So first, an apology: I realize this VideoDrone is very late, and I’m sorry for that. Part of the delay is simply that these two games — particularly Starseed Pilgrim — required a pretty hefty time requirement, and the video evidence of Starseed was maybe evidence of that. The other part of the delay is a bit less obvious — my grandfather passed away earlier this week. Don’t worry, I’m fine, but death creates a pretty bad mélange for analytic writing. So, for that delay, I’m sorry — the good news is that I plan to write one piece per week through May and into June. More on that as it develops.
But back to my grandfather, Pop Pop — one thing that he was particularly good at was communication technology. He worked for SHAFE in World War II, which was the center for communications in the European front, and afterwards went to night school while working for Ma Bell. His entire professional life was premised on learning more about how communications technology could and should work, and this extended in a lot of ways to a mechanical curiosity in general. How do things work? What are their rules? Within which bounds might we expect a piece of technology to function, and why, outside of those bounds, does it fall apart?
It’s fitting then that I’m covering Gunpoint and Starseed Pilgrim, though it would have been nice to have the opportunity to share the meditations with my grandfather, too. Still, both of these games are fairly straightforward critiques of videogame rules and regulations, a way to discuss the technologies of games as a medium, and the expectations that those rules put into place. In other words, in much the same way that, say, foul lines in baseball designate the dimensions of the field of fair play, the rules of a videogame begin to define the ways in which we encounter it. Gunpointand Starseed Pilgrim, unlike most games, bring this to the fore, however, highlighting the arbitrary and constructed naturalism of limiting rules in videogames themselves.
Gunpoint does this through the concept of hacking, particularly the hacking of electronic security systems. The game’s plot is simple enough: you’re a hired spy who has no real national or ethical loyalty, and who is caught unexpectedly in the middle of a murder plot and a corporate struggle between two rival arms companies. As a result, you’re expected to break in to heavily guarded installations and corporate offices to steal tech, plant evidence, and make trouble. Fortunately, you have two major technological advantages to help out: one, a trenchcoat that allows for a massive high jump and the ability to scale walls; and two, the ability to hack the electronic systems of the rooms you’re invading.
The hacking relies on an elegant mechanic: any two devices can be connected to one another, allowing for the rewiring of trigger systems. So a lightswitch might, typically and initially, turn on a light. But your character can not only decouple this connection — so that a confused guard cannot turn the light back on — but can also connect the lightswitch to a security door, so that you or a guard can flick the switch and open the door. Effectively, the game board operates like a giant circuit that can be distorted and rewired by your avatar. Elevators can trigger faulty outlets to shock guards; noise alarms can open doors instead of alerting guards; and a lightswitch can open a trap door inadvertently. Essentially, you get to mess with the situation the game gives you in order to create a path through it.
The game rewards you for being non-violent, quick, and quiet in your spy activities, and it isn’t difficult to be stealthy or non-lethal as a rule (though, personally, I found it incredibly difficult to get the time achievements). This is largely due to the fact that the game’s premise encourages exploration as opposed to violence: far more rewarding to rig a door to knock out a guard than shoot them. And, in fact, far more effective since a) the game’s gun mechanics are clumsy and tacked on, and b) the game begins a countdown to the appearance of police the instant you fire a gun. No, Gunpoint — despite the name (which, hilariously, the developer openly regrets in his clever achievement color text) — isn’t so much about guns, but about design. The point of the game is to turn the level’s layout against its AI and against its developer. You rig the game so that it shifts from its natural state — biased against the player — to a much more aggreable new state — biased against the AI.
What’s notable is that this shift isn’t tied to difficulty level, strategy guides, spoilers, or any of the normal equalizers in videogames. The technically impossible levels of Gunpoint are made possible by player interference — the work of art demands, in other words, not just audience participation but in fact audience subversion. The reworked visions of the levels are achievements in and of themselves, such that their completion is more a formality than anything. The real art of the game is the rewired level, defanged and defused simply by disrupting its design. You get to program a version of the game, in other words, where you don’t die — a conceptual wish as old as literature itself.
While Gunpoint self-consciously goes into this fantasy, Starseed Pilgrim is a bit more oblique in its critique of videogame limits and rule sets, and certainly less forthcoming for its player. The game starts with a tutorial of sorts, informing the player that you can press the arrow keys to move around, up to jump, and down to dig. Other than that, you find yourself on a blank platform with a short poem and a white expanse, along with an arrow pointing down. You’re left to figure out the rest.
After a long period of experimentation, what I discovered was that the game was premised on a repetitive series of moves with the endgame being a kind of artistically visual and musical building procedure. I’ll explain, though anyone who wants to avoid spoilers for the game may want to skip this paragraph. Essentially, when you press down on a down arrow, you enter a level in which a black goop is seeping upward through the blocks you’re on. Depending on which arrow you enter (there are many) the goop moves quicker or slower. Your character — a spaceman or woman, again depending on which platform you’re on — has a series of seeds that they can plant. The seeds grow out in a number of predictable but often at-least-a-bit-random ways, and you need to create a block path to a black key sign. Touch the sign, and get a key, as well as a black and white negative world. Head to the end of that world, and bring seeds back out into the poetic world you entered in the first place.
If this sounds confusing, it totally is. But the actual arcade game mechanics of the black goop worlds are totally, once you figure them out, a means to the end of building in the poetry world. Your seeds work the same way in both worlds and the unspoken message of all of the depressive but expansive poetry that surrounds you is simple: build outward and explore. As you explore, you find other platforms from which you can explore further out into the world. And as you explore from there, you realize all of the platforms are part of one large scrolling expanse. Go up far enough from your starting platform, and you’ll encounter it from below, and the same with left and right. The game, essentially, is about finding these platforms and then repeating the same game within the platforms as a means to the end of exploring further.
It’s no surprise that Starseed has elicited critical awe and critical readings. There’s an entire website — Starseed Observatory — dedicated to readings of the game, like VideoDrone with an explicit focus. Fifth or sixth year PhD VideoDrone. There are loads of paeans to the game and Wired even argues that it tests your “videogame literacy.” If I wanted to get spacy about it, I’d argue that the game is a visual representation of Gilles Deleuze and Felix Guattari’s Thousand Plateaus, a kind of rhizomic thinking in which branches of thought connect in unexpected ways along a branching x, y, and z axis. It’s like schizoanalysis, maaaan.
But I don’t really think that’s what’s happening in Starseed. Not that it can’t be read that way or that the folks at the Observatory are wasting their time — it’s clearly an ambitious game. So much so that I gave up on finishing before writing this review, since its plot laps out and over its formal constraints. And honestly, the formal constraints are what are most interesting to me. As the game’s website says “Starseed Pilgrim is a game about tending a symphonic garden, exploring space, and embracing fate” and fate here seems to be the central mechanic. Much like Dark Souls, Starseed leaves you in a strange place as a player, with little information, and a lot of space to tend. And moving through the white is not, ever really, fun exactly. It’s intriguing and compelling and all that important stuff, but I’m not sure it’s relaxing or fun. Perhaps it’s nervewracking because it looks a lot like the existential problems we’re often not terribly thrilled about in life: here’s a canvas, paint.
But beyond the emotions it stirs, Starseed is really a kind of open challenge: explore or don’t. It’s a building simulator without a town that really doesn’t have a lot of incentive for completing its never-stated task of exploration outside of the discoveries you make themselves. Ultimately, you’re left to make your own motivation up, much like — and here comes the connecting point I’m sure you all were waiting for — the developer herself. People compare Starseed, apparently, to writing, and there is something of the act of write-revise-write-revise to the building process; the “demolish” function becomes more and more important as time goes on. But truthfully the game seems like the act of programming more than anything. Filling empty, lifeless code with things that light it up and make it live, and really for no other reason outside of “well it was there.” Or, uh, money, but art doesn’t sell.
So while Gunpoint makes its own frame clear to its reader through the technology of editing and hacking, Starseed offers its player the opportunity to build its frame from scratch. Both works demand that the player connect form with function in order to ossify and complete the medium of videogame art itself, and in this way, we might link it back to Communication. In much the same way that Pop Pop might have looked at the phone lines and communications glitches working at Bell, we can look at the problems these games present us and ask, as if for the first time: how can I play this and why?