Long read: Who is qualified to make a world?

In search of the magic of maps.

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Idyll is a gentle social world from the creator of Library of Babble.

Island dreams.

For now, Idyll exists for me as a few notes in my diary - things I read, bottles I opened. It's kind of similar to the way a distant holiday might live on in the form of pictures on my phone's camera reel. Reading back through the notes now, a surprising amount of the experience returns to me - how I felt, how I slowly learned to get my bearings, how natural so much of it seemed.

Idyll is a small social world created by Demi Schänzel, a researcher and game designer from Aotearoa (New Zealand), who advocates for "compassionate design practices and digital kindness." I'm going to call it a game in this piece, but that, and any other label I can think of, is probably a bit misleading. I played and loved Schänzel's earlier social space, Library of Babbel, which transported me to a landscape of curvy and abstracted topography, in which so much of the quiet thrill came from wandering and working out what to write when prompted.

Schänzel's new game takes a similar idea but - to me at least - opens it out. It feels to me that we have the real landscape now, rather than a glimpse of it accessed through some kind of digital approximation. When I play, I first type my name, and then find myself moving over an island in a gentle sea. There is a sense of grass, so thick it might feel like fur, and sand beneath it, and the island itself is made of hills as rounded as the watercolour Downs in a Ravilious painting.


I bumble around, a bright little pill person, and I gather I might encounter other pill people brought here through chance. I can announce my thoughts to the wind and sky, and when I reach the coastline, there might be a bottle floating in the surf, with somebody else's thoughts in it. I can add my thoughts to theirs if I want to.

There is magic here: the magic that comes, I think, from careful consideration of what makes a place like this work. The island I'm on is slightly larger than the screen, which means that as I play I tend to rove back and forth from one end to the other. This allows Idyll to spawn bottles naturally when they're out of frame, but it also leads to a feeling, for me, that in this back-and-forthing I am somehow in conversation with the island itself. These are the kind of thoughts that Idyll seems to encourage. It's not so much that I hunt for meaning, but I find myself suspecting that the spirit of dialogue, of communication, is built deeply into the game.


It's interesting that Schänzel's last game was named after a library and this one isn't. When I pop open a bottle here and read the thoughts inside it - song lyrics, greetings, something surprisingly heartfelt - and then read the further thoughts that the initial thought has inspired, I'm taken back to university, and the library there in which I sometimes found books that had entire asynchronous conversations taking place in the form of marginalia - conversations that might have taken years to unfold. It always felt special to find a book like that - I remember one of them was a biography of Melville. And it feels special to have found Idyll. Even as I type this I can't wait to return.