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What we've been playing

Ecology, birdsong and gems.

7th April, 2023

Hello! Welcome back to our regular feature where we write a little bit about some of the games we've found ourselves playing over the last few days. This time: ecology, birdsong, and gemstones.

If you fancy catching up on some of the older editions of What We've Been Playing, here's our archive.

Terra Nill, PC

Terra Nil.Watch on YouTube

I feel so seen by this game. Not only because I care, like I'm sure you all do, about the state the planet is in, but also on a more game-playing level in how I can't stand making a mess in city-builders. I almost can't bring myself to build on the pristine piece of land you inevitably begin with - which, in some regards, is as perfect as it will ever be - and then stamp horrible buildings all over it. However much I try, I can't quite clean up my human mess.

Terra Nill, of course, flips this concept on its head. The ultimate goal of a level is to pack everything up and move out, leaving no trace you were there at all. All the structures you used to regrow a map should disappear and nothing but flora and fauna be left behind. And that's a gorgeous idea! A very welcome, very heartwarming - very current - take. It's also very tranquil to play; it reminds me a lot of Dorfromantik, which can only ever be a good thing.

But I have some concerns too. I've only played a couple of the levels so there's a chance these may be alleviated later on, but what bothers me is the static nature of the game's strategy. What I mean by this is in many city-building games, there's a constant overlapping of systems, a sort of ticking, which ticks positively if you've positioned everything well and understood the systems, and ticks negatively if you haven't. But in Terra Nill, there isn't really any ticking. The only time something seems to have an effect is at the moment you place it.

For instance: when you start scanning for animals at the end of a map, all you're really doing is finding areas that match the requirements for the animal and then they appear as if by magic. It would be nice, though, if they appeared in their own right because of the conditions there, and then they became more or less populous depending on the other systems around them. I guess what I'm driving at is a feeling of life, of living, of things in motion around you. After all, that's exactly what you're bringing back to these levels - life. And it would be nice to feel that more than I currently do.

The other side of this, though, is to remember what developer Free Lives told me in an interview, and that's that Terra Nill isn't a grand project in the way that a Civilization game is. It's a small thing, a one-idea kind of game - something realised to make you think. And it does, and about the right things.


The Legend of Zelda: Breath of the Wild, Switch

I know this is about Breath of the Wild, but here's Tears of the Kingdom.Watch on YouTube

It was in lockdown that I realised I was starting to lose my hearing. Just a bit, nothing major. I didn't lose volume, what I had lost was precision. I could hear vowels when people spoke but not always the consonants.

I gather I have a classic case of high-frequency hearing loss, and the classic response, a hearing aid, has worked really well for me. I love my hearing aid and have dozens of reasons every day to thank it for something or other.

I will never forget the day I got it. Not putting it on in the hospital so much, or going through various tests to make sure it was working. The part I will never forget involves leaving the hospital and emerging into a Brighton that was suddenly filled with birds. Their song was everywhere all of a sudden. It was overpowering.

More than the consonants in human speech, it was high frequency birdsong that had really disappeared from my life, not that I had noticed. And now I'm realising that it had disappeared from games too.

This week I jumped back into Breath of the Wild for the first time in an absolute age. It's a hard game to get back to, I think, simultaneously very open-ended and very poor at reminding you what you were up to when you last left. I've spent a happy few hours lurking around the Outpost Ruins, a favourite spot in the early game, and what's all this on the airwaves? Birdsong!

Loads of it. Trilling, tweeting, that kind of hiccuping rattle you get from magpies, all of it giving a sense of light and life to Hyrule that I had absolutely missed up until now. I still can't remember what I was up to or which boss I should be tackling next. Instead, I just sit and listen and marvel at the care that has gone into this place - and thank my hearing aid for yet another little gift.

Chris Donlan

Columns, Switch


Somehow, I have reached the middle of my life without ever playing Columns. The weird thing is, I didn't realise I had never played it. I sort of assumed I had, since I was a teenager in the glory years of 16-bit Sega. This week, in search of something to fill a few idle moments, I loaded up the Genesis collection on the Switch and there it was. I'll just play a bit more Columns! I thought. And then the game began and I realised I was entirely lost.

Columns - I'm sure you'll know this - is a match-three tile game with a well and falling blocks and all of that jazz. You can move your falling block of three to the left and right and shuffle the order of the coloured jewels inside it. You're aiming, of course, to get three of the same coloured jewels lined up, at which point they disappear. Mess up too often and the well fills up. Simple.

Without years of muscle memory, though, it turns out I am terrible at Columns. And muscle memory isn't quite the right phrase. When I play Columns now, I lack the years of staring at Columns boards and understanding, almost by osmosis, what is a good layout and what is a bad layout. I have a feel for promising negative space in Tetris that has been built up through years of play. Columns, though, is just noise to me.

I played for really quite a while before I realised you could cancel columns by arranging colours diagonally, for instance. And while it's been humbling to be so bad at a game like this, a straightforward game lurking at the centre of a genre I properly love, it's also a thrill. I have left Columns until this point in my life, and so Columns is still fresh, and each game is a sequence of discoveries.

Chris Donlan

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