By Adam Smith on April 19th, 2013 at 9:00 pm.
I didn’t know a great deal about Starseed Pilgrim until its Steam release a couple of days ago. I thought it was a puzzle game. I knew it had bemused John. I was vaguely aware that clever people were urging others to play it and to talk about it. For the last seventy two hours it has dominated my waking thoughts and infiltrated my dreams. It’s a challenging, perplexing game set in a strange space that is illuminated by frequent sparks of genius.
Starseed Pilgrim has made a fool of me. It’s not because it left me to explore and learn the rules of an abstract universe all by myself, and it’s not because I’m still finding new confusions, even at the point where I thought I’d mastered all of its processes and problems. No. Starseed Pilgrm’s biggest challenge, for me, is a critical one. What to say about a game that would be better passed from hand to hand at bizarre conventions, residing on an unmarked disc with no readme.txt and no explanation. I’d gladly forbid people from trying to explain what they’ve experienced to newcomers because the joy is in the discoveries.
I’m not talking about conventional spoilers here – you’re not going to find out that Barry Gubbins kills Gertrude who is in fact Barry’s pet dog from an alternate dimension, wearing a wig – I’m talking about things that actually matter.
With that in mind, it’s tempting to declare that ‘you have to experience it for yourself’ without further explanation, but that’d make me a snooty self-appointed curator who just wants to sit in a corner, polishing his canon. Therefore, in the next two paragraphs I’ll lay out the basics. If you’re happy to go in completely blind, skip forward and start reading again after the next screenshot, but I’m not going to include any information that you won’t receive in the first few minutes of playing.
Following a brief introduction, in which fragments of narrative assistance are partially obscured from view, Starseed Pilgrim drops the player onto a block, surrounded by empty space. At the bottom of the block is a star that is emitting a darkness, blotches of jet black, like pustules, spreading into the surrounding squares and infecting them. Eventually, everything will have been consumed by the darkness and, if it touches the pilgrim, your tiny avatar atop the cube, then what? It looks like corruption, death, emptiness. Best to stay away. And since there’s nowhere to run and you can’t jump very far, you’ll have to make new structures to carry you into the gap. The only way to do that is to start planting your seeds.
Apart from the cube, the darkness and the pilgrim, the screen contains one other piece of information. Seeds, three of them, hovering above the pilgrim’s head. They’re colour-coded and (optionally) vary in shape to assist the colour-blind but the only way to understand the code, to understand how they change each other and the environment, is to play the game. They look like the fruits revolving inside a one-armed bandit and when one is planted, blocks are etched from it, extending into the environment. Then another takes its place in the queue until the entire collection is depleted. I’ve given the seeds names – ‘drippy, gloopy bastard’ being a favourite – but I had to understand them first. Their utility is hidden, like most things. Step off the edge and you’ll soon realise that there are whole worlds to discover.
Starseed Pilgrim throws its abstractions into the player’s face like a glass of cold water. Even trying to work out the game’s objective is a question for later, because the first question may well be ‘is there an objective at all’? The combination of apparently procedural growth patterns and audio creation led me to believe I’d been dropped in a block-based sandbox, but scratching at the edges of the pit soon reveals other playful frameworks in the distance. Climbing frames, like scaffolding against the sky.
I’ve often played a game and considered it to be a great example of the ludic arts, a construction of code that relies on the interplay between player and systems to achieve much of its meaning. It’s rare to find a game that doesn’t include diversions, obstructions and distractions between the player and its core mechanics. The player often finds the creators on hand to provide a guided tour of the systems – we converse with them almost as much as with the thing they have constructed. I’ve never met Ian Chess, creator of Chess, but I can recognise the brilliance of his game’s mechanics without knowing about the story he wanted to tell or the political point he was trying to make. Starseed Pilgrim is similar, though with the added mysteries and potential for obfuscation supplied by code and computation. While discovering the game’s complexities and beauty, I feel like I’m cutting out the middle-man and communicating directly with the machine.
That doesn’t mean the game is cold. I’ve sworn at the screen, marvelled at the sights and laughed at my predicament, as I plant the wrong seed in the wrong place and end up stranded on a space-bridge, stuck between the stars as the void closes in. I have focus now, sensing that I’m close to some sort of ending but still unsure what that might entail, or even if there really is such a thing, but I’ve also spent hours creating patterns and song, occasionally stumbling across a fragment of meaning.
If you fear, as I did, that Starseed Pilgrim might be a confusion of blobs and blocks, impossible to decipher without a degree in cryptology and intended to make its devotees feel superior to ordinary folk, then put those fears to rest. After half an hour, perhaps double that at most, you’ll have discovered the first clues, the edges of the framework, and it’s then that the realisation sets in – this isn’t really a puzzle game, or at least not entirely a puzzle game, because it’s also a creative canvas, a sci-fi thriller, a musical meditation and an occasionally frantic chase across space. It has improvised rhythms and sequences, near misses and anguished failures, but it also has something of PixelJunk Eden’s sense of relaxed botanical playground.
This morning, as I played into the small hours, I found something at the periphery of what I knew that introduced new doubts about the pilgrim’s purpose. It unnerved me far more than a flailing monster mash ever could, thereby adding yet another response to the mix. That’s the flow of Starseed Pilgrim – it acts, you respond, then you act and it responds, both changing as each fragment plays out. It’s a conversation with few words but a great deal of power and while it may not be all things to all men, it’ll mean a huge amount to a great many.
Starseed Pilgrim is available now. You can purchase it in a collection with three other Droqen games for $10 or solo for $6.