Turtles All the Way Down: The Player's Relationship With Endless GamesA column article by: Alex D. Jones
“In our favored version, His Holiness the Dalai Lama and Stephen Hawking are seated next to each other at the Stockholm banquet after receiving their Nobel Prizes for Peace and Physics, respectively. Between courses one and two, the discussion naturally turns to cosmology. Before Hawking is even three sentences into his creation theory, the Dalai Lama interrupts him. "Mr. Hawking, I already read your book. Many mistakes." Shocked, Hawking presses for an example. The Lama asserts that the universe is not "just floating there," but is instead supported on the back of a great tiger. Smiling, Hawking asks what supports the tiger. The Lama asserts that it stands upon an elephant. Hawking then asks what supports the elephant. "A giant turtle," the Lama replies. When asked, finally, what supports the turtle, His Holiness is briefly taken aback, but quickly replies, "Ah, after that it is turtles all the way down."”
--Justice Antonin Scalia, Rapanos v. United States
To call renowned indie developer Jason Roher’s Inside a Star-filled Sky a shoot-em-up is all too glib an interpretation, bordering on fallacy. The game may seem simple from the outset, but behind the veneer of its arcade stylings lies a great amount of depth, both thematic and literal.
Throughout the course of Inside a Star-filled Sky, players seek to climb upwards: each level contains a panel that allows them to enter the level above, and it is by finding these panels and climbing higher and higher that they gain points. However, they can also enter levels within these levels – contained within the enemies and powerups of the game and even the player themselves – to become more powerful. It is a vast and complex game, though its rooms may seem small and its mechanics simple. It is through these expanding webs of rooms within rooms that Roher makes a game out of infinity. There is no end-point in the game: only the levels above, below and within.
Within the context of Roher’s previous work, Inside a Star-filled Sky marks something of a thematic evolution: from Passage, a game about the inevitability of death, to a game wherein there is no death; from a game about the inescapability of an endpoint to a game about the absence of one. However, when considered within a wider context, the game does not really cover that much new ground. Indeed, it seems to be the latest in a long, illustrious line of games without end goals.
From early tycoon games such as Transport Tycoon Deluxe to games such as The Sims and more recently Minecraft, the trend of games without real, definitive ends has never really faded away, but during this generation of console hardware interest in them has been somewhat renewed. The pull for their legion players is no mystery; they are the universal qualities that have informed the massive success of games such as The Sims and Minecraft for over a decade. While the majority of games offer specific experiences, games without narrative or mechanical ends cannot do the same. Instead, they give the player a game world from which the experience emerges as the player interacts with it. They has no story, but each player has a story to tell, and this is the key to their success; when the player makes their own story within the game world, they find it more compelling.
It is at once the defining feature and saving grace of games without developer-defined ends. To give players the means to weave their own narratives within defined boundaries is something that only video games can achieve, but it is also an incredibly inviting concept regardless. It pervades large parts of informal discussion about the games we play, as people take joy in regaling tales of hilarious or intense situations from games of Left 4 Dead, Grand Theft Auto or even League of Legends. Video games are a medium which creates its own player-unique anecdotes on a regular basis, and when we remove any kind of developer-made structure from a game, these incidents are more frequent and more interesting as a result.
Perhaps the greatest example of this is Dwarf Fortress. It is a strange mixture of city-building and roguelike adventure in which players must attend to the needs and safety of a dwarven tribe - much like any other civic management sim - but what separates Dwarf Fortress from its peers is a surprising heart at the centre of its esoteric strategy. The game has no developer-defined plot, and so all of the story in the game comes from the way the characters react to the actions of the players. The game imbues each citizen of your fortress with an impressive amount of metrics that inform their actions and reactions, from simple mood meters to family trees that give each civilian specific relationships with each other civilian.
The result is a game that, behind the veneer of its jarring ASCII graphics and steep learning curve, is pregnant with narrative possibility. Not only that, but the narrative grows organically as it builds off of the interaction between player and engine. The evidence of this is widespread and easy to find; there are entire blogs dedicated to archiving the different stories that emerge from people’s games. Some of them capture a sense of random hilarity, but others are tragic in ways that scripted stories struggle to be because the consequences of the player’s actions are so much more involving when the reaction from the game isn’t predetermined by a script. In his Rev Rant series video entitled “True Nonlinearity”, Anthony Burch regales a particularly brilliant example of this in a story about an infant child who commits suicide after his parents are slain in a brutal and ill-judged war.
So, endless games are popular because their endless nature leaves a narrative void which is filled by the way the game reacts to the player. But where does this leave Inside a Star-filled Sky?
It is novel within the context of its brethren in that it is not a game that gives players the space to create their own stories in - you would be hard pressed to find any kind of narrative in its gameplay, even with liberal amounts of interpretation. Rather, the experience of playing Inside a Star-filled Sky is one dominated by a sense of losing one’s self in the game. As players climb up, down and through the levels, they begin to become lost within the ever-expanding lattice of the game’s structure. It’s disorienting and abstracting to say the least as the world protracts towards no end. Roher hasn’t just made a game out of infinity, he has made a game about infinity. It’s scale is incomprehensible as players wrestle with the idea that beyond one level is another, and that there will always be another for the next 2000 years (according to Roher’s own calculations).
In a sense, Inside a Star-filled Sky is just like Minecraft or Dwarf Fortress in that its endless nature is the skeleton of its experience, but unlike other games it is also the flesh. The big problem here is that the mechanics of the gameplay itself are a little too thin on the ground; it cannot possibly hold your attention for as long as Minecraft can, no matter how much you like shoot-’em-ups. Whilst the 165,000 basic weapon combinations that Roher claims are nothing to sneer at, the ultimate pitfall of the game is that the player cannot even invent a purpose. This is not a comment on Roher as a designer, but rather the genre he has chosen to work with. Minecraft’s appeal comes from the permanence of the player’s influence on the world in the form of their structures, whereas that is not an advantage offered to Inside a Star-filled Sky. It is a game about destruction rather than creation, and when destruction is a means without an end, it can only hold so much water.
Perhaps that is the ultimate lesson that game designers can learn from games without an end - that the old video game tropes of violence and enemy death are only compelling if they serve a defined purpose, but that games of imagination and creation can afford to be limitless. For all of the industry’s apparent obsession with guns and soldiers, it’s nice to know that gamers get more excited about building castles in the snow.