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.
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.
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.