The Great Sploder Art War Of 2020

Review by elroysice on Wednesday, July 15th 2020
Click to play Stargazer

Stargazer is a game created by nigel7kneale7jr7

In August 2013, Gone Home was released for PC by The Fullbright Company, and it was met with mixed reviews. While some reviewers saw it as a prime example for how video games may be considered legitimate pieces of art, others scoffed at its lack of interactivity; after all, what is a video game with little gameplay? The genre of games that followed in its wake have those critics to thank for their namesake: walking simulators.

Nowadays, while the conversation surrounding games as art and sacrificing gameplay for the sake of narrative have died down (or at least gotten less violent), walking simulators continue to achieve critical acclaim, with titles like Firewatch and What Remains of Edith Finch receiving awards alongside high metacritic scores.

I couldn't help but think of these games when I saw an argument pop up on my latest game. Two members were hashing the age old argument of, "can a game be good if it lacks gameplay?" In defending the artistic value of games that prioritize elements like narrative or art direction over gameplay and interactivity, the name Stargazer was thrown out. I'd never heard of the game, so I was curious as to what I was missing out on; then the next day, I noticed it was sitting at the bottom of the featured page, this odd six-year-old game. I sat down to check it out, and I'm glad I did.

Where Is Your Star?

Stargazer is named after a track from the 1976 album titled Rising, performed by British neoclassical metal band Rainbow. The track is 8 minutes long and sings of wizards, stone towers, whips and chains, and everything else you'd look for in a 70s Ronnie James Dio band. The Sploder game takes you through 7 levels of intricately crafted scenery which interprets the accompanying lyrics, taken straight from the Rainbow track. The game relies primarily on the platformer engine's default assets, but does use an eclectic mix of original graphics sourced from the community to punctuate certain scenes. There is a single combat scene in the entire game; a few levels in, two skeletons are dropped on you. Aside from that, the only real gameplay in the game is occasional backtracking for a key or something. For the most part, the experience Stargazer offers is one of walking forward and taking in the interprative scenery.

I was certainly bored at several points during Stargazer; more often, however, I was captured by its creative use of graphics and mechanics. I was never the most voracious player of Sploder games back when I was active, and I was hardly active during the era of graphics-enhanced platformers, so perhaps this game wasn't as creative as I'm giving it credit for, but I was absolutely delighted by some of the clever ideas Stargazer employed. Carried by invisible gears through a dark and starry night sky, hiding old dialogue during backtracking sections, dying to progress beyond an unreachable checkpoint (which is perhaps a cornerstone of old puzzle platformers, but it was very refreshing to see it used as a narrative device)... Stargazer had many tricks up its sleeve, and I was on the edge of my seat waiting to see what it did next.

Now, with all this ado about leaving gameplay behind and focusing on story and the narrative experience, does Stargazer tell a good story? Not really. I mean, come on, it's Ronnie James Dio song, of course it's nearly incomprehensible. Stargazer was a pleasant experience and got me thinking about a lot of things, but if there was anything I walked away from the game thinking about it, it was not the story.

If it fails in the regard that it was featured for in the first place, what gives? Why am I writing a whole essay about it? In my opinion, what makes Stargazer so special is its unique position as a first step in a totally new genre of Sploder game that never existed. Had the Sploder community gone on to make more games like Stargazer that borrowed what it did right and improved on the areas in which it fell short, then it would pale in comparison. But even then, its significance would be worth discussing; people celebrate old gamemakers like Tookewl and Obeliskos not because their games rival those that followed later in the 2010s, but because they paved the way for those games. We couldn't have ever had a Youngcaliman or a Moolatycoon without those 2008 trailblazers. There would be no Amethystion or Number 4 without Escapee or The One, no Lonely Roads or Dark Days without Redemption or Super Mario Galaxy 2.

So, if Stargazer was so cool and important, how come we never saw a line of descendents come from it and flood the forums with narrative game tryhards? To answer that, let's take a look at the history of celebrated Sploder games; specifically, which ones have been celebrated.

We Built a Tower of Stone

Naturally, the recent featuring of Stargazer lead to some controversy (perhaps between the same people who argued on my game recently). Sure, maybe the art is pretty to look at, and the lyrics are neat paried with it, but where's the game? Why are we featuring it to the page that says "Play Games" when there's so little game to play? These are all reasonable questions, but I have to ask, are there not multiple ways to play games? Are there not multiple dimensions along which we judge and review games?

Of course, I'm talking here about all video games in general, not just Sploder games, but I think this question gets really interesting when you ask it of Sploder in particular. Of the 42 games inducted into the Epic Game Library, about a quarter (11) of them cite story as a reason for their inclusion in their entry. Only one of these games came from the ancient pre-platformer era (Tookewl; Clip), and one member is responsible for a fourth of this list (Youngcaliman; Paint it Black, Two Souls One Goal, The Better Man). This reveals that, while story/writing has historically been considered a positive attribute in the tip-top of the Sploder canon, it is neither a necessity nor can it be the sole factor for a game's critical acclaim; all of these games had multiple other elements listed in their entries as reasoning for their inclusion in the EGL, with gameplay being the chief factor among nearly all of them. Clip was the only game on the list that cited story as the key element in its inclusion, but even it was still praised for its "epic bosses, brilliant puzzles, and unique action sequences."

Never did a game make it into the EGL based on its narrative elements or artistic value alone, nor did any sort of walking simulator style of game become popular among Sploder's upper echelons. I find this to be a shame. Commenting on Stargazer, user meowmeowfurrycat elaborates on this sentiment eloquently:

"i feel like for a long time there was this quasi-elitist mindset where staff decided to define what constituted a 'good sploder game' super super rigidly & that led to stuff like this being overlooked in favor of, like, boring puzzle shooters. i definitely felt like ppl could've done more to make sploder feel welcoming"

While what makes a game ultimately "good" will always come down to personal preference, it's undeniable looking at the EGL in this critical light that "good sploder games" ended up being relatively hegemonic in their content. While we may have seen Sploder's glorified level editors pushed to their absolute limits for the sake of inventive puzzles, salt-inducing challenges, and behemoth lengths, we never saw what they could produce when narrative was the first priority. We'll never know what EGL-worthy walking simulators would've looked like, what all emotions could be fully explored in the creators, or what discussion those games could've generated, both on the forums and in reviews like this. I wish me releasing a narrative game in 2020 centered around an original poem and featuring original music wasn't a novel concept (please play my game). Or at least, I wish it had been a novel concept only circa 2012 or so when competition for the annual Epic Game Drop was fierce and every creator with a handful of features was gunning for the EGL.

I mourn the games we never saw and the conversations we never had. I think it all could've been pretty cool. It's a shame we're only talking about this in 2020.

We Believed, We Believed, We Believed

So why am I talking about this? Why am I writing a Sploder review in 2020 about a game released in 2014? The most honest answer is that I have a bucketful of complicated feelings surrounding this website and its impending doom, and exploring the thoughts I had while playing Stargazer gave me a convenient vehicle to explore (and air out) those complicated feelings.

Truthfully, nothing any of us few remaining members do on this website matters, at least not nearly as much as it would've six, seven, or twelve years ago. We can release new games with original concepts; we can expend blood, sweat, and tears into an EGD 14 game; we can lurk on the forum at 3am and post in a thread that was last active a week ago; we can write a review on a game that came out six years ago and received little attention in those years; we can eschew the Discord server; but the mainsite and forum will remain on life support, and Flash will still be killed off in December.

There is nothing we can do for the health of what remains of this website, nothing we can contribute to what remains of the gamemaking scene, nothing we can do to satisfy the itch of what remains of our passion for Sploder Dot Com. By all accounts, we are wasting your time. You're wasting your time reading this, and I'm wasting both our time writing it.

But here's the good news: video games were invented to waste time, just like good stories.