'The Colonists' Is a Cute, Rewarding, and Dystopian Space Exploration Game
Look on my throughput and despair.
'The Colonists' screenshots courtesy of Mode7
The Colonists is a city builder on the edge of a strategy game. It tasks you with taking little robots to another planet and then, map by map, learning to manipulate the spacing and connections between buildings so that you can create the most efficient routes between them. Through a microscope that only shows you mechanics and relationships, it is a simple game that asks interesting things of the player and justifies its time.
But through a telescope, the kind that you might use to look upon and plot about the fates of other planets, though, it is something else. It embodies a certain way of seeing the world as always available to be transformed, and it positions the player less as a planner and a thinker and more as a kind of an actor pretending to be an artificial intelligence that knows how to bend the power of machinery and the unharnessed power of nature into a shape that wins a map and takes a planet. It’s called The Colonists, after all.
And it’s fun to play. The design work is in there to let you feel like the work of expansion and extraction is valuable and rewarding. It is some good game design.
The claim that good game design can change your life is central to both games culture and the sales of video games. For the nostalgia set, it’s that one moment of Super Mario Bros. 3 or Metroid that always eluded them but is beautiful because of its slipperiness. A more contemporary crowd might talk about anxiety and horror games or open worlds and the joys of freedom. In those cases, the ones where the design of the game leads to an obvious and clear good feeling or positive effect, are where we’re very comfortable locating the relationship between design and output.
So a game like The Colonists is fascinating because it does all the good stuff, and jammed inside of that good stuff is an ideology, or a way of seeing the arrangement of the world, that is probably bad on a fundamental level. After all, the vision of cute robots flying off to another planet to propagate themselves and create conditions under which they thrive is the fantasy of the space-faring class, the Bezoses and the Musks, those who can see beyond the horizon of the now and into an era where human modes of thinking “save” themselves by expanding the conditions our current world onto another one.
So The Colonists is, in some sense, about colonizing the future of our species. Or the future of thinking about what happens after our species has bit the dust and our remainders float around and shape new worlds in our image. When I said before that The Colonists has a bit of play acting in it, I meant that the game really is about unit and building placement. Understanding the landscape, with its rocks and water and trees, means understanding where your buildings might be best placed. And creating efficient buildings means creating efficient pathways.
That’s the real clever game design of The Colonists: unlike most other contemporary city builders, it really makes you consider your pathways. Where a Cities: Skylines asks you to think about the traffic that fills your roads, fundamentally asking you to design routes and modes beyond a single mainline path, The Colonists makes the traffic and the pathway the same thing. To sketch the map: everything you build needs to be supplied, and those supplies have to be gathered and transported either from their origin site (like a lumber mill) or a storage hut. Every pathway has a “nodes” on it where your robots will take a supply and drop it off after which another robot coming down the path from the other direction will grab it and hurry it further toward its destination. Only so many objects can be on each node at a time.
Building your paths and your buildings in the exact correct configuration is the key to keeping the roads clear and the supply line clean. We have a word for this: logistics. It’s the management of supply chains and outputs, and it’s also what fuels war. There’s a shared view of the assembled materials of the world held between both campaigns of violence and the process that gets fresh green apples to the supermarket every week, and that view is one that privileges arrangement above all else. It doesn’t matter what something is or how it exists now. When it runs into the logistical imagination, all of its qualities are rendered contingent. It’s part of a supply line now.
And I have to say that The Colonists is such a striking game because it renders all of this so clearly and eloquently, perhaps on purpose and perhaps not. Unlike No Man’s Sky, which shows off a similar way of conceiving of the world and its relations and yet fails to render any of it very clearly, The Colonists is almost transparent from the start. The world is one way, and you need to take these damn cute robots and turn it into something else. Wrap the land in lines of supply and demand, and feel good when you can make it all click together. And it does feel good.
I’m appreciative of a game that is able to coherently show off an ideology so efficiently, and I’m not even leveraging this praise as critique; there’s value in what The Colonists does. It imagines a world where something about humans has survived long enough to pass down into the future. And when you think about it, those qualities might not be the ones we want to pass down. Like all great science fiction, The Colonists asks you to look at it and indexes how much you recoil from what you see.