Flicker flames and haunted faces
Shuffling feet find empty spaces
Moving shadows, someone's hurting
Huddle closer, campfire burning.

Monday 21 February 2011

100 Minutes With . . . Inside A Star-Filled Sky

Inside A Star-Filled Sky is a game about nanotechnology. Or Buddhist reincarnation. Or string theory. Or computer programming.

Or something.

You never know what you’re going to get with a new Jason Rohrer game. The man’s known for being something of an enigma - part beach-bum, part hippy, he seems to find most modern games dull to the point of disgust. There are YouTube videos of him at demonstrations for the latest and brightest titles, and as he watches the demonstrator saunter through lush 3D environments to show off the game’s physics and shooting mechanics, he nods, smiles politely and walks away, genial, yet seemingly frustrated. He wants games to be something more than mere shooting ranges. He wants games to be something more than they are.

Inside A Star-Filled Sky is a top-down shooter in the Gauntlet mould. You run through a maze shooting monsters, collecting power-ups, and trying to find the exit. The exit leads you to the next maze, where you do the exact same thing fighting slightly tougher monsters. It stretches almost into infinity in this way. All you old school gamers out there will be delighted to find that the game doesn’t end with a lavish cinematic outtro, but with a kill screen. You play either until you die, or until the game itself runs out of room for its calculations, and combusts. To get to this point will only take you a few decades of continuous gameplay. I’ll come back to that.

The game’s gimmick is that when you pick up any one of the game’s many collectibles you won’t be able to use them until you reach the exit and ascend to the next level. You don’t get to pick up extra health or a new weapon and use it straight away. In order to get anywhere in the game, you have to plan for the future,

You can also go back into the past and alter that future. This happens automatically when you’re killed - you’re thrown back to the previous level and into your previous incarnation. From here you can pick up a different set of power-ups and return to the next level to try again. In other words, you get another chance to make things right.

But what if none of the power-ups available are to your taste? This is where the game gets tricky. You see, you can ‘enter’ any of the power-ups (by pointing the mouse at them and tapping the ‘shift’ key) in the game to find a new level that’s also full of monsters and power-ups. Only this time when you collect power-ups, you alter the nature of the power-up you’re inside.

Okay, say you reach a point in the game where you feel you need more health. You enter a power-up worth one health point, collect all three health power-ups you find inside it, leave via the exit and the power-up you entered is now worth three health points instead of one.

Still with me?


The thing is, once you’re inside that power-up, you can then enter any of the other power-ups there, and then reprogram each of them. So if you reprogrammed each of those one-point health power-ups by entering them in turn and collecting another three health points in each, you could potentially make the original health power-up worth a whopping nine health points.

And health isn’t the only thing you can do this with. Your speed and the weapons you wield are reliant upon the power-ups you find. In theory you can amass a deadly arsenal by dropping down a couple levels into each power-up you find, reprogramming them, and picking up the vastly improved end product.

Similarly you can enter any of the monsters you run into to reprogram them. Run into a monster that’s too tough? Enter it and reprogram it to be slower, have less health, or a cruddier arsenal.

There is, of course, a catch to all of this reprogramming. The deeper you go into an item or an enemy’s infrastructure, the harder the game becomes. If you’re a whiz at 2D shooters you should be in your element dodging enemy fire and reprogramming everything you find to your tactical advantage. If not, things can get very difficult very quickly.

And that’s all there is to it.

Isn’t it?

Perhaps more than anyone else in the industry, Rohrer’s the poster boy for the ‘games as art’ movement. But art is open to interpretation. Where I might see Inside A Star-Filled Sky as a meditation on karma, you might see it as something different. Where I might see it as a game about the futility of trying to live the perfect life, you might see it as a sermon on the betterment and ascendancy of mankind.

For all the seeming complexities of the game mechanics, Inside A Star-Filled Sky is a very simple game to play. Like some of the best classic arcade games it feels almost like a koan. Even without Rohrer tipping its hat with the title, there’s a certain order to the back-and-forth nature of the game the feels oddly familiar. Trial-and-error games have been around forever, but none have been quite as explicit in their portrayal as Inside A Star-Filled Sky, or as generous in allowing the player to right what once went wrong. Every decision you make in the game carries a greater meaning further down the line. When you fail, you have to choose how far back to go in order to right that failure, and the further you go back, the more difficult things become. As much as the game encourages you to go back and change things, it encourages you to think ahead.

In fact my main complaint with this game is, as much as it encourages forward thinking, there’s nothing to look forward to at the game’s end bar the kill screen. The game’s procedurally generated, meaning there aren’t ever more exciting enemies, weapons and scenery to look forward to; once you’ve seen the first few levels you’ve seen it all. There’s no high score to rack up, and the infinite nesting levels render the level counter worthless as a measure of your achievement. You play for playing’s sake. You play to pass time, or to fall into a zen-like state, and once you’re done you have nothing to show for it - not even a high score.

That Rohrer lists the kill screen as a feature on the game’s site adds a depressing air to the game. Even if you play it for the rest of your life, all you’ll get out of it is the experience of playing until it crashes and fails.

Maybe that’s the point.

Or maybe, as with any facet of Rohrer’s games, that’s simply me etching my own state of mind onto the game’s innermost workings. Maybe you’ll interpret things differently. Maybe you’ll have a different viewpoint.

I mean, isn’t that what good art’s all about?

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