Electron Dance
11May/13Off

Faith of the Pilgrim

This is everything I have to say on Alexander “Droqen” Martin's Starseed Pilgrim. If you don’t want to be spoiled, read last week’s The Five Stages of Starseed Pilgrim instead.

This is it, people, this is enormo-spoilers. Abandon hope all ye who enter here.

keys

The bigger picture is bigger than you think

Starseed Pilgrim is a game where, uh… heck. It's a difficult beast to get one's tongue around and I say that having wrapped my tongue around a few beasts. Abstractly, the game is several interlocking puzzles and explaining one part drags you into explaining another. So I'm going to treat the game as an onion and deal with one layer at a time. You'll see.

This is Starseed Pilgrim in a nutshell. (Damn it, I meant onion layer.)

We begin in the hub, the goal of which is exploration.

starseed-pilgrim-sucker-punch

We navigate this space by using seeds to grow structures within it.

hub-grow

Seeds can only be obtained through pilgrimages. There are portals to ten pilgrimages scattered across the hub.

hub-pilgrimage

We harvest seeds in the pilgrimage and can only return to the hub with seeds in hand if we unlock the exit gate. The pilgrimage is where all the real action happens.

 

Buried within each pilgrimage is also a challenge, which is much harder to unlock let alone defeat. The game is completed when all ten challenges are bested.

challenge-access

Absolutely none of this is explained and we are forced into experimenting to unravel the game's mysterious mechanics. Once persistent players figure out that seeds can be brought back to the hub, they should soon discover the hub is bigger than the floating island at the start – and switch into an exploration mode. Beyond exploration, players who intend to take on the challenges need to master the mechanics instead of merely dabbling. Not all players transgress to this third mode of engagement.

TOUCH SPACE TO EXPLORE

We start out alone on a small island, surrounded by pink columns decorated with hearts. By digging these columns, we may notice the number beneath our feet is increasing and determine that we are acquiring something.

It isn't until we enter the first pilgrimage that we discover what that something is. A message hovers above a block of dirt: "TOUCH SPACE TO GROW".

dirt

What we're looking at is a design decision that has a dramatic impact on our early game experience. Martin chooses to inform us of the new verb “grow” only once we have committed to a pilgrimage. Had we been offered the verb earlier, we would have tried planting seeds on the home island and begun exploration straight away. However, placing the message inside the pilgrimage persuades the player that growing is something only done in pilgrimages and not in the hub. In fact, the hub island is made of a material different to the pilgrimage's block of dirt, which nudges us towards assuming planting is impossible in the hub.

Martin wants us to figure out the exploration aspect from the rhythm of the game. Once we have learnt to harvest seeds, he leaves us to ponder why we should gather seeds at all. That unspoken question is what eventually propels us into using seeds on the hub island.

Experimentation is a messy business and some players will work this out earlier than others. Yet the moment when we stain the dull perfection of the hub with colour is sublime: we understand another dimension of agency is at our disposal. Still, as seeds generate structures which are misshapen and organic it may give us pause. Could this just be a silly “paint the void” mini-game without purpose? Are we meant to save the seeds for something more important that we haven't encountered yet?

The discovery of a second island – which may take several batches of seeds to achieve – changes the game completely. Not only does it confirm we're doing the right thing but turns us into hub explorers. Nonetheless, it takes some courage to “waste” seeds in this way, to have some faith that there is something out there.

An interesting quirk of the hub is that pink seeds are never available, forcing us to enter a pilgrimage to harvest more seeds. We are thus left with no explanation about about how those pink columns were created in the beginning; they are a significant anomaly. As Martin has all but guaranteed that players will not use those seeds in the hub, why are they there?

I suspect Martin is trying to demonstrate that pink columns lead to seeds but I’m not convinced it works that well; once we embark on our first pilgrimage we are flooded with new mechanics and are likely to forget this brief lesson in an apparently disconnected environment.

Note that once we become explorers, experimentation is not over. Aside from the fact that we are yet to discover the hub wraps around – exploration has a knowable limit – we still have a lot of work to do on the mechanics of the pilgrimage.

HOLD H TO LOSE YOUR MIND

Each pilgrimage starts out the same way, with our little cute avatar standing atop a block of dirt with a handful of seeds. A single star is buried deep beneath the dirt – from which darkness is spreading slowly.

We are able to establish certain rules quickly. Coloured icons indicate the type of seed we will next plant; falling off the bottom of the world terminates the pilgrimage immediately; coming into contact with the darkness will plunge us into a night world; the pilgrimage is much larger than the simple block of dirt implies.

darkness

Lessons beyond these are a little more complex.

The dark and colourless night world seems like a bad place and, initially, the only way out appears to be given by the single night world instruction “HOLD H TO LOSE YOUR WAY” which sends the player back to the hub. We soon begin to appreciate the night world as a failure state and thus it seems natural to find ways of postponing our descent into it. We might imagine the eventual goal of the pilgrimage is to find a method of escape or stopping the darkness, maybe even surviving long enough to find something interesting in the distant realms of the pilgrimage. These are, of course, false goals.

At some point, after enough failures, we will observe the shape of the night world is the inverse of the normal world. White void becomes wall and dirt whereas planted platforms become space. There is also the issue of a locked gate (unfortunately easy to interpret as an up arrow) in place of the star that’s buried in the dirt. But where is the key?

We are unlikely to be confused by this for too long. As we explore the pilgrimage, we see other stars which become keys in the night world. We figure out we have to reach a star. This leads to an almost inevitable situation where we leap for a star - and find ourselves locked into a tiny space in the night world.

jump-trap

Jumping into a star is a trap

Soon we realise part of our role here is to carve out the night world.

But here we encounter a design misstep. When we pass through the night world’s exit gate, it looks like nothing has happened. We are dumped straight back in the hub as if we had failed and it is easy to convince ourselves that we fell off the bottom of the screen and died. Were we “punished” for not using the gate properly?

fall-thru-gate

Exiting closely resembles falling to our death

Quite often novice players exhaust their seeds – still trapped in the psychology of running away from the darkness – and take no seeds back with them through the exit gate. As a result, the exit gate appears pointless as nothing changes. I suspect this is the element of Starseed Pilgrim that generates more frustrated, disaffected players than anything else. These are the players who do not progress to hub exploration, who feel “too dumb” to work out how the key is meant to be used.

At some point we will notice a rare triple star. In the night world, these become gates with three locks, challenge gates. This taunts us with a goal that seems impossible, ridiculous at best. To access the challenge gate, we will have to grow platforms to connect three stars and a triple star. It seems impossible because each star is a new source of the dark contagion. We cling to a sort of fairytale, assuming the challenge gates are optional tasks or there's some mechanic out there we've yet to discover that will sort them out. We'll have to grow up at some point, because once we make it through a challenge gate... we'll discover the situation is far worse than we had imagined.

spreading-darkness

Before we explore the properties of the seeds themselves, let's examine another problem in the night world.

After we've figured out the purpose of the pilgrimage – to harvest seeds and open the exit gate – we have to be careful in the night world. Falling off the bottom of the frame – even though we know there is ground to fall on – will end the pilgrimage immediately with all seeds lost.

This is consistent with the rest of the game but we assume falls elsewhere in the game are terminal because they are bottomless. The night world always has a bottom. So perishing at the base of the screen represents “falling too far” but being so unusual an implementation it feels unfair when it catches us out. Even veteran players can be caught out.

We have a tool to mitigate this, a tool Martin decides not to explain. If we try to plant a seed while jumping in the night world, a bubble will form and allow us to float. I get the impression that some players don’t discover bubbling for a while. It’s using frustration as a goad, prompting us to think there may be an alternate solution, a secret mechanic available to help us. But how much faith are we meant to show? How long do we beat our heads against a brick wall chanting “the wall is not real”?

Sometimes frustration is just a design mistake and not a mechanic in disguise. Even with knowledge of bubbling, we might make a mistake and plunge to our death in the night world, destroying ten minutes of seed harvesting because of one momentary lapse. Why not sacrifice a seed on our behalf and trigger an automatic bubble?

I find this a little unforgivable. It isn't an isolated case of frustrating design, though. There are more examples of player punishment which I'll cover later – not all with obvious remedies.

Combine harvester

Let’s talk about the real meat of Starseed Pilgrim, the pilgrimage. It’s full of odd mechanics and the friction between them sparks off wacky dynamics.

In similar games, players are provided tools that are complementary and often symmetric. We might imagine a game where one seed creates vertical structures and another creates horizontal ones. Starseed Pilgrim has none of this.

Here’s a quick waltz through all the seeds.

Pink (Seedstack): Produces new seeds, grows slowly upwards forever.

Green (Vine): Produces twisty vine of random length. Contains seeds (hearts) that can be only be collected in the night world.

Orange (Lance): Generates straight platform of random length.

Cyan (Patch): Patches existing platforms with a cross of cyan material. It is the only structure the darkness cannot consume, although is porous.

Olive (Goo): Produces viscous material which flows outwards from plantation site and will form hanging droplets over the edge of another platform. Goo is sticky and prevents player from jumping.

Purple (Shielding): Produces small tight structure, resilient to darkness.

Blue (Trampoline): Produces a single block that allows player to jump higher. If the blue trampoline comes into contact with olive goo, the trampoline is spoilt.

Red (Construction Bomb): Produces a “bomb” that, when activated, explodes into a large red structure.

It’s an unusual selection, betraying little symmetry. So unusual, in fact, that it becomes a challenge to figure out each seed’s individual properties – and uses.

At the start of a pilgrimage, the game will give the empty-handed player thirteen seeds to get started. In almost every pilgrimage, the first two seeds are a pink seed followed by an orange seed. After this, seeds are randomised; we have no control over this and can only ever plant the next seed. We must play the hand we are dealt with.

Fresh players have no idea what they are doing and run out of seeds fairly quickly. While the game hints that “broken hearts yield starseed treasure” it’s more likely players figure out through trial-and-error that pink columns will give them seeds. The number of seeds we carry is hidden underneath our feet, a number we cannot see when standing on a platform. This might postpone the moment when we figure out there is a relationship between the pink columns and the seeds, because if we dig horizontally through a column, we do not see the number go up. This feels like obfuscation rather than something that contributes to the game’s mystique.

We know that when we run out of seeds, the darkness catches up with us, so growing seedstacks becomes vital for longevity. It’s difficult to prove but it seems the game always offers one pink seed in the last few seeds; Martin is generous here even though he could up the difficulty with scarcity.

An interesting consequence of the design is seed dumping. Whatever seed is next in line is the one we have to plant. If it’s unwanted, we have to dump it somewhere safe. This becomes a serious problem at times, but again it’s using frustration as a goad, encouraging us to think further ahead and be imaginative. Through constraint, creativity is born.

However, fresh players are far more likely to think of the seeds as transport. Orange lances and green vines are early favourites because they allow us move quickly. Red bombs are also useful but this harbours another design issue, postponing our discovery of their function.

Bombs are triggered in three ways: digging, planting seeds in them or when the darkness touches them. If caught in the resulting explosion, we’re thrown into the night world abruptly. There’s nothing to indicate that an explosion occurred other than noticing the hollowed out space in the night world or the “tick tick tick” countdown audio cue.

Again, this doesn’t do tremendous harm to the game and most players figure out how the bomb works, but I recall the confusion of several unexpected “deaths” early in the game, becoming wary of an unknown killer amongst the seeds. The confusion could be remedied with a short explosion animation but it’s interesting to consider whether this little murder mystery is worth the extra confusion.

It’s another mystery among many. How many mysteries are too many? Some of the game’s feedback signals have either been purposefully or accidentally obfuscated, testing our endurance – or possibly our luck. Every mystery is a trap into which some players fall and quit. Martin has effectively traded players for more complexity and mystery. Reviewers have written a lot of nice words about the game, yet I wonder how many players have felt deceived.

The adversity of each pilgrimage improves us and eventually we progress to a more complex set of goals: maximising seed yield and slowing the spread of the darkness.

In terms of seed yield, we develop small strategies like placing blue trampolines beside pink seedstacks so the columns can grow that much higher before we harvest. But there is an especially clever strategy involving the green vines that delivers one of those eureka moments.

Placing a green seed in the middle of a platform will cause the vine to grow downwards. Having been weaned on vines as a mode of transport, I found this a useless, aggravating quirk. But during the latter stages of the game, I found seed yields were too low to take on a challenge gate. It turns out growing vines downwards gets them out of the harm’s way; using vines to travel means the seeds they contain are often blown up or dug out. Instantly, my seed yield was boosted.

I started to wonder how many other annoying mechanics were actually tickets to success.

vine-trick

Green vine trick for increasing seed yield

What about slowing the spread of the darkness? The player only has to spend some time observing the darkness penetrating various materials to see that the pink, red and orange structures accelerate its advance, whereas the purple shielding is the most useful for slowing it down. This changes how we plant seeds and how we connect up different structures. We begin to use cyan patches to “repair” the weakness of orange lances and also dig out weak structures, using something like olive goo to fill them in.

But what’s stopping us from just digging out a structure and cutting ourselves off from the darkness? We all tried it, right? Martin already took care of it. We learnt that digging out a structure left dead space behind that is, like, way dangerous. Darkness charges through dead space like electricity through metal. I find it fascinating that the solution to a problem in the basic concept creates another ball for us to juggle. It doesn’t make any physical sense, but we accept it and deal with it. The game expects this of us.

dead-space

Darkness crosses "undug" dead space instantaneously

Enigmatic variations

Now as we explore the hub, we discover the portals to other pilgrimages. In turns out that the mechanics in each are tweaked, often just different enough to fundamentally change how we play. In the orange pilgrimage, for example, located just above the starting island, structures grow quicker and darkness spreads faster. That’s bad enough, but there’s an additional twist that can screw up some of our plans.

Orange lances erupt so fast that they act like a weapon. They can pierce through other structures and even wipe out a star if positioned correctly. It is no longer possible to use lances to climb upwards; they knock us aside instead of pushing us up which robs us of one mode of travel.

In the cyan pilgrimage, cyan seeds no longer create patches but infect an entire structure, turning everything into cyan material. Initially, this seems like a great idea: we can now fix entire lances or red scaffolding instead of just patching bits. But we don’t smile for long.

One of the rules of Starseed Pilgrim is that a seed cannot be planted in its own material so the player is forced to plant cyan seeds in new structures. Seed dumping becomes a real problem and the cyan seeds just keep coming, forcing you to downgrade shielding, forcing you to kill an entire vine of seeds.

cyan-pilgrimage

In the cyan pilgrimage, cyan seeds infect structures

In the black pilgrimage, we are immune to the darkness and cannot fall into the night world. Once every structure has been consumed, we’re trapped. This is the one pilgrimage in which we must actively plan for our end. We soon realise that a bomb is the way out but it’s also possible to get crushed as well. Further out from our starting point on the dirt, dark matter forms in great clumps and we can watch it explode into existence sometimes. It gives the pilgrimage a strange, broken feel. (The dark matter with star clusters trapped within them makes it a lot easier to make it through to the challenge.)

And it goes on. As some of the pilgrimages are fiercely difficult – such as when the player is prevented from digging – we tend to stick to pilgrimages that are easy to defeat when harvesting seeds for exploration.

But if we want to conquer Starseed Pilgrim, we’re going to have to take on every pilgrimage. There’s no time for favourites in the endgame.

An intolerant design

Dedicated players transit from experimentation to exploration but may never make it through to the final phase of play – mastery. Is this a failing of Starseed Pilgrim? Or is it an acceptance that some things are just for the hardcore? We can always point to the success of Dark Souls as a monument to the tenacity of players in an age where only 50% of players complete Portal 2.

Having read the words of other Starseed Pilgrim players, I've noticed some players assume unlocking the exit gate is an achievement. Why?

First, once we've settled into the normal rhythm of the game – pilgrimage to night world then back to the hub – it's difficult to think that there might be more to the game. More importantly, however, the "key/lock" motif suggests progress so a player feels something has been accomplished when the exit gate is unlocked. In addition, the exit gate has a permanent, fixed location in each pilgrimage/night world which suggests it is of crucial importance, unlike the challenge gate which appears randomly. The game attempts to discourage the player from such a notion because it forces the player to unlock the exit gate every time a pilgrimage is attempted and there is no permanent marker in the game after an exit gate is unlocked.

But in a game where feedback is minimalist and nuanced, we should not be surprised that players come up with theories like this. It demonstrates the difficulty of designing games with low feedback. If you ask us to figure things out on our own, we may well interpret great meaning from half-imagined ghosts or even bugs. This isn't the author is dead; this is the no-one-bothered-to-read-the-second-half-of-the-author's-book.

Proteus has a similar problem with its seasons; I had a lengthy e-mail discussion with Ed Key over the signposting of the time portal. He didn't want to hack the player's own sense of discovery whereas I worried many players wouldn't actually discover the depth of Proteus. Like Robert Yang confessed in his Level With Me interview with Ed Key: “Wait... are there seasons in this build I played?”

Let's move on. The learning curve is a bit crazy, because the difference between seed harvesting for exploration and taking on a challenge gate is vaaaaaaaaaaaaast. It's so obviously a nightmare of Cthulhoid proportions that I can imagine players closing the game and moving onto Bioshock Infinite. I had hoped the challenge gates might be an optional bonus like the infamous Veni Vidi Vici section from VVVVVV that we all feel mighty proud about defeating. I also hoped I only had to do one.

No, no, no. Martin expects you to do ten different challenges – one for each pilgrimage – to finish the game. There's nothing here to soften the blow. The first time we make it through a challenge gate we discover, to our utter horror, that there is a challenge on the other side of it. And you'll need some seeds to make it through.

challenge

First island's challenge

Let's summarise what we have to do. We need to hook platforms up to three stars. We need to locate a rare triple star and hook up to that too. We also need to harvest enough seeds to give us several attempts at the challenge. We need to do this on every pilgrimage, even the super hard ones.

We need to become the Überplayers, continuously thinking several seeds ahead, efficient at exploiting every type of seed and able to keep multiple plates spinning – moving forward, growing seeds and hunting stars. The only way to get good at challenges is to attempt them. It is only then that we can say we have become experts at Starseed Pilgrim.

Chasing challenges introduces all sorts of new difficulties. Not every star is located conveniently, so the stars we choose to hook up to are often far apart. We might be walking a long distance in the night world to retrieve all three keys. Now if we dawdle in the night world for too long without picking up a seed, the game fades back to the hub. We must therefore make sure that we leave a trail of “seed breadcrumbs” in the night world to make sure we can stay in the night world while backtracking to the challenge gate.

Making connections to stars also makes us a little anxious because each star is a new source of the dark contagion. We have to figure out how to grow structures into stars while keeping ourselves safe to reach other stars... and the fabled triple-star. Using strong materials is the obvious method. Purple shielding will hold back the spread of the darkness for a little while. If we’re higher than the star we’re interested in, we could “drizzle” some olive goo onto it which isn’t bad as an alternative to shielding.

But we need to be more inventive – time-delayed strategies are a little smarter. If red bombs are placed in the correct location, then the resulting red scaffolding will scrape the edge of a star. It’s smarter not to use the bomb ourselves but let the spreading darkness trigger it, which preserves our “lead” over the darkness. Similarly, a seedstack is also advantageous in the right situation, as its slow, continuous growth will give us plenty of time to escape the star's darkness.

seedstack-for-star

Seedstack trigger for star

Starseed Pilgrim becomes a game of tactics and continuous adaptation. What seed is next? Where should I put it? Can I make it to that star or is it too difficult? Whereas most reviews have waxed lyrical on how much fun it is to “figure out” the game, there is a far more powerful payoff in going beyond that into the endgame battle. Frequently, I fell into a state of flow and experienced the Tetris effect: rewired for Starseed Pilgrim, I continued to see seeds and stars in the real world even after the PC had shut down.

challenge-defeated

First island's challenge solved

Frank Lantz appeared to have no luck with the game and, in response to Jonathan Blow making a comment about academics' lack of discussion of the game, Lantz replied “because we're too busy playing LoL, a profoundly deep and beautiful game where the mystery happens *after* you know the rules.” This is unfair because there is substantial mystery taking all these tools and working out how to blast through a challenge. Although its perfectly understandable as Lantz hadn't survived through the early mystery.

Yet there is a flip side to this. During the mastery phase, we ride the bleeding edge of optimal play and that promotes mistakes, discovering Starseed Pilgrim sports an intensely intolerant game design. Explicitly, there are many ways in which a single error can end a player's challenge attempt or, at the very least, critically wound it. Here are some examples.

  • Delaying connections with stars means sometimes the player has to jump over a star. Hit the star by accident and that's it. All seeds lost. Pilgrimage over.
  • Sometimes it is useful to dig out platforms to replace them with something more hardy, or to make a conduit for goo to drip down. Dig wrongly and the pilgrim can be falling off the bottom of the screen. All seeds lost. Pilgrimage over. [Rob Mayoff corrects me in the comments, you only lose ten seeds plus whatever is over your head.]
  • Using red bombs to connect to stars requires precise positioning. Screw it up – too far and there's no connection, too close and the star is destroyed – and we will find ourselves one key short. And we will only discover this in the night world after we'd convinced ourselves we had everything we needed.
  • One mistake with olive goo can wipe out blue trampolines we've put in place. We often use them to reach the top of high seedstacks so, normally, this means the seedstack is lost.
  • Dropping down onto olive goo droplets can produce game over situations. Goo prevents us from jumping onto higher platforms and, if the next seed available is also olive goo, there is nothing the player can do to go any further.
  • Green vines sometimes connect back around any purple shielding to the growing darkness – circumventing the shielding.
  • The randomness of the seeds and stars sometimes deals you a hand which makes it near-impossible to make it through. This is more pronounced in some of the more difficult pilgrimages (no digging, for example).
  • No pause key becomes a critical issue when working through challenges. The penalty for being distracted with the real world is to lose 10-15 minutes of work.

The fact that there are several conditions where it is easy to lose all your seeds – such as falling too far in the night world – makes a strategy to harvest plenty of seeds over several pilgrimages a wee bit risky.

In fact, the euphoria of the endgame is tempered with a great deal of frustration. I spent around five hours trying to break the challenge of the fast pilgrimage. I swore at the screen, at the keyboard, at the wall. At times it felt miserable, that I was never going to beat the game, churning through one self-inflicted punishment after another.

But then I finished it.

The end of everything

Some might ask what it all means. I have an answer: it doesn’t matter. Starseed Pilgrim’s theme provides a unique mood but the game was never about plot. No one recommends the game because “you just gotta read its fragmented poetry”. But the ending is so abusive to the player that I adore it.

Once all ten challenges have been completed, we end up back in the hub. Then darkness pours out of every portal, eating away at everything in existence. It’s a stark, shocking moment, the game deleting all of our hard work of harvesting seeds and spinning out structures across the void. Our reward is to experience sheer panic, because there’s literally nowhere to go as everything disappears.

I can’t think of a better ending than that.

poetry

Of course, Martin pulled his final punch because I imagine there might have been a few angry forum threads about the game. The structures are not truly erased and remain if the player returns to the game.

If I was pushed for a theory, I saw the theme as one of embracing fate, as mentioned on the Starseed Pilgrim site. Successful pilgrimages all end on the same moment, when we know there's nothing more we can do except wait. The only genuine escape is to throw ourselves off the screen, but we always accept the coming darkness. This moment is a microcosm of the grander picture.

We seem to be trying to repair something or avoid something. Each challenge picks away at the truth, tearing away the armour of denial. In the end, we must all embrace our fate.

Faith

Starseed Pilgrim is a beautifully clever game, yet it did not win the IGF award for Excellence in Design. I do not find this surprising. As I’ve mentioned, the design often punishes players – and sometimes unfairly. In Eurogamer’s review of the game, Justin Lacey wrote, “It’s one of those that gives back what you put in.” Kind of. If I believe the journey will be worth it, I will engage with its depth. Games like Dark Souls and Cart Life operate on a similar basis.

Starseed Pilgrim is a game of faith more than anything else, faith that the developer isn’t just trolling us and there’s a reward for all our efforts. But no one had faith in Alexander Martin who, until recently, was a relatively unknown developer. He hadn’t yet earned that faith. So players instead put their faith in Jonathan Blow, Bennett Foddy, Rock Paper Shotgun or Eurogamer.

In this sense, it highlights that dialogic relationships – the game as a conversation between player and designer – can be disturbed or even replaced. Perhaps someone who plays Starseed Pilgrim now will be wondering if they’ve reached Electron Dance’s stage three or four, maybe even five. They are playing my game. They are playing as a conversation with me. I have stolen the authorial role.

I hope you enjoyed playing my game.

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  1. ** SPOILERS WELCOME IN THESE COMMENTS **

    Please feel free to share any tactics you might have picked up in play. Also feel free if you think I got something wrong, e.g. “that’s a stupid method, never do that, Mr. Stupid”.

  2. Considering the amount of times I had to reassemble my mind with it constantly being blown while reading this, I’m actually rather glad I didn’t tackle this myself. I’d be getting along poorly with something half as complex/obscured/everything as this.

    All things considered, your well-documented journey proves what can be great about Starseed Pilgrim, but I appreciate the fact that you dig deep enough into indie titles to actually find game design quibbles even more. Having just watched a let’s play series on the classic NES Mega Man games (all of which I’d played but never analyzed), I think there’s an important role that’s being filled here. Both classic Mega Man and indie games with obfuscated mechanics tend to be taken at face value, but there’s greater value in knowing when they misstep so you can appreciate their strengths more.

    In other words, “Great work, Mr. Stupid!”

  3. I love to see these sorts of articles that go deep into game mechanics. This captures a lot of my love/hate relationship with Starseed Pilgrim.

    First the love: Going for the triple lock rooms is thrilling. The need to gain seeds means there are lots of moments when I’m destroying the last pink blocks and just barely outrunning the corruption. The different seeds produce lots of interesting effects in combination and I felt like I made lots of breakthroughs figuring out how to play the game more effectively. The random ordering of the seeds leads to situations that feel actually different and interesting. Some of the most exciting moments are when I’m forced to completely change direction mid-pilgrimage.

    My biggest problem with the game is the fact that you can take seeds from the hub world with you into the pilgrimage. This makes it way too easy to just grind up a bunch of seeds in pink world then trivialize the triple lock rooms.

    An issue this game has is that it is possible to play poorly and still occasionally succeed due to lucky seed ordering. I think some people stop playing the game before it gets interesting because they think it is too random and grindy. But it is possible for skilled players to succeed even with bad luck. This really isn’t the game’s fault though and many other games with procedural generation cause the same reaction.

    Playing it for a second time several things stand out. Growing plants in the hub world is painfully slow. There are many times where I was just letting my pink blocks to grow while I waited for the corruption to catch up. Very dull. Normally I might have a podcast playing in the background to counteract this, but that doesn’t work well with the rest of the game which is frantic and demanding of my attention.

    All in all I’m glad the spoiler-free article convinced me to get the game, it is really interesting and not just a boring ‘find the rules’ game as most of the talk about the game would imply.

  4. Holding F1 shows you the last update date of the game. My pre-Steam version shows Jan 15 2013. My Steam version (for Mac) shows Apr 08 2013.

    In the pre-Steam version, after you finish all 10 3-key levels, the portals turn to voids. In the Steam version, they don’t. Instead, the Steam version has an 11th island in the hub level, roughly to the left of light blue’s island. Initially, the 11th island has no portal. After you complete all 3-key levels, the 11th island gets a portal which takes you to the game-over level.

    Also, in the pre-Steam version, the number keys are shortcuts to the hub level islands, for those islands whose 3-key levels you have finished. For example, if you have completed the bright green pilgrim’s 3-key level, then pressing 2 will take you to the bright green pilgrim’s island. Using a number key will cost you the seeds over your head (but they still work if you have no seeds). If you use the farm-seeds-in-an-easy-level strategy, this is a big time-saver.

    Falling off the bottom in a “pilgrimage” level doesn’t cost all your seeds. It seems to cost 10 seeds plus the seeds over your head. Holding H costs all seeds.

    The Steam version changes some of the poetry from the pre-Steam version. Example: pre-Steam bright green pilgrim’s poetry is “Gaze turned high / I watched the sky / and I would reach it / I knew”. Post-Steam poetry is ”I reached for stars / and they reached back; / I reached too far / and tasted black.”

  5. @Sean: Thank you!

    @BeamSplashX: There’s no better way to play a videogame other than through some else’s eyes. Actually, that’s only true for bad videogames, but enjoy this anyway. I never intended to write 5,500 words but there’s so much mechanical detail to the game – leading to positives and negatives – that, considering no one else wanted to write about the game, I had to step up to the plate. When I finished, it was pretty clear I would write two articles although I pretended it might not happen. Certainly not this many words. I think only the Polymorphous Perversity article matches it for length?

    @Morld Pil: Thanks for stopping by! You’ve made some great points. The endgame is full of highs but yes, I didn’t touch on this, once I’d got good at the game I blasted through around six of the challenges on first attempt. I had real problems with the digging-related ones but it was the fast one that caused so much trouble – it didn’t matter if you got far from the starting star, you’d end up inviting new sources of darkness all the time. I was frustrated and wasn’t sure if I was missing a trick. I tried harvesting seeds in advance but it made the frustration worse when the seeds were all spent without making progress.

    And after beating the game, gosh yes, time feels so slow when you dabble again! You can’t seem to go back to that “meditative” aspect that many players like.

    Really pleased to hear that last week’s recommendation made someone try the game – and get something out of it.

    @Rob Mayoff: I had noticed “changes” in the Steam version (I finished in the Jan 15 2013 version) and that made writing all this up a little tricky. That’s the downside of writing about games which are continually patched – you’re never quite sure which version you’re discussing. Sad to hear the abusive ending is gone.

    Interesting about the number keys – I guess the rewards for exploring the keyboard. Yeah, I did a fair bit of traipsing back and forth trying to harvest seeds when exploring the hub.

    Thanks for clearing up the seed sceanrios. I found myself a little confused and ended up with general principle “don’t screw up – you’re gonna lose your seeds!!”. There were a few little mysteries like that; I never sat down and figured out which direction the vines/lances would grow when placed on a lone block. Do they go left or right? Going the wrong way would sometimes totally destroy your progress. I wasn’t sure if it was random or depended on the pilgrimage.

  6. @Rob: Just checked, falling in the night world does lose all your seeds. Interesting I also noticed the seeds “over your head” do not follow you into the night world…

  7. @Rob: To clarify I amended the article to reflect your correction.

  8. Thanks so much for writing these articles! I read the first article (and loved it) when I was on Stage Five (4 out of 10 challenges completed) and was so fed up with the dig-four-blocks-at-once pilgrimage that I decided to wait for your second article. I think I’m not planning to dump another 20 hours into the game now, but honestly, playing it was so much fun that I might just pick it up again in another couple of weeks.

    I do have two questions:

    1) @Rob – what happens in the 11th pilgrimage? Is it just like the others with another challenge?

    2) Has anyone gotten through the third type of lock? I worked at it for a bit, but since I wasn’t sure if it was intentional or just a glitch, I moved on to other things. You know how triple stars sink down to the floor when you flip into the inverse world? In the first pilgrimage, there’s always a void straight up from the start star/lock. If you plant seeds straight up and that void happens to be a triple star, the triple lock sinks down INTO the single lock. It turns into something slightly different; it has the single key icon on it, but the border around it is two lines rather than one. I got there with one key, but that wouldn’t unlock it. I assume that it takes 3 keys (I guess it COULD take 4, but you can’t normally collect that many), but I don’t know if it’s just the same ol’ challenge once you get through the lock, or if it’s something different.

    Anyway, thanks again! Playing “your” game has been very enjoyable!

  9. @HM: The abusive ending is not gone, but handled differently! I’ll send you a copy of the new version + a completed save if you want to see it for yourself.

  10. @HM:
    Hey now, I’ve been playing Hotline Miami without reading/watching much about it. I’ll be honest and say it’s probably laziness that keeps me from doing the work of getting into SSP, but I’m really happy it exists. That much I was sure of even before you wrote this; you put meat on the bones of that feeling.

    @Droqen:
    Well, you’re the bomb. As you were.

  11. @Mason There’s no 11th pilgrimage.

    If you hold H from the hub level, you go to a level where you can erase your saved game by going to the top of the level, or return to the hub by falling off the bottom of the level. This level also shows the (three) credits for the game.

    In the pre-Steam version of the game, after you finish all 10 challenge levels, dying on the hub level (or holding H) takes you to the game over level. But now the game over level has additional text, and falling off the bottom just takes you to a white screen.

    In the Steam version, after you finish the 10 challenge levels, the 11th island gets a portal. The portal takes you to the game over level, with the additional text, and falling off the bottom returns you to the hub level. Holding H from the hub level (after finishing the 10 challenge levels) doesn’t take you to the game over level with the additional text; it just takes you to the same game over level as before, with the three credits and nothing else.

  12. SP’s progression.. (which I think the onion analogy roughly works, like a progression through the layers of an onion) … I think it will be interesting to see how this influences future games in reducing artificial barriers to progress and replacing them with player discovery. It’ll be interesting to see how people “soften” the use of it (as in SP it is quite player-hostile), and mold ideas from SP to fit into other genres. I find it personally salient because I think you can tie self-discovery/improvement with other themes and ideas to strengthen the two, ah, mm.

    Exciting time to be developing games!

  13. @Sean:
    So we’ve come full circle, then? That sounds like Zelda. And, for once, it’s actually less hostile in comparison to something modern!

  14. Finally read this! Nope, didn’t even get close to beating it. Figuring out the rules is a bit more interesting to me than actually doing things with the rules–I think you said on Twitter something like, you knew what the game was asking you to do but you weren’t sure if you were skilled enough at the time to do it.

    I’d figured out a bit of the bulk of the game–most of what the seeds did, barring a few of their more esoteric features (such as the usefulness of the “vines”), I’d gotten if not all of the 10 pilgrimages then enough to demonstrate that I’d gotten the idea, I’d found the purpose of the single-key door and was slowly making my way to the three-key locks. I did not get to any of the challenge rooms.

    I had personally been expecting a sort of metapuzzle–I have been looking for a game with a metapuzzle lately and I find myself disappointed every time. I thought Kairo would have one, but alas! It seems like you “beat” Spilgrim by just getting all of the pilgrimages done in whatever order you can, but I thought there would be a, okay, now you’ve got to synthesize everything you’ve done and discover and solve one overarching puzzle.

    Like, I had a couple of game books when I was a child–The Eleventh Hour by Graeme Base was one of my favorites. It was a very lovingly-illustrated picture book telling the story of an elephant having a birthday party, each of the pages was a different scene of a party game or activity…and at the end, the birthday feast is stolen, and the book ends with no one ever figuring out who stole it. And then you go though and you find each page is lush with hidden puzzles and cyphers, some of which are simple codes that you crack within thepage itself, and some which are sections to clues. Some of the puzzles are red herrings and some add up to the mystery. And then when you’ve solved the major mystery, you’re alerted to another thing you can reread and do.

    So I guess I had thought that all of that poetry was going to add up to something, even if it was as simple as you needed to reconstruct the poem and do the levels in an order or something like that.

    I guess my thought about Spilgrim is that it’s amazing from the level of divining rules from behavior–games are very good at being black boxes, and this is an extremely impressive one at that. Still, it’s one I find I am liking reading about more than I am enjoying as a work in itself.

    The ‘faith’ section appears to scratch the surface of something I am finding very fascinating and I hope you manage to go into this further. I remember reading a review of Damien Hirst’s For The Love Of God that I’m too lazy to find at the moment. The artwork is an extremely gaudy, tacky, diamond-encrusted skull that controversially sold for a gigantic amount of money. The reviewer said, basically, if anyone else made this it would be the biggest example of poor taste, but because this is Hirst making this artwork, we have to analyze it as if it is art. I’ve noticed a bit of backlash to Spilgrim that’s almost the opposite of your point–people who are saying, you know, the only reason we’re looking at this game is because Jonathan Blow liked it and said there was something there, and because of that we’re forgiving the game’s flaws. That’s a Thing.

    Or wait, were you hinting that Spilgrim isn’t an actual game but is just this ED ARG you’ve been teasing? Wait a second, has that been happening and we haven’t realized it? Or more likely, is everyone else aware that the ARG is going but me? AM I LEFT OUT?

  15. @Richard: I wasn’t too disappointed about a meta-puzzle – considering the hoops I felt I had to jump through to attempt each of the challenges. Your reference to The Eleventh Hour reminds me of a hardback game book I played called The Tasks of Tantalon which was made up of several puzzles and led into the final over-arching puzzle at the end which only could be solved if you got every previous puzzle correct. I never finished it.

    On our faith in Jonathan Blow Etc., you must be referring to Alex P’s comment yesterday on Twitter about Starseed Pilgrim. Yeah, I also mentioned this last week. I think there might well be some who overlook the game’s frustrations with the faith used to lionize the game as the “best of the generation”. I’d prefer the idea of faith to get you to play and persist with the game. It’s still unusual for games to require so much tinkering to figure them out; design quibbles aside, new Starseed Pilgrim players need some encouragement and I don’t think this is a bad thing.

    Like Sean says, it will be interesting if the game makes a permanent change in player preferences – that we will actively seek out games where the mechanics themselves are a puzzle.

    It’ll be obvious when the ARG starts. I’ll start sounding fucking cryptic again, but this ARG will be way simpler than “The Accidental ARG”.

  16. Thanks for the article! I knew the next step for me was completing a three-key challenge, but it seemed such a big difficulty jump that I wanted to believe something else was missing. I was afraid of reading this because I obviously didn’t know how much I had yet to discover, but it was nice to find out I had seen most of the stuff.

    Some time ago I was thinking about games in relation to planing your moves and actually making them, which are two very different things. In action games, for example, we expect to be quickly informed of what to do, but doing it is what makes us enjoy the game. In other kinds of games, like graphic adventures, figuring out what to do is the fun part, and once you know it, actually doing it should be a trivial matter.

    We usually don’t want FPSs where it isn’t clear who you need to shoot. Nor do we like adventure games where we know we have to tie a rope to a stick but we also need to figure out how to tell the game that’s what we want. My opinion is that Starseed Pilgrim is exactly this. Both the what and the how are hard to get to. Knowing what to do is a challenge, but even if you know it, doing it is quite hard also.

    It’s strange how it manages to make it work, when in other works it’d be a design flaw. It doesn’t surprise me that mastery is the part I gave up on, since I’m a guy who likes to figure out stuff but not actually doing it. And in the game.

    It’s also nice how smart you feel when you make things work. You feel smart when you watch the guy who played it for an hour and doesn’t get how doors work, yet you ignore the fact that you were probably as lost as him at first.

  17. There’s a continuum of rewards, from most extrinsic and obvious to most intrinsic and subtle:

    -Achievement Unlocked (Text saying “You have accomplished something!”)
    -Reward Jingle (Triumphant sounds)
    -Reward Animation (The boss explodes satisfyingly, flowers burst out around your feet, etc)
    -New Gameplay Unlocked (You get to explore new enemies, mechanics, areas)
    -No change (Just the intrinsic reward of showing your skill has to be enough)

    Starseed Pilgrim uses the last one, and it seems like that just isn’t enough for me. The first time you open a lock, it sends you back to the hub with no apparent change. The first time you open a three key lock, you fail the challenge and return to the hub with no apparent change. If you complete THAT, it sends you back to the hub world with no apparent change.

    That makes it a very dry game, after the initial discovery period. You beat challenges because they’re there, over and over again, with no apparent reward or change in the game state. I like to believe that completing a task should be it’s own reward, but it seems like I do need something other than that to keep me playing.

    Obviously it turned out that there is a hidden reward for opening the first lock, so I might be missing something. The portal block for a world you’ve completed lights up and has an arrow pointing to it, suggesting that you should go back in – is that just misleading?

  18. I got there, finally!

    Jack: There is a small reward for completing each challenge – a sentence appears above the 11th island a word at a time. Once the sentence is completed a portal appears to the final screen, and the pilgrim morphs between the different colours.

    HM: I think I disagree about some of those points of unfairness – having discovered that you can take seeds back from the hub into the pilgrimages, the risk/reward balance is important or seed farming would make the game boring. Shooting a lance across right under a star and then jumping over the star and starting building on the other side before the darkness catches you? Especially when you’ve accumulated a good stash of seeds and could lose them if you screw up? It’s a good feeling.

    It took me a long time to realise that I could run sideways and not just upwards, that there were more stars over there too. The lance pilgrimage, where lances shot up too quickly for me to stay on top, was the first time I realised I could use them to go sideways. (for the record I didn’t think of them as lances at the time. Red ones were bombs, nice green trees, nasty green bogeys, light blue ice, dark blue launchpads. Yellow and purple I didn’t have names for.)

    There’s a darkness to the revelations that doesn’t fully make sense until the end – text uncovered as the final island disintegrates tells us that ignorance is bliss, and there’s something Lovecraftian in the way that finally completing the game unlocks the darkness that eats the islands as well as all our own construction.

  19. @David: Perhaps a strange thought but my first reaction to your comment about “planning vs making moves” was the usual guff about the journey being more meaningful than the destination. That is, the experience leading up to the solution is more important than the solution itself. But I don’t think I can’t make it make sense in the “action game” situation.

    Perhaps Starseed Pilgrim is the graphic equivalent of that most notorious IF problem “figuring out the parser”. Which means it works for some people but not others; some are pointing at it with a sort of Emperor’s New Clothes indignation and I can understand that.

    This is all speaking off the top of my head, here, but I also worry sometimes how smart we feel when we pass across the threshold of not-knowing to knowing, how we might find ways of legitimizing bad design because the personal high generated by that moment of victory, of self-education, is so intoxicating that we would do it anything to preserve it. And so when people say they don’t get it, that this is the Emperor’s New Clothes, we say you haven’t looked hard enough, endured enough and perhaps it’s just not for you (maybe the most damning option?). I don’t say this is the truth, but we see in many gaming communities a sort of disdain for people “not getting it” whether it is difficult puzzles, super combos or basic RPG tropes.

    @Jack: The arrow has always been there I believe? But the two indications were (a) the light switches on and (b) completion of the island’s poetry fragment, at least on the pre-Steam version anyway. For me the light was enough to convince me I had to solve all ten challenges to complete the game. But the game definitely plays with minimalism of feedback; I’m not convinced all of that is good.

    @Phlebas: On unfairness, I’m sure this is one of those points people can argue for days about without coming to consensus. It comes down to what you’re personally comfortable with and it seems on balance that more players are comfortable with what I’ve termed “unfair” than not. Then we could declare that it is not unfair, because statistics say so. On the other hand, how many players who enjoyed the game never pushed into mastery? How many players abandoned the game during experimentation? So we don’t really know where it lies. But there’s nothing wrong with writing a game for a specific audience in mind, who’ll take your punishment. I’m thinking bullet hell shooters, for instance. And what about all those willing victims who put themselves through Kaizo Mario?

    I imagine everyone had their own language for the different seeds. I had to put forward mine (in fact much more refined for this article – officially I called the yellow seeds “platforms”) so it was easier to write the article.

  20. @HM: Oh my, I didn’t journey over destination in any way. Also didn’t mean action games are less entertaining or valid or deep than your average adventure game. Just that they focus on different aspects of problem-solving, while Starseed Pilgrim focuses on all of ’em, making it very brain-exhausting. I do think it’s a wonderful game (I’ve loved Droqen since Fishbane) and this’ll not be the first or last time I say “that was excellent but a little too difficult for me.”

    (I realize I missed a “mean” on my first sentence, but I like it better this way.)

  21. @David: Don’t worry, I wasn’t doing any accusing there. Your thoughts were valuable as it sparked off some tangents. Half-formed thoughts of mine belong down here in the comments, better out than in! Let’s not journey over destination at all.

  22. Oh, just remembered two things that I think weren’t mentioned:

    1) The seeds over your head can’t follow you to the shadow world because otherwise having a pink seed over your head could produce some sort of continuity error. You have a pink seed that wasn’t planted, you see it, you go to the shadow world, you open the gate without using any bubble, yet back at home the pink seed couldn’t be there anymore.

    2) The single-lock tile is indestructible. That fucker. So when you thought you had it all figured out, that you could just explode a red bomb next to it during the pilgrimage’s first seconds so you’d have no darkness chasing you, you shall be disappoint.

  23. David,

    My response to your first point is that I would have suggested having the number of seeds = the reserve + the number over your head. What’s over your head is just a prediction and I don’t think I have a problem with the prediction disappearing in the night world – nor changing once back in the hub. I’m not sold on the necessity of losing those seeds.

    On your second point, oh yeah, me too. I tried that one as soon as I figured out the bombs! We all tried to “break the rules” in our own ways.

  24. I dunno, I always saw them as the actual objects you are planting, never as a prediction. And even then, it’s a 100% accurate prediction, so changing it might add confusion to an experience that already has a lot of it.

    I’m right there with you about the number though, since that was my first impression (you start a pilgrimage with 10 seeds, of which you can only see the first 3). Besides, if it’s as necessary as I say to take those seeds away, making the number count all your seeds would make any alert enough player to notice the number decrease when entering night world.

    The bomb thing kind of disappointed me. I know stopping the darkness would betray the game’s core, but to this day it feels like a great aha moment the game could’ve had and missed.

  25. One more thing about transferring seeds between worlds: If you go into a pilgrimage carrying seeds, the ones over your head won’t be taken in that direction either. So if you get back to the hub carrying a stock of seeds and want to take them back into the same pilgrimage, going in quickly (before they have a chance to appear over your head) will mean you take more seeds back in.

  26. @phlebas Mother of God I didn’t know you could take seeds from the hub to the pilgrimages. How could I play the game without that piece of knowledge? I had always assumed you started every level with 13 seeds no matter what. Does this actually mean if you’re bad at the game you can grind your way through it?

    And another thing I just discovered: even if you let the seeds appear over your head in the hub, you can always close the game and quickly start the pilgrimage when you open it again. Though I’m not sure, will have to confirm it.

  27. @David: Does this actually mean if you’re bad at the game you can grind your way through it? I’d say not entirely (though of course I would say that…) – it certainly rearranges the risk/benefit equation but there’s always a risk you’ll screw up (or have a particularly unfortunate combination of layout and seeds) and lose them all, and while many seeds mean more attempts at a challenge they’re still quite challenging. In the challenges the darkness spreads quickly over anything you grow, so having lots of seeds isn’t nearly such a great advantage for a single attempt as it is in the pilgrimages.

  28. A few more things I’d like to say after experimenting a little with the game.

    1) Dark world failure indeed takes all your seeds, while simple failure takes just ten plus some. So even if HM’s comment about how we always decide to let darkness take us is somehow accurate, I’ll point out it’s really a terrible choice strategy-wise, and I’m training myself to avoid it. That is, if you have a considerable amount of seeds but no way of escaping darkness, JUMP NOW AND DIE IT’LL BE GOOD FOR YOU!

    2) If Phlebas was right in the last comments, that would mean there’s a strategic advantage to closing the game and opening it again so you can access a level more quickly. It would be awkward and un-Droqen-like. After some experimentation, however, it seems that’s not right, and the game doesn’t actually take seeds from you when entering a pilgrimage. If I have, say, 30 seeds (number 27 + 3 over head), immediately after pressing DOWN my number will go up to 30, and in the pilgrimage I’ll have 33 (number 30 + 3 over head). This is all about the first level, of course. I’ll have to test it further, to see if the game actually changes the color of the seeds over your head, which would prove me wrong when I told HM the game wouldn’t do that.

    3) Since I learned you could take seeds from the hub to the pilgrimages, everything makes a little more sense. I’ve beaten 2 or 3 challenges, basically by using the first level as a means of harvesting the most seeds possible (99 apparently) and facing challenges with that number backing me up. So I guess there were a couple things I still needed to learn from this.

  29. @David: The game is much easier if you “grind” your way through it, farming seeds on an “easy” level. I would say it changes the game from intractable to tractable. At least, it did for me. I think I managed to beat two three-key levels successfully in ~3 weeks before I discovered farming. After I discovered farming, I finished the rest in a day or two.

    Some people seem to prefer farming seeds on the pink level, but I prefer the bright green level. On the bright green level, the bright green seeds are sometimes super-fertile. The bright green pilgrim’s island is just to the right of the starting island, so it’s easy to get to in a new game. The pink island is substantially further away (down and to the right of the bright green island).

    More tips (for pilgrimage levels, not the hub):

    1. Grow primarily left or right, and try to build away from the starting area fast. You want to make a nice big buffer early on for the void to eat through, so you have time to plan your moves and wait for things to grow. Also, as you get further from the starting area, both single and triple stars become more common, so it will be easier to get to them when you need to.

    2. Always shoot your yellow (orange?) seeds sideways if possible, not up. It is much easier to use seeds productively if you’re growing sideways.

    3. When you have a choice of growing up or down, tend to prefer up, so you won’t have to bubble as much (spending seeds) in the inverse level.

    4. The void eats through different block types at different speeds. It eats through gray areas (destroyed blocks) almost instantly, and pink blocks very fast. It eats through red and yellow fast. It eats through light blue and bright green blocks medium-fast, but doesn’t turn them into voids. It eats through purple and olive green blocks slowly.

    5. The void also eats through the brown and tan (starting area) blocks slowly, so don’t destroy those blocks without a good reason. In particular, in the light blue pilgrimage, your second seed is light blue, not yellow. Try to plant that seed so that you convert as few as possible of the starting brown/tan blocks to light blue, because the void eats through light blue faster than it eats through brown/tan.

    6. Plant light blue seeds in the middle of your yellow shoots to slow the void down through them (since the light blue seed can turn three yellow blocks into light blue blocks).

    7. Plant olive (down-growing) seeds where they can fill in gray areas left by destroyed blocks (to prevent the void from instantly crossing such gaps).

    8. Plant your first (pink) seed one cell away from the edge of the starting area. Plant your second (yellow) seed at the edge of the starting area so it goes sideways. Plant your third (green) block at the end of the yellow shoot. On the green pligrim’s level, green seeds are sometimes super-fertile (which is why I prefer farming there), so be ready to jump on if it starts to grow more than three cells high.

    9. If seeds 4-6 contain a dark blue seed, plant it next to your first pink seed. If you get a light blue, plant it in the yellow shoot a couple of cells away from the starting (brown) area, so that it will retard the spread of the void. If you get a red, and your green seed didn’t grow too far back toward the brown starting area, plant the red on the yellow shoot so that when the void hits it, it will explode and push back the void a bit.

    10. Don’t get greedy with the pink towers. If you sit on top of a tower waiting for the void to get close, you’re losing time that could be spent getting more pink and green seeds planted.

    11. Farm seeds until you have 90+ seeds. Then use those seeds to go for a three-key portal. When you’re on a three-key-portal run, don’t worry about growing big pink towers. Harvest them early and move on. You want to get far from the starting area (where the stars and triple-stars are denser) fast, so you have time to plan your moves without the void licking your heels.

    12. When you’re farming, play it safe. It sucks to have 60+ seeds and then die to the void and lose them all.

    13. Learn the shape the red bomb blows up into. Try to avoid putting a bomb where it will destroy green cells containing hearts. Then learn to use red seeds strategically. They have two main uses beyond just creating more cells.

    14. One use for a bomb is pushing back the void. When a bomb explodes, the red cells it creates will overwrite anything else (except the star at the bottom of the starting area). So if you leave a red bomb unexploded behind you, when the void hits it, it will push the void back three/four cells. But try to leave these bombs where they will help you. If you put a bomb right before a purple castle, the bomb will clobber the castle, replacing much of it with red cells that are eaten away much faster than purple cells. Better to put the bomb after the castle, if you can, so that it will explode after the castle has been eaten.

    15. The other use for a bomb is to connect to a star later, deferring the spread of void from that start. Leave the bomb where, when it explodes, it will create a red cell exactly touching the star, but won’t create a red cell that clobbers the star.

    16. You can also use a pink seed to delay connecting to a star. If you’ve given yourself a big lead over the void from the starting area, you can plant a pink seed that will grow to eventually touch a star, and give yourself lots of time to build away from that star. This is particularly useful when you’re going for a three-key portal after heavy farming. Since you’re already loaded up on seeds, you can afford to use a pink seed strategically like this instead of as a source of seeds.

  30. Great advice! Most of it I had already figured out, but this is definitely good stuff. What I do, no guaranty that it’s optimal or anything: I go to the starting ground’s right corner and dig two tiles down, then plant my pink. I jump up and plant my yellow so it’ll go right, and carefully dig the yellow tile that otherwise would eventually block the pink. Like this. I don’t know the exact reason, it just looks good to me. The pink can grow up to 5 tiles high without me worrying about getting to its top with a single jump and I or building on dangerous near-darkness grounds.

    Never really bother with the first pink, to be honest. To me, good farming only happens honorably when you worked hard at protecting your crops. I usually use yellow platforms as a canvas for olive goo and purple castles (I love that name for the purples by the way). I dig two yellows that aren’t next to each other but one tile away and plant a goo on that middle tile. Or I plant a purple with a 1-tile wall to one side and a 2-tiles gap to the other. Or both. Like this.

    I’ve been farming on the first level, afraid that the others would make me lose more than what I won. I’ll try the pink and green ones now, it makes sense that those are good farming levels.

  31. @David: One of the notes deleted out of the Faith article is that the star lodged in the starting dirt block looked exactly the same as the others – except its meaning is entirely different. It’s not a gamebreaker in any way and no one is going to be confused by it but… it just felt less pure.

    I can’t believe you didn’t know you could take seeds from the hub into a pilgrimage! I learnt that early on because I didn’t know I was supposed to use them to explore, I thought I was supposed to take them back into a pilgrimage and “do better” somehow.

    @Phlebas: That “going straight back in” logic is crazy, I never noticed that! Then again, I wasn’t really harvesting to tackle the challenges because I feared losing all my seeds in some mistake. I usually built up enough seeds from scratch every time I took on a challenge. Once I was trying to complete the game, I killed off five challenges in a row after cracking my first challenge. It was only the fast challenge and no dig challenge that created so many problems.

    It’s an interesting point about “if you grind, does it mean you’re bad at the game?” because the only grinding I did was for exploration – not for the challenges.

    Having lots of seeds in a challenge is really important because if you fail, then you get to try again with your remaining seeds. This carries on until you have none left – and that’s when you’ve *really* failed the challenge.

    @Rob: Amazing tip list there. There’s stuff there I’d loved to have delved into in the article, but at 5,500 words I think I’d already made my point about complexity. I love the “super-fertile” green seeds; the first time that happens you think “what did I do differently this time?” but then you realise it’s not you at all. I’ll add commentary to some of the points I hadn’t mentioned in the article.

    1) Yes yes, I realised after lots of wasted challenge attempts that moving farther away was the key to getting, uh, keys.

    2) True, but I found shooting orange lances directly upwards was good for sometimes getting away from a cluster of stars you’d slammed into horizontally that was difficult to navigate over. It was actually pretty annoying I couldn’t do this on the fast pilgrimage because I ended up playing this one the most.

    5) Like David says, I found digging down a couple of blocks and planting a pink seed was sometimes really useful for early harvesting.

    8) 9) Yeah, I pretty much always did that too. Plant pink, plant yellow – then plant blue beside the pink. I always planted my green vine downwards for harvesting. Sometimes dangerous, though, if it reconnected back to the dirt block.

    10) Oh my God I was so greedy. Definitely my downfall at times, although I got better at learning when to cut my losses.

    13) Sometimes I wished the game had a grid so I could count the number of spaces with ease when planting bombs to connect to stars.

    There’s one other thing that was useful to know – it is possible to influence the direction of the purple shielding’s growth just like some of the other seeds (castle is a great name). This became really important at times to maximise efficiency.

  32. Something Eric and I talk about is works which require a lot of Theory to understand. Like, I’ve read Ulysses, which is not a book that anyone should ever read for pleasure: I did it in grad school in a seminar class that was run a little more like a support group, and we had supplemental texts up the wazoo. I got a lot out of the book, but mostly from a writerly/lit guy perspective. I’ve flipped through it since and since I’m a little out of the scene, it’s hard to find a point to the book: It’s speaking to, for lack of a better term, the Elite. Eric meanwhile showed me a bit of this Jean Dielman film, and while I can get the idea behind it–like Ulysses it’s a more-or-less plotless examination of a person going through their day–half of it is lost on me. Eric was constantly pointing out stuff like the distance between the camera and the main woman, or little framing things I’d never notice on my own. Either work needs a lot of Theory to understand: They’re extremely complex works and you kind of need to know a bit about the traditions they come from to make heads or tails of it.

    So to this end. Is Spilgrim a Ulysses-style work? It’s a game I would never, ever even dream of recommending to a nongamer because they will get literally nothing out of it. I’ve read some things about people giving Dark Souls to nongamer friends–one particularly interesting one mentioned that the woman he gave it to ended up having a slightly easier time of the beginning than he did, and his theory was that as a gamer he was expecting to run through and use his normal gaming skills, where she started off as a clean cautious slate and was instantly receptive to what the game was trying to teach her and so ended up learning quicker. I’ve recommended adventure games to various friends who would like the storyline and I’ve played games with friends watching me. Spilgrim is one of those games that much be fairly excruciating to watch–the only reason you folks might enjoy them is because you get the context, you’re using them for inspiration for your own play, etc. It’s not a super pretty game–its aesthetics serve the mechanics, and a simple minimalist design works well, but it’s not that pretty to look at. And the game itself–well hell, the strategy guide that’s starting to form here is beginning to rival the Linati Schema. We might get a LOT from it, but a layperson is gonna see an ugly, confusing, pretentious game filled with freshman-year poetry that they quit after a few minutes of not knowing what the hell to do.

    So: Is Starseed Pilgrim our Ulysses?

  33. Richard, I don’t want to spoil anything right now but there’s something in the new post out later today, the second part of The Shooting Gallery, which relates to your comment.

  34. Richard Goodness: I’m surprised to hear you say Starseed Pilgrim is something utterly unenjoyable to nongamers because even if they don’t get into the deeper layers of the game I can attest to the enjoyment many supposed nongamers have -gotten- out of it.

    There is a lot of buried content and advanced strategy, but consider what it is on the surface, too; there is some sort of enjoyment to be had in being surprised by how things grow (in shape and sound) and in watching your seeds manifest.

    I don’t think a ‘nongamer’ would be any more confused by Starseed Pilgrim than they would be by many other games, and I’d argue the feedback the universe gives them — perhaps only initially — would be more satisfying than the many other sorts of feedback offered by many other sorts of games.

    ~

    Also, I’m still watching 0_0 this is a really interesting comment thread, thanks all :3

  35. Interesting! I’m obviously dealing with a smaller/more specific group of “nongamers” than you are–by the way I’m very glad we’re all tacitly agreeing not to deal with the issues with “gamer” vs “nongamer” for the sake of discussion–but I’m finding the opposite.

    But at the same time, maybe there is something similar to that Dark Souls story going on. In the beginner’s mind there are many possibilities. In the Zen mind there are few.

    Well with that in mind here’s how it was for me: I got Spilgrim as part of the Probability Zero four-pack, where it totally became the b-side that got huge. There was some minor talk in the forums here–I think HM and a couple others were talking about it in “hey I’m playing this” terms. And of the four it actually was the one which hit me the best–I *did* like the minimalism and was in the mood for a nice mellow chill game. I ended up approaching it as a toy–you know, I was high and there were pretty colors and nice tones. I’m a musician and it’s not THAT different from the process of noodling around and songwriting.

    The point of finding the first keys up until discovering the other islands was wonderful–finally experimentation is leading to results, and that part of the game was thrilling. But the game started unraveling for me around the time I realized I had to get to the three-key doors. At that point the game becomes less about discovery and exploration and more about focused skill and goals. I haven’t beaten the game–I’ve appreciated this write up and discussion.

    All video games are allegories for Nirvana, so let’s take this lesson from Spilgrim. The search for Nirvana leads to the destruction of all one worked for–finishing the game floods all the islands with blackness, right? And what is more compelling is the open, mindful understanding and communication with the universe rather than the attempts to conquer and dominate it. True wonder and possibilities come from treating the universe as a toy rather than a game.

  36. @HM: I like your “feels less pure” phrase. SP is so good at convincing players of its own perfection, everything we see in the game that bothers us never really quite gets to be called a flaw. No work is perfect, but this one manages to make you believe, if only for a second, that it’s just two steps away from perfection, just a couple mistakes that separate it from total purity.

    I never mind the stars being identical. It felt more pure, actually. Keys and hearts and the lock, they look the same from the light world because they don’t need to look different. You can tell them apart by knowing their usual location and the places where you planted green. It’s only the triple lock that needs distinction.

    As for the harvesting, yeah, it feels weird I never noticed it. But well, it can happen I guess. The first discovery of pilgrimage-to-home seed importation is necessarily tiny. You open the lock for the first time, you get home with 10 or 12 seeds instead of zero. You start a new pilgrimage and you notice the few seeds you collected don’t affect the seeds you start the pilgrimage with. That’s because I had less than 13, but I couldn’t know that. The only spoiler I had when I started playing was “the universe is bigger than you know,” which automatically pushed me towards exploring. The first discovery of a new level made me assume seeds disappeared with pilgrimages because they’re supposed to be used up at home.

    That’s where your “stages” break a little, I think. They’re there, but are not as linear as one might think. I had achieved something close to mastery very early on, and this incomprehension of the rules made it impossible for me to beat even the first challenge. Once I got the farming part, yeah, I beat the game in a day or two, without ever running out of seeds during a challenge (part of it might be my facing every challenge with 99 seeds, but still).

    PS: You were worried you’d never make a recommendation as successful as Cart Life, right?

  37. @Droqen: I guess there aren’t too many places discussing Starseed Pilgrim so openly!

    @Richard: “True wonder and possibilities come from treating the universe as a toy rather than a game.” You might try wandering through Bernie DeKoven’s blog “Deep Fun” some time, which is all about the importance of play and fun in our lives.

    @David: I don’t think of the stages as being very canonical and I expected rebuttals along the lines of “wait! my experience wasn’t like this!” – I was surprised there weren’t any. Whether it just meant no one was interested enough to point that out or actually most people did experience something close to the five stages, I don’t know.

    It’s funny but I had lots of bad luck with farming, because I was always using farming to take on the really difficult challenges (like the fast one), which were easy to screw up on.

    On your PS, I don’t really see it in the same way. Cart Life took a year to become a title that “everyone was talking about”. Starseed Pilgrim was already like that before I wrote about it. Jonathan Blow was chatting about it and it was up for the IGF. I would like at some point to find something else “unique” but it’s not a goal I set myself. It’s more fun writing a fresh take on games other people have already covered. (Unless it’s Mass Effect.)

  38. @HM Thanks for the rec! I gave it a very quick skim and I think I will appreciate it very much when I sit down to give it a proper read.

    Here’s an example of the interconnection of the universe: My neighbor has been slowly getting rid of a lot of books, and around here it’s pretty common to just leave them on the street for people to pick up. Yesterday I rooted through the box on the sidewalk and what did I get, mostly on a whim? A book of short pieces by Richard Feynman, who I’ve never read and who that blog is dealing with extensively.

  39. I thought I would point something out here. In the updated steam version, entering the 11th portal and then jumping into the black gives you the ending where it eats the hub world while you watch (revealing some text hidden behind the 11th island along the way), but it DOES delete your save file afterwards. Backup your save before the ending if you want to experiment with the endstate or something.

    Also, one time when I entered a challenge level (I think it was the blue guy’s?), there was a white heart inside a black tile hanging in space off to the left. I disregarded it and went up instead to grab the black heart. Later, I went back and it wasn’t there. Was this a bug? Has anyone else seen this happen?

  40. @McFrugal: I’ve seen the new ending on the Steam version (thanks to Droqen for sorting me out on that) and I’d been debating doing a short update to covert it. Long story short – I do like the new ending better, it works in a thematic way. As in, after all you’ve done – this is your moment of decision. Tear it all down? Also the disintegration of the hub world is much slower than it was in the original version, which lends it a sort of nihilistic meditative quality to it.

    I don’t recall a glitch like the one you report, but no doubt someone else in the world must have seen it.

  41. I skipped past the section on the end of the game for spoiler reasons so I don’t know everything going on in the article and comments.

    I just wanted to say that I really appreciate your comment in the article on how the really interesting part of Starseed Pilgrim isn’t that “there’s so much to explore and you have to figure out ALL the rules yourself,” but that once you figure out the rules, there’s a whole intense endgame / new level of mastery to learn. I feel that as you said, there’s probably a lot of players who got thrown off by the lack of instruction and occasionally arcane concepts (falling out of the world when the floor isn’t visible). But, for any player who frequently plays puzzle games (puzzle platformers in particular), has played a game by Droqen before (especially Notes, which is highly recommended and especially brutal in the explanations department), or even simply thinks the game is interesting-looking right off the bat and is engaged or persistent enough to catch some of the unexplained factors like bubbles, the basic mechanics and instructions become apparent fairly quickly. It’s when you’re forced to get to not one, but four goals per pilgrimage that the game really shines. That’s when players start realizing that they’ll have to utilize things like seedstack fuses and bombs efficiently to get anywhere, and even with those it’s incredibly difficult.

    I wish more of the articles dealing with this game would give the whole game a treatment, rather than talking about how wondrous it is to find out that the orange blocks seem to magically careen you into the white void! It’s a neat experience and I feel that focusing only on how “there are no instructions” does a disservice to the actual game; there’s so much more to it than that. Thanks for writing!

  42. 400cats, thanks for your comment! What you’ve pulled out there extends to a general principle I’ve been pondering. People like Michael Brough have been saying that mechanical spoilers are overrated because in a truly mechanically interesting game, the fun occurs after everything has been worked out. A game that lives on a few surprises isn’t much of a game at all.

    Still- this is only about a game which has mechanics at its core. Those games which want story to be key can be affected by spoilers. Don’t you want to hear the official telling of the story? Would you really rather hear it it on the grapevine? (There’s apparently evidence that spoilers enhance enjoyment of a story, but we’re quickly moving beyond the scope of the original point.)

    I’m always trying to find an unexplored angle with each game I write about. I don’t always figure it out but was surprised no one had done a proper nuts-and-bolts piece on Starseed Pilgrim. Mind you, this took ages to write…

    Also I hate you for pointing me to Notes because I just lost about half an hour when I was supposed to be writing these comments! (So far, only 5 points. The last 3 are driving me mad and I have been experimenting with the numbers, too.)

  43. Hey guess who has two thumbs and got an 8 on Notes.

  44. Also “note,” ha ha, the time stamp if you want to see how long I’ve been working on that damn thing.

  45. I figured out what I’d missed in Notes just as I was starting to search for a walkthrough!

  46. I actually did search for a walkthrough, but I got it with one teensy nudge.

  47. I have to say that I enjoyed your commentary on Starseed Pilgrim far more than the actual game. That’s the praise. Feel free not to read the rant below, as it is little more than than me blowing off steam.

    As an avid (some would say rabid) gamer, I’m all for innovative game concepts and novel approaches to gaming, but (and this is a major caveat), I find games like Starseed Pilgrim to be just this side of masterbation, both for the designer and for the serious player.

    Like Finnegans Wake (a novel written largely without punctuation, with many invented words, as well as puns that only work if the reader speaks multiple languages), there is a certain degree of “Ooo, look at how clever I am” about the whole thing. It is like unto designing an RPG without a section explaining what any of the terms mean or how to create a character (Which, incidentally, HoL actually did… but it was written as a pastiche of Sci-Fi gaming, and was never intended to actually be a functional game.). There is, I believe, a defining line between clever and smug. The clever (Portal) eases you into the new concept to maximize enjoyment, while simultaneously ramping up the difficulty to provide challenge. The smug (Starseed) provides no instruction and thus the challenge primarily derives from figuring out what the creator intended.

    Starseed is also “artsy”. Not artistic, but artsy. It strives to be difficult and challenge perceptions and to be art… without achieving the actual value of art. It is like the poetry written by angsty teens who have read the works of their betters and believe that, having never written poetry before, their works are somehow destined for greatness… despite the fact that they are largely inscrutable.

    And that’s the thing about about Starseed (and games like it). Darksouls and its ilk are challenging but fair. They present rules, show you how things work… and then promptly kill you, over and over and over again. Starseed, along with I Wanna Be the Guy and Kaizen Mario World, laugh maniacally as you fail when they are designed to punish you, to trip you up, to be as difficult as possible, just for that special branch of humanity that actively seeks out frustration. And there we have the disjoin. Some people read Moby Dick because it’s an excellent novel, struggling through the fact that it is also one of the harder novels in english to actually read. This is the bibliofile. Then there are those who read Moby Dick because they want to be able to discuss it with friends. This is the socialite. And there are those who read it because it is on their syllabus. These are the scholars. But lastly come those who read it because on some list they see “Books that are hard” and so they read Moby Dick… and then scoff at those mere plebs who haven’t or couldn’t get through it. These are the people who (perhaps only in my mind) like Starseed Pilgrim.

    Yes, it’s inventive… and challenging (if largely by virtue of deliberate obscuration)… but it’s also overblown, massively overhyped, almost completely inaccessible to the vast majority of even hardcore gamers let alone merely standard gamers or (shudder) casuals. It is a Freshman effort that has received much praise… but only because (I believe) it is a Freshman effort. From any experienced designer it would be viewed as trite at best. Every review I’ve ever read of the game, in striving not to “Spoil” the game, is being dishonest. There is nothing of substance to spoil. There is no story, no soul, no depth of philosophy or discovery. All that this game has is gameplay (Which I guess is one thing it has on Mountain.). An honest review would have pointed out the massive flaws in the game and warned players that frustrations would abound. English Country Tune, another innovative, mind bogglingly difficult, and highly frustrating puzzle game with a nonsensical title, guides the player in seamlessly, makes no artsy claim, minimizes neologisms (what in the name of god does “Homebound” or “Starseed Treasure” really mean? Nothing. It is pseudo poetic nonsense.) and yet manages to be engaging and provide the player with a sense of accomplishment. Both lack anything substantive as far as storytelling goes, which means both are fated for obscurity (Portal will, I guarantee, not be remembered for its gameplay, but rather for its characters and memes.)

    Stories and Archetypes define the cultural zeitgeist and inform the legacy each era hands down to the next. Sunflowers is not the most valuable painting in the world because it’s meaning is obscure and difficult to perceive. The same holds true for Mona Lisa. Everyone can appreciate the simple beauty of it. Even the masterworks of the world’s greatest surrealists, dadaists, and abstract painters make use of common items, shapes, and colors to draw you in. Dali’s melting clocks, Magritte’s floating apples, Mondrian’s squares, Picasso’s strangely deformed women, Van Gogh’s swirling nightscapes… they all have resonance with their audience and simple beauty. Starseed strives for that, a minimalistic approach over incredible depth… which it spoils completely by having, ultimately, nothing to say.

  48. I think delving too deeply into a creator’s intent is a little weird — it’s one perspective of many, as equally valid as any — but I’ll dip into my own mind for a second if only to challenge a few common assumptions by those who don’t like starseed pilgrim:

    —> “angsty teens who who have read the works of their betters and believe that, having never written poetry before, their works are somehow destined for greatness”

    Certainly I never believed Starseed Pilgrim was destined for greatness. I released it in a package called “Probability 0 & Friends” because I thought it was a weird experiment that I had fun making and that other people might possibly entertain themselves playing. To be clear: you couldn’t even buy the thing alone when it was first released, and I never thought about selling it on its own merits until it was nominated for the IGF.

    (Also: before creating Starseed Pilgrim, I had been thinking, playing, talking about, and creating games for years. Sure, though; many of those years were as a child and the rest were as a teen.)

    —> “It strives to be difficult and challenge perceptions and to be art”

    It doesn’t strive to be difficult. This is an accident, actually: I’m just pretty good at games and like a challenge, and sometimes I forget to tune down the difficult for other people.

    See my next answer for “challenging perceptions” (I’m assuming this is about the lack of tutorial) and my previous for “art”.

    —> “The smug (Starseed) provides no instruction and thus the challenge primarily derives from figuring out what the creator intended.”

    It’s my opinion that the best games aren’t about what the creator intended at all. Personally, I love not having instruction. Feeling out the space of a game myself is one of my favourite activities. If you prefer instruction that’s cool but

    In truth, however, one of the reasons Starseed doesn’t have a tutorial (I can’t say now whether it was a major or minor reason because I don’t remember) is because tutorials are ugly and boring and boring to make and hard to make not-boring-and-not-ugly.

    —> “what in the name of god does “Homebound” or “Starseed Treasure” really mean? Nothing. It is pseudo poetic nonsense.”

    Finally: yeah, this is probably true, haha. I feel a little hurt whenever anyone insults the poetry in Starseed Pilgrim because really I just had fun writing it. It’s not like I flaunted my own poems or claimed they were great or tried sticking my game in everyone’s face. It was a weird years-long experiment that I never expected quite so many people to hear about, or want to play.

    That’s not to say I think it’s bad, or that I regret any part of it, or that I’d change a damn thing. My final defense of Starseed Pilgrim is this: it’s flawed of course, but for each part of Starseed Pilgrim there’s enough people who love it that I love it too, and that’s all I ever wanted.

  49. Hi PJ,

    Droqen beat me to a reply, which is so unfair. I ought to delete it and make him submit it again after mine. This is more rambly than I might have liked! Length => Ramble. We could also do some overlap here with the whole Tale of Tales shebang but gad, life is too short.

    I do have sympathy with your position. I think there is too much mystery in Starseed Pilgrim which can cause ragequit levels of disgust.

    And we all come across work which a certain “in-crowd” tends to get and you’re like “what is it with those people”. Emperor’s New Clothes. I haven’t played Mountain, for example, but I was not convinced at all by what I read and the hype circus around it. I’ve just been spending a lot of mobile gaming time with Desert Golfing and I really can’t stand it; I can see where some of the love comes from but I can’t accept the game as a positive presence in my life. Also, yes, I wouldn’t necessarily criticise the poetry but I wasn’t convinced it added that much beyond the thematic.

    One reason I wrote Five Stages and indeed Faith is that I felt too many reviewers were settling on the “mystery/exploration” of the game and completely ignoring what happens beyond that which is FAR more interesting. So it became dressed up as a sort of secret box game – except the secret is a sequence of mad crazy challenges that require some proper game athleticism. And I’m a li’l bit bothered that Starseed Pilgrim became known for its surface layer, that of a player-directed tutorial. You know there probably was some kind of Pilgrim-cool bandwagon going on, and I wonder how many of those reviewers persisted with the game beyond review.

    I steer away from the comparisons to art these days as I’ve started to think there is little good to come from that discussion. I think Paulo Pedercini’s “The Great Art Upgrade” was perfect in getting my thoughts in order on this. I’m not sure I want to call any game art – I love these damn things but I don’t need another term to “promote” them to higher state of being.

    But on the other hand, and Droqen has filled in a lot of blanks here, I never got the feeling that it was someone trying to make a grand statement. Droqen was kind of an unknown until it SP picked up steam all by itself. I cannot even imagine how terrifying this probably was. I think your point that “it is a Freshman effort that has received much praise” is actually quite close to the truth. Droqen wasn’t planning on ending up nominated for the IGF or taking videogames by storm.

    And I think it helps seeing the companion games to SP. For example, Probability Zero is a pretty traditional kind of game but horribly difficult (for me). There’s not much mystery in it and you can just dive straight in. But it’s so different – if I remember correctly, SP was meant to be the B-side to P0. Then again, this is all context which helped me see the game in more reasonable terms, not in JESUS CHRIST BLOW & FODDY SAID WORSHIP THE PILGRIM terms.

    Does SP have anything to say? I don’t know if that many games have anything to say (I think back in 2010 I hoped for “The Wire” of games), but it doesn’t mean they are junk.

    For me, I found the SP exploration phase interesting and MY GOD IT FEELS GOOD WHEN YOU SOLVE IT. I guess it really is close to masturbation. Hard, inscrutable problems are often rewarding when you get to the heart of the matter, although if a game feels unfair you can totally call that out. And I did some of that here, of course.

    But that isn’t why I’d recommend SP to anyone; I’d recommend it because of the real work you have to do once you’ve figured out how SP ticks. That’s what I remember when playing SP, fighting hard against mechanics that seemed hell-bent on destroying me, and occasionally teasing out a nuance in the mechanics which saves you; it just didn’t get better than that.

    I wrote about Richard Perrin’s Kairo because I was surprised so many people just weren’t “getting” the point of the game and it seemed more-or-less obvious to me. I respect that some people might be baffled, but the fact that the game meant something to me isn’t an illusion. As with most games, they are what the players make of them, just like a book is essentially meaningless without a reader. If it wasn’t your bag, I think that’s completely fine and I often get comments that someone didn’t warm to a game at all.

    But it was my bag and I think that’s also fine. Thanks for posting your comment here, opposing viewpoints always make for interesting conversation.

  50. Well, let me first say… holy crap I did not expect the creator to respond and now I feel a bit bad about being so brutal. The two articles written by Joel were by far the most balanced approaches to SP that I’d read, but after viewing dozens of them all heaping praise with little justification beyond how the game was beautiful in its subtlety that I might have snapped a bit. And to be honest I wasn’t perhaps very fair in retrospect.

    I was frustrated by the game on several levels because it didn’t explain itself well and seemed to strive for mystery. As a writer and a critic, I will agree that delving into creator’s intent is tricky. On one hand criticism is seldom possible without a little assumption, but as a creator I often want to crush the skulls of my critics… not that I have many. I do appreciate Droqen taking the time to respond and provide his side of the story.

    I will admit to never having played Probability 0, but while I might have been wrong to call SP angsty teen poetry, it does seem a bit self-congratulatory even still. I can see how the game grew out of an experiment, which is laudable, but I have to feel it could have used a bit more polish before being released. Tutorials do not have to be clunky, especially in a game that lacks story, but even if you didn’t want to include one, a menu item that showed what the various seeds do in action would have made everything a bit… more accessible… or a section of the game wherein one unlocks new seed types by capturing them, one at a time to expand the potential seed pool… As for the difficulty, I’d respond that this implies no beta playing was done by anyone other than Droqen prior to release.

    I don’t need to have my hand held for me, but a basic run down of what the controls do (and the game does have game breaking moments… vis “Hold Space to become Unstuck” so a few more of those would have helped. Those games where there is little to no instruction have either obvious goals or no goal to speak of. Games with complex goals seldom if ever give no indication of what the central point is. I don’t mean “Creator Intended” to mean “The deep meaning” but rather whatever the creator set as a victory condition. You, Droqen, created the mystery, the challenge, to you it was self-evident what the solution was and how to go about (roughly) reaching it. Did you ask any of your friends to test the game and if so did none of them report being utterly bewildered.

    There is a kind of progression of difficulty in most games where the first “goal” is relatively easy to reach. It doesn’t have to be a gimme, but making it possible without essentially either randomly stumbling upon it or just looking it up online seems extreme. I’ve run literally hundreds of RPG games and seldom begin without some frame of reference in a blank field, and of those I can’t say I’ve had much success with those games because tabula rasa only takes one so far.

    I am sorry to be a harsh poetry critic, as I do know about time invested, and it isn’t like I play videogames for the work of Tennyson or Poe. I wouldn’t say the game is bad. It is what it is. But I find it confusing to see a game as inscrutable as SP with nothing but good reviews. It is very much Emperor’s New Clothes in that it seems no one in the Game-critique community was willing to stand up and say “I don’t get it, I don’t like it, and here’s why. Perhaps their editors wouldn’t let them. Mine certainly was less than thrilled about the idea.

    As an experiment, I think it wasn’t a bad one. But as a game, I can’t say it was a good one. As a fellow creator, I’m happy that Droqen found his audience and certainly won’t begrudge him it (except in the dark and envious parts of my soul). Still, I have to compare it, in some ways, to FEZ, another indi game about quirky exploration. It managed to tutorialize in creative ways, engage the audience, and still tuck away simply insane levels of secrets… secrets ultimately even more frustrating, smug, and apparently fan outraging. But I will give Droqen mad props for not railing against me for being an elitist punk who doesn’t “Get it” and should shut up as Phish would have done.

    as for Joel, I agree that games don’t have to be art. visual media doesn’t have to be art either. Sometimes you just want a well composed picture of a naked person or a lake or a diagram that can be easily understood and contains factual information… But Bioshock is videogame art. It’s challenging, well acted, well written, well structured, a great atmospheric mystery that is fun to play. It rewards on practically every level and is simply gorgeous to boot (taking the uncanny valley of the visuals with a grain of salt of course). Skyrim, one of the most insanely sandboxy games ever (with mods making it even moreso) is hugely about making one’s own fun… and as someone who got into a “Who can collect more Mugs” competition with a friend I know all about setting your own goals… like collecting one of every single car type in Saints Row 3 or seeing how many times you can get the Mako to flip over in Mass Effect… but those games aren’t simple (as in opposed to complex) games and I was always doing that instead of doing what I was supposed to be doing.

    I feel like Droqen essentially gave me a handful of seeds and said, here play around with these while inventing your own narrative until you bump into mine. It’s like the far, far end of the spectrum that ends with “Hero of the Kingdom” type games where the story is fixed and its pretty much just clicking all the tiny things until you find enough tiny things to advance the story. But, in my oppinion, hidden narratives are best when they are hidden in a larger plot. It’s like… SP is being placed in a white room that you can leave any time with a box of crayons and a stack of white paper… and the secret to getting seeing a gorgeous painting is to use your crayons to highlight all the braile bumps hidden under the white paint on the walls, then use the paper to decode the message… which tells you that you’ve got to make a thousand paper cranes… and then being told over and over again that it’s the most beautiful painting ever. The game is frustrating, the reviews more so… and I have to wonder if my time isn’t better spent studying all the vignettes hidden in the Sistine Chapel ceiling.

    To be fair, I also didn’t like Shadow of the Colossus for essentially the exact same reasons I didn’t like SP…. or Hotline Miami… though that might have been because I just didn’t like it. I like hard games. Demon Souls, 3D Dot Game Heroes, Shin Megami Tensei Nocturne… and I love artistic games. Okami, Valkyria Chronicles, Ni No Kuni, Asura’s Wrath… and quirky games. Pikmin, Katamari, English Country Tune… and I do love puzzles… but I don’t particularly appreciate the puzzle being to figure out the puzzle… somehow that’s a little too much like life.

    Then again, I’m guilty of it too. In one Pulp Adventure RPG I ran, I presented the PCs with a freestanding temple with a huge door that had space for 8 clay tiles on the door. The Door was locked (and there’s a game design rule that says never give the players a door unless they can go through it. If it’s locked, doubly so). There were two banks of tiles, enough spaces for 36… but there were only sixteen surviving tiles because the temple was thousands of years old. I expected the Players to search the ruins, discover they couldn’t find all the tiles, and to then look for a way to get around the door… but they didn’t. They puzzled over those tiles for an hour, never looked for any more, and never even walked around the temple to see if there was another way in. This prompted 3 of my 4 players to ragequit on me… So I guess you can’t please everyone.

    I will say that the game itself is well constructed… I just found the barriers to progress too high, the moments of success too few, and the pay off too little. The challenge should grow as the players skill does and each setback should be a lesson. SP does neither of those things. Too often you fail for reasons you just can’t comprehend.

    And, Droqen… I think the poetics of Starseed Pilgrim, especially Homebound and Starseed Treasure are great. They have wonderful potential and are great terms. My critique wasn’t of them specifically, just how they were framed within the game. They didn’t seem to have the payoff. Like in Dune, my favorite book. Herbert uses the term “Chaumurky” to mean poison in drink as opposed to “Chaumas” which was poison in food. Why? What does this add to the story besides confusion. He also uses “The Rites of Kanly” to mean the formal process by which two houses wage a vendetta war of assassins. “The Rites of Kanly” is a poetic term and shows how formalized such things have become, this giving it gravitas and pay off. Had any of the mythopoetic elements of SP been given substance by either poetic mention or some other form of exposition, they would carry greater weight… but they don’t and I feel the poetry is lessened thereby.

  51. “I also didn’t like Shadow of the Colossus for essentially the exact same reasons I didn’t like SP” is some damn good praise in my eyes, so thanks ;)

    The plethora of similiar reviews — similar to an ‘outsider’, anyway — definitely doesn’t help how it looks. It builds up the secret when, honestly, I never wanted the secret built up. Most of my playtesting was done of the ‘main’ game so to speak, the fleeting world (where darkness is chasing you), and I would have been perfectly happy if only a handful ever made it past that. But I should have foreseen this! That the secrets would hold so much attention, and that they’re what would be talked about.

    Your criticism of the poetry here is pretty good. Useful! The poetry *does* come together (in a pretty satisfactory sense, I think?); it gives hints and it culminates. I can totally understand how it feels like it won’t. As narrative bits AND as hints the poems are really, really cryptic, and it’s easy to quit before seeing everything or even seeing that there will be more…

    Anyway. Thanks for being open to talking about it too :)

    Rest assured that I won’t be adding tutorials to my games anytime soon; my style is irredeemable.

    I’ll say one more thing: from this conversation I remembered that I truly wish more people going into Starseed Pilgrim went into it not thinking the game was full of secrets, because if you do that then not finding those secrets feels like failure. I’m pretty certain you came into it with this mindset, and it then felt like a difficult and frustrating game to you because those secrets were not forthcoming, and because it did not even give you the basic tools to unearth them. To tease its players with secrets that you can’t find if you’re looking for them was never the goal of SP’s design. It was supposed to be a game hidden within a game, this tiny kinda-compelling THING with no apparent goal that would unfold all on its own in unexpected directions and ways if you were interested enough in it to continue.

    … but that changed when everyone started talking about All The Secrets without really talking about them. The game doesn’t punish you for giving up, but everyone talking about it sure does. You punish yourself, though it’s not your fault.

  52. “I remembered that I truly wish more people going into Starseed Pilgrim went into it not thinking the game was full of secrets, because if you do that then not finding those secrets feels like failure. I’m pretty certain you came into it with this mindset, and it then felt like a difficult and frustrating game to you because those secrets were not forthcoming, and because it did not even give you the basic tools to unearth them.” Actually, I didn’t know there were secrets. I played around with the game for hours and hours before becoming convinced I was missing something, some hidden depth, or I was just doing something wrong with the seeds. I had no idea what the point and hadn’t figured out how anything really worked… Finally I went looking for a guide to what the various seeds actually did and only then found out about the secrets.

  53. Oh! 1. That’s cool! 2. Darn, that’s too bad!
    Sorry about my incorrect assumption then.

  54. I feel that it’s not the seeds that need explaining – especially as some of them change their nature later – but that the interaction between the different worlds need to be explained.

    How the hub, pilgrimage and night world fit together. The challenges could probably be left unexplained. Once the framework is clear – effectively most of its secrets – the player would be naturally drawn to figuring out how their seeds become tools. (seedstacks are possibly the only seed that needs to be explained?)

  55. Seedstacks were the seed I had the least problem with–as I recall I started the game having to dig down through a bunch of pink heart blocks so when I saw the pink seeds making heart blocks I knew what they did.

    The issues I had were mostly interacting with the night world. Joel, you might remember that I commented that for the longest time I thought that the keyhole was an up arrow so I didn’t know what to do–if I had been able to see the keyhole as a longer than you might expect to figure out I had to press down to use it. (This was like typing “use key on lock” when the game expects “use key in lock.”) Also there’s that bubble floating thing in the night world which could’ve got me out of a lot of trouble and which I would never have discovered without spoilers.

    It would’ve been sad for me if someone had spoiled that first moment when the pilgrimage turns into the night world. Even the first moment when I came back to the hub with seeds was amazing, though it happened by an accident I couldn’t reproduce (I fell off the bottom with a lot of seeds). As was building something in the hub and finding a new world. If I’d figured out how the keyhole worked I feel like I could’ve run into a lot of the secrets myself.

    Man, now I want to play it again but I have stuff to do.

  56. Matt, the reason I was thinking seedstacks had to be explained is because the seeds are what connect all the stages. That is, by explaining the relationship between the stages, you couldn’t avoid talking about seedstacks, but I may be wrong – this is just speculation at what my “more friendly” version of Pilgrim would look like.

    Perhaps the “tutorial” could “follow” one cycle through night world and back to hub, instead of pre-empting?

  57. Oh, I had misunderstood what you meant by seedstacks–I thought you meant the towers of pink blocks, but you meant the seeds you carry around with you, yes?

    I like the “follow” idea–what harshes my discovery mellow usually is not when I don’t know what’s going to happen when I do something, but when I can’t understand what just happened when I did something. I feel as though the game can let you find out for yourself that carrying seeds back through the night world portal is Good–that’s a nice discovery–but I had absolutely no idea that the reason I got seeds back to the hub the first time is that falling off the bottom in the pilgrimage just docks you ten seeds rather than all of them. (That was the context of this comment, that I’d made progress but didn’t understand how.) Maybe that could be shown graphically–like having ten seeds fly away from you, like rings scattering in Sonic?

    Ha ha I was just looking through the “Five Stages” thread and I said “it’ll probably take me like a year to finish the game.” That was in 2013.

  58. Um… So am I the only one who thinks SP’s poems are more than OK?

    Also, I would definitely want the game to be easier in the sense of the platforming, but making it more transparent? That, in any amount, would make for a worse game, and would only please players who are looking for something different than what Droqen seemed to be trying to offer.

  59. Hi Matt,

    Yeah I did actually mean the towers – I just mean that growing seeds tends to be vital to understanding that seeds are carried between stages and maybe you’d wind up having to explain the pink seeds even though they’re pretty straightforward. And the example you give about missing the chance to learn those lessons is exactly the problem I have with the early “mysteries” of SP; it’s just too easy to flounder because some of these learning events played out wrongly. Rings scattering like Sonic is amazing, but I don’t think highlighting the loss of 10 seeds helps if you had less than 10 and wind up with 0.

    @David: I think they’re okay. I didn’t get much from them, but I thought they were okay. And I think I disagree a little with you about pleasing players. I think the a lot of people have been locked out of that hardcore game on the other side of the mystery because that mystery is too opaque due to choice of signifiers, lack of cogent feedback etc. Those of us who make it through might get a little high but I don’t know if it was worth it.


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