Grasping ‘Inside a Star-filled Sky’

Author’s note: This essay was written based on Version 15 of Inside a Star-filled Sky. On March 22, 2011, Version 16 was released. It introduced major changes regarding the game’s structure. Unlike Version 15, players of Version 16 all inhabit the same procedurally generated world and also have the ability to place flags marking their progress on a global server.

Obviously, this undermines certain themes in the essay, particularly the ones regarding the individuality and isolation inherent in each player’s experience. However, most of the material remains relevant.

Although they throw a monkey wrench into my essay, I think these changes are quite interesting, especially in light of the game’s previous versions. What started out as a unique, solitary journey has slowly become a more uniform, social experience. Inside a Star-filled Sky is still a big place, but players are no longer alone in its universe.

Additionally, this event is yet another example of the medium’s ephemeral nature. The game I wrote about is substantially different from the game as it now exists. What are the implications of such malleability? How do we study the history of the medium in light of its ever-changing nature? Is there a way to determine the “canonical” version of a particular game? Is a game ever truly finished? Are these questions even worth pursuing? In any case, they are questions for another day.

I hope you enjoy this piece on Inside a Star-filled Sky, Version 15. Thanks for reading.

Jason Rohrer’s Inside a Star-filled Sky is a difficult game to grasp, not only due to the game’s ambitious scale, but because its layers aspire to divergent goals and achieve varying levels of success. It’s nearly impossible to offer a single evaluation of a game that defies boundaries, so perhaps the best way to evaluate it is to mimic its own structure, zooming in and out between its nested layers of meaning.

On a macro level, the game encapsulates the medium’s current thematic fascinations with recursion, randomness, and challenge. These ideas are clever, but their implementation is hobbled by mechanical weaknesses that illustrate the difficulty of marrying an artistic vision with elegant craftsmanship. Finally, and most broadly, the game’s overarching themes offer philosophical messages about the humbling search for meaning in video games and beyond. Inside a Star-Filled Sky may be composed of simple little sprites, but those unassuming figures house sophisticated concepts.

Conceptually, Inside a Star-filled Sky captures the zeitgeist of gaming’s experimental wing; its aesthetic influences are derived from classic games from the 1980s, but its design centers around procedural generation and player-defined goals. Jason Rohrer candidly cites a host of games that experiment with layered worlds and procedural generation as direct influences on the game: “This game would not exist without the inspiration that I drew from games like Spelunky, Shoot First, Disgaea, Borderlands, Everyday Shooter, Flow, Psychonauts, Soul Reaver, and Prey,” (“Bullet Points”, Inside a Star-filled Sky). It’s a twin-stick shooter with a Minecraft philosophy. Players can decide to try to make it to the next level, but they must decide why the journey is worth it; the game is both endless and devoid of inherent competition between players or the AI. With no story to complete nor leader boards to watch, Inside a Star-filled Sky is a shooter without a script.

Its mechanics also deviate from the normal path of most shooters. Rather than solely testing a player’s reactions, Rohrer describes the game as a “tactical-situation generating machine”. Quick reflexes are rewarded but so is more abstract thinking. The player is constantly ascending (or descending, should they so choose) successive incarnations of avatars, each of which is housed within yet another creature that the player can eventually control. Since any power-ups collected are applied to the avatar inhabiting the next layer up from the player’s current position, deciding on an arsenal is an exercise in forethought, rather than reaction. Similarly, individual enemies, power-ups, and even the active avatar can be entered and reconfigured from within. All this amounts to a novel interpretation on a classic genre.

However, Inside a Star-filled Sky gets messier if we continue to zoom in on this path. Analyzing the way that the game functions on a granular level reveals an image less elegant than the overall picture. At its core, it is a twin stick shooter whose precision and clarity lags behind its predecessors. The mouse cursor and keyboard combination is far more sluggish than the dual-stick setup of Robotron 2084, Smash TV, or Geometry Wars. Without a way to easily snap aiming control back to a neutral position, some deaths become failures of hardware rather than tactics.

The ability to descend into deeper layers necessitates that the cursor be able to travel across the screen independently from the avatar in order to point at targets. Unfortunately, this results in an experience in which aiming becomes an exercise in relativism; let the mouse drift too far to the right while the avatar moves left, and suddenly the challenge of re-centering the cursor overshadows the enemies’ inherent difficulty. While I doubt there is any way to equal the precision of twin joysticks, I would be interested to see what would happen if the game was modified so that the cursor range was locked within a certain pixel radius of the avatar and could only be “unlocked” by holding down a specific key. In this situation, the cursor would be confined to a small sphere of movement by default in order to limit wandering, but it could also be decoupled from the avatar in order to point to things on the far side of the screen.

Inside a Star-filled Sky‘s levels resemble Pac-Man mazes, except the player can never see the entire maze. This would not be a problem if the screen stayed centered on the avatar, but again the wandering cursor causes problems. The cursor drags the center of the screen with it, thereby creating blind spots that obscure approaching enemies and branches in the maze. Thus, the enemies sometimes possess an arbitrary advantage over the player — not being able to see an enemy is a frustrating source of failure, especially in the shooter genre.

In addition to visual obscurity, Inside a Star-filed Sky does very little to clarify its rules. Powers degrade unevenly as the player ascends, but the fact that only the weakest of the three currently held power-ups (barring extra hearts that allow the player to take more damage) will degrade is neither explained nor justified.

When ascending a level, any powers gathered are automatically shuffled and ordered from weakest to strongest (with hearts always first). Since only three powers can be held at any given time and they replace each other in the sequence in which they are collected, arbitrarily reordering them seems to contradict the game’s player-driven goal structure. Additionally, if the player takes enough, damage they are booted back down a level and two hearts replace one of the powers they that left behind in their previous avatar. While it is generous to give the player some extra hits, when it seems like they are in need of help it clashes with the laissez-faire attitude of the game’s overall design. Perhaps the player didn’t want those hearts and had a different strategy in mind?

Hearts seem to be the only resource directly shared between layers. If the player takes damage, their next form also loses health before they even reach that plane. While it is true that the combination of amassing hearts from being knocked down levels while sending up additional power-ups could be exploited to acquire a huge health supply at higher levels, it is unclear why this should be against the rules. In a game without any end or competitive component, exploits can only impact the player’s self-imposed goals. Inside a Star-filled Sky sends mixed messages about authorship. In once sense, the player is left to their own devices in navigating the world’s randomness and determining their preferred tactics. At the same time, numerous arbitrary rules undermine the game’s commitment to freedom.

In search of more detailed information about the game’s rules, I descended into the game’s guts. After a bit of spelunking in the game’s settings and graphics folders, I discovered that the image files were titled in such a way that revealed the properties of enemy behavior that are not explained in the actual game. It is unfortunate that a game with such an emphasis on tactics — that exists within a genre that demands clear rules — is so vague on the minute, yet crucial, details. Jason Rohrer is unquestionably a gifted artist and game designer, but Inside a Star-filled Sky is a reminder that crafting a game’s mechanics and dynamics into a cohesive, legible system is an art unto itself. Even after all these years, we still have much to learn from the sublime systems created by early luminaries like Eugene Jarvis and Mark Turmell.

But, before we spiral too deep into negativity, let’s zoom out again. Let’s pull back — away from the granular details of the mechanics and out past the game’s position in the medium. Let’s recede so far as to view Inside a Star-filled Sky not as simply as a game, but as a philosophical argument.

Try as we might, we can never be fully aware of all the processes happening within our existence, let alone the wider universe. As I type this, billions of microscopic organisms wage war within me — on my keyboard and in the air. I can conceptualize the possibility of their existence, just as I can image level 1058 (or -1058!) of Inside a Star-filled Sky, but I will never experience their world directly. Across the globe, people’s lives are unfolding in parallel, yet their worlds and the components that define their existences are as separate and unpredictable as the procedurally-generated mazes within Inside a Star-filled Sky’s infinite supply of enemies and power ups.

Intellectually, I realize that we are all inhabiting a single grain of galactic sand, yet my immediate sense of the universe is roughly equivalent to the terrain of a single maze within the game. Playing Inside a Star-filled Sky is an exercise in surviving in the moment while trying to keep in mind that the world is much larger than one’s immediate surroundings. When viewed from sufficient distance, large obstacles fade into obscurity and it becomes clear that even the strongest of us are simply clinging to life on what Carl Sagan called “the pale blue dot.”

Inside a Star-filled Sky is a Rorshach test that measures one’s reaction to existential reflection. What is the point of a game that offers no goals, no easy way to connect with others, and no end? Is the randomness of life an exhilarating journey of discovery or a disorienting trek through chaos? Is meaning found through introspection or by aspiring to make oneself part of something larger? Despite the practical difficulties posed by its mechanics, Inside a Star-filled Sky’s core challenge stems from these philosophical questions.

I often find myself struggling with the concept that I live in an infinite universe devoid of any explicit purpose and inhabited by beings woefully ill equipped to comprehend its scale. Games, with their circumscribed worlds and defined rules often offer moments of respite from these awesome and terrifying concepts. Rather than present a similar means of escape, Inside a Star-filled Sky seeks to emulate these intractable realities.

Still, even after being faced with the game’s obtuse mechanics and philosophical quandaries, one question stands out above all others: “Why can’t I stop playing it?” I can’t offer a complete answer and perhaps my inability to do so speaks to the game’s brilliance.