by: Richard Terrell @KirbyKid
March 3, 2014
The strongest area of game design in Starseed Pilgrim is the design space of the starseeds. A design space is a way of organizing and understanding the various elements that gameplay and levels are composed of. By focusing on how Starseed Pilgrim plays, we gain the best framework to understand the variety and functional potential of each game element. The core gameplay of Starseed Pilgrim uses the gameplay dynamics of 2D space and continuous time (real time). Playing involves growing structures by PLANTING seeds to navigate through the environment; so understanding the various properties, tendencies, and shapes of the starseed growth is the best way to explore the design of Starseed Pilgrim's gameplay.
Starseed Pilgrim challenges players to explore into the white abyss by growing platforms from starseeds. The eight seed types vary in terms of the shapes they grow into and other properties. Understanding the spatial diversity is easy; just think in terms of size and shape. Size-wise:
• The dark blue seeds are the smallest, growing only 1 block.
• Then the light blue (ice) seeds grow 2-5 blocks in a t-formation.
• The orange seeds grow 6-10 blocks in either a straight horizontal or upward direction.
• The green seeds grow sporadically, each block growing in a random direction. Green seed growth ranges from 6-19 blocks.
• The purple blocks grow in a unique symmetrical pattern (6-17 blocks) that looks like the top of a medieval castle.
• The tan (sand) seeds grow outward horizontally until they find space to grow downwards or reach their approximate 24-block maximum size; the end of the tan seed's growth often expands into a plus sign pattern.
• The red seeds grow into a single detonator block. The detonator block explodes if DUG into or touched by the void forming a symmetrical 45-block sphere-like shape.
• The pink seeds grow straight upwards; though slow, if unobstructed, the pink seeds will continue to grow forever.
I cover the seed variation in such detail because how the seeds grow and what the player can do with them makes up the core of all the meaningful interactivity in Starseed Pilgrim. The word "starseed" is even in the game's title. Playing Starseed Pilgrim involves navigating through the 2D environment in real-time by PLANTING starseeds, walking on starseeds, and DIGGING into starseeds. Understanding the potential range and variety of the seeds and how they functionally fit together to aid the player in navigation is the main skill of the game. In building this skill, players can embrace the complexity and elegance of Starseed Pilgrim's design.
In my experience, recognizing and talking about embracing gameplay systems is the most difficult part of talking about video games, especially for more abstract games like Starseed Pilgrim. Attempting to describe the experience and sensation of embracing gameplay systems is like trying to explain why we like a non-lyrical piece of music. Most of the time, we just don't have the language to even come close. To better explain the core gameplay design of Starseed Pilgrim, I'll draw a comparison between two additional action-puzzle games: Tetris and Boxlife.
Tetris is a fantastic game that many consider to be perfect. With only seven different tetriminos (shapes composed of four units), two pairs of which are mirror images, there is a staggering number of ways these blocks fit together. Like jigsaw puzzle pieces, using the right piece in the right rotation in the right place is the challenge. Instead of solving a jigsaw puzzle with hundreds of unique pieces and only one right place for each piece, Tetris challenges players to create formations using seven unique pieces, with many "right" places to put them. When the player creates a row with no gaps, the row disappears and any pieces above the cleared row drop. What determines the "right" place in Tetris comes mainly from the level design, which limits the play space to a 10 x 20 sized room.
It is only under these restrictive conditions that players are pushed to make mistakes and deal with a staggering number of challenging possibilities in Tetris. It is only after various gaps are made in our Tetris formations that we begin to see the strategic possibilities that go beyond our most straightforward tactics of just put the pieces together without making any gaps. Every formation you build won't be set up in a way that allows you to neatly place every piece. Because the pieces are distributed randomly, players have to eventually put pieces in sub-optimal places. The "right" or the sub-optimal place is all relative to one's ability to build up and eliminate lines. When players get good at Tetris, they begin to plan for and create formations with gaps intentionally, only to deftly uncover and fill them later.
In a very real way, we engage with our options (shape placement) and our mistakes by molding our mind around the rules and systems of Tetris. Individually, the rules may seem abstract or arbitrary, but they come together to create a clear gameplay challenge we can understand. Playing Tetris is like a fun version of solving long division math problems, algorithmically solvable processes with remainders. The difference is in Tetris, players use blocks to divide 10 (the width of the playing field) by one to four (the amount of space any one side of any Tetris block takes up). Each row is a separate division problem, so unless you use the long 4x1 piece, you'll be working on multiple "division problems" at once. Great Tetris players can see each move for its potential that endlessly cycles back on itself.
• Some blocks are absorbed by the void much more quickly than others (pink, red, orange, and green).
• Purple and tan blocks are absorbed very slowly.
• Light blue seeds never get fully absorbed by the void.
• The explosion of red blocks nullifies everything it touches, including the void, keys, and other seeds; the only thing it doesn't erase are other red blocks, stone blocks, and single-key door star blocks.
• Blue blocks are like spring pads, extending the player's JUMP from three blocks high to five. Be careful though, if a tan block touches a dark blue, the blue block will be converted into a tan block, which diminishes JUMPING height considerably.
It's the same with the action-puzzle game Boxlife. In this DSiWare game, players are challenged to use the touch screen to trace and cut out shapes from an endless sheet of graph-paper-like squares. The objective is to cut shapes that are foldable into perfect six-sided cubes. Boxlife gets really interesting when players have to leverage their knowledge of the 11 possible box patterns to maximize their efficiency when working with a limited sheet of paper. With each box players cut, fold, and remove from the field, a hole is left in the paper. These holes, like in Tetris, can either be the player's undoing or an opportunity to exercise their skills by planning for them ahead of time. A deep knowledge of the gameplay systems changes the way we see, think about, and experience the gameplay challenges. In Boxlife, when you learn to see every square of the paper playing field as a potential six-sided box in all the possible combinations and how each potential box changes the way you can fold all other boxes, then you've mastered the game.
Starseed Pilgrim is unlike Tetris and Boxlife. With these other action-puzzle games, the limitations of playing in confined spaces and manipulating pieces of small, discrete components focuses the gameplay. In Tetris, players use four-block pieces to fill up horizontal rows of ten spaces. Fill an entire row with no gaps to clear the line. In Boxlife, players cut specific six-square patterns from a paper field designed to have no unfoldable paper squares left over. In other words, with every challenge, players can aim to make perfect cuts and have no remaining waste. In Starseed Pilgrim, the majority of the gameplay challenges aren't set in a confined space. In fact, the 2D, side-scrolling space is wide open to explore in any direction. While Tetris puts players in a small box that focuses on the building up and tearing down of structures using an endless supply of added pieces, and Boxlife puts players at the edge of an endless field where players cut away at the resource available, Starseed Pilgrim puts players in the middle of an endless space that extends out in all directions.
With each example, the gameplay challenge becomes less about engaging in a confined, limited play space and more about moving through the space. Now we can better analyze the main function of the seed design in Starseed Pilgrim.
Being a platformer, players move in Starseed Pilgrim by walking, jumping, and falling. As you might expect, players can move through the environment better horizontally than vertically. This isn't because platforming games traditionally feature horizontal, side-scrolling challenges, so most players tend to play this way. Rather, it's because most of the starseeds grow in ways that make traversal most conducive for horizontal platforming. The pink, purple, orange, green, and light blue seeds tend to grow in a way that helps players move horizontally and upwards. Such a design space is good for creating the kind of platforms players can JUMP around on like in traditional platforming gameplay. Also, because of gravity and the threat of dying when the player falls further than the screen shows, moving horizontally is the safest, most reliable way to explore. Conversely, there are much fewer seeds that help the player move downward. The red seeds with their explosive growth help players move downward a few blocks, but it's the tan seeds that are best for downward travel as they tend to grow outward until they can grow downward, ending in a plus-shaped pattern that functions as a nice platform to fall down onto.
Beyond the shape and direction of the growth, a significant part of the design space of the seeds is how they interact with other gameplay elements.
Between the shape of the growth, the direction, the area (number of blocks), void corruption rate, growth speed, whether a seed overrides other blocks as it grows, and other block properties, Starseed Pilgrim features a diverse design space that's filled unevenly. It's worth noting that because Starseed Pilgrim challenges players to move through the environment rather than work within a limited and concentrated space, more complexities were needed to make the gameplay more interesting. With a more open design spatially, Starseed Pilgrim needed more rules (or complexities) to create situations where player options would be limited and focused in the same way that the more confined spaces worked in Tetris and Boxlife. There's more to Tetris than putting each piece in the "right" place because sometimes there isn't a right place, and the pros and cons of each place continue to affect player options moving forward. It's difficult to know just how strong of an effect each piece placement choice will have because the pieces players get are random, requiring constant adaptation. This basic idea of not being able to easily determine the "right" move is a simple way of understanding what many call interesting choices.
The wrinkles in the seed design space of Starseed Pilgrim are a major contributing factor to the difficulty in figuring out the "right" place to PLANT starseeds. Because each seed has many rules that govern how it interacts with the corrupting void, the pilgrim, and other seeds, players have to consider the implication of their choices as they ripple forward. One may think it's good to place a red seed in one place, only to then realize that doing so may start a chain reaction of consequences. When strategizing, the more players have to consider their future moves and the precise scenarios they're in, the more "interesting" the gameplay experience.
The other major piece of Starseed Pilgrim's design space is the pilgrim explorers. There are 10 explorers in the game and each has a unique ability. Within the explorer design space are the variables of how many upcoming seeds can be viewed, the overall game speed, JUMP height, ability to DIG, shape of the hole dug, ability to touch the void and not fall into the flip world, and other seed-specific abilities. Most of the explorers are colored like one of the eight seeds, so naturally, the explorer of each color generally gets special properties for the seeds of their matching color. For example:
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• The pink explorer can harvest all touching pink blocks in an instant, instead of having to DIG at the blocks one by one.
• The light blue explorer can freeze all blocks of the same type instantly, instead of just the five-block cross shape.
• The tan pilgrim's JUMP isn't hindered by the tan blocks.
• The black pilgrim can walk on the void.
• The blue pilgrim can jump 4 block high instead of 3.
The design space of a game is a tool for understanding the potential of its gameplay. The design space is a way of organizing the different elements the gameplay or level design has to work with. Well designed parts can be arranged in a way that works or in a way that doesn’t. How this potential is fulfilled is the focus of the next part of this analysis.