Quaint city builder Townscaper is the perfect breather from the stress of modern life

A seaside town, courtesy of Townscaper.
(Image credit: Oskar Stålberg)
GOTY 2020

goty 2020

(Image credit: Future)

In addition to our team-selected Game of the Year Awards 2020, individual members of the PC Gamer team each select one of their own favourite games of the year. We'll post new personal picks, alongside the main awards, throughout the rest of the month.

Of all the hundreds of hours I've spent traipsing around in massive open-world RPGs, fast-paced shooters, and co-op horrors this year, it's the simplicity and loveliness of Townscaper, created by Oskar Stålberg, that stands out amongst the crowd. Truly a heart-warming highlight of 2020.

Townscaper appears as simple a city builder can be whilst retaining the genre tag. From an empty plane of water, each click of the mouse spawns a foundation. On top of every foundation, a house. From that house, a bigger house. From a street, a tall tower. And from that tall tower, a labyrinth of Minas Tirith proportions. If you want one, that is.

You can build as big as you like—you can even create floating fortresses if you prefer, hovering way up above sea level. Sometimes, though, it's in the smallest creations in which you'll find a wellspring of creativity.

Each new foundation, house, or level interacts with those around it to form a quaint hamlet, rows of terraced housing interlaced with rows of bunting, or raised parapets overlooking the open ocean. That's where the hidden genius of Townscaper's building mechanic becomes apparent. It's actually a complex algorithm fed with handcrafted puzzle pieces, as Stålberg explained in a game update back in June. It's not as simple as it may seem on the surface.

These puzzle pieces are filled with incredible detail, too. A small courtyard may find a flock of gulls circling above, or perhaps coin-operated binoculars will appear in prime location to take in the wonderful vistas. There's a distinct lack of visible inhabitants on your island, but there are intricate signs of life carefully placed around the world. A pair of boots left outside a door, a small wooden chair resting next to a porch light. Shift the world into darkness and the lights slowly flicker on within every colourful abode.

It's these little flourishes that instil a sense of kind utopia to Townscaper. Not a futuristic towering city with hover cars and a medical cleanliness to it, just a sweet and honest civilisation where everyone quite simply gets along. Dreamy…

There are no tasks, objectives, or goals either. It's something like a painting tool on a city builder canvas, but with more going on beneath the surface than you might first imagine. You'll quickly uncover how each piece interacts with those around it as you play. Two houses of the same colour become a terrace, two houses of different colours stand detached from one another. Remove a block from beneath a house and stilts appear. Stack colours in a certain way and a lighthouse will stand proud, gazing out to sea.

Even generating bunting is a lesson to be learned in how those puzzle pieces slot together. Utilise the bright palette of brickwork available to you, and a side street will be woven together with colourful bunting. Bunting is perhaps my favourite feature in the game, and I'll admit my towns are full of it. Either that or the lighting system, which is user controllable and stunningly beautiful. 

Set the time to when the sun's setting and zoom in close to the small streets and narrow passageways you've created. Adjust the lighting just a touch to generate gorgeous long streams of light that beam through archways and across rooftops, setting your whole island alight in orange glow.

I could go on and on about the intricacies of the towns you create, the little things that make Townscaper so wonderfully beautiful and relaxing, but a picture is worth a thousand words. I built the town pictured above as I was writing this, and took a few snaps as I went hoping to capture what I love most about the game. I'm happy with how they came out—it's difficult to take a bad photo in-game—but there's no discounting that the love for every intricate alcove comes from building it yourself from the ground up.

So if you haven't checked out Townscaper yet, you can pick it up for just $6 (£4.79) on Steam, and I highly recommend you do. Townscaper has been a wonderful respite from 2020's stressors, and one that's only getting better with every update.

Jacob Ridley
Senior Hardware Editor

Jacob earned his first byline writing for his own tech blog. From there, he graduated to professionally breaking things as hardware writer at PCGamesN, and would later go on to win command of the kit cupboard as hardware editor. Since then he's joined PC Gamer's top team as senior hardware editor, where he spends his days reporting on the latest developments in the technology and gaming industry. He also enjoys making short videos for TikTok and believes everyone reading this should go follow our account immediately.