In praise of the video game starter island

I can still remember my first game of PUBG. Well, kind of. I can’t remember how I did out there on the battlefield, which weapons I found or how far I traveled across the map. But I can remember that starter island – where everyone spawns while the game is gathering players. I remember just being really confused by it.

Where was I? Was this it? Were we off and playing? Did I need to be doing something? There were weapons scattered around – should I be using them? There were people everywhere. Should I be hiding?

I am familiar with the starting island now – in fact I love it. I spend a lot of time in games that use starting islands, from Fortnite to Among Us (not really an island, that one, but you know what I mean).

And the starting island has its own particular joys. I love seeing how people have dressed up, and I love seeing what they choose to do in this special time before the proper game begins and action matters. Lots of emotes. Lots of dancing. Lots of just running around.

Anyway, I’ve been thinking about this because I returned to Splatoon 2 this week for the first time in too long, and I loaded up a match and – no starter island. Of course there wouldn’t be. Starter islands – as far as my tiny brain can work out – are largely for keeping players busy while the player numbers for the game tick upwards. This makes sense in Fortnite, which has dozens of players, or even Among Us, where you get a jostling 15 or so. Splatoon needs 8 players. No need for a starting island.

Yet I kind of miss it. I miss it even though there has never been one here, unless you count Inkopolis Square itself, which is not quite the same thing I would argue. Inkopolis Square is its own fascination, clearly. It’s live and yet not live: you’re surrounded by real people, but only in snapshot form. Posed about the place they feel like they’re there with you, but they aren’t really – and that’s the singular magic of it.

But starter islands, as they’re established now, are one of those things in games that has transcended what I assume to be their technical necessity – getting the lists together, doing a bit of loading, I don’t know. They’re now a part of the game I look forward to. A moment of energetic cheer before the serious stuff begins. A chance to press all the buttons on the controller and get ready to battle.

I love this. Games are always changing and sometimes as a whole, as genres rather than individual titles, they find something new: new territory. Who knew players would love a chance to just mingle in a lobby rather than stare at the names and the ping rates and curse the slow tick-down of a starting clock? Who knew if you put them on an island, and then made that island visible from the main map, people would become fascinated with it?

Actually, I suspect that last part was obvious. I had a friend who believed that if you destroyed all the battle buses on the Fortnite starter island, then the actual battle bus would not take off and the game could not begin. They used to run around during those opening minutes, frantically attacking buses. This I reckon is why starter islands are really so good: they are spaces for us to fill with meaning and rituals. This is why they feel like such a vital addition to games.