by: Richard Terrell @KirbyKid
March 3, 2014
erhaps it's the minimalist aesthetic of Starseed Pilgrim that leaves the door open for interpretation. When I play, I can relate to the lone pilgrim standing on the edge of a rectangular world set directly in the middle of nowhere. The blank game screen reminds me of the blank page and how both are filled with such potential; potential to search, to discover, and ultimately to make a connection with someone else. I see all forms of expression like poetry, game design, and even playing games as a kind of reaching out into nothingness in the hope of making a meaningful connection. My goal with this analysis is to closely examine the strange and unique game Starseed Pilgrim so that we might find ourselves on the same page. My best tools are clear language, design theory, and a long history of video games to draw examples from. The following is a full game design analysis of Starseed Pilgrim.
Mechanics are basic player actions, and they make up the foundation of any game experience. By using mechanics, players can interact with the game system in meaningful ways. Mechanics are the bridge between the game and player and, therefore, are the foundation of any good gameplay analysis. In Starseed Pilgrim, the mechanics are fairly straightforward.
• The left/right arrow keys MOVE the pilgrim (player avatar) around.
• The up key performs a JUMP. Hold the up key longer for a higher JUMP.
• The arrow keys DIG into blocks adjacent to the pilgrim. The pilgrim cannot DIG upwards.
• The space bar PLANTS a starseed into the block beneath the pilgrim's feet as long as there's room for the seed.
• In special areas, the spacebar allows the pilgrim to float around in a BUBBLE that bursts upon impact with solid surfaces.
Click within the image to play (requires flash)
A key aspect of any mechanic is the input it is mapped to. The biggest trouble with the controls design in Starseed Pilgrim comes from how the MOVE mechanic inputs are also mapped to the DIG mechanic inputs. I call such design grouped mechanics. Depending on the in-game context and how you press the arrow keys, the resulting action will be DIG, MOVE, or both at once. Such a design adds a small, non-trivial amount of complexity to the basic interactions. Based on my experience playing Starseed Pilgrim and watching others play, it's easy to accidentally DIG to your downfall, literally. Before I got used to the controls, when I tried to simply DIG through a block to my left or right, I often continued moving into the space and fell to my death. Ultimately, though, the grouped controls design issue with MOVE and DIG is very minor.
There are several aspects of Starseed Pilgrim's mechanics design that reduce potential input issues. The pilgrim can only DIG blocks when pressed against them. This aspect is great because it lets players MOVE around and against the environment without fear of deforming it. Another nuanced aspect of the DIG mechanic occurs when DIGGING down. After the block beneath the pilgrim is destroyed, the pilgrim hovers for a split second, which is just enough time to MOVE left or right and coast over to the side to avoid falling in the newly created hole. This design makes DIGGING holes in one-block-thick formations an easy and reliable strategy. The last puzzle game with platforming elements I've played featuring a similar level of usability polish in its movement mechanics is Pushmo. In this 3DS game, Mallo, the player character, has specific animations for teetering on the edges of tall platforms and jumping into manholes. These animations are not only comical and expressive, they create a pause before the resulting action, giving the player more time to react and therefore more control of their platforming.
Starseed Pilgrim's horizontal DIG mechanic would benefit from a similar level of stickiness as Pushmo. When I attempt to DIG through a block to my left or right without instantly moving into the dug-out space, I have to be extra careful and focus on quickly tapping the arrow key. It doesn't help that the size of the pilgrim character and blocks on screen are very small. Unlike the NES Mega Man games and Super Mario Bros., the pilgrim sprite simply does not have the size or fidelity to let the pilgrim stand comfortably half-way off the edges of platforms. It's great that players cannot DIG down while standing on the very edge of a single block as players are forced to deliberately stand close to the center of blocks. However, when standing on the seam between horizontal blocks, it can be quite ambiguous as to which block will be destroyed; the block in front? in back? the block you're mostly standing on? It's hard to tell.
As a final note concerning the mechanics and controls design, using the up key to JUMP never became an issue for me. Though I'm not a fan of using the up key to JUMP, the platforming gameplay in Starseed Pilgrim is light on challenge in terms of its movement complexity, spatial navigation, and timing windows. Perhaps the ideal control scheme would feature a D-pad to MOVE and separate buttons for DIG, PLANT seed, and JUMP.