Electron Dance
30Apr/13Off

The Five Stages of Starseed Pilgrim

Note: If you're interested in 100% guaranteed spoilers and analysis, you best take a look at the next article, Faith of the Pilgrim.

Alexander “Droqen” Martin's Starseed Pilgrim is another one of those games.

It's another Fight Club game, like At A Distance. A game you can't talk about. A game it's even dangerous to acknowledge the existence of. Don't go spoiling it y'hear. Don't go causing no bother, now.

sharing-secrets

“Hey, have you played–”

“FECKING SPOILED NOW INNIT WHY DONCHA JUST TELL ME WHO KILLED LAURA PALMER AND THROW KEYSER SOZE INTO THE FECKING BUNDLE”

No one wants to spoil a good half of Starseed Pilgrim, which is about learning and discovery. Just half, mind you. The other half, which is just as important, is mastery.

Those reviewers brave enough to take on the task of communicating something about the game without, well, communicating something about the game become linguistic contortionists. Adam Smith tries on “Starseed Pilgrim throws its abstractions into the player’s face like a glass of cold water,” and Chris Priestman offers “a game that parallels the act of scribing, but replaces the words with symphonic gardening,” Phill Cameron suggests the “revelations cascade with the speed of a glacier” while the game “smirks and inverts”. John Teti hopes to motivate you with “Dirt is only boring until you plant some seeds. Then it becomes an experience.

Don't worry, I'm going to end up performing the same kind of trick as these fine fellows. I'm going to share my experience of Starseed Pilgrim without explaining anything whatsoever.

Let me tell you about the five stages of Starseed Pilgrim.    

Stage One: Bewilderment

The shortcut is on your desktop. It's been there for days, accumulating several shades of dust. Some tweets said it was the best game ever of ever. Jonathan Blow even brandished it to headshot critics and academics with a double-barrelled hyperbolegun. You're having review flashbacks, palpitations. No handholding. A glass of cold water. Symphonic gardening. Embracing fate. Dirt is boring. What they are all trying to convey to you is the same truth: God is in this code.

There's a lot riding on this fucking executable.

starseed-pilgrim-dormant-shortcut

Fuck it. Click, click.

There's a priceless moment in Starseed Pilgrim where you think perhaps it's going to be okay. The bit at the start, where it's like a children's playground in No Danger City, Safeland. The screen has walls. There is only one way to go, one thing to do. It's teaching you the fundamental mechanics of movement and tunnelling. A tutorial, right?

starseed-pilgrim-beginning

I got two words for you.

Sucker. Punch.

After that, you get this.

starseed-pilgrim-sucker-punch

Welcome to the real Starseed Pilgrim. See those pink columns on the right? Doesn't it look like the game is giving you the finger?

Whilst we are rightly proud of games that throw players into an exhilarating adventure devoid of signposts, the cosmic truth is some players will not survive such tough love. Perhaps without those flashbacks of reviewer praise promising it's all going to be okay, many players wouldn't even bother experimenting. What is this shit, they might ask rhetorically, before remembering that Bioshock Infinite is coming out soon.

The game has needed its champions.

So you play. Experiment, some things happen. And very quickly it's over. You're back at the start. Hmm.

So you play. Experiment, some things happen. And very quickly it's over. You're back at the start. Hmm.

So you play. Experiment, some things happen. And very quickly it's over. You're back at the start. Hmm.

Maybe you close the executable. Maybe you leave it fallow for a few weeks. Maybe you don't come back again because Bioshock Infinite is now on sale and you can collect shiny coins like it's Mario all over again.

Or maybe you do come back.

Stage Two: Acceptance

The future is all around us, waiting in moments of transition, to be born in moments of revelation. No one knows the shape of that future, or where it will take us. We know only that it is always born in pain.

Sorry, that's a speech from Babylon 5. What I really meant to write was this:

The rules of the game eventually show off a little bit of flesh. You still don't know the why, but you can now articulate a small chunk of the how. You understand how some of the tools work and what the game seems to expect from you. You understand there is a cycle, a rhythm to the game.

So you play. Experiment, some things happen. And very quickly it's over. You're back at the start but... a little richer than you were before.

starseed-pilgrim-game-censored

There's still no purpose to it though. You're just playing with the pretty colours and sounds because Jonathan Blow told you to. The stubborn sense of mystery persists, the white void humming with question marks. The game hints at larger purpose and tries to nudge you, persuade you to think a little bigger darling. You might even notice a challenge that looks like a motherfucking joke right now.

It's just taken you five minutes solid to raise a little “wealth” but you've reached the point where you need to try something new, something different. You decide to risk your new found “wealth” on a little gamble. Okay, maybe a couple of gambles.

Desperation is starting to etch its way into your resolve. Tense, nervous headaches. A little sweat on the forehead; you can't go back to the internet and tell them all you got stuck. Is there really more to this game than the cycle?

OH MY GODDD

Stage Three: Euphoria

Well, that investment paid off with a sweet dividend. Now you've got a real goal! Sort of. It's a personal goal, like something a life coach would tell you to do for self-improvement. It's good for the soul because God is in the code.

starseed-pilgrim-other-game-censored

It doesn't matter. Don't listen to those naysayers in your head with their nihilistic shit talk. You're beginning to commune with your tools, become one with the mechanics universe of the Starseed Pilgrim.

That's when a bunch of spanners turn up in your cogs. You discover those mechanics you've become confident with are not constant in the wild. There is not just one mechanics universe but many, each one disrupting your burgeoning mastery of the game in violent ways. In each new mechanics universe you are a child again, humbled by a seemingly inconsequential perturbation that destroys everything. The butterfly effect of game design.

But you persist because there is more to know.

Stage Four: Denial

You're sliding into desperation again because the mask is starting to slip. You're going to have to confront the truth. All that dirt you swept under the rug... well there's more dirt than rug now. Keep telling those lies to yourself.

starseed-pilgrim-illegal-graphic

You're running out of things to do and the game doesn't look “finished” at all. But you know there's one thing you haven't done yet because it's insane. You tried doing it once and realised you were so ill-prepared for that level of clusterfuck that it was better just to forget the whole thing. Maybe some as-yet undiscovered Super Mechanic is still buried in there. A power that will make the insane motherfucking joke of a challenge seem like a piece of chocolate cake drizzled with custard.

But eventually you discover the walls of the game. There is nothing left to do. These walls, unlike those of the tutorial, are like hands on your throat. You have to take on the insane challenge for real. You have stop playing around like a little kid in a sandbox, mumbling “oh the beautiful symphonicity and colourosity of it all” and take it seriously.

This isn't fucking Proteus, so man up.

Stage Five: Obsession

Ha ha. What you called “mastery” during those early days of Starseed Pilgrim is total amateur hour compared to the crazy stunts you are pulling off now.

You grow. You grow a second brain just for the pilgrimage. You become efficient and find ways to better your future before you get there. You hone your understanding of the mechanics. The smallest details become important to you, like a craftsman now, an artist. One step in the wrong place can break your artwork; the difference between success and starting the cycle again is often so slight.

You take your skills to the other mechanics universes and conquer them too, tweaking your response in just the right way to see you through.

But there are a few challenges which seem beyond you. You try again and again and somehow never succeed. You get close – but it's never close enough. The darkness is too overwhelming and you meet with failure every single time. No, no, fuck no!

But wait. My lord, you have a cunning plan!

You go to Twitter and ask the two guys who were gushing about the game an important question. Did they finish Starseed Pilgrim? Because, after all, if they didn't it means they're full of shit! Play this game! It's awesome! But humanly impossible!

Cool. You've found the escape pod. Relief ripples through your over-stretched mental muscles. You're not trapped any more. Take that, game. Take that, Droqen. Take that, Take That.

You invite their confession. You are ready for their truth.

oi-did-you-finish-starseed-pilgrim

Oh man. The truth hurts.

oi-yes

That “yes” feels so denigrating, three letters of sneer. Today, you are nothing. Embrace your fate.

Again, try again. Again. Again. Try again. Failed. Try again. If at first you don't succeed, try a million times again. Don't worry about the entropic heat death of the universe, it can't possibly take that long. You'll get there eventually. So there's no super mechanic but all roads lead to Rome. Just hope you're not on the longest possible shittiest road to Rome.

Keep the faith. Keep trying. Keep devoting the hours. God is in the code.

And suddenly: let there be light.

OH MY GODDD

Starseed Pilgrim, nominated for this year's IGF award for Excellence in Design, can be purchased directly from Droqen or via Steam.

Next week: A many-splendoured fully-spoilered analysis of Starseed Pilgrim.

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Posted by HM

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Comments (61) Trackbacks (2)
  1. Metro! Metro! Metro! It’s just so awkward and wonderful. Like an acne’d, brooding, teen genius. I hear that it’s better if you play the game in Russian with subtitles, so you might want to try that. Oh, and lemme know what you think about the library section.

    I’ve avoided this comment thread for a while now. 30 comments? 46? 50? “Looks like work,” I said. And god knows that Richard, no doubt, left 5 essays in here for me to tread through. But, lucky me! Five minutes and I’m caught up.

    I’ve always found it annoying when an author (blogger, writer, drawer-person) misses their own deadlines and makes bountiful excuses to their audience. The missed updates are fine; it’s the explanations that bug me. I’m probably the only person who thinks that though.

    JoKyr is no good. Everyone will get Jonas Kyratzes mixed up with Joseph Kyranzes. As if they didn’t have enough trouble already!

  2. @Richard: Awesome. Do you think you will read the spoilers article? The very first section comes out and tells you the goal of the game. I’ve not structured it as an unravelling mystery, more of “here’s the game, right, how does it all work?”

    @mwm: Just for you, future delays will be announced as “No post today. Fuck y’all.” =) Honestly, the schedule is something I care about a great deal. I resent blogs that go crazy churning out fifty articles in a few days then go silent for weeks. The regularity is important to me.

    (Total ha ha on the dig at Richard. He’s written about Cart Life and Cargo Commander this week, so his words have been drained off the site.)

    I’ve only played a little of Metro 2033 so far and I don’t want to share any thoughts on it just yet. I’m still finding my feet. Likely I will write about in the distant future as the schedule for the next couple of months is already scripted out. You know how things go here =)

  3. I’m not sure if I’m gonna read it or not–I feel like it’s the kind of game that I do want to be blind about. I know *kind of* where I need to go next–I think I’m at that disheartening “I need to do what?!” bit.

    Thanks for the link–I edited that piece and everything! I printed it out and crossed out paragraphs and took about 3000 words out of it! Holy shit!

    I’ve just woken up to an email from GOG.com which says, essentially, hey, remember how you were going to finally get to Kentucky Route Zero? Well here’s like a billion other games that you’ve been wanting to play and should pick up. For those of you who are playing along at home, Resonance is among them, which I finished up this week as well and I thought was really good. And then Cognition Episode 3 is coming out and I haven’t even played Episode 2…I really should have been paying attention to games for all of this time.

  4. A couple more little lightbulbs have come on, but I fear it may still be a while before I dare read the explicit piece. I can do this. I will do this.

  5. I’m glad to see someone else is hanging out here in the sad old no-spoilers section.

    I sort of think I’m at the end of stage four but I haven’t had time to play it for a little while.

  6. I’m here too. I’ve been on a point-and-click kick. I played Primordia for like three hours straight last night. Hot damn that one is good. I’m on the final boss of Bit Trip Runner; once I beat that I’ll give Pilgrim a real try.

    I swear.

  7. You passed me on Bit Trip Runner; I’ve only got up to the stage after the Gauntlet I think. (The one where you have to run the gauntlet in the flipping middle.) And it’s been so long since I really played it that I really have to start over from the beginning of world 3 to get my chops back. Now I feel like the loser at the loser table.

    Actually I don’t feel bad about that, it’s a hard game and I got a lot of pleasure out of it and I’ll finish it sometime if I can. There’s a few games with a few unfinished levels that I feel that way about (Osmos, I guess Cogs is different because I just quit when all the available levels were annoying/boring, Sword & Sworcery I really should finish sometime.) Right now I kind of want to only play soundless games for a while so I can listen to music, or even switch over and do some work. Someone at intfiction.org pointed to Anamnesis and described it as “Fallen London meets Kings of Dragon Pass, or if Christine Love wrote a strategy RPG,” so I think I’m in.

    I have to post a rant about my Bundle Fatigue in the open thread, though.

  8. I haven’t forgotten those still lost in the five stages. But the five stages is so yesterday, I talk about the three phases in the spoiler piece. That’s all I’m telling you.

    Bit Trip Runner sounds like the kind of game I don’t want to play right now. My muscle memory is pretty shabby these days (then again, I got pretty frikkin’ good at Starseed Pilgrim which isn’t about muscle memory but about reacting).

    I might bring the Open Mike thread forward to Thursday because of something else is being planned for Friday.

  9. @HM I’m in the process of winding down the Second Quest–we’re in the final few dungeons, and Bit Trip Runner is one of them. It’s a game I absolutely love because it’s about the only videogame which gives an ACTUAL idea of what it’s like to play music. Guitar Hero feels nothing like playing a guitar; Bit Trip Runner *looks* like music.

    Now I’m excited about Friday!

    I’ve been debating reading the Spoilers piece for a few paragraphs. I have no idea how you’ve structured it, but I do understand a fair chunk of the game and I might skim until I find kind of the next piece of the puzzle that I’m missing. But who knows!

  10. Richard: Have you played Bit.Trip Beat? It took me a while to get into Runner, largely because of being bad at the early stages, and then one day I found myself going jump-jump-jump across a string of platforms and I was In The Groove. Beat gives me that feeling a lot, plus I like the music better and it doesn’t send you back to the beginning of the level when you make one mistake. And its easy mode is actually easier. Of course it contributed to my Bundle Fatigue too.

  11. @matt (and I totally meant to respond to your Bundle Fatigue mention but forgot it was in this same thread, and I would be really interested in hearing about yours because I’ve gotten it too, and I think a lot of people do, I’ve heard a lot of snarky comments about the current Royale and looking at the selection I tend to agree with them…)

    I got Beat for the Wii a few years ago–and by the way, the thought of downloading stuff for the Wii sounds almost archaic these days, heh, boy has the landscape changed in the past 5 years for me. It’s the kind of game I’m fond of. I’d never gotten into Rez–I never felt that the music *quite* matched up to what I was doing, or I didn’t click on exactly what to do, or whatever–and so was pretty suspicious of Beat but I loved it. I can beat the first tune fairly consistently but I’ve never been able to beat the second one. I picked it up for my phone t’other day, and it turns out that Bit Trip Beat is miserable to play on the iPhone. I have Core as well, and that one I’ve REALLY never gotten. (This conversation is making me want to try to replay them though.)

    So yeah–I got Runner through one of the ancient Humble Bundles, played it for about 15-20 minutes, as you do. I had a screenwriting professor in college who said that one of his tests: he always ends up checking his watch at SOME point during the movie to see how long has passed and how much is left. If the first time he checks his watch is any time within the first 20 minutes of the movie, that usually means it’s failed to absorb him and he moves on. My “I have a shitload of games to play” procedure is similar although it isn’t as objective. I’ll play till the first time I die or get stuck, and at that point I reevaluate. I can’t tell you how many little flash puzzle games I have never made past stage 7.

    So yeah, first time I played Runner I gave up a few stages in, and that was maybe a year ago. I tried it again a couple weeks ago–I kind of actually *looked* at my backlog and have been giving a lot of stuff a proper play, and whatver reason, it clicked. Like, clicked to the degree where–I generally wake up a couple hours earlier than I need to and I’ll game for a bit; I have hardcore gamed Bit Trip Runner every day for the past two weeks. There are some stages–3-8 and 3-10 in particular–which took me three and four days of practice to beat. I’m on the final boss, and the concept of me getting perfect scores in all of the levels has set up camp outside my apartment; I’m not sure whether or not to let him in.

    But yeah–I’m not 100% sure what I have to say about the game, but there’s something about it which is inspiring me to such hardcore places. I haven’t been this dedicated about a game in a very long time.