While the inspiration behind a game can be anything, there is often a core concept used as the starting point. The more you built upon an idea, the more likely you are to deviate from it. Adding new elements that don’t contribute to the core idea are also common and while we rarely pay attention to such decisions unless they are blatantly bad or cripple the actual gameplay, when work goes into building upon a firm basis, with every decision planned properly, we notice.
I’ll be honest right away, Rohrer’s Inside a Star-filled Sky is out of my league. I banged my head against the wall as to figure out what to say about it. It’s not a matter of it being awe-inspiring like seeing Silent Hill 2’s ending or me saying “Wow…” after an “Interactive Experience” from Newgrounds. It’s a very solid game. It’s a very good game. And it’s very strange in the sense of how it plays with you and your previously set short-term goals.
You play a little pixelated thing, or many pixelated things, or all of them, I’m not sure. I’ll call him and them Asparagus. Asparagus flies through procedurally generated levels. The goal is to get to the arrow that will send you to the above layer. The arrows are the the only way to go up, but you can go down far more liberally. You can enter enemies to modify their abilities, you can enter power-ups to modify their properties or potency, or you can enter yourself to change your abilities. If you die, you fall inside yourself and need to get out. If you fall inside yourself while inside yourself, you fall inside yourself. It is as confusing as it sounds. Your only means of knowing where you are is the number in the corner. The greater it is, the higher the layer.
Asparagus can carry up to three power-ups, combining them into a unique weapon. For example, having a spread-shot, a sticky-shot and speed-shot will make your Asparagus shoot a long stream of bullets that explode into more bullets when they reach their max distance, and then have them maintain their position for a few moments before vanishing. There are quite a few power-ups with various levels of potency, so the combinations are intimidatingly many.
There are a few catches, though. Taking power-ups equips you for the next layer, not the current one. If you want more energy, health uses up a slot. Whenever you pick something up, the leftmost slot is dropped. Save for health, the leftmost power up deteriorates by one point every time you ascend a level.
The mechanics address various potential problems, so for example, if you are lost, you’ll gain a subtle hint as to where the next arrow is. If you die, you always gain health in your leftmost slot. The enemies’ behaviour also varies, so you’ll have some of them patrol an area, others going for you while avoiding bullets, and so on.
The true charm of Inside a Star-filled Sky comes from the short-term goals you set yourself. The insane number of layers makes it impossible to “beat” the game. You’ll often find yourself trying to get as high as possible after a setback, only to realize that you just came back from your trip to change the property of a power-up so you could cripple an enemy that was causing you trouble.
Does infinity, the core concept of this game, necessarily mean high replay value? I think this is actually a good question given some of Rohrer’s articles. Specifically “Testing the Limits of Single-Player.” Inside a Star-filled Sky gives you an infinite playing field, it puts small numbers next to your power-ups, meaning there’s always a higher number you could get (the thing that gets a lot of us hooked to RPGs), but it relies on you following the one goal of getting higher, while setting short-term goals for yourself to achieve the main task which has no conclusion. The satisfaction of setting a permanent flag in a free slot is great. It lets you say “I was the first to tread here!” But what then? It is true that the game is practically infinite despite not actually being infinite (you’d need over 2000 years to reach the topmost layer), but it only keeps your attention for a limited time. I’m not sure I’ll come back to this game, not because I don’t like it, nor because I might think it’s not fun, I believe the exact opposite. It’s actually the previously mentioned charm of the game that kills it for me as well. For every “Oh, right, I was actually delving so deep to make things easier here,” there is a “I went through all of that just for this?” And then you picture the infinite layers still waiting for you, each with its own challenges and it’s either deal with, give up, or just float through space.
And that’s the point. Your only reward for all the challenges is setting a flag on unclaimed territory. Or rather, the satisfaction of doing so. I paid no mind to the 3×3 patterns I found on my journeys, but when I set mine, and when I knew it was there to stay, there was a faint smile on my face.
It is a good game. It’s a game that set a goal for itself and achieved it. Complaining about various gripes I might have would be pointless, because these are gripes inherent to the concept of infinity translated into an interactive medium. It is a game I like and don’t like at the same time. And I like what I don’t like because I’m not supposed to like it. It’s confusing and it’s very well made. If you want infinite fun, you’ll find it here as much as in any other game (you won’t). But if you want to see what the medium is capable of doing, this is a unique experience. I’m not qualified to proclaim Rohrer a genius or an artist, but he is a damn capable game designer.
Platform: PC, Mac and Linux
Developer: Jason Rohrer
Genre: progressively tactical-situation generated shooter
Get it for the: infinity
Full disclosure: PXOD was given a PC review copy of the game from the developer. We love and hate him for it.