Starseed Pilgrim

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I have never played anything like Starseed Pilgrim before, and that is exactly why it's one of the most nostalgic games I've played. Only rarely do I run into games where I don't immediately at least know what my alter ego is capable of and what the objective is. Naturally, it happened a lot more often when I was younger. The first time I pressed the A-button and the character on screen responded by jumping was probably an equally fascinating experience, although I must admit I can’t recall.

Twenty years later I still press the same button to jump. Two decades of playing have taught me to read Mario levels like a musician reads notes. The same goes for most other genres. Some levels might put my skills to the test but the same rules always apply.

There is value in this. For professional chess players, potential moves don’t exist in a vacuum but in the context of hundreds of memorized games and positions. One could make the argument that it is only when we master the basics that we are able to express ourselves when we play. The game becomes ours, like how one can only become a successful writer after having understood language.

Unfortunately, video games have more in common with chess than with literature. The same rules we love to master also imprison us. While millions of possible moves are open to us, only a few are reasonable and meaningful. That’s why new variants of chess are invented, where the pieces trade places and the board changes shape. In our corner of the world of games there are also people who change the rules, people who finish games as fast as possible, without leveling up or by forcing themselves to restart upon death to name a few.

Starseed Pilgrim is something else entirely. It is not only a game with unfamiliar rules; it refuses to tell us what those rules are and changes them as the game goes on. The goal of the game is left for the player to figure out and the result is that the game not only feels new, but playing it feels a little like playing games for the first time. Sadly, it also means that any attempt to talk about how the mechanics of the game runs the risk of spoiling the experience.

And perhaps this is Starseed Pilgrim’s only real problem; that its greatest merit is also its only merit. Once one has learned all the variations of the rules the underlying system isn’t all that interesting, even if some challenges still remain before the ending is reached.

Fortunately, the journey to understanding and mastery is long and cozy enough to make it well worth undertaking. Sometimes taking the road less traveled is the only way to arrive at that very familiar feeling.

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