A lot of games get sold on their pulse-pounding action or their deep, lush stories. This year, we guided Master Chief around yet another Halo and took on evil Nazis in Call of Duty: Vanguard. However, underneath those big, bold, brassy games and their dozens of hyped-up brethren, was another, much stranger sub-genre that kicked into high gear in 2021. I call them placement games, and they’re all about putting things into a little digital world and feeling good about it.
Unpacking is probably the most notable, sliding onto the scene this fall with a simple task: open up cardboard boxes and unpack the contents. Over the course of the game, the things you unpack, and the locations you unpack into, tell a wordless story about one person’s changing life conditions in the early 2000s. Entirely achieved through one simple mechanical conceit, Unpacking’s narrative was praised for how cleanly and clearly it approached its topic.
At the heart of all of this was placement. Deciding where things go in Unpacking happens in two steps, the first of which is entirely mechanical. Some things are intended for certain places — the toothbrush can only go on the bathroom counter, for instance, 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 whole host of other things is not directly dictated by the video game. The player, looking at the room and judging how it should look as the protagonist moves in, is simply fulfilling their own organizational desires.
While I am sure that some people are happy to blitz through Unpacking doing the bare minimum of manipulation to get to the next level, it seems clear to me that Unpacking wants its players to consider, maybe even interrogate, why they placed certain items where they did. In a very The Sims way, this game seems to want players to consider the arrangement of action figures on a shelf or books in a stack as a way of role playing the life of this character we only know through their possessions. We’re meant to create a baseline of what it means for this character to live in a new space, and to think through and consider how, and why, they might place things to make their new home as pleasing to them as possible.
Placement games thrive in this contemplative space. While they all have the basic goals and mechanical interfaces that we associate with video games, those mechanics do not exhaust their value in the long term. Dorfromantik, which appeared in early access last spring, takes this notion to a whole other level. The game is entirely centered around using tiles to create a gentle, idyllic countryside. Sometimes you receive quests to create rolling fields in a neat row, or a massive forest to dominate the map, and that constrains how you place your tiles. For the most part, however, the game is just about sketching a little world in the shape that you want to. It is about making a thing that looks and feels good. It’s anti-spectacular.
These games have a lot in common with what Max Kreminski, a PhD candidate at UC Santa Cruz, has called “gardening games,” which are broadly about responding to and tending a video game space rather than dominating and exploiting it. Placement games have additional dimensions of arrangement regarding how, exactly, you want these little worlds to look. Not every tile in Dorfromantik has direct utility in helping me complete some quests. More often than not, it is simply about deciding if I want a little beautiful home in the middle of my forest, or if I want to make a pond in the middle of my micro-city.
I’ve been curious about why I find these games so pleasing to play, so I did some research about how we enjoy the things we look at. The answer, unfortunately, seems to contain a lot of “who knows?” Lots of researchers have made claims that people seem to enjoy looking at complex things, for example, but it seems like there’s broad experimental disagreement about how much complexity is too much. Other researchers have honed onto unity-in-variety, or the idea of assorted stuff that is perceived to be related, as an inherently pleasant way of seeing things in the world. This makes sense to me, given that some of the pleasure in Unpacking or Dorfromantik is in the variety of a grand unifying game system: You can pick up anything and place it everywhere in the former, and in the latter, there is a uniformity to the tiles that allows the little tiny hamlets and forests to fit together.
When I dug a little deeper, I noticed that there has even been research on the positive effects of aesthetic arrangement in experimental work. A group of South Korean researchers have claimed that older people who garden regularly have better mental health, broadly speaking, and lower experiences of cognitive impairment (they also get more buff). Japanese researchers have also claimed, based on two test subjects, that the traditional flower-arranging method of ikebana has direct benefits for stabilizing emotions and decreasing anxiety.
I’m as cynical as they come with these things. But it is hard to fight the feeling that I am less stressed out when I am placing plants on the abandoned landscapes of Cloud Gardens, which came out of early access this year. Like Unpacking and Dorfromantik, it is driven by a small set of game mechanics, but is generally about the cause-and-effect relations of growing plants on the structures that used to support a long-gone humanity. My most common thoughts while playing the game are not about how to optimally grow things. Instead, I am wondering what hanging vines would look like draped across that road sign. I think about how a small cactus grove might spin up out of a pile of tires. It is the sum total of the shape of the object, much like a flower arrangement, that I am pursuing, and I use the game mechanics to guide me there without too much overbearing intervention.
We might also think about Townscaper, a strange little game where you just plorp a town together based on your aesthetic whims. It is a game that allows you to explore your feelings about how a small world might grow, and it might be the “core” experience of a placement game in that its sole concern is freeing you to arrange and manipulate to your heart’s content.
It’s impossible for me to say why these games rose to such prominence over the past couple years, and why they seemed to hit so hard in 2021 in particular. Maybe many of us are feeling like we’ve lost control, and these games give a little bit back. Or maybe it’s that these games give us a quiet respite from the violence and confrontation and in-your-face explosions that are so central to the wider video game culture. I can’t say. But I do know that I have spent a lot of time with placement games this year, and I’m hoping that they build and expand from here, like a little map or a reedy vine.