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Thursday, April 25, 2013

Review: Starseed Pilgrim

Remember seeing a magic trick when you were a kid? The first time you saw a magician saw a lady in half, you were shocked. Then, when he put her back together, you were stunned. You wondered in amazement, “How did he do that?”

Then, someone showed you how the trick worked. They showed you that there are two boxes, and the lady bunches herself up in one box while another woman sticks her legs out of the other box to give the illusion of a woman sawed in half. There was probably a moment of excitement when you finally realized what had been happening the whole time. However, you no longer cared to see the trick afterwards. It no longer held your attention in the same way because you knew exactly what was happening.

Starseed Pilgrim reminded me of that. Starseed Pilgrim is a 2D platformer game with emergent gameplay, where you're expected to make your way around the world and explore for exploration's sake. The early instructions in the game are the equivalent of, "Here is how to move. Press the Space Bar to plant a seed. Go." You're dumped into an all-white world and that's it.
At first, you're confused and lost. You spend time wondering why you're playing this game in the first place. Then, you slowly start understanding what the game is all about. You figure out what the point of it is, and how it all works together.

Then there's a moment of realization where everything sets in. "Oh, this does this and this does this! I go here and do this, then I grab that, then open this!" That's when the pleasure center of your brain lights up, pats you on the head and tells you what a good boy (or girl) you've been.

Afterwards, you wander around and ask yourself, "OK, now what?"

That's where the designers of the game hope that the game really starts for you. If Starseed Pilgrim really has its hooks into you, you'll start poking around, getting more snippets of poetry (yes, poetry) to read, and going further and further through the world.

However, the problem is that there's no definitive goal to shoot for. I'm not saying that there needed to be little guideposts sprinkled throughout the world or a giant floating head telling you what to do next, or immersion-breaking achievements of any kind. Just a goal.

In other emergent games like Minecraft or Terraria, you're building something. You're affecting the world, like putting up a building or revitalizing a formerly dead area. When you're done, you can say, "I did that. I made that." When you open up a new area of Starseed Pilgrim, it looks pretty much like the last area you opened up. There are slightly different rules in the new areas, and you're going further, but for what? What is the ultimate goal?

This could have been solved easily. The stated goal at the beginning of game is to "bring back the sky." So how about when you plant a seed, the blank white blocks around it turn to a sky-blue color? Eventually, clouds start forming in the blue blocks and weather returns to the world. Now you have a goal to play towards. Your emergent gameplay has an endpoint, not just playing just to play.

You may read this review and think I didn't like Starseed Pilgrim, but that's not true. I thought it was an exceptional experience and I'd love to wipe my brain and start over from scratch, relearning the world and how it works. The sound design is really cool, like the sound of encroaching darkness that sounds just as ominous as it looks. Starseed Pilgrim also has a totally unique aesthetic that looks unlike any other game out there right now.

I'm only disappointed because Starseed Pilgrim came oh-so-close to being a knockout of a game. Instead, it ended up as a really neat one with some interesting and mysterious mechanics, which is a lot closer to perfection than a lot of other developers can get.

Final Rating: B