Carl Burton’s art has been featured in a lot of places. He’s done illustration work for The New York Times and the podcast Serial, and animated several of his own short films. And it’s his animated GIFs in particular that you’re probably familiar with: dreamy, stark, and oddly beautiful. Now he’s turned them into a game.
Called Islands, the game is out today on iOS, PC, and Mac. It takes less than an hour to play; mostly it’s just a really cool interactive toy that lets you see familiar places in a new way. The game features a number of locales to explore — a parking lot, a bank of ATMs, an escalator — all of which appear mundane and boring until you start to mess around with them. You can rotate each scene, and tapping on certain objects will cause different things to happen. Normal shifts into the surreal: a luggage carousel turns into a strange musical instrument, while a fountain gives way to a dark cavern full of strange machinery.
“Places like parking lots, baggage claim, and hotel lobbies are kind of neutral, places you move through on the way to another place,” Burton explains. “I wanted to show familiar environments that could be seen as mundane and suggest a surreal depth to them. But I wanted to do it in a way that anyone could play. Something very ‘easy,’ as a game, but that lets players experience a strange progression that's challenging in a different way.”
Some of the scenes look vaguely similar to Burton’s previous work, combining solid colors and dark shadows to create a haunting feeling. But the fact that they’re interactive adds a whole new dimension. “Adding sound and the ability to influence the space creates a sense of realism that is hard to achieve with films, GIFs, and stills,” he says. “In film the ‘time’ you experience is edited and cut up, but in Islands you share the same ‘real’ time as the environments. It makes them feel strangely grounded, being able to just sit and observe them, interacting when you want, which helps with something so surreal.”
Islands isn’t the kind of game that will give you a challenge. Instead, it’s a way to sit back and chill, while exploring dreamlike spaces, watching how they change as you poke and prod. And while it’s Burton’s first foray into games, it’s unlikely to be his last. “I have another game in the works right now,” he says, “but it's still too early to share details.”