App Reviewed on: iPad Air 2
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ISLANDS: Non-Places is a game by Carl Burton, who you may know for his awesome gifs or artwork for season two of the Serial podcast. It's not exactly the kind of resume you typically see from game developers, but–then again–ISLANDS isn't your typical game. Instead, it's kind of a surreal, experimental experience that is absolutely gorgeous and strangely moving.
The island life
In ISLANDS, players explore a set of ten spaces by rotating and tapping on parts of the environment to interact with them. While it doesn't sound like a particularly riveting gameplay experience, the spaces themselves are uncanny in a way that makes watching them react to your inputs and just taking in their presence pretty arresting and even eerie.
Everything in ISLANDS–even the audio–works to set this tone that things are not at all what they seem, even when the scene you're presented with is pretty innocuous. Almost certainly, things will get really weird by the end of your interaction at any given place.
Message in a bottle
It's hard not to look at Island and think that it's not conveying a powerful artistic message, though figuring out what it might be could prove a little more difficult.
I don't want to give much away of the game, but these places (or “non-places”) in ISLANDS mix natural elements with the built environment in a way that is really striking. You might also notice that each space seems to be one where people might be gathered in public, but only to do something that is usually done in solitude (i.e. parking a car, using a vending machine, etc.).
By the end of the experience, don't expect some big, obvious sign to point you at what it all means. It seems like ISLANDS has a little more faith that its players will engage with its ideas after finishing than other games do, which is refreshing.
If you're looking for game-y puzzle design or mechanics in ISLANDS, you're not going to find them. Similarly, if you want a particularly long experience, you'll be disappointed to know that you can finish the game easily in one sitting.
ISLANDS discards these ideas that people typically think of as crucial to a game's “value” and instead focuses on aesthetics and tone. It's not the first game to pull this move, but it is one of the few that does so to powerful effect.
The bottom line
ISLANDS is so beautiful and haunting that you cannot walk away from the experience unmoved. It's definitely not your typical game experience, but it's absolutely one worth having.