Placement games were the most calming video game trend of 2021

Many games are sold for their thrilling action or their deep, lush stories. This year, we guided Master Chief around another Halo and took on evil Nazis in Call of Duty: The Vanguard. However, beneath those big, daring, daring games and their dozens of exalted brethren, was another much weirder subgenre that jumped into high gear in 2021. I call them placement games, and they’re all about putting things in a small digital world and feel good about it.

Unpacking is probably the most remarkable, sliding onto the scene this fall with a simple task: opening the cardboard boxes and unpacking the contents. As the game progresses, the things you unpack and the locations you unpack them in tell a silent story about a person’s changing life conditions in the early 2000s. Completely achieved through simple mechanical vanity, UnpackingThe account has been praised for the clarity and clarity with which it approached its subject.

At the heart of it all was placement. Decide where things are going Unpacking takes place in two stages, the first of which is entirely mechanical. Some things are intended for certain places – the toothbrush can only go on the bathroom counter, for example, while the desktop computer cannot be placed in the kitchen. The second step is almost entirely aesthetic. The exact location of books, stuffed animals, video games, and a host of other things is not directly dictated by the video game. The player, looking at the room and judging what it should look like as the protagonist settles down, is simply fulfilling their own organizational desires.

Image: Witch Bundle / Humble Bundle

Although I’m sure some people are happy to make it through Unpacking do the bare minimum of manipulation to go to the next level, it seems clear to me that Unpacking wants its players to think about, or even question, why they placed certain objects where they did. In a very The sims way, this game seems to want players to view the arrangement of minifigures on a shelf or books in a pile as a way to play the life role of this character that we only know through their possessions. We’re supposed to create a baseline of what it means for this character to live in a new space, and to think and consider how and why they might place things to make their new home as pleasant as possible.

Placement games thrive in this contemplative space. While they have all of the basic goals and mechanical interfaces we associate with video games, these mechanics don’t exhaust their long-term value. Dorfromantik, which first appeared in Early Access last spring, takes that notion to a whole new level. The game is all about using tiles to create a smooth and idyllic countryside. Sometimes you receive quests to create hilly fields in an orderly row, or a huge forest to dominate the map, and this limits how you place your tiles. For the most part, however, the game is just about sketching a small world in whatever shape you want. It’s about doing something that looks and feels right. It is anti-spectacular.

A bucolic urban landscape in Dorfromantik

Image: Toukana Interactive

These games have a lot in common with what Max Kreminski, a doctoral student at UC Santa Cruz, called “gardening games,” which are basically responding and nurturing a video game space rather than dominating and controlling it. exploit it. Placement games have additional arrangement dimensions regarding how, exactly, you want these little worlds to look like. Not all tiles are Dorfromantik has direct use in helping me complete certain quests. Most often, it’s just a matter of deciding if I want a small, beautiful house in the middle of my forest, or if I want to make a pond in the middle of my micro-town.

I was curious to know Why I find these games so fun to play, so I did some research on how we enjoy the things we watch. The answer, unfortunately, seems to contain a lot of “who knows?” Many researchers have claimed that people seem to like looking at complex things, for example, but there seems to be a large experimental disagreement over the complexity. too much. Other researchers have looked at the unity in variety, or the idea of ​​an assortment of things seen as related, as an inherently pleasurable way of seeing things in the world. It makes sense to me, given that part of the fun of Unpacking Where Dorfromantik is in the variety of a large unifying game system: you can pick up anything and place it anywhere in the first, and in the second there is a uniformity of the tiles that allows small hamlets and tiny forests to s ‘nest.

As I delved a little deeper, I noticed that there had even been some research on the positive effects of aesthetic arrangement in experimental work. A group of South Korean researchers claimed that older people who garden regularly have better mental health, in general, and less experiences of cognitive impairment (they also have more buff). Japanese researchers also claimed, based on two test subjects, that the traditional ikebana flower arrangement method had direct benefits in stabilizing emotions and reducing anxiety.

A floating greenhouse in Cloud Gardens

Image: Thomas van den Berg / Noio

I’m as cynical as they come with these things. But it’s hard to fight the feeling of being less stressed when I put plants on the abandoned landscapes of Cloud gardens, which rolled out of Early Access this year. Like Unpacking and Dorfromantik, it’s driven by a small set of gameplay mechanics, but generally concerns the cause-and-effect relationships of plant growth on the structures that served to support a long-extinct humanity. My most common thoughts while playing the game aren’t about how to get things to grow optimally. Instead, I wonder what the hanging vines draped over this road sign would look like. I think about how a small grove of cacti might grow out of a pile of tires. It’s the sum total of the object’s shape, much like a flower arrangement, that I pursue, and I use the game mechanics to guide me through it without too much overbearing intervention.

We could also think of Landscaper, a strange little game where you come to explore a city together according to your aesthetic whims. It’s a game that lets you explore your feelings about how a small world might grow, and it could be the “core” experience of a placement game as long as its only concern is you. free to organize and handle as you wish.

It’s impossible for me to say why these games have grown so important over the past couple of years and why they seemed to hit so hard in 2021 in particular. Maybe a lot of us feel like we’ve lost control, and these games are giving a little back. Or maybe these games give us a quiet respite from the violence, confrontation, and face-to-face explosions that are so central to video game culture at large. I can not tell. But I know I’ve spent a lot of time with the placement games this year, and I hope they build and grow from here like a little map or a reed vine.

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