Starseed Pilgrim is nothing if not strange. It's a minimalist puzzle game that offers a wholly unique experience, teaching you practically nothing about how to play, what to do, or where to go. You may not be prepared for this opacity, but if you stay, you'll find an incredible game hiding behind a few frustrating design choices and simple production values.
Every game has rules, or at least some sort of limits on what you can do. It is the effective communication and exploitation of these boundaries that separates excellent games like Portal from the lesser puzzlers, and Starseed blurs those lines like few before have. While instruction isn't quite as sparse here as in, say, Minecraft, you're still sent on your way with little explanation. All you can do in this blocky 2D world is dig, jump, and plant seeds, and you spend plenty of time losing your way as you navigate the mysteries of the game's unexplained mechanics.
In the tutorial, if it could even be called such a thing, cryptic chunks of poem tell you that the sky is dying. You, the Starseed Pilgrim, must save it. An ominous blackness peels away the edges of the screen as you move through the small stage. After this rather jarring introduction, you're left to experiment freely, hopping around in two dimensions, pressing a key to plant seeds, and burrowing through the blocky plants that grow. The first two proper worlds become permanent fixtures in your adventure. One consists of a solid gray platform that never becomes corrupted by the spreading blackness. As you collect Starseed treasure or seeds from the other worlds, you can cultivate a garden on this platform that helps you access new areas and new chunks of poem.
The other main world is something of a timed puzzle game. You gather seeds and plant them to progress, just as before, but you must do so while racing against the necrotizing black. If you touch it, you are shifted into a negative world, where you can only move through squares that, in the light world, contained plants. In the negative world, you can grab keys that allow you to transport unused seeds back to the safe gray platform so that you can continue to grow a garden of multicolored plants.
Each color is associated with a different kind of plant, and each plant has a special effect that can be exploited. For example, pink plants can be harvested for more seeds, but they grow very slowly and are rapidly converted by blackness. Other plants can be used as quick-growing ladders, trampolines, or weapons against the corruption. Some, though, grow in random directions or have a randomly determined size. That element of uncertainty can be frustrating at times, foiling even your best-laid plans. At first, progress is very slow. Building an understanding of these disparate mechanics, and chaining each of the three worlds together effectively, can be exceptionally challenging, but that work translates to an intense feeling of satisfaction. Starseed Pilgrim taps into a much more basic desire to explore and learn, and rewards those who unlock its secrets with deepening inquisitiveness. It takes to time to discover where the game ends, and just how deep its mysteries go.
The visual style contributes heavily to the feeling of a beckoning unknown. Anywhere you don't fill with prismatic foliage remains a harsh white. Your vision is also limited, such that you can never see more than a chunk in any given direction. Forging a path that goes to new areas can take time, so choosing a direction can be a much more dramatic decision than you might expect. Nothing in Starseed could be said to be particularly striking, but the aesthetic is consistent. It effectively communicates information in a game that is spartan in production.
That utilitarian approach is just as easily heard as it is seen. Even when offscreen, the corruption always has a specific, foreboding noise associated with it. Every plant is given its own characteristic chime as well. They all have their own personalities, reflected by their effect and reinforced by leitmotifs. These bleeps and bloops aren't without their problems, however. Many sound effects are harsh and discordant, and give the peaceful sections of the game a more distressing aura than they deserve.
Games like Starseed Pilgrim aren't common. There are no real characters, no tangible plot, and nothing other than an emergent pseudo-narrative that you construct yourself. Nevertheless, there's something eerily special about it. As steep as it is, the learning curve still serves to give you a genuine feeling of satisfaction. There's no death, either, so nothing is punishing in the traditional meaning of the word. Instead, you challenge yourself, create and build and explore yourself, using techniques that you teach yourself, for no other reason than to satisfy your own curiosity.