Embracing the Rabbit Hole in Starseed Pilgrim
I certainly had no idea what I was doing for the first hour. Starseed Pilgrim players with oblique poetry hanging in the sky. The indie platform puzzler doesn’t hold the player’s hand. The basic mechanics of movement and planting “starseeds,” which sprout into seemingly random sequences of block formations, are briefly outlined and then players are left to their devices. It is a game from an age long past. There are no waypoints, no golden breadcrumb trails, as if to say the beauty of discovery is being lost.
I searched for FAQ, game guides, forums, anything to tell me what I should be doing. I collect keys, build increasingly complex block formations, and I am sent back to the beginning. It’s a beautiful game, haunting in its minimal design. Its serene and contemplative atmosphere shines until my frustration mounts.
Despite these frustrations, I convinced a good friend to buy Starseed Pilgrim. Perhaps I was just selfishly hoping he can help me understand it. I said, “Imagine a 2-d version of that blocky game you liked, the really trippy one. Fez. But it’s frustrating sometimes.”
He buys the game, and is pissed next time I see him.
“You know that game you told me to buy? It took me an hour before I knew what the point was.”
“What’s the point?” I asked dumbly.
Games have changed, in many ways, since I was a kid. I don’t have much time these days. There’s a golden hour after the dishes are done after supper, and before my wife and I settle in for a movie before bed. In this “me” time, I play video games, and its scarcity makes it precious. When I became frustrated with Starseed Pilgrim I started thinking of the other games I could be playing, the Steam games accumulating on my computer, another online match on Call of Duty or Penny Arcade’s old school RPG On the Precipice of Darkness on my phone.
I don’t have time to be stuck or confused anymore. I don’t have time to learn or discover in video games.
I was thrilled to sketch out puzzles with pen and paper in a game like Super Mario RPG; at the time I only had two other games for my Super Nintendo. Back then, boasting 100 plus hours of game time attracted me, I had a surplus of time and scarcity of games.
I wonder if the reverse has stolen our appreciation for discovery.
I don’t know why I can’t beat the game, the damn starfruit or whatever don’t do anything. I am angry now. There’s no FAQ’s and no answers. I don’t want to spend my golden hour, my precious time on trial and error and observation, I want to beat this thing and move to the next game. I wish it would just tell me what to do.
I used to have a recurring dream as a kid, in front of me was a box, filled with video games, hundreds of them. My eyes flickering in deep REM sleep, I would rifle through them in my mind: new Zelda games, Mario games, Metroid, they were all there. It was every preteen boy’s (living in the 90s) heaven. Then I would wake, and be filled with bitter remorse. I was physically depressed. In many ways, that dream has come true in my adulthood, but with one ironic caveat: I no longer have time to play any of them.
Many games have changed to reflect this new twist of fate. My iPhone games save at any point, played in five minute bursts while waiting in the car. My adventure games have waypoints, golden paths to follow during limited game time. Call of Duty knows and respects my golden hour, they give me what I want and accommodate my circumstances; I don’t have all afternoon to wander aimlessly, spend an hour of trial and error to complete a dungeon puzzle or find the damn dungeon in the first place. And I cannot be heavily penalized for death, I don’t have time to restart a 10 minute boss battle.
But then, I haven’t felt the pure unadulterated joy of finding the way forward in a game like A Link to the Past, or defeating a nesting boss in Super Mario RPG after the fifth or sixth attempt, each time readjusting my strategy. Because what else was I going to play? The only alternative was to go outside. If that joy of discovery truly hinges on being lost, if the high of success and understanding is only as exhilarating as the lows of failure and bewilderment, then we have lost something as adult gamers.
I block out time to play Starseed Pilgrim again, determined to take note of things I didn’t perceive at first. The blue block makes me jump higher; orange blocks grow further when planted in the dark brown section.
There’s no hand-holding here, no waypoints or on-screen hints to help you along, and while the poetry scrawled on the background of the screen seems cruelly opaque, ultimately is reflects your own journey of discovery. It’s OK to feel lost, it seems to suggest, because it’s the only way to feel the intoxicating effect of discovery. I became so angry with Starseed Pilgrim because it purposely allows you, encourages you even, to feel lost. But for the patient, this encourages experimentation: it breeds patience and ingenuity.
As a child, feeling lost or confused came natural, it happened on a daily basis living in an adult’s world. But as a Starseed Pilgrim, you no longer have all the answers. There are no FAQs for adulthood. Yes, get angry, it seems to suggest. Throw a tantrum. Finished? Now, try again. It’s OK to feel lost.