Understanding the pull of ‘undemanding’ games

I think I’m afraid of commitment. When I was a kid, sitting in front of the Nintendo 64 for hours was a breeze. Time meant nothing to me; now it’s all I think about. I’m looking at upcoming games, at the hundreds of hours of gameplay that will be required, and I can’t figure out where to actually find the time play video games.

So it’s ironic that my solution to the resulting crippling indolence is to sink into islanders for over a hundred hours. This is a game that won’t take up my time, which is all about pushing buildings against each other in Tetris-like fashion to create dense and tranquil cities.

It’s part of a growing trend in casual gaming. As blockbuster titles get bigger, brighter, and more bombastic, these games are – fittingly – gently gliding into the mainstream to offer a less demanding alternative. It was a rise cemented when Unpacking named beat games like Deathloop and Metroid Dread BAFTA Game of the Year in April.

To learn more about the genre—and maybe find out why I love it so much—I spoke to Paul Schnepf. A third of the Islanders developer Grizzly Games.

Unboxing is a great example of a game of this type.

Grizzly Games first rose to prominence in 2017 with Superflight, a casual gliding sim that marks the beginnings of the aesthetic style found in all of Schnepf’s games. But the beginning of this new trend goes back further. Schnepf recalls playing Settlers 2 and Age of Empires when he was younger, and we chat about how we both found Age of Empires’ warfare overwhelming, preferring to hide in a corner of the map and to build cities.

Schnepf and his Grizzly Games colleagues Jonas Tyroller and Friedmann Allmenröder “found most of them [city-building games] complex,” says Schnepf. “It always stressed me that you have to be in so many different places with your mind at once.”

While at a young age we were forced to develop a game within a game, the team at Grizzly Games set about translating that experience into their own dedicated system. The result were islanders.

“We wanted to create something that would actually allow you to just focus on building things,” says Schnepf.

A screenshot of the game Isanders, a low-fi, chill, and building game.  Here we see a small island with some buildings.  It's idyllic.


It’s interesting that so many placement games are fueled by stripping down established mechanics to something less overwhelming. Compared to old city building sims and their successors, like Two Point Studio’s new Two Point Campus, Islanders requires little input from the player: view, arrange, and place a list of buildings. It’s almost like gardening.

This focus on a single, robust mechanic seems to have been driving Schnepf’s games so far. Where it’s undisturbed flight, tending an industrial garden, or the rhythm of The Ramp, another small arena game in which you guide your skateboard avatar around bowls and ramps via a series of rhythmic inputs.

“I was always a little sad that all the skateboarding games out there were focused on street skating,” Schnepf tells me. “I really wanted to focus on that and try to capture that kind of experience for both people who love vert skateboarding and people who haven’t had any experience with it before, and I think that element of rhythm is most important there. “

At first glance, The Ramp feels detached from the supposed theory laid out in Islanders and now The Block – in which, instead of an island, the player is tasked with creating cute structures on tiny patches of land. So why mention a skateboard rhythm game in the midst of placement experiences? Well, every video game has a rhythm. It’s just casual games that enjoy a much smoother rhythm. The fast pounding of The Ramp may make its rhythm obvious, but the deliberate pacing of Unpacking, Cloud Gardens and Islanders is just as significant.

A small, drained swimming pool with a skater standing at the edge ready to jump in.  It's a reduced image, almost illustrative in tone, with a lazy summer air about it.

The ramp.

This more considered approach is important to Schnepf; the ability for the player to take back control of their own time. “It was probably because I had less and less time for video games,” he says.

This lack of time commitment is at the core of the appeal of games like Islanders and Cloud Gardens. With the stress of reaching a section in Final Fantasy 15 where I couldn’t save for well over an hour, or having the progression to Stray’s random checkpoint system fresh in my mind, I know Islanders won’t do that to me will. I can stop whenever I want.

Exactly why this style of play has proved so popular over the last two years is hard to say. It’s easy to see the lockdowns of 2020 as the primary catalyst. Almost overnight, large swathes of us gained unprecedented free time. But I wonder if it goes further, if the early days of the pandemic just showed us the value of relaxation. As chaos evidently spilled out, games that, as Schnepf puts it, “wouldn’t take a set amount of time” suddenly became a much-needed balm for excited and distracted minds.

Additionally, the limited space of placement games—whether it’s an island, a house, or a piece of earth floating in a vacuum—gave us small, controllable areas to focus on in the face of disastrous shared experiences. “We wanted the player to be able to see their entire city – or at least most of their city – at all times,” says Schnepf of Islanders. “So you don’t have to keep all these different places in your head and think about them all the time; so you can always see what’s there, and that’s enough.”

As I became more concerned about what was going on outside, being able to focus on something lowbrow for an ambiguous period of time helped ease my growing anxiety.

The block.

That’s why I’m looking forward to The Block. Released today on Steam, it’s a likely balm for the ongoing chaos around us: small, accessible episodes versus releases that will require you to give away much of your future free time.

Oddly enough, when I ask Schnepf what he plays, casual is at the bottom of the list. He tells me that his most played games on Steam are Call of Duty: Modern Warfare 2 and Counter Strike. It feels like a sharp contrast: the frenetic FPS multiplayer and the calm of The Block and Islanders.

Still, it’s one I understand. Strip away the complexity and they’re basically similar. Small, manageable blocks of time that can be extended in defined increments: be it moving to a new island in Islanders or starting a new match in Modern Warfare 2.

“Yes,” says Schnepf when I suggest it. “I think that was actually something that was always important to me that I didn’t have to do this massive effort.”

There is a human phenomenon that makes us feel compelled to dig holes. Head down to the beach and chances are you’ll spot someone happily digging. A few times over the last few years I’ve looked into the garden and thought, “Yeah, probably feels good to dig a hole.”

When asked by Slate why she’s digging, Leanne Wijnsma said, “You kind of stop thinking … You only have one goal, and that’s extremely relaxing.”

Not all of us can dig a hole. But I wonder if playing a game like Islanders isn’t so different – like digging for your wits. A unique, focused, low-impact exercise for the cognitive muscles. Maybe I’m worrying too much. But the more I get used to how hectic and unhealthy the pace of the modern world is, the more I wonder if the occasional attempt to lean small blocks neatly against one another wouldn’t be good for all of us.