On Stopping to Smell the Venomous Alien Roses

Special to Game Losers by B. Pearlstein

About a month ago, I bought Starbound in its beta stage through Steam Early Access. It’s a game that’s been called a Terraria clone, not at all unreasonably: you explore procedurally generated 2D worlds, collect materials, and use them to craft survival gear and build shelters. The central thematic difference is that Starbound’s narrative and aesthetics are distinctly sci-fi, with players traveling from planet to planet. I haven’t played Terraria, so I went into Starbound with an interest in the premise but no idea of whether or not I’d enjoy the gameplay.

It turned out that I did, probably more than was good for me. On several occasions, I tried to play “a little” Starbound at night, and stayed up until morning. I’ve explored the mod forum and downloaded a few mods, giving me a wider range of planet types and craftable objects, but that was after I was already thoroughly hooked.

One evening, though, after I had played about 35 hours of Starbound, I realized I wasn’t really feeling excited or entertained. There’s a turning point that occurs for me, and I suspect for others, after I’ve played a game I love for a long enough period of time. The gameplay I used to find so compelling begins to feel like going through the motions in a joyless series of chores. The only way I’ve ever found to reverse this is to put the game aside and return to it months or even years later, when I’m no longer jaded to it. This is a big problem with games that are designed to be played daily, like the Animal Crossing series or virtual pet websites, because the player is punished for inactivity with negative consequences in the game world. The longer you go without playing, the worse things will be when you decide to play again – which can discourage players from returning at all.

The gameplay genuinely is repetitive, owing to the fact that the player is encouraged to spend a very large amount of time hunting and mining. Like Terraria and Minecraft, Starbound places heavy emphasis on mining the land for mineral resources, depleting them, and moving on to repeat this in a new area. Manifest destiny. Starbound takes this a step further: you can essentially empty out whole planets, and this is presented by the gameplay as an effective strategy. The backstory provided for the human race in Starbound states that the nations of Earth went to war over the limited resources in their solar system, which almost feels like a sneaky criticism of the game’s structural principles. But then the problem was made irrelevant by a giant space tentacle hitting Earth until it blew up. Oh, well.

Narrative seems to be the one aspect of worldbuilding that Starbound has developed least. I noticed my boredom while I was playing as the first of three characters I’ve created, Doreidia, who belongs to the Floran race. Florans are carnivorous plant people with a culture that feels uncomfortably close to the stereotype of “savage” tribal warriors, which is not only problematic but also uninterestingly simplistic. At least the fact that they have the technology for space travel is a change from the stereotype, although they mainly travel through space for the purpose of killing and eating as many different creatures as possible.

Doreidia’s home planet – not the Floran homeworld, but a randomly-generated planet I built a fairly nice shelter on and set as home in the ship’s navigation system – is one of many variations of Starbound’s forest biome. In this particular variation, brains hang on the trees’ branches like grapefruit, and the background parallax image shows an endless forest of giant green brains with no trees attached. Glowing embers fall instead of rain, creating small, brief wildfires on a daily basis. Despite all of this, it’s one of the more hospitable planets.

Home sweet home (sweetness not guaranteed). There are a few things from this furniture mod in here, but those boughs of brain-fruit peeking in on the left are official content.
Home sweet home (sweetness not guaranteed). There are a few things from this furniture mod in here, but those boughs of brain-fruit peeking in on the left are official content.

On this occasion, I was away from my home base, on another planet in the same solar system. This one was covered in snow, ice, pools of toxic green “water,” and many types of strange creatures, most of which were vicious. I had traveled there because I needed to mine coal and ores.

Why, though? I suddenly wondered. I had taken it for granted that I needed to mine coal and ores, because that’s what you do. Exploring planets in Starbound, which had kept me entertained for many late nights over the past few weeks, had begun to feel like work.

For whatever reason (optimism? stubborness? the kind of compulsive behavior that playing games can cultivate?), I continued my tedious task. I set out from my makeshift shelter to head as far as I could in one direction, stopping to dig up any ore I saw or explore any cave entrances I ran across. Stepping into a cave is always scary for me, because the darkness underground means you never know what’s going to happen. Hostile alien creatures can leap out from any direction, and frequently do. You can fall into a puddle of poison goo – or even worse, into a deeper pit, sustaining fall damage and finding yourself lost in total darkness. Starbound is by no means a horror game, but I am, by all means, a frightened baby rabbit, so navigating a dark cave with the constant threat of monsters jumping out at me is something I find stressful. This was not helping with my lack of enthusiasm.

My latest cave entrance exploration was taking me a little deeper down than usual. It was a pretty cave, as alien death-caves go, due to the blue crystalline ice that made up most of its walls, but that was no different from this planet’s shallower tunnels. I dug pathways through tight spaces, drained or covered up toxic puddles, opened a few capsules full of pixels (in Starbound, loose pixels serve as both crafting material and currency), and claimed all the ore I could find. I kept expecting to hit solid stone with no ore embedded in it, just as I always did, and return to the surface, just as I always did. But the tunnels kept going.

My surroundings started to change. At some point, while I must have been focused on digging, the ice walls transitioned from standard blue to surreal purple. What got my attention immediately was the water – real, non-toxic water, crystal-clear and almost certainly cold enough to be unpleasant for an adventurer who hadn’t come prepared with snow gear. This was new and interesting, I thought. It turned out to be just the beginning.

Caves in Starbound are generally not very expansive; they can descend far underground, but in the form of narrow passages between small caverns, rarely bigger in comparison to your character than a small house. I had unconsciously formed the assumption that no matter how deep the cave I was in would go, it would never get substantially wider.

After wading through several pools of underground spring water, I emerged in… what was it? A cavern, but evidently on the large side. I put a torch on the wall; it seemed to illuminate only a very small portion of the space I was in. Using blocks of ice I had collected while digging, I made a platform to jump out onto so that I could get a better look. The cavern continued on, dark and empty and seemingly endless. I made more platforms to jump across – I was creating and playing a platformer, I thought, baffled but amused – and left more torches on the walls.

I was in an enormous subterranean space. Once, when I was a kid, I took a tour of a system of caverns, and their size alone was awe-inspiring. Somehow, this is exactly how I felt in this fictional, two-dimensional ice cave: like I was a tiny speck come face-to-face with the power of nature. I am fully aware that that’s one of the dorkiest statements I’ve ever made, but that doesn’t make it any less sincere.

Any moment now, I kept thinking, a monster would come lunging out me, ending my experience of wonderment. It didn’t happen. I saw an alien creature that looked hostile, but when I approached it, my axe raised, it didn’t attack. This happened two more times, in a row, all with different kinds of creatures. Most aliens in Starbound will attack players on sight. This was some weird accident of the random generation system, but its surrealness felt perfectly in tune with the immense, violet-colored, crystalline cave.

Hey, buddy. Sorry for assuming you were aggressive just because you appear to be a peacock-lizard with a volcanic back and huge insect legs. You do you.

I went further down, opening the pixel capsules that now appeared in comically large amounts, sticking out of cliffs and lining deep pools. I saw more things I’d never seen before: exciting new environmental hazards, in the form of sharp, unnatural-looking spikes dangling overhead and poison-thorned vines in coiled clusters underfoot. I tried to destroy them by hitting them with my axe, which had no effect, before I figured out that they could only be removed with the matter manipulator, Starbound’s all-purpose terrain-shaping tool. Whoops. There’s a saying that a man with a hammer treats every problem like a nail; I wondered when I had started treating everything in the game like a fight.

Pickaxe and matter manipulator in hand, I kept tunneling away. Altering the landscape to make it more suited to your needs is pretty much outright necessary in games of the, uh, mine-and-craft genre. It’s another aspect of the implicit imperialist/colonialist values in these types of games, but I had always taken it for granted as the way things had to be. Now, while traveling even further down into the cave, I realized I wanted not only to explore the beautiful space I was in, but also to leave as much of it as I could intact. At one point I had to drain water from a good-sized crystalline pool, and I felt a little slap of sadness. I made sure at least some of the water poured down into a basin of ice beneath the original pool, trying to at least imitate its structure. Once again, my sense of awe at the beauty of nature had somehow extended to procedural generation coding.

Below the huge halls of purple ice, there was a slightly smaller chamber, still very large, made of dark green dirt and rockslide-prone gravel. There were also traces of what appeared to be masonry. I squeezed through some of the smaller passageways and found much more of this brick-like material, which the game text informed me was “soft brick,” a description that I think raises more questions than it answers. The brick-paved areas of these small side tunnels were lined with tiny lights, like streetlights, that burst into pixels when hit with any tool.

At the end of a path of these streetlights, I found a miniature house. What? What was this? It looked like a plastic dollhouse, but that didn’t occur to me until later, because my first thought was that there were gnomes dwelling deep beneath the planet’s surface. Pressing the key used to interact with objects did nothing. Attempting to inspect the house only resulted in my character telling a Floran knock-knock joke.

I looked around more and found more houses, but no sign of any inhabitants. Was this an ancient gnome city, buried over time by the weather? Had gnomes been here very recently? Was it them who put the spikes in the ceilings, to ward off intruders? I found tiny houses at the bottoms of underground lakes, their streetlights dimly glowing; I saw a tiny house in a hollowed-out area of brick and dirt, completely cut off from the tunnels. I saw a tiny house with a white picket fence.

I finally gave in to my curiosity and used my matter manipulator to try to pick one of the houses up, so that I could see its name and description in my inventory. It couldn’t be done – the house broke apart, leaving pixels for my character to take. That was probably supposed to be seen as a good thing. I was well-equipped to obtain pixels, ores, and other items that the gameplay designated as valuable, but I had no tools that would help me study this strange world.

A sunken, tiny city? A town of aquatic gnomes? A cave monster’s dollhouse collection? What’s going on with the one isolated house and the spike hanging over it? The blue bar under the display at the top shows my air supply; if not for the danger of suffocation, I would have hung out down here for a while.

There isn’t anything in the game display to show you the passage of time while you’re underground, but I think I must have been down in that cave system for an in-game week. I can pretty safely estimate it was about two hours of real time. I knew that the deeper I went, the harder it would be for me to find my way back to the surface, but if I left this cave, how would I ever find these wonderful little corners of it again? As I tunnelled, I dug up all the ore I came across, but my compulsion to collect items wasn’t the driving force anymore. I wanted to keep going.

Eventually, I fell a long way down into a wide, dark area, where I took heavy fall damage and was attacked by hostile creatures ready to finish the job. Much like Earth’s problem of finite resources, my problem of returning to the surface was solved through complete annihilation. After the oddly charming Floran respawn animation (shown with the other races’ equivalents here), I was back on my spaceship. The consequences of dying in Starbound can be adjusted during character creation, but at minimum, death results in the loss of about 30 percent of your collected pixels. I could see that I had lost a substantial number. It didn’t feel like a big loss.

What I was driven by on this expedition was my desire to explore. Starbound encourages exploration, in theory, but its gameplay more strongly encourages mining for resources. This can make exploration seem like a byproduct of material-gathering, rather than something to be enjoyed for its own sake. Without my noticing, my attention had shifted entirely to the game mechanics, and my enthusiasm had waned.

My experience was by no means a universal one. “Fun” is totally subjective: what’s fun for me could be boring or stressful for you, and vice versa. Players enjoy different activities, from mining to fighting monsters to building elaborate space-mansions. I found out that I really like taking in the game’s visuals, and constructing narratives where they feel absent or incomplete. I’ve made up a lot of details about Floran culture. What does it mean when a game’s poor worldbuilding both irritates me and inspires me to make it better?

Starbound bills itself as an open world, a sandbox, something you can play with however you like. Despite that ideal, though, the gameplay itself prioritizes and rewards some types of activity more than others. Maybe that’s unavoidable, since games can only contain a finite number of possible actions. What I think Starbound’s design really gets right is that even with its prescribed goal of winning wealth and glory, there’s still room for players to decide what kind of game they want to play. There’s an infinite universe out there, all yours to conquer if you choose – and when I realized I’d rather just travel it as a sightseer, I discovered I could choose to do that, too.

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