Starseed Pilgrim is a game about a little manny who lives in some kind of abstract floating tile world, where he grows musical tiles and occasionally falls into a terrifying nightmare void. Jonathan Blow, perhaps best known as the creator of Oracle Billiards, has been banging on all week about how it's the best game released this year and deserves to win a load of prizes in this year's IGFs (where it is nominated for the Excellence In Design award), so in the interest of shutting him up I decided to buy a copy and write a thing about it. Then a series of unusual circumstances made it impossible for me to buy it, but then Droqen - the game's creator - took pity on me (while vanity-searching on Twitter, evidently) and hooked me up with a free copy. Videogames!
I think the main reason nobody has written much about Starseed Pilgrim is because nobody has any idea how to play it. You move around using arrow keys, and you plant seeds using Space. Different coloured seeds grow into different types of tiles, which have different material properties and make different sounds in your blocky little abstract noise garden. J-Blo seems to think that this is what makes the game so great - the way that you have to explore the unknown and unravel these mysteries on your own and stuff. Personally I found it just really frustrating, and if I had paid money for it I would have felt pretty irritated with myself and given up within my first few sessions. But no. Bought off with a free copy of the game, I felt less personally invested in my disappointing experience, and made an effort to persevere with this oblique nonsense.
I just can't agree that creating a lot of weird systems and expecting the player to figure it all out for themselves makes for a better game. It's why I have issues with games like the original Zelda, because I just have no idea what the hell I should be doing. Look at Dark Souls, even - I somehow managed to miss all the cues pointing me towards Undead Burg during my first game, and after a few days of getting my arse handed to me in the Graveyard and the New Londo Ruins, I wrote the game off as unplayable. These days of course I know exactly what I should be doing in Dark Souls, and every time the Capra Demon kills me I can understand why it was my fault. I like a bit of mystery in games, but I'm not so thrilled when I have to decrypt the entire game under my own steam.
Anyway, in the spirit of ruining the mystery for anyone who can't figure out how to play, here's an entry-level guide based on what I've figured out over the last week:
- You start on a big 'safe' grey island of tiles; press Down on the one unique tile in the center to start the game
- You will teleport to a big brown island of tiles, with about a dozen seeds in your pocket and a creeping dark corruption spreading out beneath you
- The creeping black corruption cannot be stopped
- If you touch a corrupted tile, you will be transported into the 'Dark World' (more on this later)
- You can dig out tiles underneath you, or to your side, by pushing Down/Left/Right into them
- You never take falling damage, but the screen stops scrolling whenever you fall and if you fall off the bottom of the screen then you will instantly die
- Press Space to plant a seed in the tile beneath your feet; seeds cannot be planted on a matching-coloured tile
- Tiles grow in different ways (different sizes, usually) depending on what kind of tile they are planted in
- Yellow tiles grow quickly in straight lines
- Light green tiles grow in a twisty random staircase fashion, with little hearts randomly embedded within
- Dark green tiles grow out like a sort of overflowing swamp, spreading horizontally until they reach a wall or fall far enough over an edge, and impede your jumping abilities
- Pink tiles grow very slowly, always vertically, but can be harvested for more seeds
- Purple tiles grow out into a sort of crenellated fortress pattern, and are particularly resistant to the spreading corruption
- Red tiles function like bombs - they always start as a single tile, but will explode into a much larger area if triggered by a planted seed or the spreading corruption
- Light blue tiles quickly spread out into a 'plus' shape, converting any other tiles around them
- Dark blue tiles function like jump blocks that pretty much double your jumping height
- Scattered in the white space around you are other corrupted black star tiles; there's always one about 15 tiles directly above your starting position, for example
Basically, your aim in the 'Light world' is to physically connect your tile assembly to as many black star tiles as possible, using the various material properties of the tiles to expand your garden as far as possible. Keeping up so far? Good. Now let's talk about the Dark world.
Eventually the spreading corruption will catch up with you and you will be transferred into the Dark world. All the tiles you have grown will now become empty space, while what was previously empty white space will become solid black rock. You can't dig out the black rock, so basically you're in a position where your giant tile garden has become a labyrinth of tunnels and caverns. You should bear this in mind while laying out and planting your garden in the Light world - it's a good idea to be in a position with easy access to a few hearts immediately after the switch. Anyway, in the Dark world:
- Most of the black star blocks transform into keys, which you want to collect
- Any remaining hearts buried within green tiles become floating black hearts, which you also want to collect
- Any black hearts you collect can be used to activate a sort of 'float' power by holding Space while jumping or falling
- When floating, you'll keep moving in a straight line in your current direction, until you release Space or touch a solid surface
- If you have a key, you can dig down into the 'Arrow' tile at the bottom of what used to be the big brown safe zone
- If you dig into an Arrow tile, you will be teleported back to the safe grey area from the start of the game, with as many seeds in your pocket as you have hearts remaining
- If you hang around for too long, or hold H for a few seconds, or fall to your death, you will return to the safe grey area with no seeds
So! Your goal here is to explore your labyrinth to collect keys and hearts, then dig into an arrow block with as many remaining hearts as possible. It really shouldn't be too difficult to at least build a tower up to the first star tile and exit the Dark world with at least two or three hearts in your pocket, but with practice you'll learn to cultivate and harvest the pink tiles in order to gather more seeds and expand your Light world garden to discover more keys and more arrow blocks.
Once you're back in the safe grey area with some more seeds, you can plant them like normal to expand your garden as before. The difference here is that the grey area features no spreading corruption, so you have no time pressure - this is like Minecraft fantasy construction stuff, you're basically building a pillow fort out of these tiles. If you expand your base enough, you might notice that there are other floating grey blocks in this space, and if you can reach them then you'll notice more random bits of poetry and some kind of flickering ghost of your manny and, I dunno, some vague hand-waving attempt at giving 'meaning' to your childrens' computer game.
There you go, then - Starseed Pilgrim. It seems to me like a frustrating way to spend your time, but maybe you like that sort of thing.
Droqen seems like a nice guy.