Over the last few years I have developed a real thing for games in which you cannot save. I would always like the chunky pastel slabs of wilderness that you conjure in Toca Nature, for example, but what I really love about them is that, once you’re done with them for the time being, there’s no option to do anything other than turn the app off in the knowledge that the trees you’ve been sprouting, the oceans you have carved into the earth and the mountains you have pulled from the ground, will be gone forever, a bit like that glorious sunset that never looked quite right when you tried to view it through your phone camera.
This is probably a reaction to other games, I guess – games that watch their players with great attention, tracking every stat, every unlock, every quirk of every battle. I play Clash Royale and build up a fearsome collection of cards, growing in power with every coin and gem that the game banks for me. Destiny 2 begins – for players who have come from Destiny 1 – with fond reminiscences of all the things that you did in the first game. These games are always on, always recording, always saving. And that’s great for them. But it’s nice to step away from all that now and then and revel in the pleasures of things that you cannot retain indefinitely.
Enter Sandcastles, the latest – at least I think it’s the latest – from Vectorpark. Sandcastles, as the name should probably suggest, is a game in which nothing can be saved. It is a glorious, witty, chilling hymn to impermanence. I have probably played it, on and off, more than anything else over the last few months.
There is a beach, and as you drag your thumb over the sand you draw castles into existence. Minarets, skyscrapers, finials and crenellations, some with perky little flags, some puffing out friendly white clouds. Soon there is a veritable sandy cityscape in play, but then the tide comes in, a screen of gold becomes a screen of blue, and those castles you have made collapse, twisting gorgeously as they retreat beneath the water. And then you’re back to smooth, unblemished sand.
It is breezy and disquieting in equal measure. In other words, it is Vectorpark. Don’t think too much, because you will not like where even the tritest of thoughts leads you. This is us, isn’t it? This is civilisation, a frantic phallic indulgence doomed to be swept away by the universe, doomed to repeat without learning anything, without retaining anything. Tragic, but mostly comic.
It sounds weighty, or even preachy, but that’s just the clumsy, plodding, overly-obvious stuff that I have brought to it. In truth, Sandcastles is light and playful and filled with little touches I love. I love the way you can tilt the castles as they rise. I love the way you can half-finish them and then – how cheerily pointless is this? – tack on the final tiers just before they disappear into the ocean. I love the way that the game is never mocking, even as it allows you to endlessly mock yourself.
Most of all, I love the way this game prods you in so many directions when you try to decide what it is trying to say, but deep down, it’s really a game about sandcastles. Sandcastles that come and go, rising from the beach, disappearing beneath the tide, always ready for the next dry spell and with absolutely no saving in sight.