I’m home sick. It sucks. Doubly so since, as well as enduring the dizziness and stomach troubles of undefined illness, any time I’m confined to my sickbed I am gripped by this contrarian desire to be productive. I’m wrapped in a duvet and sat on the sofa but staring out of the window, or into my computer screen, thinking of all the things I could be doing with all this spare time I suddenly have. I want to be creative! I want to explore the possibilities of what’s out there! But my weak and feeble body does not let me. It is, at least, the perfect situation to catch up on some videogames.
Today the game I’ve been playing is Even the Stars, and it’s been doing a pretty good job of fulfilling that sense of wanderlust. Created by Pol Clarissou for the “Space Cowboy” game jam where developers including personal faves like Nina Freeman and Brendon Chung put together short prototypes inspired by also personal fave Cowboy Bebop, it’s a fairly small game which has a literal infinity within it. If you’re a fan of that anime, too, I should probably warn you up front that there are no martial arts, mushrooms or jazz musicians to be found in Even the Stars. Instead, the game evokes a different vibe of the show: those liminal spaces at the beginnings of episodes where the crew are directionless, bored, casting about for something to do. You start Even the Stars in a similar fashion, although you have to get out there and make things happen rather than wait for a call to action.
My first playthrough took a little under ten minutes, and thanks to that short length I’ve gone through it a fair few more times since. It’s short and, by virtue of its truncated development cycle, somewhat austere. It has these sweet low-poly graphics and is necessarily focused on successfully executing the core vibe and mechanic of willing incidence and meaning into the nothingness of space. Every session begins the same way: sat in an empty sector of the universe where, text in the top left hand corner tells you, there is nothing to see. To leave, you enter a 6-digit code which acts as the coordinates to which your warp drive catapults you.
The ship you pilot is randomly generated, as are the planets you explore, but they’re uniformly utilitarian. And I love that. It’s not the Enterprise, you know? It’s not the Millennium Falcon. It’s small, scrappy, it’s not the sort of thing the hero of a grand, sweeping narrative flies. It’s the interstellar equivalent of a 1992 Ford Acura held together mainly by gaffer tape. You get a little nudge to leave that initial empty sector in your janky ship, but you could chose to stay, if you really wanted to. Just hang out, retune your radio. The game provides no narrative justification for you to leave, or for you to be there in the first place.
In fact, there’s no narrative at all. The absence of story is a conscious design decision. As a player, you reckon with and fill that absence by creating a story on this basic canvas that’s been provided, much as I just made up a load of stuff about a low-res spaceship, and much as you allow your mind to wander when you’re sat trapped at home, bored and shiftless.
During my first playthrough I struggled a little to orient myself at first, zipping hither and tither without being able to investigate the various landmarks I passed, but already I was seeing beautiful stuff. A lens flare on the horizon! Planets orbiting above me! Eventually I did manage to figure out how to slow my engines to a complete stop and land at a “space saloon.” You’re given three options at any landmark you visit on these planets: stay, leave, or a third one, which in this case was “hang out.” Every interaction is accompanied by a string of on-screen text explaining what exactly it is you did. Here I wandered an immense plaza rather than boozing it up, which is responsible of me, as I imagine drink driving when you’re sat at the wheel of something with a warp drive could have horrible consequences.
This brings us to another of the game’s systems. The first time the game noted how youthful I was, I was quite flattered. Because I’m old. Then it turned out that with each landmark you visited, you aged a little. These landmarks turn out to be like milestones in your life. This is the contradiction the game is offering: the ability to wander aimlessly, but to apply meaning to meaninglessness; the freedom to explore, but a reminder that we don’t live forever. The search for meaning comes in your journal, with which you record your experiences. The first time I did this, the journal entry was filled out for me with the text that came up on screen. In a chaotic, uncaring universe, the only narrative arc in your life is the one you give yourself. You’re not automatically granted one. It’s quite a stark difference from your average, mainstream game story where you are the centre of the universe, the hero preparing to go on a hero’s journey. The legacy you get in Even the Stars is the one you write up yourself.
So far my hero’s journey had consisted of farting about an abandoned space saloon, so I lifted off in search of something worth writing about, and I found a monolith, which you may recognise from 2001: A Space Odyssey (and which nobody recognises from 2010: The Year We Make Contact). Interacting with it produced the response you would expect. I was wiser…but at a price. I’d also aged, and in doing so my responsibilities had changed. The journal now lay empty, and I had to document my encounter with the monolith by typing it in myself, although I tried to cling onto the last vestiges of my youth by doing so like a primary school child recounting my summer holidays.
It’s another clever bit of encouragement to reclaim not only agency as a player in the game, but also the story that your interaction with the game will result in. You know all those moments in open world games where a confluence of emergent systems – the huge GTA rampage which begun with a random pile-up on the freeway caused by AI-controlled drivers, the unpredictable NPCs photobombing your selfies in Watch Dogs 2 – results in a story you’re far more likely to share with your mates than the actually “narrative” written by the developers? Enter the Stars is a game of that, so long as you’re an active participant.
I chose to warp away elsewhere, to a planet festooned with “cristal” palaces (despite my probing I found no evidence of Jay-Z’s presence) and discovered a huge CRT monitor which, upon investigation, turned out to be the last thing I would ever see. I passed away in much the same way I imagine death will take me in real life: elderly and staring without comprehension at a computer screen. Except…that’s not the last thing you see.
Before the game ends, you’re granted a privilege otherwise reserved only for those with official biographers or episodes of This Is Your Life dedicated to them. You get to see your entire existence in the game laid out in front of you. The coordinates you journeyed to displayed on a map of the galaxy, the diary entries you kept floating above them. You’re encouraged to screenshot and share your maps through a Twitter hashtag, the story you created being pinged around the web. There’s a huge amount of scope in what is a fairly small game, and I really dug it. I’m interested in the idea that most games are power fantasies which give our actions the sort of sweeping consequences our actual lives lack, and I’m interested in games that buck that trend, reckoning with the fact that we’re relatively insignificant beings in an infinite universe, and the only meaning is that which we make ourselves. Even if that meaning takes the form of jokes about Jay-Z and cristal.