I’m a busy, high-powered man with lots of important things to be doing. It’s for this reason—and not because my attention span has been withered to a peppercorn by Twitter—that I barely ever play games anymore without also listening to a podcast, watching a movie, or doing my taxes. I simply have too many weighty responsibilities (and a backlog of Better Call Saul episodes to watch) to focus on a trifling one thing at a time.
That’s why I was drawn to Desktopia, a medieval city builder (opens in new tab) that lives just above your taskbar. Made by a team of three devs, the game takes up about a quarter of your screen and is designed to let you “work, watch, or browse something else while you play”. As someone with a long history of dividing my attention between two (or more) things and thereby remembering neither, it sounded tailor-made for me.
It works well: Desktopia has perched atop the rest of my desktop for the last couple of days. As I’ve sat, written, and read, my hardy pioneers have gone about their business with admirable industry. The game takes place across a series of 2D levels that start empty and gradually fill as you construct more buildings and attract more settlers, eventually bringing you face to face with the boss who lives at the other end. More buildings equals more villagers equals more money equals more buildings, and on and on it goes.
It’s a well-worn formula, and it probably wouldn’t be enough to carry the game if it had the audacity to demand the full height and width of my monitor. For the most part, though, the little letterbox in the lower reaches of my screen doesn’t ask for any more attention than I’m willing to give it. It’s like a modern version of those desktop gadgets you used to get in Windows Vista and 7, except not terrible and less prone to inexplicably crashing my PC.
When you start to dedicate more than the bare minimum of attention, however, the faults bleed through. Dipping in every 30 minutes or so to spend a chunk of the fortune my villagers have amassed means I keep experiencing palpable changes, but ministering to their needs on a minute-by-minute basis gets old fast. Their various satisfaction levels decrease too quickly, and money accumulates too slowly, to make constant attention to anything but a frustrating experience.
In this regard, Desktopia is less a city builder than an absentee landlord simulator. I really don’t care that my myriad citizens are riddled with disease and tripping across bodies in the street, I’m just popping my head in to collect 3000 gold and build a new bank. This is less damning than it sounds. If the game insisted I kept everyone happy before they’d generate cash, I’d quickly become overwhelmed. The fact that I can leave them to wallow in misery as they steadily generate funds means that the idler aspect makes up for the slow pace of the city builder part.
For any other game, “It’s enjoyable so long as you don’t really pay attention” would be devastating criticism, but in Desktopia’s case it just means it’s achieved what it set out to do. I’ve spent all of today doing my actual work while my arrayed minions live out a Zdzisław Beksiński painting (opens in new tab) above my pinned apps, and I’ve had a jolly good time doing so. I’ve written my articles, sent my emails, and every so often I’ll take a minute to pick my way across the corpses and build a vineyard or fight a sorceress. As a game it has room to improve, but as a sociopathic Pomodoro Technique? I couldn’t ask for anything more.