Forager is a fairly simple game. You are dropped onto a small island with a pickaxe and you have to mine out the resources that spawn on the island in order to allocate those resources toward more skills, better equipment, and eventually on machinery that will do the work of mining and harvesting for you. It’s a slow, steady snowball of progress where each gain comes with an immediate path toward the next goal.
As a game, Forager is a perfect time-killing machine. Whether I am working toward a new island (new islands can be bought adjacent to discovered islands by a one-time gold purchase) or toward a better pickaxe, the method is the same. Mine resources, process resources, spend processed resources on new material. Each goal attained has me one step closer to another, related goal: If I have more bones, I can get a better pickaxe. By the time I’ve harvested enough bones, I’ve also harvested half my required flowers to make a flower press, and so on.
I enjoy Forager a lot. It is a wonderfully comforting game, in the way that games can provide just enough small doses of serotonin via well-timed rewards and the feeling of control and progress. It is also, indisputably, a game about the control of an area via industrialization and colonization.
The settler-colonial mindset revolves around the acquisition of land and resources toward the goal of domination of a place and of the beings within it. It’s the type of real-world behavior that is almost comically easy to approximate in a videogame, especially a game that focuses on growth and progress. Progress in games is often demarcated by possessions. Possessions and control grant power and increased player options in gameplay, incentivizing players to spread and dominate as much of the land as possible.
It’s most clearly seen in games that deal with the direct action of territory management, usually strategy games like last year’s Frostpunk. Territory control and population control are the pillars of gameplay, and thus expanding control of the physical space translates to victory. Draw a line of ownership in foreign soil, clear out or otherwise cower whatever beings reside inside that line, then hold it against all who would challenge your claim to the space. Settle, and colonize.
While playing Forager, I found myself asking why this game felt so much more like this than its contemporaries. It has clear design resemblances to Minecraft and Terraria, albeit in a different visual presentation, but it is here that the world feels more… alive.
In Minecraft, a mined area will rarely (unless under certain specific circumstances) become “un-mined.” In Forager, everything respawns. Everything must be pruned, constantly. Even when mining lasers are doing the majority of my work for me, I am still running around and making sure monsters do not overrun my hastily-assembled compound of furnaces and anvils.
The world of Forager will work against you at every turn. In order to survive, areas must be continually maintained, the borders of “my” space being fuzzy and vast. Expansion becomes difficult, since while I have industrial tools that will help with maintenance in “conquered” areas, new islands must be cleared out, at least initially, by my own pickaxe. It is slow, tedious work, and auto-mining lasers are relatively expensive, at least in the early game.
Forageris a game about the slow addiction to progress. Numbers tick up, skills unlock, gold stockpiles accrue. At a certain point I am doing less mining than I am simply waiting for my auto-mining lasers to do the work for me—industrialization for the enrichment of the single being. There is no village in Forager, there is just me, and my many buildings.
It’s hard to consider this a criticism of the game. It’s not like the developers of Forager were coming from a wholly new place—the translation of colonial methodology to games is something that is almost ingrained into mainstream game design, to the point that the few games that knowingly buck the trend are relatively rare and generally make it a point to emphasize their break from tradition.
I’m going to play more Forager. I’ll probably play hundreds more games that use similar systems of settling and colonizing in my future. They feel good. They were made to feel good. But it is still interesting to look at Forager as an example of this mentality in a strikingly pure form.
It is necessary to consider that to be a player of videogames in the modern era is to immerse oneself in systems that are not apolitical. Even “simple” game designs come from real places, real histories that are systematized into gameplay. If something like Forager can be seen as a continuation of history and thus not ‘without politics’, what about the AAA behemoths that dominate the news cycles? They too, rely on systems borne of histories much grander than just one game.
I enjoy Forager immensely—the animations and constant goals are cute and keep me occupied within its many islands. It’s not the origin of this structure, and it’s not even the worst offender. It’s just another game that, in the back of my mind, is a reminder that so many games are built on this, and no game is an island. Especially if you can buy more islands in the game.
Dante Douglas is a writer, poet and game developer. You can find him on Twitter at @videodante.