Area of Effect
A screenshot from Beasts of Maravilla Island shows the protagonist observing a pair of colorful monkey sitting on the branch of a tree in a tropical forest.

Seasonal Space

This column is a reprint from Unwinnable Monthly #172. If you like what you see, grab the magazine for less than ten dollars, or subscribe and get all future magazines for half price.


What does digital grass feel like?


One of the few TikTok accounts I miss, after successfully extricating the app from my day to day, is Frankie Simmons. I don’t remember when I discovered her, but I do remember that it was before last winter. Several videos from that time stick in my brain: her talking about how she struggles with the season, but that she doesn’t just want to figure out how to get through it but to also come to appreciate it for what it is.

I was trying to do the same. Both last winter and this winter have not only been cold and dreary but I’ve also been waiting for a big change coming in February: last year, moving to my own place in a new city; this year ending an editing contract and getting back to full time writing.

I’m not a patient person. I spend so much of winter – and the other seasons – thinking about the future, listing out everything I’ll get to do when the time is right. But over a couple of years, I’ve been trying hard to stick with the present moment and find what’s good about it.

I’m still very bad at it. Simmons’ videos, and now that I’m not on TikTok but subscribed to her newsletter, her writing, are great at making me want to. In a recent email titled “A Scavenger Hunt for the Dead of Winter,” she once again sets out the beauty of the season. I almost didn’t read it – I know where the dead of winter is, it’s everywhere and it’s inside my chest. But, as Simmons writes, “there are things that exist today that won’t on any other day of the year.” Tree branches in the low sun, birds more grateful than ever for scattered food, soup and thick-sliced bread that just tastes better in the cold.

So, sure, I’m invested in the idea again, but putting it into practice is hard. I’ll throw some extra sunflower seeds out of the door in the morning as I’m making my coffee, but it’s too cold and I’m too tired to remember Simmons’ words about considering how nice the branches on my neighbor’s hazel tree look today.

A photograph of late-afternoon sun breaking through the trees of a forest in winter.

Sick of it, I turned to a fictional tropical landscape. Beasts of Maravilla Island is a photography game in which a woman called Marina heads off somewhere warm and lush, armed with her camera and her grandfather’s notebook. Through these two objects, Marina explores the island’s biodiversity, capturing images of the dozens of birds, plants, reptiles, insects and more.

In every area, a checklist tells you how many species to be on the lookout for. It trains you to constantly keep an eye open for newness. At first, each new level is a riot of undiscovered flora and fauna, but as you move through the level, there’s less that you haven’t seen before. You have to carefully track down the dead ends and cul-de-sacs which are the only spots to find something strange and beautiful, like a chorus of singing frogs or a crystalline ladybird.

Of course, this is easy in the game. Maravilla is a paradise bursting at the seams with color, movement, and energy. It’s also short and split into 20-or-so minute sections, so you don’t have to keep it up for long.

But still. I played one section of Beasts of Maravilla Island and then I got on a bus, and the naked tree branches seemed more interesting than ever. I played another section and hung a print in my workspace that’s been lying, waiting, for weeks. I finished the game and went downstairs, out into the garden, broke the ice on the birdbath and scattered some seeds. Then I went back into the kitchen, laid out some vegetables for soup, and watched what turned up. Blackbird, wood pigeon, robin, great tit, magpie.

Maybe they’ll show up again tomorrow. Maybe they won’t. I’ll keep a look out and let you know.


Jay Castello is a freelance writer covering games and internet culture. If they’re not down a research rabbit hole you’ll probably find them taking bad photographs in the woods.


Ad Free, Area of Effect, Games, Unwinnable Monthly