This is it, people, this is enormo-spoilers. Abandon hope all ye who enter here.
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.
We navigate this space by using seeds to grow structures within it.
Seeds can only be obtained through pilgrimages. There are portals to ten pilgrimages scattered across the hub.
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.
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”.
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.
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.
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?
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.