I’m awfully glad that I don’t have to write a proper review of Starseed Pilgrim.
It’s not that it’s hard to say whether the game good (it is) but it’s good at things that are difficult to describe or quantify: it encourages you to discover rules for yourself, it confounds your expectations without ever exactly misleading you, and it serenely gives back in direct proportion to how much you’re willing to put in. I don’t envy anyone who is tasked with distilling those qualities into an apples-to-apples comparison with some cinematic AAA production, or deciding where it belongs on a top ten list, or whatever.
The game lives outside, and stretches beyond, the world that reviews were invented to describe. Like Super Hexagon before it, Starseed Pilgrim is gleefully self-contained—an autonomous object first and foremost, art and/or commerce a distant, disinterested second.
Starseed Pilgrim works by breaking the rules of game design, using beauty and mystery as (or perhaps even in place of) conveyance. It’s long on invitations but short on instructions. It barely ever teaches, and rarely even hints.
You’ve really got to trust your players if you’re going to try something like that, because what if a player tries it once, doesn’t learn any of the game’s secrets, and stops playing? Well, then that player hasn’t put much in, so they can’t expect to get much out. Starseed Pilgrim is at peace with that possibility. It’s Zen like that.
The toolset may always feel unruly and unhelpful to you. You may never learn that what seems like a grave threat is in fact an eventuality from which you can profit, if only you plan ahead. Maybe the worlds beyond and behind the one you first see will remain hidden from your view, even if you do come back again and again. Fine. So be it. But the game will be ready and waiting for you if you change your mind and decide that you want something more.
Starseed Pilgrim feels more like a world in a box—more like Shigeru Miyamoto’s famous “miniature garden that [players] can put inside their drawer”—than any game I can think of, Proteus or Minecraft included. It offers a literal garden, of course, but more than that, it engages you where other games would merely indulge you, demonstrating patience instead of panicking at a perceived lack of rapt player attention. It’s a bold and quiet videogame that takes bold, quiet liberties with the very form of videogames.
So much of what Starseed Pilgrim has to say is untranslatable into text, and inhospitable to Best-Game-Ever/Worst-Game-Ever sectarianism. I love it for that.