Let’s talk about Passage. As tiresome and ultimately pointless the “are games art?” debate has become, it takes a game of rare quality or vision to become part of the discussion - Jason Rohrer made one, and all on his own to boot. Passage defies easy classification, but it manages to turn a narrow strip of chunky, scrolling pixels into rumination on life, loss and death.
It is brilliant in its way, and Rohrer has since found himself in the pages of Esquire and the Wall Street Journal, and released the inimitable Sleep Is Death - a co-operative game in which two players generate stories using simple creation tools.
I’m telling you this because otherwise you might skip right past Inside A Star-Filled Sky, if you ever learned of its existence at all. Rohrer describes it as "an infinite, recursive, tactical shooter", but only the last part of that description is evident at first. There is a maze to traverse and enemies to destroy, the keyboard controls movement, the mouse shoots, and, of course, there are power-ups.
Where Inside A Star-Filled Sky departs from that familiar template is what happens when you collect those power-ups. Rather than taking effect immediately, their properties are delayed until you find the exit. When you do, it is revealed that the creature you were controlling was just an organism inside a much larger creature; a creature with all of the powers you just collected, and which you now control. Your performance on each level dictates the new body you will eventually inhabit, but if you die you are returned to the previous one.
Inside A Star-Filled Sky redefines failure as opportunity. Each enforced trip down to a lower level allows you to better arm yourself against the enemies that just destroyed you. Eventually, I began to voluntarily destroy my creature when I realised that I could simply return when I had superior fire power or more health. It is the kind of clever design for which Rohrer is known, and on a pure gameplay level it is arguably his most accomplished work.
However, Rohrer tends to have a theme to go along with his mechanics, and in the case of Inside A Star-Filled Sky it’s infinity. As a result, not only can you move between creatures, but you can also enter enemies and power-ups. In both cases, what you collect alters the properties of the thing you are inside, and in both cases you can continue to die to leave or keep entering new enemies and power-ups. Rohrer estimates that it would take 2,000 hours to exhaust the experience, and I believe him. The problem is that I became tired of Inside A Star-Filled Sky in a tiny fraction of that time.
To some extent, the whole point of the game is its pointlessness. It really does feel like you could make your way up and down the chains of creatures, enemies and power-ups forever, but while that may be clever design it is also curiously alienating. Every single play session finished with me walking away with no idea where I was any more, and every one sapped my enthusiasm to return. Inside A Star-Filled Sky is a very smart game, but given the choice I’d rather play Geometry Wars or Everyday Shooter - games that bet the farm on pure sensory overload.
Ultimately, Inside A Star-Filled Sky can’t be as easily recommended as Rohrer’s previous successes. In those games, very simple interactions lead to profound outcomes, but here it is the other way around. This is the most demanding gameplay Rohrer has ever designed, but it isn’t polished enough to make up for the vacuum at the core of the experience. In Passage, I moved right and learned about life. All I learned from Inside A Star Filled Sky is that, eventually, infinity can really test your patience.