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Star Stuff PC Review

“Some part of our being knows this is where we came from. We long to return. And we can, because the Cosmos is also within us. We’re made of star stuff. We are a way for the Cosmos to know itself”
Carl Sagan

Though not a game about planetary science or astronomy directly, Star Stuff seems to be a passion project dedicated to the brilliant thinkers and optimistic pioneers of science around us that are all too frequently drowned out by the overwhelming noise of celebrity gossip and Tik-Tok challenges that involve eating laundry detergent or whatever tribute to uncultured stupidity is all the rage this week. Here we have an adorable little 3D puzzle game about programming robots to help you get from one side of a room to the other with switches, blocks, collapsing bridges, and all sorts of other twists and hazards. Still, through console messages, its very namesake, and unwavering enthusiasm, the team have taken the time to thank the great minds that inspired them on their creative journeys. We stand on the shoulders of giants and although it’s tempting to think of video games as merely a way to pass the time, they’re able to be so much more. They can be art. They can be outlets for suffering or joy. They can teach. And they can be fun for fun’s sake, too. But we owe all of that to those before us, whose dedicated efforts to exploring the unknown have brought us so far; far enough now that we’re able to create entire Cosmoses of our own.

It starts out simple enough. With just a few commands available and only two lines of code to spare we program a bot to ‘Pick Up’ at Point A, then ‘Drop Off’ at Container B. This, presumably, weighs down some sort of pressure sensor and voilà: the path across to the exit has been powered. Next time we might be asked to grab a block and move it ourselves in order to then allow a bot to cross and stand on a previously out-of-reach button, once again powering our way to freedom. For that we’ll need our mechanical friend to ‘Wait For’ Container A, where we are going to be placing the cube, before setting it to head for the button or it would try to cross a bridge that isn’t there yet and fall victim to cruel gravity. No worries, we can always rewind time a little to fix up any problems in our buggy code. Real-time version control, what I wouldn’t give for that! Isn’t programming complex though? Installing a code editor, choosing a language, and learning all of their unique peculiarities. Don’t sweat it! Mija has your back (that’s our geeky little protagonist and the Spanish way to call a little girl in an endearing way) because all we’ll need to do is drag, drop, and order the things we want to happen. It’s very similar to Scratch – the programming introduction application for kids, if you’ve ever seen it.

Puzzle

So if it’s that easy to build a program and the commands are as obvious as ‘Go To’ X, what’s the big deal? Well, spread over five main areas each with new programming techniques to master and orders to play with you’ll quickly find Star Stuff to be a worthy brain burner. Remember you’re also moving Mija around the arenas, getting in the way of bots, triggering events, and often needing to toggle switches on-and-off programmatically. That’s without considering the extra challenge missions that push what you learn from each zone to the very extreme, demanding inventive and tricky use of function layouts as well as a good amount of in-production testing, of course. As a programmer, simple tools such as ‘If statements’, that allow you to check for specific situations and react accordingly, will obviously be immediately familiar. But what surprised and excited me the most is that even with my experience as a developer, I still found myself learning new and unusual ways to use them to get the outcome I needed. Perhaps not following best practices, but we’re here to have our logic chips challenged not be weighed down by boring ‘industry standards’. This isn’t just a title for software engineers but even those well-practised in the field won’t get away easily.

Build on top of all that with ‘Jump To’: allowing for loops and ‘Nearest’: which creates a variable out of the nearest type of object we wish such as ‘Button’, and you’re still only beginning starting to understand because we haven’t even covered the different problems found within the facility. Firstly, all robots of the same type will follow the exact same commands, forcing you to consider how each will react or perhaps breaking them up where possible with Ifs, etc. How about robots whose programming you can’t alter and are forced to work around or how about robot spawners! It’s kind of crazy to bluntly list all the mechanics out like this because you realise just how many interactions there are to manage throughout all 150 individual puzzle rooms, especially considering when many of them are blended together for even tougher trials, even though you don’t really feel it whilst playing. The clean design makes everything obvious visually, the new stuff is always introduced in a very relaxed and thoughtful way, and you can always leave one or two for later if you’re having a particularly hard time. Actually that’s a pretty good lesson for programmers in general – nothing helps more than stepping away from a problem for a minute. I think ‘touch grass’ is right up there near the top of the engineer’s handbook, right next to venting all your problems to a rubber ducky (not kidding).

Programming

The strangest and best part of Star Stuff, however, may be its design. Puzzle games and especially coding games are often visualised in a very abstract and functional way. Now that could just be because of the notorious curse of ‘programmer art’ (Google ‘Kirby programmer art’ if you want an idea). Not here. Star Stuff is as cute as a button, full of hearty chuckles to be had, and is positively overflowing with good vibes. The story and characters might only be the colourful icing on top of a well-structured and multi-layered cake but damn is it delicious icing. It really brings the whole experience together. Facing off against the more difficult tests the game has to offer will have you staring dead-eyed into your monitor, completely zoned out processing all the possibilities in the nerdist form of mediation imaginable, but the second you snap out of it you’re welcomed back with squishy textures, soft colours, and the contagious ‘you can do it’ attitude of the whole crew. Albeit, their disposition towards you is also likely slightly informed by the fact you’re the only one who can save them from assured destruction due to a faulty ejection system not properly handling the release of the ACTUAL SUN you’re building… out of star stuff, naturally.

Though I found myself a little upset with the few puzzles that asked me to have two robots moving around at the same time without the use of ‘Wait For’ commands going completely against the idea of handling multiple asynchronous threads, I clearly enjoyed my time with Mija and the team. I do feel I must reiterate that this game is not only for programmers. It just happens to use the same building blocks of logic and command structures in order to present reasoning problems in a concise and direct manner. In fact, non-programmers stand to gain quite a bit of insight into how software works, at a high-level anyway. I’d even go so far as to say it could kickstart a few careers! Wouldn’t that be nice, the inspired becoming inspirers. I don’t see any reason a puzzle fan wouldn’t get a kick out of Star Stuff

There’s a ton of depth that is often lacking in such bonny titles and plenty to keep you engaged for well over ten hours. Plus the difficulty is absolutely perfect for a real hungry brain-teaser lover such as myself. The only negative thing I can even really say about it is that it’s not exactly a novel concept as there are many other games that will have you programming bots. Human Resource machine is incredibly similar with its drag-and-drop command layout, I got quite addicted to Bitburner a year or so ago which uses a real programming language to have you level-up in a sort of an idle game, and I’m very excited for Linkito that lets you build out entire systems with logic gates and bits of hardware. That doesn’t stop Star Stuff being great, though – it actually means there’s somewhere to go from here if you want more. Give it a shot. 

Go To’ Steam,
Search’ Star Stuff
Nearest’ Game = A1
Buy’ A1
Play’ A1

8 out of 10