by: Richard Terrell @KirbyKid
March 3, 2014
It's important with any game analysis not to lose sight of the bigger picture, especially after spending so much time analyzing the fine details. In this analysis, I've broken down Starseed Pilgrim into many parts and explained how they work. By understanding how the parts work, we can better understand our game experiences and how we form our overall opinions; then we can better share our thoughts with others. To close, I want to articulate what Starseed Pilgrim is about by considering its themes (messages conveyed by the visuals, sound, and, most importantly, interactive systems).
Playing Starseed Pilgrim for the first time was like being dropped into a blank dream world. And with only a touch of the familiar (e.g. the side-scrolling platforming format), I was free to explore, dig, plant, branch, and bloom. Like a dream, the world of Starseed Pilgrim was partially coherent. Everything sort of made sense in its own abstract way, including the resonant text that hung in the background often iambed, sometimes enjambed. Was it an odd world? Perhaps. But none of these details were more odd than my lack of background or context. In Starseed Pilgrim, I started knowing nearly nothing about myself, and like a dream I found that I didn't need anything more to motivate myself to explore.
Poetic descriptions aside, it's obvious that "discovery" is a core theme of Starseed Pilgrim, but I challenge what this really means. Based on the design of the game, players have to learn, or discover, most of the game's rules without explicit instruction. I see this as mostly being an issue of Starseed Pilgrim's teaching design, an area of design that mostly affects beginning players before they become knowledgeable of the game's rules. So even if players have to "discover" the rules, wouldn't that only make up less than half of what Starseed Pilgrim has to offer?
For me, it's not enough to claim that Starseed Pilgrim is about discovery just because players have to learn the game with minimal guidance. After all, there are plenty of games out there with less guidance on how to play compared to their higher levels of complexity. A single character in a fighting game like Super Smash Bros. has more complexity (rules and parameters) than all of Starseed Pilgrim--and I wouldn't say that Smash Bros. is about discovery or learning. In general, video games offer so many possibilities and mysteries within their emergent gameplay that learning, discovery, and curiosity are common.
Starseed Pilgrim is a game that invites the player to invest with intrinsic curiosity and a bit of work to uncover discoveries. The discovery process doesn't end once players discover there are other pilgrims in the overworld and three-key challenges in every mission. There are plenty of skills and strategies for players to develop and challenges to test these skills. The problem is, these additional discoveries only help the player play the game better. Digging into the gameplay systems to discover how to play better isn't the kind of experience most share with friends or safeguard with spoiler alerts. Once many players feel like they've discovered most of what Starseed Pilgrim has to offer, they stop. For a player like me who is less swayed by novelties and most interested in the depth of gameplay systems, I transitioned smoothly from discovering pilgrims on the overworld to mastering the gameplay challenges. Like the minimal framing that set up Starseed Pilgrim's popular discoveries, I see a gameplay challenge itself as a kind of frame, a kind of hint to a level of skill I haven't yet reached or a way of understanding through interaction I haven't yet experienced.
The reason there's such a notable player drop-off rate between discovering all the pilgrims and beating all the three-key rooms isn't that there's two main parts of Starseed Pilgrim. Starseed Pilgrim doesn't "turn" into a game after the “popular discoveries” are uncovered. Rather, it's a game the whole time. And when the easier discoveries are uncovered, most find themselves unmotivated to put in the work to continue, which is quite common with most games and skill-based activities. The real issue with Starseed Pilgrim is that the "two parts" of the experience are designed in ways that conflict with each other, and that the "game" part of the experience features design elements that lessen the depth for those who dig deeper.
While the randomness is great for creating variation, unpredictability, and a sense that you never know what's beyond your view, it takes away a lot of control players need to explore the gameplay systems at a more skillful level. Also, the teaching design, though minimal, is designed in a way to create confusion about mechanics and other features, which limits the player's ability to experience more "ah ha" moments of discovery. If Starseed Pilgrim was primary about skill-based play, it wouldn't make sense to obfuscate basic rules. Furthermore, it doesn't help that there are several design features that make the game part of Starseed Pilgrim more difficult to enjoy. There's no pause button, game save indication, or fast travel system for moving across the overworld, which becomes a confusing task due to the lack of a map. This is not to mention other minor annoyances like undersized hitboxes for the key and heart pickups in the flip world or rule exceptions like disabled pilgrim properties on the overworld.
The deeper I dug into the gameplay system, the more I realized it deep potential isn't well realized in its level design. My curiosity took me further than the game supports. Starseed Pilgrim is a neat experience about discovery that's minimal in design, perhaps too minimal on the design features that would make its gameplay as satisfying and enjoyable as its discovery. Ultimately, the game sits oddly as a combination of a few different types of design, but not excelling in any one. It's skill-based like an action-platformer, but there's the decent platforming challenges are few and far between. Its design space is like a puzzle game, but there's not enough level design structures to really restrict play and create tight puzzle challenges especially considering the many random elements. It's also like other games based around an exploration theme, like the indie game Small Worlds. Starseed Pilgrim, though, is much more complex than Small Worlds, often losing players in its open, guide-free design.
My overall experience with Starseed Pilgrim is a mixture of delight, discovery, some skillful moments, and a notable amount of frustration. I'm glad I went through it all. After nearly 50 hours of game time and beating it twice, I'm left, once again, staring into the white abyss that reminds me of dreaming; dreams and the potential within the blank page that sits before all writers before they make their first mark on a voiceless world.
If most games are filled with potential discovery, then what makes Starseed Pilgrim different? How did Starseed Pilgrim become a game that players safeguard with spoiler warnings? What is it about the discovery in Starseed Pilgrim that delights players? The answer is Starseed Pilgrim features a clear design frame that highlights certain key aspects of the learning, discovery process. In the world of expression and art, how ideas are presented (framed) is always a major consideration.
Firstly, Droqen, the creator of Starseed Pilgrim, designed the game around specific discoveries that are only accessible through intrinsically motivated play. As if saying, “curiosity alone can drive us forward if we clear all else out of our way”, Droqen created Starseed Pilgrim with as little “in the way” as possible. With minimal tutorials, sounds, and visuals; with a limited view, stark white background, and a game low on complexity, Droqen created a space where players navigate their way through the learning process by their own questions and curiosity. The point is to explore even without knowing what may be out there. Though also minimal, the poems support this theme through topics of bold pursuit, lofty goals, and defying limitations:
Secondly, through the minimal presentation, Starseed Pilgrim frames an element of play: the intrinsic motivation of curiosity. In Starseed Pilgrim, if you keep trying, you'll find a world that's bigger than you expected. It's important to realize that some of the most well received, spoiler-guarded discoveries in Starseed Pilgrim are brilliantly accessible. In other words, everyone can understand the discovery of a new island, pilgrim, or key block when it moves into view from the edge of the white nothingness. But the reason why these discoveries are so memorable and effective is because players discover these mysteries through the gameplay mechanics.
The game window acts like a perfect-square periscope through which players pan around nothingness by controlling their pilgrim and PLANTING starseeds. It's easy to feel confined by the limitations of the view. It's easy to assume or imagine that there's more to the game than just the one brown island and one gray island players can access from the start, but to finally see the keys and pilgrims edge their way into view is the delight of Starseed Pilgrim. It's a discovery made possible by intrinsic curiosity alone because there's little else in the game to teach or point players in the right direction. To experience the discovery, players do have to motivate themselves to learn the game. While some have grown frustrated and gotten lost from the lack of explicit or clear teaching design in the game, by designing Starseed Pilgrim with such little guidance, the game practically ensures that players feel the full impact of their intrinsically motivated journey when they do make a discovery in the game.
Ultimately, there are only a few popular discoveries that are most talked about for Starseed Pilgrim: pink seed blocks yield starseeds when DUG into, the negative world is the inverse of the seeds you PLANT, players can BUBBLE in the negative world, there are triple key doors and challenges, and, most of all, that players can PLANT seeds in the overworld to reach new pilgrims. That's it; just a handful of game rules or features. With a bit of time, curiosity, and perseverance, all these mysteries are revealed to the player. Oddly enough, I've found, after experiencing these discoveries, many players stop playing Starseed Pilgrim. Like the effects of a twist in a movie plot or a spoiler for a puzzle game, many gamers didn't feel like putting in more effort to beat Starseed Pilgrim by conquering all of the triple key challenges. While many divide their experience with Starseed Pilgrim into two distinct phases (discovery vs game/challenge), I see the two as being a part of one continual experience. Now I see why many gamers feel differently than I do.
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