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Magical spatial daydreams in ISLANDS: Non-Places

Daydreams of waiting rooms and baggage carousels

Oh good! Now it's been released I can tell you some of my thoughts about Islands: Non-Places [official site]; Carl Burton's collection of interactive vignettes which highlight and remix waiting spaces, car parks and other not-quite-destinations.

This is the official description text:

A surreal trip through the mundane. Reveal the hidden ecosystems of ten unusual environments. Unlock an atmospheric experience while exploring strange yet familiar scenes.

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I think I've said this when speaking about the project before but I really like how Burton draws attention to those arenas and encourages the player to see them with fresh eyes, simply by being playful with their hallmarks. By that I mean that you'll see the furnishings of those kinds of spaces - low tables for magazines or mugs, potted plants, lamp posts - but they will do something quietly unexpected. Those low tables might raise or lower as water suddenly fills a lobby environment, a block of flats rises out of a parking bay and offers up a garage for a car to ease its way into. That's what I mean by quietly unexpected. This isn't a shock of any kind, more of a gentle dreamtime absurdity.

You can see it in one of the trailers for the game, and some of the promotional gifs but the line of potted plants ascending an escalator in one scene makes me grin - a palm tree masquerading as a serious shopper or a commuter on their way to work. Burton's objects in these scenarios form these odd modular subscenarios with repeating units or symmetry.

There are no people in these stylised worlds, but you do get traces of human activity; cars drive slowly around, footsteps sound before a light comes on in a window, the noise of a till printing a receipt, the indistinct hum of people chatting in a cavernous space...


I find myself preferring the bursts of noise which only gradually impinge on your consciousness when you're in those waiting spaces. Some are white noise, like mechanical hums you only notice when they stop, and others are the noises which make you look up but you forget them afterwards, or mark them as unattractive somehow - the drag and scratch of a dot matrix printer, the soft bing--bing--bing a car makes to let you know the door is open but your lights are still on. They're noises which tend towards onomatopoeic. Whirr. Hum. Bloop. Rustle. Click.

At some points it felt like these scenes were more about what the objects themselves might be dreaming. I don't want to spoil surprises because it's also such a short experience but the ATM vignette felt magical.

Overall, I think if I was trying to express the feeling of playing or interacting with Islands I'd say there's a touch of thatgamecompany's Flower in that you're moving around as you work out what the environment will yield.

Islands is out now on PC via Steam, and the Humble Store (which gives a Steam key). Steam seems to have the slightly lower price - £3.19 right now and £3.99 after 24 November, in case that makes a difference to you.

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