Unfortunately, you cannot talk about Starseed Pilgrim, because that would spoil it for so many others. There’s unwritten rules at play. But it’s so open to discussion between two or more journeyers who find themselves at similar junctions. It’s because there’s no explanation, and the player is left to their own devices. To experiment, alone. This is the design approach that Droqen has always stuck by across all of his fantastic creations. And it’s out of a love for it. “Games,” he says, “will often teach you how to do a great number of things.” But he’s always been much more interested in learning and discovering things on his own.
“I refuse to hold your hand.”
It all started with System Shock 2. The young Droqen struggled to get through the corridors of the starship that housed the most memorable of AIs; in fact, he failed. And later, LA-MULANA snapped him back to square one again and again, never finding his footing. Another is Majora’s Mask, in which the ‘first’ three days were impossible to surpass. These games took years to learn, as they were only offered intermittent play sessions. And in the end, Droqen caved and made some of the “worst mistakes” he ever made. He resorted to walkthroughs to overcome the entirety of Majora’s Mask and to learn the basics of how LA-MULANA worked. But he did eventually complete System Shock 2 by himself, likewise with the rest of LA-MULANA. “I’m ridiculously pleased that they never coddled me,” he says. “So: I refuse to hold your hand. Find your own way, or lose it and try again. Shit. I’m going to be a terrifying parent.”
“One of the unique things a game can do is, more than teach, to allow you to learn and discover for yourself. There are several approaches to making this happen, and many games get around having a tutorial by carefully crafting the first few levels to make learning the things they want you to learn unavoidable — slowly I am realizing this approach is not for me. I want to present you with a world that’s consistent in its own very interesting way, and set you loose in it. I want to bury secrets in the sand so that when you find them, it’s YOU who’s finding them (and being amazed by them), not my invisible omnipresent game designer’s hand! I’m not interested in being a helicopter parent, because I believe true accomplishment is something immeasurably rewarding – and I wouldn’t put that at risk for anything. Of course, I understand at what cost this comes. If you make a game that provides minimal guidance through its abstract rules, players will get lost and never find their way again.”
Upon entering Starseed Pilgrim, you’ll gaze at your tiny avatar and start to wonder what it is that makes the game tick. You’re invited, not instructed as such, to press space to plant a seed. The discoveries begin. Your speck of color rests inside the block underfoot for a brief moment before arising with sudden growth. During this, sounds ring out with delightful notes to match the speed and spread of this plant as it expands into the white space. Now you can reach higher, but to what purpose – will there be anything to discover or is this a pursuit of the celestial form for the sake of a vista?
Early versions of Starseed Pilgrim only had the seeds and darkness, but that was satisfying enough to keep Droqen and a few friends playing it over and over. At the heart of Starseed Pilgrim’s exploration is a game that’s compelling all on its own. Even if there is nothing to discover, you could play it for a while and still really enjoy learning the nuances of the seeds and of your world.
But that simple pleasure needed more at that point to further enhance the experience. And it was Ryan Roth that Droqen contacted to provide the sound design to Starseed Pilgrim. Ryan wasn’t told very much about the game; he didn’t know how anything worked initially. But Droqen did depart with the secrets of the different blocks, or plants, and how many there were. So it was these that Ryan inevitably ended up adding character to. Somewhat masterfully, the entire job was done across just three days, and what was submitted on the return has stayed until this day.
“Once I had the idea of syncing instruments to the block types, I had to imagine what a block that “made you jump higher” or that “explodes into a huge array of blocks” would sound like when it grew.”
“If you look at the conventions of programmaticism, an older technique where you’re syncing and playing instruments to convey what’s actually happening in a story; you can easily pick out the instruments that would be useful for each situation – like where I used an orchestral hit for the “explosion” of red blocks.”
“What’s really more interesting is the way I created the instrument note values to match up with the music and to also sound correct harmonically.”
“To put it simply, the notes I used (four per block) work harmonically in any order that they’re played.”
“Use those same note values for every block and you get a mini-symphony that always sounds good, no matter what blocks the player decides to plant!”
“I always hope that players will maybe pop in their headphones and have fun trying to create their own interesting musical layers as they’re building their “garden” of blocks.”
“It’s funny; I sometimes will mention to Alex how many different block types there are, and he always forgets the two corruption blocks. I actually employed the same techniques I used for the other blocks with the two dark ones. A pipe organ and a dark-synth bass sample worked great for a scary atmosphere and impending doom; however, I changed it up a bit in terms of the notes I used. Notes used for the other blocks spawned by seeds are tied to a major scale; instead, I used the relative natural minor for the dark blocks. If you want to get technical and music-theory crazy, you can see that the relative natural minor has the same key signature as the major scale. In other words, play the same scale degrees as the other blocks, randomize the notes while the blocks grow and it’ll always sound reasonable (albeit creepier).”
“As for that comforting feeling when you finally hit the flip-world, I really feel it has a lot to do with visual aspect, as well as the sonic. Visually, you lose a lot of color (I’m actually colorblind, so this has less of an effect on me, I think). Audio-wise, though, to create that “warmness,” I cut a lot of the high-end frequencies of the music, leaving only the low and mid-range. All of the other sounds in the flip-world are full band, and mostly pleasing to the ear (heart collection, key collection, etc). You also lose those minor sounding dark blocks; it feels as though nothing is chasing you anymore. Getting away from all that technical stuff, though, I guess initially, when I saw the flip world, I wanted the player to feel like they were underwater, or had their ears plugged from the outside world.”
“If the interesting stuff is HIDDEN, it’s much more interesting to discover, but the game is apparently simpler until that discovery happens.”
If you haven’t already played Starseed Pilgrim in some capacity, then much of this won’t make sense to you. But that’s the nature of the game – this is how you feel upon starting it up. You get an idea of what you can do, and not much else. Plant these seeds and reach out into different directions; see what you can find. On your starting block, you’ll notice that the corruption is chasing you quite swiftly. Inevitably, at some point, you’ll end up falling into it and finding an alternate dimension that wasn’t even hinted at. For all you knew, the corruption meant death. But it doesn’t, and in telling you this, another discovery for you to find yourself has been broken. But fear not; these are just the basics of Starseed Pilgrim, and the truth is that there is worth in exploring beyond what may be initially obvious.
And this is why the game is a hard sell. Even if there were a limited demo, it’s not likely to really grip anyone, not in those first fumbling moments. So purchasing the game and heading on inside becomes a long-term commitment, if you should want to get something out of it, that is. Is Droqen sorry that Starseed Pilgrim may not be engaging from the very start, that some call it boring, or that it seems pointless to others? He’s made that clear already: no.
“So there’s kind of always this inherent risk to making stuff that’s deep: not everyone will see the depth. Even worse, I’ve found that hiding the fact that depth exists makes the payoff that much more amazing when you discover it… but the inherent risk to that is it means fewer people will see that depth, and those who don’t won’t even have a clue that there’s some depth that they’re missing.
Droqen thinks that the slow-growing popularity and success of Starseed Pilgrim is down to a bit of luck. Recently it was nominated for Excellence In Design for IGF 2013, and due to this it will be getting a Steam release in the near future. But how many will commit to it and find what there is to be discovered? The risk, as a game designer, is always present, but it’s necessary in order for the game to work on the level it is intended. For Droqen, and those who have played through the game, it’s easy to see and say that the game maintains an interest because the view that announces this is from afar. New players are zoomed in on just one small aspect and it’s down to them to act on whim and experiment with curiosity to hopefully discover the secrets of tending their garden.
Everything can be made or broken within the first few minutes of the game, though, depending on how it is played. You should be fiddling with the seeds, and although there’s no guidance, it does feel like you’re learning in steps as you tie colors and sounds to form and pattern.
The process of figuring out what can be done with the seeds contains the game’s first surprises, and should the player plug in to the joy of discovery while wrestling with the learning of the controls, then it’s likely that they’ll stay for the long haul. As hands-off as Droqen’s design approach appears to be, it’s actually very purposely managed in a way so that the player progresses in a particular way, despite the ability to essentially travel in whatever direction they please. Realizing new components of function and putting them into the grander scheme of your knowledge of the game broadens your horizons.
“The reason Starseed Pilgrim works so well without instruction is because planting seeds is easy (it’s one button), immediately satisfying (growth and sound) and complex (it takes a lot of experimentation to feel confident in your knowledge). This entry-level experimentation is pleasant, and simple but long-lasting enough that it easily carries you to your first deeper discovery, unguided.”