Inside a Star Filled Sky

Jason Rohrer’s Inside a Star-Filled Sky is a game about levels. More importantly, it’s about the relationship between the levels that we perceive and the levels that go unnoticed. There’s spoilers ahead, if you’re interested in playing this game I would go get it now.

It’s a dual stick shooter with pixel art, which in many ways means it’s fairly conventional. But the central difference here is how you progress through the levels. In this game, the word “through” is meant literally—you navigate a level to find the exit, then the camera zooms out and you realize that the previous level has become your ship, in which you travel through the next level. That level ends and becomes your ship, too. It’s ships all the way down.

The powerups you picked up in the previous level now become components of your new ship. When you die, you go back down a level to re-exit back upward with different powerups. This means you can reconfigure your ship every time you die in order to have a better chance of successfully completing the level.

This narrative of rising ever outward towards a higher goal becomes more complicated when you gain the ability to enter arbitrary objects at will. This means you can go back into your own ship to voluntarily go down a level, or go into enemy ships and reconfigure them, or go into powerups and try to make them more powerful. Instead of just rising to a higher level, you’re now going almost every direction. Levels in everything, at all times.

The minimum price to buy the game is $1.75 with no demo, but you can pay more if you want. For $1.75, it's definitely worth it.

Talking Points: How does Inside a Star-Filled Sky illustrate how levels normally work in games? Is there any deeper meaning to the idea that you can enter into your enemy’s “level” and change him? Realistically, is it easier or harder than just killing them outright? What is the theme of the game, if there is one? Does Rohrer’s previous work color the experience?

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I really need to play this.

I find the idea of this game a lot more interesting than the execution. In concept, everything on the screen is infinite, you can go out and out forever, or latch onto some object and go in and in, discovering world within intricate world. This is a great concept.

But that's the metanarrative. There is a lot less going on in your second to second activities. When you start the game, there is the wonder of discovering how it works, of not understanding and then having it all click into place in your mind. That part is awesome. The problem, at least for me, is that after that you pretty much play until you get bored and then never play it again.

There are tons of powerups to grab and combine (and go inside of), and you will find enemies with increasingly powerful weapons to fight, but you won't ever find something that is really interesting or different from everything else. Even the toughest creature you encounter will be a small vaguely anthropomorphic sprite that moves randomly and indifferently.

Also, the complete lack of sound outside of generic procedural tone-matrix music kind of drove home to me how bland the moment-to-moment experience is.

I played this for an hour or so and really enjoyed it, I'll probably put more time into it during the weekend. The mechanics offer some really interesting choices about progression and development in the game.

Several times you'll get into a tricky spot where it's hard to progress back a specific
enemy or group of enemies. When this happens do you persevere? Continuing your journey into ever larger things? Or do you instead take a detour to make things easier for yourself? Are you the problem? If so go inside yourself to find the abilities to help you out of this scrape. Or maybe you are completely happy with your ship and your enemy just has a particularly galling power combination. Travel into him and sabotage his abilities into something a little less taxing.

If you come across a power up that isn't exactly what you want do you accept the cards you were dealt and make the best of it? Or do you try to change that powerup into something better?

Like Switchbreak said, there are flaws, but I think he was a little hard on it. The biggest problem with the game is that, with as much power as the game gives you, you still don't have enough control when you consider a couple of the mechanics working together: The frequent difficulty in finding any specific powerup, the fact that you can only have 3 powerups, the fact that two of your three powerups decay slightly in each journey upwards, and the fact that a new powerup displaces your old powerup.

I get the feeling that all told the effect was supposed to be of a card counter or something similar. You can tip the odds in your favor, however you are still at the whim of fate to a great extent in your journey, you're not omnipotent. All-in-all I think it goes too far though, you're left with too little sense of progression and ability to customize yourself. Though I have to admit that the image of trying, and failing, to hold on to a sense of self through time and changes is sort of a romantic one. I would definitely make a single change, have each power up replace a current one of your choice rather than the oldest one. I would also consider changing it so that you start with 1 power up slot and can get more.

All in all though, it's great. An incredibly clever idea implemented into a clever little game. It's a bit rough, and the idea deserves a deeper look in larger game(s), but this is a great introduction to the concept at $1.75.

Purchased, will play this weekend. I ignored this completely until I heard it involved shooting things. Jason Rohrer game with shooting? Interesting.