Described by its creator as a “surreal trip through the mundane”, Islands is an app of contrasts.
It’s an exploration of the ordinary, but also a showcase for how the juxtaposition of unrelated objects that are typically ignored or taken for granted can create something disarmingly beautiful - or alien and disturbing.
Each scene begins as a solid slab of colour, against which sits a minimalist diorama you can spin about a circular axis. The pared-back, fog-shrouded imagery doesn’t so much hinder recognition as encourage exploration, providing a space for the imagination to play in.
And then you start interacting with the scene, and it all goes a bit weird.
A good egg
Early on, you’re faced with a bus station sitting in blue-grey gloom, traffic noise rumbling in the distance. Tap a flashing advertising hoarding and a bus dutifully pulls up, its brakes squealing.
Rather than the hubbub of chatting people, you instead immediately notice what sounds like an entire aviary of birds squawking inside the bus. Tap the door and it opens, and levitating eggs eerily float out in single file.
The birds sound increasingly agitated as their ovoid offspring carefully line up in the shelter, before the ground swallows up the bus and the screen turns a violent red. The bus shelter has become… an incubator? A microwave?
As your brain flips, trying to grasp what’s just happened, the scene fades – and it’s on to the next.
Behind the curtain
Islands continues with this set-up throughout, and it never gets old. Nothing you see in isolation is out of the ordinary, and yet little behaves quite as it should.
There are moments of delight, underlying hints of menace and unease, and playfulness as what you’re seeing continually confounds your expectations.
You’ll watch palm trees ride an escalator, as though that’s perfectly normal. The chattering at a seating area is suddenly pierced by a discordant alarm, whereupon tables and chairs must be raised to avoid an abrupt flood. And a scene with a cash machine proves one of the strangest yet most delightful things you’ll see on an iPad.
There’s no rhyme nor reason for anything that happens in Islands – everything just is. You may conjure up explanations: industrial machines recreating human worlds; an alien take on human banality; hazy substance-fuelled city memories; or nightmarish dreamworlds of the objects themselves. But everything is left intentionally vague.
At times, Islands is reminiscent of Simon Stalenhag’s paintings, in the sense of twisting the world in ways that cannot be real, and yet feel convincing at the time.
The only disappointment is the experience is brief (an hour or so) – and it’s worth noting this is more interactive surreal animation than game, despite its App Store categorisation. But these non-spaces are worth revisiting many times even when you know their secrets, on account of their bewitching nature.
Islands is available for iOS, and also on Steam for PC/Mac.