Friday 19 July 2013

Starseed Pilgrim

There's a curious dance that people do when talking about Starseed Pilgrim. They're so afraid of spoiling its magic that they weave in and out trying to avoid saying anything at all, until finally resorting to pointing out that hey - someone you might have heard of liked it, and it's mysterious, so um try it out maybe! I think this undersells the game by making it seem more fragile than it is. If I told you exactly what the relationship between the light world and the dark world is then maybe it would deprive you of one small moment of discovery, but much more of the game is in making use of that relationship, manipulating it once you understand it. I could show you the map I drew of where the various locations are and how they're connected, but it wouldn't even be very useful to you - your world will grow differently to mine. I could tell you every little rule and interaction I've discovered, and it might help you along some, speed up the process for you, but it wouldn't break the game - for there's a difference between facts you've been told and knowledge you understand through experience.

Yes there is exploration and discovery, but the things that are explicitly hidden are not so hard to find. You enter a geometric space that you can move through - you're not told that there are things to find in it, but if you just go ahead and move then you'll start to find them. In this perhaps it demands some personal initiative which is not present in many modern games, but no difficult insights. Simply being unafraid to act without instruction is sufficient. You see a key, you see a lock - there's no tutorial guide telling you to try putting the two together, but do you really need one? And then you see a door with three locks - well I'm not going to spell it out. There are some arbitrary "videogame-y" interactions that you can only really discover by experimenting and observing - stars point to keys, except when they point to locks; hearts become seeds, except when they don't until later - but they aren't really very hard.

This is not to say there are no difficult discoveries, but these are of a very different kind. Starseed Pilgrim's true secrets are the ones hidden in plain view. Basic rules about how plants grow and interact which are discovered in the first few minutes of play end up taking on surprising significance. You have all the tools you need to progress right from the start, but you will need to master them. When you uncover a challenge and realise what you must do to progress, it's easy to go into denial. The lonely pilgrim despairs at their seemingly insurmountable task. There must be something I haven't found yet that will make this easier. There must be a power-up - wall-climbing, double-jump - that will help me here. And so you go searching for secrets where there aren't any, hoping for a way out, trying to avoid doing what you know you must. But there are no short-cuts. You just need to get better at the game.

And that's the secret of Starseed Pilgrim: you can get better at it. It's not about uncovering obtuse facts; it's about mastering a deep system, creatively using its quirks to your advantage, getting better at it until you're able to overcome anything that's thrown at you. Red seeds bloom into a flower if they fall into darkness - initially this seems like a disadvantage because it can crush valuable hearts and enable the darkness to spread more quickly, but eventually you find yourself using it to deliberately to queue up interactions for later. Yellow branches are forced to grow upwards if they can't extend left or right - at first this is usually an accidental waste, but later you will ride them up on purpose. Dripping slime mires you, making movement more difficult, but even this you will find constructive uses for in time - the first time you're pleased to see it rather than disappointed is a beautiful moment. But even if you were told all the rules straight out - which seed best defends against blight, how each world works slightly differently to the others - there would still be much value for you in learning to use them.

So I hope I've managed to dance this dance adequately. I've held back from telling everything I know, but perhaps I've let slip enough to illustrate what the game is like, and to demonstrate that it wouldn't hurt you to be told everything. The pilgrim's magic is strong.


  1. This is consistent with my experience of Starseed Pilgrim. Once I started discovering its secrets, I was surprised by how heavily its proponents have framed it in spoiler warnings. In some ways, because of this mysterious whispering, I was almost disappointed by it (and then I broke through the first three-key door).

    The thing that I've been trying to explain to myself is why I felt content to stop. I saw many 8 or 10 different "worlds" and figured out the rules for each, even though I only managed to complete maybe 3. I expect there are other worlds out there, even though I've looped around the meta-world, but I'm fine with not knowing.

    What I'm trying to say is that there were two surprises in the game, one within the other. The first was the surprise of how many surprises (how many world, how many rule variants) there would be. And once that second layer of surprises became predictable, I lost interest. It's only the bigger surprise that contains unpredictability, thus value.

    To reconnect, what made Starseed Pilgrim special to me was that larger framing surprise, where so many other games rely—more successfully in some ways—on many small, but predictable, surprises. Because of this, I think it's reasonable that people tried to avoid spoiling it, but I also think it depends enough on the player's experience, that writing it out, and talking about it at all, is fine.

    I hope that makes sense.

  2. People get weirdly preoccupied with spoilers, it's really dumb. Social discourse around a game, or any media experience only adds to the intrigue, and if the experience can be 'spoiled' by some nugget of information, it's probably not worthwhile anyway.

    In my opinion, talking about Starseed doesn't ruin the experience, it strengthens it. The arcade legacy of sharing information that started with Druaga and was kept alive by roguelikes, the modern day Souls games, and even Droqen's own previous 'Analogue Defender' encourage players to compare experiences to build a collective body of knowledge to overcome the challenge; way more enriching than hoarding secret knowledge and fussing over spoilers.

    I think the problem was that people who had seen relatively deep into the game's system (Jon Blow, Bennet Foddy) were praising Starseed for its mid and end-game developments, and then subsequent journalists and players mistook that as praise for the initial surface-level game which is... comparatively pretty shallow!

    It created impossible expectations; an a emperor's clothes situation wherein anyone evaluating the game for themselves were buried under the weight of the popular discourse, and weird notions of some secret social contract.

    'There must be a power-up - wall-climbing, double-jump - that will help me here.'

    Bit of trivia here: there was initially going to be a unique traversal ability in the dark world for each different pilgrim colour, but the bubble ended up sufficing, and none of the alternatives really felt as solid. We haven't confirmed this, but there's a comment on a YouTube video where someone claims to have beaten the game without discovering the bubble ability at all, which is.... definitely something.

    'But there are no short-cuts.'

    This is maybe a little unfair, as certain worlds do offer shortcuts of a kind to particular challenges, seed farming the primary one.

    'Red seeds bloom into a flower'

    This is a really beautiful interpretation of what is often seen as such a violent event! :)

    'But even if you were told all the rules straight out [...] there would still be much value for you in learning to use them.'

    This is the highest praise the game merits in my opinion, and Droqen's most significant accomplishment with it.

    Mclogenog: that's really interesting. I sort of wonder how far people who don't really find the core of the game (jumping, planting, maneuvering, puzzling etc.) enjoyable still feel compelled to play on in order to peel back the layers. All the myth-building around the game seems to create a lot of unreasonable expectations.

  3. I'd still be playing this if it didn't periodically erase all of my progress.

  4. Offal: I think you got at something I couldn't quite express. The basic level of interaction in Starseed Pilgrim (the internal series of surprises) becomes boring, while the "fun" comes from the higher level interaction (and the larger, original surprise).

    When thinking about Starseed Pilgrim, I'm tempted to compare it with Fez. But in Fez, rather than having the little surprises nested within a large one, they are separate paths entirely, and the both the basic interactions and the world's variety are satisfying enough to ignore the larger surprise.

    I wonder how compatible the two approaches are. It seems to me that if Starseed Pilgrim was filled with minor surprises (just as Fez frequently introduces new worlds and minor mechanics), it would distract players from understanding and appreciating the deeper implications of the core mechanics, which is the necessary first step to being able to uncover the larger surprise. It's an interesting problem.

  5. Hold on a moment..

    I beat this game once already, and now you're telling me there's a "bubble" ability that I never knew about?

    ... Well, perhaps that's one of the weaknesses of this discovery-centric style. It's possible to beat the game without needing it, so it's possible to beat the game without seeing it. Every discovery I actually made was done by presenting me with a mystery and waiting for me to try and solve it - what do the stars do? What happens if I bring three keys to a triple lock? What do I find if I travel a great distance in the non-procedurally-generated areas?

    But there's no mystery that the bubble solves. A jump that can't be completed without it would have been enough. Or perhaps I'm unique in not trying every control on the keyboard when I discovered that my powers were different in the dark world?

    Oh well. Food for thought.

    1. all the jumps where the bubble operates are constructed by the player, so that solution doesn't fly. probably there should have just been an explicit control instruction there - i missed it myself for a while.

  6. "You see a key, you see a lock - there's no tutorial guide telling you to try putting the two together, but do you really need one?"

    Necroposting here, but I got brickwalled for the longest time because I thought the keyhole was an up arrow! I also had to be explicitly spoiled about the bubble. But I agree in general.