these gambling machines in the casino, for a server that can hold 40 players.
The hungry door-mouth which swallowed me whole has vomited me up inside the building, where there are more players than I ever encountered on the streets. That’s not to say there are many people here – there’s still only a handful – but it does seem to be the most popular place in town.
I walk into the poker room, hoping to meet some players. It’s easy to chat to people when they’ve been sedated by straights and flushes. Unfortunately, the tables are empty. Nobody is sitting together. Instead, all the players are sitting at slots, or tapping ‘hold’ on video poker, or demanding one more card in blackjack. A purple skeleton in a chef’s hat plays a machine called Triple Diamonds. The jackpot sits at 4745 units.
Nearby, there’s a gaudy sideroom housing four huge spinning wheels of fortune. A massive sign reads: SPIN TO WIN. Here you can gamble a pre-set 500 units for the chance to win one of 16 prizes. One of the prizes is 10,000 units, another is a loyal pet. You can win a grand piano, it says, or a laser projector or “an actual pile of gold”. The prizes are mostly props for your home. Later, I would return to this wheel with some money and spin it multiple times. It would always land within the same quadrant of low value prizes – a piggy bank, or a single waffle. One of the wheel’s most depressing pizza slices just reads: “Absolutely nothing”.
“I need to stop gambling,” says a player in the casino’s local chat.
It’s a guy named Call Me Leo. Like me, he’s a recent arrival, dressed in a basic t-shirt and jeans. But he has more of a grasp on the world, and offers to show me around.
We leave the casino together and he brings me outside, to a glowing red aura in a nearby red brick building. It’s the teleporter that takes players to the minigames. Leo stands in front of this aura, as if contemplating it. Really, he’s typing me a message.
“There are games you can play for credits,” he says, “and (hopefully) fun.”
Then he runs into the teleporter. I follow him and appear in a wide garden, housed inside a giant geodesic dome. There are antique lamps and flat grass textures. Along the walls of the garden are what I can only describe as “gamefronts”. Attractions, like the frontispiece of a ghost train, where you can sign up for one of this world’s minigames with friends. There’s Virus, where infected players chase survivors around on various maps. There’s Little Crusaders, where one player controls a dragon while all others try to defeat it as knights. There’s Minigolf and Ball Race and a competitive game called “Planet Panic!”
Leo and I walk up to this game, just the two of us, and soon we’re zooming around, trapped in the cartoon body of a cat or dog, both pilots of our own orb-collecting UFOs. We shoot at each other, hide, steal one another’s orbs. At the end of each match, we earn a few hundred units.
But we soon lose interest and leave the minigame. Like the streets outside, this garden of games is also a building site. Large tracts of the walls are bare, hosting only the logo of the Tower and the words “under construction”. I say goodbye to Leo and thank him. As empty as the streets can be, I prefer them to the dome of undone dreams.
The rest of my evening is spent at a loss. I visit my default condo. Everyone gets the keys to this identikit house when they buy the game. A pristine, modern house built on a tropical reef with two swimming pools, a grand fire place and a private beach. I check the bathroom. The toilet doesn’t flush.
I go back to the streets. I play some Trivia, alone. I visit the arcade, but it’s under construction. I go on a rollercoaster by myself. I go to the cinema and watch Rob Cantor’s Shia LaBeouf Live on the big screen.
I’m the only person in the theatre.
Night has fallen over the skyline at Killer’s penthouse. We’re all sitting in a dingy on the roof.
It turns out if you fall off the skyscraper, you simply warp back to a central point inside the apartment. That’s why Killer shows no hesitation when he shoots our dingy with the scaling gun, sending us spinning wildly into the night sky. We soar, spinning faster and faster. This is white water rafting but with a 500 meter plummet in place of a raging river. We spin and spin, until – blip – we’re back in the living room, dingy and all.
As a result of twitchy physics, I have become lodged in the couch. But Killer zaps me out of it, teleporting my body straight to him. It’s one of the powers he has as admin of his own suite. An omnipotent homeowner. He can move and rearrange furniture at will, plaster his walls with JPEGs from the internet, and boot anyone he doesn’t want hanging around. But he’s set the place as a public condo, and doesn’t seem to mind strangers. After all, I’m one of them.
“Why do you guys like this game?” I ask.
“Chill,” says Andreas, “and sandbox.”
He points his party gun at the TV, and fires. Confetti showers out.
“Get to build stuff,” says Killer. “Better than Minecraft.”
He stands on the back of the couch and throws eight snowballs at the television.
Andreas fiddles with the TV for a moment and sits on the couch.
“One of the best clips,” he says.
It’s a YouTube video. Officer Evan Rosenthal is struggling to arrest a dwarf on the TV show Cops. You may have seen it. Once this is over, more videos keep playing. An obnoxious Twitch streamer who harasses people on the streets. Can You Throw Me Another Capri Sun. Andreas and Killer sit and watch each video, transfixed, with a “lol” or “lmao” periodically popping up in chat. Killer’s unblinking crimson eyes glowing in his skull.
A man with a bag on his head comes into the house and joins us. His user name is Poor Life Choice. I will let the reader determine whether or not this is symbolic. The four of us sit or stand, focused on this screen within a screen, snippets of vintage YouTube broadcast to a digitally recreated widescreen television, made unnaturally large by a 9mm firearm with magic powers that a skeleton named Killer used to transmogrify himself into a giant. We sit and we watch, until the queue of videos comes to an end.
“Good memes,” says the man with the paper bag on his head, and leaves.
I say goodbye to Killer and Andreas, and leave the house myself. I cross the plaza, vaguely wondering what to do with myself. I keep walking, barely conscious of my destination. I stand in front of the slick black doors and offer myself to the vacuum cleaner mouth of the casino. Inside, I study the wheel of fortune, and spin it one last time. It flutters and flashes, explodes into its jingling cacophony. Finally, it stops.
I’ve won a cactus.
Tower Unite is on Steam for £10.99/$14.99.