What makes a video game a video game? It sounds like a question that would be relatively simple to answer, and every person who describes their playing of video games with their friends or family that are unfamiliar with the medium go through the same setup: you are X, a person who does Y and your objective is Z. This is how you do it, no not like that, Jesus Christ why are you going into the enemy, alright give it back Mom for fuck’s sake. Bundled up in these assumptions is a foundation that makes video games unique to almost every other medium present today: interactivity. While theater, installation art and some literature utilizes interactivity as some sort of addendum to their form with the aim of enhancing what is already there, video games are one of the few mediums which base their entire existence around the existence of the player. A game without its player is, by its very definition, an incomplete piece of art. Every discussion about video games eventually includes the presence of a player and how they responded to the game’s construction, and it is nigh on impossible to talk about a video game without including the player not as an external force, but as part and parcel of what the game is trying to do.
By this logic, Starseed Pilgrim becomes a peculiar game to discuss because it attempts to play with this relationship between the player and the game. However, it is not like Proteus or Dear Esther in that the game walks with the player rather than inviting the player to engage, not does the game sit at odds with the player, spurring them on with greater challenges like Super Meat Boy or Dark Souls. Starseed Pilgrim is a game that I can’t talk about in specifics, and if you have played it before, you will understand why. For those that haven’t, Starseed Pilgrim is a game that invites you to play within its boundaries, but refuses to explicitly tell you what those boundaries are. “Gain from loss,” the game says in its opening screen, “One does not measure, but broken hearts yield starseed treasure.” Aside from basic button mapping, that is the only rule you are given, and the game sits across the table from you, watching you pick up the tools you have no idea how to use, and watches you try and use them.
BUT NOT LIKE THAT OH FU-
At this point, I run into a problem. I can’t spoil Starseed Pilgrim for those who haven’t played it, and I can’t write a Breaking Backlog article without talking about the game explicitly. So now I am about to shift gears and talk about something kinda related but completely tangential. I am going to teach you about a card game called Mao.
Mao is your bog standard tabletop card game with only one spoken rule: you can’t be told the rules of the game by anyone, and you cannot ask about the rules of the game either. Each player is dealt a number of cards, dictated by the dealer. The dealer clarifies the starting play order and the game begins. If you break a rule, you are penalized by drawing a card from the deck, and the dealer tells you what you were penalized for. Whether these clarifications are a blessing or a curse are usually decided by how frustrated you are at the game thus far. That is, however, the essence of the game: Mao is a game of trial and error, learning through doing and testing the boundaries of the game space. When a person wins a hand of Mao, they can make up a new rule, and can penalize others for breaking the rule until they figure out what it is. You can imagine how this turns out for all players involved. Of the four times I have played Mao with new faces, I have not seen a single person that has not almost left the table out of sheer frustration.
Mao and Starseed Pilgrim are analogous to each other. The rules and objectives of Starseed Pilgrim exist: predetermined by the creators of the game, ready to discover. As the player, stepping into this game, I had absolutely no idea what to do. While Starseed Pilgrim is a bit more forgiving in its punishments for failing to follow its rules, the frustration of playing the game dozens of times and getting nowhere is equivocal. With the frustrations of failure, however, come the satisfactions of success, and Starseed Pilgrim allows you to revel in these moments of discovery, allowing you to progress to greater heights – not because the game helps you or gave you any direction, but because you figured out a new rule of the game, and can use it within the confines of the game correctly. In a video game climate that is adamant in its stance to accessibility, it is both refreshing and somewhat jarring to see Starseed Pilgrim work in this way.
At the heart of Starseed Pilgrim lies a discussion into what makes video games the medium that they are: the question of agency. Agency, in general terms, is the capacity for action and choice, and is linked with gameplay mechanics just as heavily as it is commonly attributed with narrative convention. In video game terms, agency is what separates our traditional games and the newly emerging ‘walking simulators’ – the capacity in how and when we can act within a digital space, and the practices that are considered in the undertaking of these actions, are paramount when we consider what agency is. Starseed Pilgrim stands a case study for agency, allowing players to experience an organic learning experience, to make decisions based on observation and reaction to different things within the space, and to ultimately learn the rules of the game through action. Within the boundaries of any space, digital or otherwise, we make choices. The physical making of these choices often considers the implicit rules or mores that are imbued within the space one works within. With that said, Starseed Pilgrim keeps this enclosure deliberately clear of any social or moral questioning, at least at first. There is nothing but you, your knowledge, and the game. With that and that alone, Starseed Pilgrim does some marvellous things.
It is important to understand, however, that agency is about the how and, deliberately, not about the why. Those who have played Starseed Pilgrim through to the end – a group I am not part of, by the way – will have their own interpretation of the game’s workings and mechanics. Without knowing any context about the narrative of Starseed Pilgrim, I do not think it is necessary to know. Starseed Pilgrim is one of few games in recent memory that can stand solely on what it does mechanically. Any game can offer a tool and tell a player to use it, but nine times out of ten the mechanic in and of itself is boring. Starseed Pilgrim takes this to the extreme, forcing players to decipher mechanics for themselves and explore what they can do without any hand-holding. With that being said, this game does not do it particularly well. The ‘thrill-of-discovery’ shtick only flies so far, and the game is deliberately vague to the point of snark. It is an interesting game insofar as it prompts the player to act in a certain way, and to that end, Starseed Pilgrim succeeds in what it does. As a game, however, it is a puzzle that seeks to be cleverer than you are, and a game that aims to vex you.
So I have no real way of knowing where the fuck it is I’m GOING
While some people revel in this kind of gaming environment, I find it not worth my time. I am a tinkerer of existing systems, not a definer of new ones. There are people that find Starseed Pilgrim to be one of the best experiences in gaming right now, and I respect them for believing that. Discussions of agency, in any case, set the stage for how other games prompt player action. It is the act of decision making without taking consequence into consideration. It is the sudden moment of “holy-shit-could-this-maybe-work” in a video game where the player is given the freedom within a gaming environment to make a particular choice they didn’t even think of making. As it stands, I see Starseed Pilgrim as proof of this mental concept rather than a fully fledged game in itself.
If only there were games that did it better.
Next time on Breaking Backlog, I will be playing:
A Japanese visual novel detective thing. Cool.