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Adventures in Indie Gaming!

Indie Innovation Spotlight – Inside a Star-Filled Sky

Posted by Rampant Coyote on May 9, 2012

Okay, it’s time for another installment of the “Indie Innovation Spotlight.” After our inaugural edition, pretty much any other game highlighted here would be more obscure, which works for me. Not all of these games are necessarily recommended by me, personally, as I don’t guarantee that they are good. I just wanted to highlight the indies that break out of the norm and do something really cool and innovative with their craft.

Inside a Star-Filled Sky, by Jason Rohrer

What is it:

Inside a Star-Filled Sky is kind of an experiment in procedural content creation built around a theme of “infinity” and polished up for public consumption.  It’s … weird, man. In a cool way. Okay – on the face of it, it’s a 2D, top-down shooter. It’s got kind of a blocky 8-bit look to it with 16-bit color and sound. You shoot things while looking for an exit. Things shoot back. And there are pick-ups that can change how many hits you can take, and how your bullets fire.

And there can be bullets. Lots of bullets. At higher levels, it can be a little like a “bullet hell” shooter, but often in tight corridors with you dodging around corners.

What Makes It Stand Out:

Okay, so far, so boring, right? Well, that’s just the foundation of the game. After that, things get really weird. See, the game is infinitely recursive. When you exit a level via one of the “up arrow” exits, you actually become a creature that incorporates whatever you obtained on the way “out” into its being. So the pick-ups that you grab are not actually useful right away – they are useful for the creature that you become. And then a combination of those abilities plus whatever IT picks up becomes the foundation for the next creature, and so forth.

But it goes both ways. If you get “killed,” you get knocked back inside yourself.  This isn’t necessarily a bad thing. Your next time through “your” level, you can choose different pick-ups and make yourself a better-adapted creature on your next iteration. Cool, huh? You can even go backwards beyond your starting form into infinitely decreasing negative levels, where your on-screen avatars gain a more ghostly appearance.  You don’t have to die to do this, either: by shift-clicking, you can go back inside yourself to ‘reinvent’ yourself at any time.

But you can also go laterally, which is what makes the game really interesting.  You can shift-click on pick-ups or on enemies to re-write THEM as well.  Then the changes that you make do not apply to your own form, but to what they will become when you exit. So if a level doesn’t have the right pick-ups that you want, or if a particular enemy has a bullet pattern that you just don’t know how to defeat, you can shift-click on them to change them to something more your liking.

You can also iteratively go backwards (and laterally) inside them, as well. Once inside a pick-up, you can go inside “yourself”, then inside an enemy, then… well, let’s just say it gets really hard to keep track of who “you” are after a while.

While it’s a single-player game, but there is some limited interaction between players. There are permanent and temporary flags which you can place in a level that can be seen by others. The first person to place a permanent flag gets it installed forever. The most recent person to place a temporary flag in place gets to have it… until the next person replaces it. I don’t really know how it works, but I do know that your custom flag pattern that you design in the game also gets a custom musical theme created based on its pattern and color, and the themes of nearby flags weave themselves into the music of the game. The levels are procedurally generated – not random- so people do go to the same levels.  There are infinite potential levels out there, but they are all predetermined. The pick-up in location X,Y inside monster Z on level 19 is always the same for everybody.

How’s that for funky?

But is it fun? Well, yeah, it was for me. But it’s inescapably one of those things that really depends on tastes.

It’s fun for me in a weird, mind-bendy way. Because I can always go backwards and sideways, I never really have to worry about getting ‘stuck’ in a level for too long. It’s not the kind of game I’d devote long stretches of time to play (which probably adds to my confusion about ‘who / where am I?’).

So as a game, it’s okay. But as a thought-provoking experiment and a toy to play with, it’s definitely pretty cool.  I think that as a designer, it’s particularly fascinating, particularly with the kinds of ideas it opens up for dealing with death or interactions with other entities in a game. And the theme of infinity – and constant progression / improvement – is both subtle and power. While its innovations don’t show very well in a video montage of “cool indie games,” if someone were to ask me why I thought indie games were so significant and have so much potential, Inside a Star-Filled Sky is one of the titles I’d like to put in front of them to play for themselves and find out.

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