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Impressions

Summerhouse Perfectly Captures The Joy Of Architecture

Since I only very recently wrote about a video game that was too much for my timetable and lifestyle, today I want to write about one that fits just perfectly into the way I'm trying to play video games in March 2024.

That game is Summerhouse, and long-time (lol) readers might remember that Riley wrote about its demo back in December. It's now out and available on Steam, and I'm happy to say that for the cost of some literal spare change you can have a great time messing around with its house/building/streetscape creation suite.

As Riley said (you don't need the basics explained twice!), here's the deal:

Summerhouse is a pixelated 2D game where you just plop down bits of buildings, choosing from different doors, windows, roofs, and details like chimneys, signs, plants, and graffiti. The game’s Steam page says, “While there are some little secrets to uncover, there are no rules, and you can’t win or lose. Just chill out, build to your heart’s content and soak up the atmosphere.” In the one level available in the demo, I built a hotel and a restaurant, scrolling through available awnings and grass heights to tell a little story about a seaside inn.

It’s reminiscent of games like Townscaper and the upcoming Tiny Glade: little diorama games that eschew the resource management and city planning that make games like Cities: Skylines fun but also stressful. You just get to make nice things, and imagine visiting or living in the nice things. When you’re done building in Summerhouse, you can press a button to replay your whole build, zipping through your miniature urban planning in a satisfying movie that made me feel like I’d been really productive, instead of just thoughtfully clicking buttons for a while.

What I want to talk about specifically is how this game, despite being so simple, is letting me indulge in a relatively complex passion of mine--architecture--that I've long struggled to be able to tap into via the world of video games.

Would I want to spend the weekend in this little wood cabin, nestled in the middle of its own grove? With nothing outside but sunlight, green grass and the sound of birds? Yes.

I really wanted to be an architect! I was really good at it in high school, have always been fascinated by buildings and our relationship to their design, and had I not been so terrible at math I may well be making a lot more money, and be a lot happier, sitting in some fancy little office designing houses all day instead of doing...whatever this job is now.

Loads of other things I love, from football to driving cars really fast, have video games that let me do that stuff! But designing a virtual house--or more precisely, getting what I want out of the process of designing a house--has always eluded me. From The Sims to modding suites to Minecraft to EA's Design Home, I've never been able to settle in with a video game and truly express what I've wanted to express. They're all so fiddly.

Bizarrely, despite being so simple, Summerhouse is the closest a game has come to letting me build something that I'm happy with. It's such a simple game, letting players only build from a front-on perspective and with a relatively limited palette of materials and options, but what it lacks in variety it more than makes up for in vibes.

Perched at the end of an otherwise busy residential street, this café--with its owner living upstairs--only has two tables, but they're always happy to serve you coffee and a pastry with a smile, no matter the hour.

So many other games with architecture as a focus, or at least a key element, feel less like games and more like tools. They're closer to replicating the mundane process of creating building plans than they are the joy of having an idea. Summerhouse doesn't give two shits about angles or precise pixels. It's architecture at the level of a Post-It note. It wants you to do nothing more than pick a lovely backdrop and slap something together that captures a feeling, or looks like somewhere you want to be.

It lets me do (almost) everything I'd want to do in an architecture game and cuts out (almost) all the hassle. What I tend to love most about architecture is a house's relationship to its landscape, its broad shapes, the statement a house or building can make through its use of materials. Those are all big ideas, and Summerhouse's simplicity ironically allows you to tackle them in the simplest way possible. You may not be able to build the house, shop or even small streetscape that you want exactly, down to the tiniest detail, but you can definitely capture the energy you're looking for, and do it both easily and really, really quickly.

I want to retire to this beautifully-restored cottage--which looks like it's in New Zealand--and do nothing but drink tea and paint landscapes for the rest of my days.

Look at the three buildings I've shared in this blog. Each one is radically different, each one has its own story to tell, with its own distinct feeling, and each one took me about...five minutes to put together. And when you're done, you can just move onto something else. Maybe a restoration project in the middle of the desert. Maybe a quaint French townhouse. A block of apartments in the middle of Hong Kong. Whatever!

Summerhouse isn't an architecture game about processes, or angles, or finesse. It's about emotions, shapes and big ideas, and letting you express them in the quickest and easiest way possible. In other words, for me, it's perfect.

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