What if a city builder wasn’t vaguely colonialist? Nels Anderson’s new project has an answer

Steam is flooded with city builders right now (I’m playing Fabledom, for instance), and most of them are relatively similar. Which is why, for me, the excitement of starting a new city builder comes in the form of new art styles, interesting combat mechanics, and compelling stories. But former Klei Entertainment developer Nel Anderson’s new company, Sonderlust Studios, is bringing novelty to the genre with its first game, Generation Exile, announced with a trailer on Sunday.

Generation Exile is a pretty city builder like any other, but this one has a distinctly anti-colonialist, environmentally sound aspect: Rather than bore into your new land for resources, ultimately destroying what it once was, Exile challenges players to use only the resources they had with them when they left their old world in the last-ever generation ship. That includes water, food, and even air. Gameplay will also include turn-based combat as well as the typical tasks of creating abodes and amenities, amassing resources, and keeping your residents content.

Honeycomb-like structures comprise the “city” in Generation Exile. The game’s UI is also shown.

Image: Sonderlust Studios

Over email, Anderson, who works as Sonderlust’s creative director, aptly explained to Polygon what the game’s trying to do: Lots of city builders, he explained, are “fundamentally extractive and reward — if not demand — growing infinitely.” That means in order to continue in the game, you have to continuously bore into the earth, cut down trees, mine caves, etc. Generation Exile, on the other hand, pushes players to work in tandem with the new environment.

“Rather than simply ‘number get bigger’ we wanted to make the problem-solving space more about seeking balance,” Anderson said. “Rather than pulling more raw materials out of the ground for refinement, progress might instead look like developing a series of anaerobic lagoons that transform the biological waste (that must be stored and managed regardless) into nutrients for growing food or source crops for bioplastics.”

Time will move ultra-fast to account for several generations of your in-game society, which is comprised of procedurally-generated characters so no two games are the same. In fact, the generation of new maps and characters is a major part of how Sonderlust’s developers plan to accomplish that balance.

“While the player of course interacts with the map portion of the game from a familiar birds eye-ish viewpoint, they aren’t some disembodied force of civic will or an otherwise nameless and uncharacterized overseer,” Anderson said. Instead, player characters will have reputations and bespoke interactions with NPCs “triggered procedurally in reaction to the game’s state and decisions the player has made.”

The premise is enough to pique my interest, but the lineup of devs and designers is even more impressive. Sonderlust is also calling in its chief operating officer, Karla Zimonja, co-creator of Gone Home, and some developers who worked on Baldur’s Gate 3 and Far Cry 5. As for sound design, Ben Prunty from Into the Breach will collaborate with the audio team from Celeste, Power Up Audio.

An illustration from Generation Exile shows a 50s-inspired bedroom on a spaceship.

Image: Sonderlust Studios

The early looks at the game are moody in a late-summer-afternoon type way, with an intriguing honeycomb city structure and lots of overgrown ’50s-looking buildings. The UI also looks modern (and big enough to read, ahem) — a welcome change from your average city builder.

“The art style of Generation Exile was inspired in part by fauvism,” said Pier-Olivier Desbiens, 3D environment artist for Sonderlust Studios. “It’s a polygonal stab at the bold colors & flat strokes of the movement, with a heavy emphasis on simplifying shapes and objects so only the essential remains. The main goal was to create a world that feels familiar yet mysterious through the use of unusual, saturated color palettes.”

Generation Exile doesn’t have a release date yet. When it’s released, it’ll be available on Steam and other consoles to be announced.

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