Review

Starseed Pilgrim

How Does Your Garden Grow?

Starseed Pilgrim is exciting because it’s boring.

By John Teti • April 23, 2013

I come in praise of dirt. That’s not a metaphor. You could call it earth, soil, loam—but those are more romantic terms filled with warm Mother Nature connotation. That’s not what I’m talking about. This review is a salute to brown goddamn dirt. It’s the stuff we ignore in the spring, when we celebrate the blossoms, and in the fall, when we take a moment to remember that gourds exist. Dirt’s there all along, but nobody cares, because dirt’s job is to be the thing nobody cares about. It’s a medium of dormant potential.

Starseed Pilgrim is a game of dirt. That is a metaphor, barely. You’re placed on a gray, two-dimensional island in a stark white void, and you receive a handful of seeds. Pilgrim implies, with a characteristically brief instruction, that you probably ought to plant them. This is the extent of the game’s cajolery.

When you put the seeds in the gray substrate, they sprout into colorful structures. Then you can plant more seeds in those, expanding your playground further. And so on. The seeds behave differently depending on factors like their color and the “climate” of the world you’re planting them in. There’s also a blackness eating away at your crops, and when it reaches you, it flips the universe into a photo negative of what your seeds built—the ground becomes the background, and vice versa.

Starseed Pilgrim

There are further twists and specifics, but the risk in a review of Pilgrim is to explicate too much. Imagine two people in the real world. Each of them plants a seed. Girl A takes a seed out of a packet labeled “SUNFLOWERS” and puts it in the ground. But Guy B only has a seed of unknown provenance. Girl A is inevitably going to be preoccupied with the result of her seed. I mean, she has a glossy photo of a sunflower right there. Yet the other guy will fall into a mode of relaxed anticipation. He doesn’t know the result, so his focus is the process of growth. Guy B learns to love the dirt. Playing Starseed Pilgrim is an experience from Column B.

The game’s designer—Alexander Martin, a.k.a. Droqen—offers minimal guidance. In fact, he communicates almost entirely through cryptic couplets that dot the white cosmos. And because of this, Pilgrim is often a boring and frustrating work. Anyone who speaks only of its delights is giving you an incomplete picture. The dullness is essential here. Your boredom is the dirt in which Pilgrim plants the seeds of ideas.

In this quiet universe, you can piece together the strange logic of your existence at your own pace. You might suddenly notice, say, the weird move that a green seed does if you place it in orange ground. And a while later, you might see how you can use that quirk to your advantage as you outrun the blackness. (Note: I made up this example, so don’t drive yourself nuts trying to replicate it.) There are scores of revelations like these in Pilgrim, and their scope varies. So does their timing. Some of them may occur to you within minutes, and others take hours or days. It’s like FarmVille, except that you get little epiphanies rather than a picture of potatoes.

Starseed Pilgrim

A lot of pop culture is founded on the premise that the way to excite the audience is to agitate and overwhelm their consciousness. Whether it’s the artificial thwack of a movie-screen punch, the hyped-up drama of a TV news sex scandal, or the zillion-polygon spectacle of a video game mega-beast, the aim is to have the biggest, loudest impact possible. The premise is that if the audience is bored, you’ve lost them.

Starseed Pilgrim operates on the novel idea that a quiet mind can lead to a different sort of excitement—one that’s especially potent. When you discover something new in this sparse cosmos, it feels all the more intense because it doesn’t have to compete with a surrounding cacophony. It’s more than just minimalism. There are plenty of indie games that are sparse and homely like Pilgrim, and many of them die in a shallow pool of their own forced mannerisms.

Those games use minimalism as an affectation; Pilgrim uses it with purpose. Its aim is to do and say as little as possible to encourage your continued experimentation. So when you look over the product of all the crops you’ve sown and reaped and are struck with awe, it feels less like Pilgrim surprised you and more like you surprised yourself. The feeling is addictive. Dirt is only boring until you plant some seeds. Then it becomes an experience.

Starseed Pilgrim
Developer: Droqen
Publisher: Droqen
Platforms: Mac, PC
Reviewed on: Mac
Price: $6

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  • Spacemonkey Mafia

    My father was in town this weekend and at his request, we went to see the MO/RE/AL exhibition at the Minneapolis Institute of Art.
       Overall, I enjoyed the show.  Not surprisingly for an exhibition concerned with the ease by which reality and perception can be manipulated, there were a few items dealing specifically with video games and digital landscapes.
       Specifically, there were a few large prints from Joel Lederer’s The Metaverse is Beautiful series.  A series consisting of capturing and creating collages from Second Life landscapes.
       These were not direct snapshots. the images were all manipulated in some way.  Sometimes to mimic classic Hudson River School style landscapes, others as a foliage-heavy pop-collage kaleidoscope.  They were printed on a matte, cold-pressed paper to further distance the images from their digital origins.
       These were the images I was least impressed with I saw that day, and I’m still trying to parse out why.
       Is it because Lederer’s need to manipulate the images demonstrate that he doesn’t actually have any faith that the metaverse is beautiful?  Is it because my own association with gaming -and the visuals of gaming worlds creates a rift of perception that distances me from what Lederer is saying?
       It felt to me that Lederer relies on the viewer to have no substantive relationship with gaming in order to imbue the era and genre-specific world of Second Life some transgressive startle.
       All of this verbal bolus is just to say, it appears that video games may actually remain the best medium to explore video games.
       I love seeing a medium I enjoy that has been long absent from broader discussion finding some integration into the fine arts.  My own lack of enthusiasm for Lederer’s work is no reflection on games being explored in other mediums.
       But the pastoral, abstract simplicity described here strikes me as a more… efficacious application of the ideas of fabricated spacial and chronological growth than those prints.
       This is not an “are games art?” salvo.  I’m honestly not too interested in that question.  Or rather, I think it’s the wrong question to be asking.  This is more of an assertion of a long foregone conclusion that they are pretty damn interesting.    

    • The_Helmaroc_King

      Judging from the artist’s description on the Institute’s website, it seems the artist was inspired by the way “nineteenth century… English gardens were built to mimic those depicted in landscape paintings of the day”, so it seems that the artist was less interested in games than in how visual works inform created spaces like Second Life. If the website is to be believed, the images were also manipulated to make them appear more like their inspirations, but not having visited the actual exhibit, I can’t speak on how it was presented or what kind of reaction the piece might elicit; the sample included with the blurb is maddeningly unhelpful.

      More relevant to my expertise, though, the Institute’s site for the exhibit itself is serviceable enough, but clicking on any one of the shifting 90′s clip art causes some kind of psychedelic effect before dumping me on some guy’s Tumblr, so there’s that, I suppose.

      • Spacemonkey Mafia

        Yeah, the deliberate creation of a shitty web interface is “cute” in the most annoying way.  I smiled a bit the first time I went to the site to reference some of the pieces, but return visits quickly burned off that good will.
           And thanks for mentioning his statement.  What I’m not sure I articulated well above, is that my own relationship with games may really pull me away from what the artist is trying to say with his pieces.
           But then again, having written and read a bloat of artist’s statements in my life, I find they are about half as insightful as the names given to shades of house paint. 

    • duwease

      Nice avatar!

      Why yes, that *is* the best response I can come up with pre-coffee.

      • Spacemonkey Mafia

        Thanks!  I’ve been a duck for a year, so I feel a bit like a mom returning from the salon with a perm.
           ”Do you guys like it?  Oh, god.  It’s too much, isn’t it?  I’m going to go back and have them chop it all off!”

        • PaganPoet

          You: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=3D4c38Q7sYc (skip to 3:10 if you don’t want to watch it all)

          “Oh, boy…I’m gonna need to see a manager…”

        • Spacemonkey Mafia

          Awesome.  I knew Linda Belcher was played by a guy, but I can truly say that’s not the guy I was picturing.

    • duwease

      Post-coffee thoughts:

      I think still pictures are the wrong approach to convey the positive experience a person gets out of games as a unique medium.  Sure, a game is made of still pictures (and text, and moving pictures, and sound), but none of those things on their own seem sufficient.  It’s like trying to convey to someone why you like The Big Lebowski by showing them snapshots of various scenes.

      When pressed to pick out what unique experiences I attribute to games, the things I can come up with are more abstract.  For instance, like John described in the article, games allow a unique chance to experience the wonder of exploring a new world and experimenting with its rules.  In fact, I believe Miyamoto has said that his goal in the first Zelda was to recreate the excitement of exploring the woods around his house when he was a child.  That’s hard to recreate in other mediums, which are more of a static presentation.

    • Roswulf

       My depth of knowledge of art criticism approaches zero, so I may be missing something very basic, but I’m wondering if it is something unique about games that makes “video games… remain the best medium to explore video games.” Does the same not apply to other media? Are not movies typically the best way to explore the nature of movies, music the best way to explore the nature of music, etc.

      Obviously it is possible to create an effective cross-media examination of a type of art; my go-to example is Sunday in the Park with George, musical theater examining Seurrat’s painting. But this strikes me as the exception rather than the rule (also my favorite thing ever, but that’s not really on point).

      Generally speaking, cross-media translation seems more valuable either to a) explore the differences between various forms of expression- a gaming example would be the Great Gatsby sidescroller or b) to explore a specific, integral element of a piece that exists in some sense independent of its current medium in a new form- a gaming example would be The Walking Dead. But to examine the nature of a game in and of itself, the creator benefits greatly from using the tools of gaming- an example would be the really good part of Bioshock the First.

      • Spacemonkey Mafia

        Very well put.  That particular phrase was an attempt at pithiness on my part that ultimately undermines much of what I enjoy in art.
           I agree that cross-medium exploration is most valuable when the medium provides a new insight or perspective that might be absent in the original.
           A very base example is when people get upset at a movie deviating from from the book source.  If that’s so upsetting, then keep with the book, which will always unfold exactly the way it has.
           And in this regard, it might just be that on a very simple aesthetic level Lederer’s work doesn’t appeal to me.  I’m certainly encouraged that artists are exploring video game worldscapes.  I think all I’m really hoping is that exploration of video games themselves keep up with their integration into other mediums. 

        • Roswulf

          “I think all I’m really hoping is that exploration of video games themselves keep up with their integration into other mediums.”

          Yay to this!

          Games are such a distinctive medium of expression given their direct relationship with interactivity and choice. Messages of subjectivity and collaboration that can feel labored in other mediums flow naturally from the statement “it’s a game.”

          I think it’s kind of wonderful to be here in this historical moment watching a medium learn how to speak about itself. Let’s hope the moment lasts.

  • zerocrates

    This review has some killer potential blurbs.

    Starseed Pilgrim: Learn to love the dirt… your boredom is the dirt.

    Starseed Pilgrim: Do and say as little as possible!

  • The_Helmaroc_King

    YEAH MOTHERFUCKER YOU GONNA GROW A GARDEN!

    YOU SEE THESE SEEDS? THESE GONNA MAKE TOMATOES REDDER THAN THE BLOOD OF YOUR ENEMIES! YOU BITE INTO ONE OF THESE RIPE THINGS YO TONGUE GONNA JUMP OUTTA YO MOUTH JUST TO GET ANOTHER TASTE O’ THAT GARDEN.

    YOU SEE THIS ZUCCHINI? YOU THINK THIS SOME CUCUMBER KNOCK-OFF BULLSHIT? THINK AGAIN, YOU COOK THIS SQUASH WITH SOME SAUCE, IT’LL KNOCK YOU OUT. JUST KEEP THAT PLANT IN LINE OR THIS ZUCCHINI AND ITS KIDS’LL KICK YOU OUTTA YO OWN HOME.

    YOU WANT SOMETHING BIGGER? HOW ABOUT ZUCCHINI’S COUSIN, THE MOTHERFUCKING PUMPKIN? SAVE ONE TO CARVE COME FALL, SCARE THE NEIGHBOR’S KIDS! BAKE ONE INTO A PIE FOR YO GRANDMA!

    THESE LETTUCE SEEDS GONNA MAKE LETTUCE SO CRISP, YOU GONNA WAKE THE NEIGHBORS WITH THAT SALAD. YOU WONDERING WHERE THE MEAT IS, SON, IT’S GONNA BE RIGHT NEXT TO ALL THESE LEAFY ACCOMPANIMENTS.

    FRIENDS AND FAMILY GONNA WONDER HOW YOU DO THIS, HOW YOU MAKE THOSE VEGGIES SO GOOD, BUT IT AIN’T GONNA BE NO SECRET YOU JUST GOTTA LAY DOWN SOME O’ THAT HORTICULTURE ON THAT DIRT.

    • http://www.avclub.com/users/merve,96925/ Merve

      Is that you, ZODIACMOTHERFUCKER?

      • The_Helmaroc_King

        I’m afraid I don’t have quite the panache!

      • His_Space_Holiness

        I was thinking Christopher Walken.

    • caspiancomic

       I’M GONNA PLANT ME A DORITO AND WATER IT WITH MOUNTAIN DEW AND GROW ME A VIDEO GAME.

  • Eco1970

    You had me at ‘sex’.
    You lost me at ‘$6′.

    • Spacemonkey Mafia

      I dunno.  Sex for six dollars is really a good deal.

      • His_Space_Holiness

        Not in the Wild West, which let’s assume you are for no reason.

        • Spacemonkey Mafia

          Ohhh…. I have my reasons… *giggles*

  • Cloks

    Does Starseed Pilgrim involve fighting seven space exes?

  • boardgameguy

    i’d be curious to hear how this compares to something like Journey. anyone played both?

  • cookingwithcranston

    My garden grows wild and curly

  • http://twitter.com/northbymitch Mitch North

    I think I’ll always congratulate games which necessitate the user moving towards the game in order to facilitate understanding rather than the game moving towards the player to make it easier to ‘get’. Sometimes it can be forced for effect but the movement from non-understanding to understanding is a magical leap from essentially being in a tabula rasa state to enlightment which so, so, so many games don’t seem to care for. I don’t see why games should be easy to ‘get’ other than it being a normal way of doing things. Celebrated texts in other mediums are often celebrated because they require some kind of working out.