On Loving Starseed Pilgrim

I’m awfully glad that I don’t have to write a proper review of Starseed Pilgrim.

It’s not that it’s hard to say whether the game good (it is) but it’s good at things that are difficult to describe or quantify: it encourages you to discover rules for yourself, it confounds your expectations without ever exactly misleading you, and it serenely gives back in direct proportion to how much you’re willing to put in. I don’t envy anyone who is tasked with distilling those qualities into an apples-to-apples comparison with some cinematic AAA production, or deciding where it belongs on a top ten list, or whatever.

The game lives outside, and stretches beyond, the world that reviews were invented to describe. Like Super Hexagon before it, Starseed Pilgrim is gleefully self-contained—an autonomous object first and foremost, art and/or commerce a distant, disinterested second.

Starseed_Pilgrim_2

Starseed Pilgrim works by breaking the rules of game design, using beauty and mystery as (or perhaps even place of) conveyance. It’s long on invitations but short on instructions. It barely ever teaches, and rarely even hints.

You’ve really got to trust your players if you’re going to try something like that, because what if a player tries it once, doesn’t learn any of the game’s secrets, and stops playing? Well, then that player hasn’t put much in, so they can’t expect to get much out. Starseed Pilgrim is at peace with that possibility. It’s Zen like that.

The toolset may always feel unruly and unhelpful to you. You may never learn that what seems like a grave threat is in fact an eventuality from which you can profit, if only you plan ahead. Maybe the worlds beyond and behind the one you first see will remain hidden from your view, even if you do come back again and again. Fine. So be it. But the game will be ready and waiting for you if you change your mind and decide that you want something more.

Starseed_Pilgrim_1

Starseed Pilgrim feels more like a world in a box—more like Shigeru Miyamoto’s famous “miniature garden that [players] can put inside their drawer”—than any game I can think of, Proteus or Minecraft included. It offers a literal garden, of course, but more than that, it engages you where other games would merely indulge you, demonstrating patience instead of panicking at a perceived lack of rapt player attention. It’s a bold and quiet videogame that takes bold, quiet liberties with the very form of videogames.

So much of what Starseed Pilgrim has to say is untranslatable into text, and inhospitable to Best-Game-Ever/Worst-Game-Ever tribalism. I love it for that.

6 comments

    • Yeah, I could have expressed that thought much more clearly. Rules was a poor word choice. What I meant was that Starseed Pilgrim breaks the customs or conventions of game design—the received wisdom about what makes a videogame work, and how it lets a player in on its systems.

      Anna Anthropy said it best, I think: game design works well when it asks “how do i teach the player these rules?” As that linked article explains, the original Super Mario Bros. teaches the player most of its rules “in the first two screens – probably minutes of play!” purely through its level structure and visual and auditory cues, and “this is good design!”

      Starseed Pilgrim sort of refuses to teach you its rules, relying instead on your curiosity and hunger for discovery. Super Mario Bros. has some moments like that—I’m thinking of Level 4-2: woah, a beanstalk! and woah, a warp zone! in rapid succession—but Starseed Pilgrim is aiming for pure, uncut eureka, and in order to maximize the joy of discovery, it does much less teaching than Super Mario Bros. Indeed, it does much less teaching than most of the games we would generally consider well-designed.

      That’s what I meant. Startseed Pilgrim goes against the flow what we tend to think of as “good game design” in some interesting ways.

  1. I see. I understand your point, but I disagree.

    (For those reading that have not played the game, but wishes to do so, I would like to say this text contains spoilers.)
    Starseed Pilgrim, does in fact tell you the rules, and they are presented in the first three screens. The thing that makes Starseed Pilgrim a bit unusual is that it teaches you them in an order that is a bit uncommon, and all of this to enhance the feeling of exploration and discovery (as you mentioned).

    At first the player is being taught how to move the character and that it can destroy blocks by giving the input of double tapping left, right or down.
    Then the player is directed to a screen with a platform full with heart seeds and a marking. The player knows that it’s possible to destroy blocks by double tapping, and therefore most players would try to destroy some of the hearts seeds.
    When destroying heart seeds the player gets visual feedback of something appearing above their head, but the player does not know what it means.
    Eventually the player tries to press down where a marking has been placed, and the player is directed to a new screen.

    This is the screen that most players seem to find confusing, and I would agree. It is confusing, because there are many rules being presented under the pressure of time.
    Just like Mario, most of the rules are being presented by trial and error, visual feedback and audio. In fact, Starseed Pilgrim tells some of the rules more clearly than Super Mario (like telling the player how to move. I would assume that is because compared to a NES controller there aren’t as many options as all the keys of a keyboard)

    The player learns that it is possible to place a seed by pressing space.
    The player will try to do so, and visual and audiovisual feedback is given to the player. They player learns that there are different blocks that behave differently, and they have different colours and different audio.
    The player plants seeds and eventually they will see a star (and in fact, the designer of this game has placed one so that if the player plants a seed that grows two tiles upwards there is a star visible right above the platform where the player stands at the beginning of the screen. This is probably because the designer wanted the players to be curious about stars and see what happens when you “catch” a star).

    When catching a star the player goes into a strange black-and-white place. Here the player learns that the seeds planted in the previous screen are now making the space where the player can move. The player also learns that the stars now are keys, and the star that starts spreading the black space in the previous screen is a keyhole. If the player picks up a heart in the black-and-white screen the number below the character increases by one.

    I would like to say seeing the star you “caught” becoming a key, and seeing that the first star spreading the black space is a keyhole makes most players get the idea that maybe the key should go into the keyhole.

    The player arrives to the first screen with the heart seeds again, and is probably a bit confused why they arrived at the same place they came from.
    The player has now been taught that heart seeds generate other seeds.
    The player also knows that pressing space plants a seed.

    And the designer has, as in the scene with black space spreading, placed a hint where the player should go very close to the player. If the player plants a seed at the left corner of the platform a new platform with a new character is being visible only two tiles away. The designer has also made the heart seeds very tall so that the player must plant seeds in order to get all of them.

    I would like to say: The things that are confusing about Starseed Pilgrim is that pressing space can be used in all screens, and that there are many rules being presented in a short amount of time (but the player has as many tries he wants to learn them) and that some of those rules come in a unusual order.

    Compared to Mario, Starseed Pilgrim has more mechanics and therefore more rules. Mario’s rules are also being presented in the pressure of time limit, but since Mario doesn’t have as many rules and they aren’t as complex as Starseed Pilgrim it’s easier to guess what they might be.

    Say that if the player would have been introduced to that pressing space makes you plant seeds at the screen where there are heart seeds are, it would have been a more natural and intuitive way of describing what the player should do, since the game actually “takes place” where you find new characters and platforms.

    But that is why I like this game. It focuses on exploration and discovery, and I think it has been well designed to do so. Telling the rules in an unusual order encourages the player to discover and explore, and it also makes the player feel smart when they finally are being understood.

    But we do not disagree on the point that Starseed Pilgrim is aiming to give the player an exploration experience.

    I still think you’re being a bit vague on what you think as a well-designed game, and I can understand why. Game design is a very complex subject.

    I also don’t understand who you’re pointing at when writing “we” in this sentence; “Startseed Pilgrim goes against the flow what we tend to think of as “good game design” in some interesting ways.”

    We, the players? We, the game designers? We, the game critics?

    • I’d say that we do indeed agree, maybe even more than you think.

      To be clear, I’m not claiming that there is a universally agreed-upon definition of good game design, and that Starseed Pilgrim is not-that. What I’m saying is, it’s not just that game design is complex. It’s also that it’s unsettled territory—like early film, like all that weird and wonderful stuff that came before what we would now call narrative cinema.

      For that reason, I’m not sure there’s an easy way to untangle the “we” I’m referring to. Games are at this interesting moment where there are lots of competing theories about how they work (or don’t) on a formal level. Some people are making interesting arguments through their designs, some through their writing, some both. Game critics and games designers are of course also players, but more to the point, some of the best critics are also making damn interesting games. I’m thinking not just of Anna Anthropy, but also of Mattie Brice, Chris Hecker, Robert Boyd, Ian Bogost, and Jim Rossignol, to name just a few.

      This is why I said that rule was the wrong word. There are no rules—not really, not yet. But there is a certain strain that runs through most (not all) of the developer-critcs’ work (namely that bit about how a game should teach you how to play it while you’re playing it), and I would maintain that, even though it’s absolutely possible to do that kind of teaching in a game more complicated than Super Mario Bros., Starseed Pilgrim purposefully chooses not to.

      (To anybody reading who hasn’t played the game, I’ll reiterate before I go on: this thread does contain what could reasonably be called SPOILERS).

      Your analysis up to the first proper “level” is spot-on, I think. But you might be underestimating the role that trial-and-error (or else curiosity and consideration) plays from there on out. That player’s first set of seeds is carefully selected, and the first level does a great job of encouraging you to climb higher. No question there. But if you think about Anthropy’s specific examples from Mario 1-1—the way that first pipe bounces that first mushroom back at Mario, the way the bricks overhead help Mario to stomp that first goomba—you’ll get a clear picture of what Starseed Pilgrim intentionally isn’t doing.

      Those first few screens to don’t actually make you dig laterally (you can just dig down), so the player might not know how to mine all the heart blocks. And in the level, the game doesn’t generally put you into situations were you have to use specific seeds in specific ways (there is almost always room for multiple strategies), and doesn’t introduce new concepts individually or in context. The game just gives you the tools and trusts you to put them to use.

      When the player catches a star for the first time, for example, it’s very likely that the key will be useless and mysterious, because there won’t be a path back to the lock. If the player happens to be able to backtrack enough to see the lock without reaching it, then that provides a big old hint, but there’s no guarantee that will happen either (unless the player has deliberately jumped into the darkness right off the bat on a previous run, which would again require curiosity, experimentation, and a bold willingness to court what looks like death).

      I’m not saying that any of this is bad design, mind you. Quite the opposite, it’s damn good design, despite being extremely different from canonical examples of good design, such as Mario 1-1. That makes Starseed Pilgrim a great opportunity to rethink the roles conveyance and teaching in game design, and to remember the importance of mystery and patience as tools in the designer’s belt.

      Starseed Pilgrim could be clearer and more explicit about all sorts of things if it wanted to be, but it doesn’t want to be. It wants to do something different, and that difference is valuable and interesting. That’s all I’m saying.

  2. I understand your point better now. Yes. It seems we agree quite lot. (and also sorry for the late answer)

    I am glad you also noticed the order the seeds are generated is picked carefully so that the player is lead in the “right direction”.
    When I said Starseed has many rules being presented under the pressure of time, I was referring to all the different blocks: How they work separately and together, the icons above the avatars head and how the black space works. (And that wasn’t very clear. I felt like I had written an essay already)

    Yes. It does seem we agree quite much.

    When I asked you who you meant by “we” I was wondering from whose perspective you were seeing from, because gamers, designers and critics view the game from different angels. Being one doesn’t exclude you being another; I just believe the answer would have been different depending on the perspective of the person speaking.

    Maybe I took the word “rule” too literally.
    I don’t believe films, writing and game design have any rules. I do believe they have different tools that might work better to make the player understand what you’re trying to tell.
    Game design is, just as writing and film making, about communication. The different tools are simply a way to make sure the designer and the player are speaking the same language.

    Thank you for taking your time to discuss this with me. I had a great time.
    I don’t feel like adding something more to this conversation right now, but if you want to discuss it further I’m happy to join.

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