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Urban Sprawl and Its Perfect Palm Trees Haunt This Eerie Game

Carl Burton’s “Islands: Non-Places” is an interactive exploration into the strangeness of the mass-produced modern world.

Scene from "Islands: Non-Places" (courtesy Carl Burton)
Scene from “Islands: Non-Places” (courtesy Carl Burton)

The 20th century radically altered the environment of cities, whether it was the sprawls of asphalt parking lots, or the human-enabled spread of the ornamental palm tree. In “Islands: Non-Places,” artist and animator Carl Burton examines the liminal quality of these repetitious spaces in an interactive series of vignettes. Each considers the surreal qualities of a lonely bus stop, or endlessly spinning luggage carousel, and invites the user to click on illuminated triggers to reveal some unexpected action.

“I think these mundane spaces have a strangely neutral, uncanny quality,” Burton told Hyperallergic. “They’re the kinds of areas you just pass through on your way to another place.” While he often creates GIFs drenched with a similar monotone, foggy atmosphere (which you can explore on his Tumblr, or find enlivening New York Times articles), this is his first gaming work. He cited as inspiration Marc Augé’s 2009 Non-Places: An Introduction to Supermodernity, and the idea of a “non-place,” on which Augé writes: “The face and voice of a solitude made all the more baffling by the fact that it echoes millions of others.”

While “Islands,” which is available for Mac, PC, and iOS, is available on Steam as a game, it’s really more an interactive artwork as there’s nothing to solve, no quest to accomplish. It takes about 45 minutes to progress through all of the “islands,” and at the end you have to option to return to any you like. Although the main interaction of spinning the screen gets a bit repetitive, I enjoyed the slow reveal of each curious scene. In one of the first, you find an empty bus stop, and soon a bus rolls up bursting with the sound of shrieking birds, and a line of eggs tumbles out to incubate in the shelter.

Later a malfunctioning fountain reveals a deep chasm of clocks and vegetation, a baggage carousel twirls its luggage into a musical cacophony, and a hurricane siren drones while a waiting room is filled with water, the furniture rising to avoid the waves. There aren’t any humans visible, although everything is a relic of the human-made. It reminded me of the eeriness of a mall at night, or an office parking lot illuminated by yellowy lamp light, sites that seem to be stranded in their sudden nondescript isolation.

Scene from "Islands" (courtesy Carl Burton)
Scene from “Islands: Non-Places” (courtesy Carl Burton)
Scene from "Islands" (courtesy Carl Burton)
Scene from “Islands: Non-Places” (courtesy Carl Burton)

Islands: Non Places by Carl Burton is out now for Mac, PC, and iOS.

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