Inside a Star-Filled Sky Review
By Chris Commodore |
It's easiest to think of infinity as a linear phenomenon--a series of numbers without end, or concentric circles that expand ever outward. Jason Rohrer teased this idea when Inside a Star-Filled Sky was first announced, quoting an obscure footnote from Supreme Court Justice Antonin Scalia spelling out the "turtles all the way down" concept of existence. "In our favored version, an Eastern guru affirms that the earth is supported on the back of a tiger," Scalia wrote. "When asked what supports the tiger, he says it stands upon an elephant; and when asked what supports the elephant he says it is a giant turtle. When asked, finally, what supports the giant turtle, he is briefly taken aback, but quickly replies 'Ah, after that it is turtles all the way down.'"
Inside a Star-Filled Sky is a 2D shooter modeled on a similarly linear concept of infinity. You begin at Stage 0 as a randomly generated creature in a randomly generated environment. Each environment has a few exit portals, small squares with arrows on them. When you travel through the portal you discover that the entire level was actually the body of another sprite, which you're now given control over. The power-ups you collect in the previous level--playing a smaller creature inside the bigger--determine what subsequent powers the bigger creature will have when you warp into its plane of existence.
Inside a Star-Filled Sky Video
You'll soon encounter enemies with randomly generated attack patterns based on the same power-ups available to players. The power-ups seem simple enough but after playing for a while, a surprising number of variables emerge in each enemy encounter. You can change bullet speed, get a spread power, increase your life meter, make your bullets bigger, make them stay on the screen like little land mines, or have them ricochet off walls. If you die, you're sent back inside the creature you're controlling and can choose new power-up combinations.
After a few minutes of play you'll learn that you can also jump down into enemies by holding the Shift key and clicking on them, which is a handy way of stealing a certain set of attack attributes, though you'll have to survive whatever enemies they contain within before portaling back up to the level where you can use them. You can also jump into power-up icons to change their effects. If you're not happy with a Bullet Speed +1 power-up, for instance, you can jump into it, search out a Spread power-up and then work back to the exit to change the power-up on the next level up.
It's got nothing to do with you, if one can grasp it.
Star-Filled Sky is a game basically without end. Rohrer claims you'd have to play for around 2000 years to reach the upper limit of his code. You can also travel backwards into minus levels. The game has no linear answer, all it has is variation on a theme, a tower of turtles. Yet it would be a mistake to say the game has no point because it doesn't have a dramatic climax where its existential purpose is confessed. There are no buried love letters or puzzle pieces of conspiracy, no folksy aphorism to take with you after you hit the Escape key.
In its language of heroes, enemies, and weapons, everything is true simultaneously, and everything has a consequential meaning. Changing your character attributes aren't conclusive, but they affect whether or not you'll be able to move up or down in the game's existential progression. It's meaning without finality. Bullet spread and health meter matter, but they don't get you closer to a point of dramatic conclusion. There is no third act to the shooter design. In this view, it's not the absence of endpoints that defines the infinite but the presence of every possible action and condition between a starting point and an imagined endpoint. In this way, Inside a Star-Filled Sky is a narrow but beautiful invocation of the infinite.
Fast, giant bullets with a spread power-up. Not fair.
It's ironic that the game had to be a shooter in order to make its latent possibilities clear. Like many individualistic game designers, Rohrer has made a career of makings games that don't involve pointing and shooting. Yet now that he's ready to take on a subject as massive as infinity, he uses the simplest interactive language of shooting at things. To move forward you must be competitive and aggressive, but you can also play as a victim perpetually heading for the exit only to be sent backwards by the aggressive enemies who surround you. It can be an endless tactical puzzle of just how to empower yourself relative to your surroundings or it can be an endless backward fall, the victim shrinking into new realms of abuse.
We're used to thinking of consequences as endpoints, especially in the language of system design. Rohrer's Passage plays on this presumption, giving you a series of opaque choices that become personalized metaphors when the characters' aging and death become obvious. It's an icon of human finitude. Inside a Star-Filled Sky removes the poignant endpoint and leaves you to try and grasp something that you cannot, by definition, understand.