Inside a Star-Filled Sky

Inside a Star-Filled Sky is the latest game developed by Jason Rohrer, creator last year’s indie mini-hit, Sleep is Death. As a developer known for story-heavy games that blur mechanics and narrative, Rohrer’s latest is something of a departure: it’s a procedurally generated shoot-em-up.

Presented with a randomly generated character to control, you move using the keyboard and control the direction of fire using the mouse. Along the way, you encounter various randomly-generated enemies and smatterings of power-ups, all of which appear in procedurally-generated levels of varying complexity and openness. Starting at the “bottom”, you work your way from one level to the next. Every time you move up a level, you get a new character to control, its abilities based on the power-ups you collected. As you travel further through the game, the difficulty steadily increases, as does the strength of your power-ups. Get hit too many times, and rather than die, you drop back down a level, forced to fight your way back again.

A randomly created me fighting randomly generated creatures in a randomly generated level.

The twist in the game (revealed in the tutorial stage, so I don’t feel like I’m spoiling anything) is that by holding down the shift key, you can jump down a level – but not just in the direction you came from. You can also jump down into your enemies, which allows you to weaken them from within by deliberately collecting worse power-ups in the level that resides within them, changing their abilities so that when you jump back up, they’re easier to defeat. Or, if you prefer, you can jump down into yourself, to improve your own abilities. And just when you think you’ve got a grip on that, the game reveals that you can also jump into power-ups to change how strong they are – or indeed, what they are. Every world has its own inhabitants, and you can jump further within them, whether it’s the world inside you, your enemies, or a power-up. The more you change, the bigger the effects and the easier it gets for you to rise up to the next level.

As a game, it’s initially confusing, then fun, then increasingly complex. With little in the way of conventional goals or pointers, it’s easy to become lost within the massive universe available to you – but mechanics aside, Star-Filled Sky is a shoot-em-up through to the core. You must survive to kill, or be killed and fail. You dodge bullets and plan to collect power-ups while attempting to take out your foes. You recognise enemy patterns, and discover preferred power-ups, and come up with strategies – and sometimes what you know won’t work and you’ll need to change your approach. Except for the fact that most shoot-em-ups are linear and this is recursive, Star-Filled Sky is built on the core strategies of any shoot-em-up.

And yet, it’s a Jason Rohrer game – so obviously, there’s more going on. Which begs the question of what Star-Filled Sky is actually about.

A randomly generated me inside a randomly generated level inside a randomly generated creature.

In one way, it’s the very embodiment of the strategy “If it looks like you’re losing, change the game you’re playing.” Think an enemy is unfairly powerful? Think the game has failed to provide you with a fair chance to complete a level? Well, no problem – you get to go inside and change them. Weaken an enemy. Increase your strength. Just remember that every time you go inside something, you risk the chance of never coming out again – or indeed, that when you do come out, you won’t even realise that you have.

In that way, it’s also about the act of pursuing goals itself. The more you make use of the mechanics, the more you lose sight of what your original task was. By the time you’ve gone 15 levels in any direction, the magic of exponential maths means that you’re playing in a game world essentially as large as the physical universe – presumably the inspiration for the game’s poetic, though otherwise unexplained title. On a playing field that large, no goal you pursue has any actual meaning – the game itself certainly doesn’t provide one – and yet you’ll still feel compelled to pick a direction and follow it.

Every new task you set yourself leads you to travel deeper, pursuing sub-goals of sub-goals of sub-goals, until eventually you’re stuck in an Inception-style recursion. Even keeping close sight of your plan, you’ll hit speed bumps – a stray bullet, an accidentally collected power-up that requires correction – that’ll throw you off course. It’ll eventually become impossible to remember where you started and what you were doing there, at which point, you’ll have to either give up or embrace the pointlessness, set a new goal and start again. It’s an infinite game in a very real sense, so the only goals that have meaning are those you choose to have meaning. Find a task and beat it. Find another. Go as far as you can stand to. Find your achievements where you can.

A randomly generated me inside a randomly generated me. I hope that makes things clear for you.

In that way, it’s a game that makes you think about what you’re doing and why – what seemed like a shooter actually has a highly tactical layer on top, and literal depth – but a game that makes you think isn’t the same as a game that’s fun. Unless you’re the sort of gamer happy to chase a perfect score, or to repeatedly chase your own goals, it’s only going to give you a couple of hours of gameplay until you’ve taken all you can from it (although obviously, the game itself can keep going and going). For me, the thing that makes Inside a Star-Filled Sky fall down is that unlike games with a narrative, the point it makes is more abstract, and – personally speaking – less satisfying for it.

But there’s no need to take my word for it. At the time of writing, Inside a Star-Filled Sky is available here as Windows, MacOS and source code packages, under a pay-what-you-like model, with the minimum contribution being $1.75 to cover the cost of digital delivery and payment processing. Maybe you’ll love it, maybe not – but either way, it’s going to be an interesting experience – and for a game many times the size of the universe, that seems like a fair deal.