Ben Bones

writing & worldbuilding

In Stars and Time

"Live with the ever-present burden of being trapped in a time loop only you can know about in this turn-based RPG. Create a better future for you and your friends. Find hope where there is none left. Pray to the stars and free yourself from time."

- The game's description on Steam.

In Stars and Time.

Rating: 4/5 ★


First off, I should say that I was unable to actually play this game, as Steam no longer supports my computer's operating system. World is a fuck. However, I was still able to watch a walkthrough (without commentary) by Zhain Gaming. Thus, as much as I know that I would enjoy the specific strategic mechanics the game offers (paper scissors rock! come on!) I can't actually offer an accurate experience of it, besides what I've witnessed in the walkthrough.

In regards to the rest of the game though, I can offer my thoughts. In Stars and Time is a simple concept executed marvellously, with an engaging story, mystery, and fantastically written characters. The art is simple but effective, and the humor is well-timed and genuinely charming. Overall, a cute game with (what looks like) satisfying mechanics, and a character driven story.

Given that as far as these sort of games go, I've only really played Undertale, it isn't really a surprise that I would be reminded of it while watching this walkthrough. Aforementioned poor technology - and the fact that my practiced motor control leans more towards drawing, rather than video games - means I haven't really got the right background to analyse the game's influences or full history, or other context. In other words: I am not a capital 'g' Gamer. Why then, am I writing this review, I hear you ask? Because a friend recommended me the game, I watched it last night, and now I'm writing this straight into the Neocities editor at work, because I'm bored. What the hell, it was a fun game. I'm gonna talk about it for... shit, I've got two hours left on this shift and it is dead. So yeah. It reminded me of goddamn Undertale.

Specifically, both games talk about the 'looping' nature of video games. Undertale uses this to examine the player mechanic of saving, loading older saves, and restarting the game. Undertale - and some of its characters in the world - will remember your older playthroughs, and acknowledge them. They say they feel trapped, and admonish you for toying with them. They ask you not to restart the game - to leave it as a happy ending.

In Undertale, the rest of the world is in a timeloop, and you - the player - are the one in control. However, with 'In Stars and Time', you, and the character you play, are very much not in control, despite the fact that you are using what amounts to the same mechanical powers. 'In Stars and Time' chooses to examine the emotional narrative of someone - you - trapped in a timeloop. Very Groundhog day!

Comparing the two, I noticed that the main villian of 'In Stars and Time', the King, wants to freeze the whole country in time in order to protect it and preserve it forever, in an eternally perfect ending. This is related to the game's prurient theme of change, endings, and moving on. The characters refute this point of view, and defeat the King... which I find an interesting choice for a video game to make. You see, after the advent of Undertale (with its particular themes about player interaction with Save files) there was a phenomenon where dedicated players would deliberately export their finished, 'true ending' save files to external hard-drives, or uninstall the game, in order to leave the world in that perfect ending. This raises interesting implications in terms of the way dedicated fans interact with what they enjoy. Preservation as a manifestation of love. Stagnation, and obsession, rather than allowing change to take its natural course.

Hm. You know, I'm going to go on a tangent here. It would be easy to say that this form of interaction with something is not, in fact, love. It would be easy to put limits on the definition of the feeling, and to say that a love that asks you to remain always the same and perfect is not love at all, but something else. (Given the themes of the game, I think this is a justified tangent.) I think this is an easy, but innaccurate, oversimplification. I think it would be more accurate to say that you loved something the way it once was, in that instance: the past version of something - and specifically your memory of it, as the past exists nowhere else. Still love. But not love of a thing: love of the memory of a thing.

What has this got to do with the game? Maybe nothing. It's just something 'In Stars and Time' made me think about. Moving on.

Additionally, In Stars and Times has heavy queer themes. Now. Me personally, because I am an old grouch sometimes, I tend to get annoyed when a thing is too cute-perfect, you know? But this, I liked. Baka. Hey, they killed the Kid in one loop, I'll give them credit for that. It's just... very much written by somebody self-conscious of fucking up? It's not meant to be realistic, it's an ideal. Found family. And hey, I'll give it this: it's a good ideal to strive for. It's worth following, it's making me think 'huh, yeah, I could stand to pay more attention to people than I do' and that sort of thing. So that part is good. But the overall vibe of the game feels like it walks on eggshells. It doesn't push. It could go so much harder, but it holds back, and that is deliberate, so I don't fault it. I just prefer stuff that does go a little bit harder. It's a time loop! There's no consequences! Get nasty with it!

And... jeez, all that said, there's one specific scene with Mirabelle that a lot of care clearly went into. And... I gotta say I appreciate it. Baka.

I'm being a grouch, don't mind me. Like I watched all 10 hours of it, I clearly didn't hate it! I hope the creators don't hold back with whatever they do next though. It would be a shame to be less honest because you were scared of what your audience might think. Oh no, what if you were mean to your friends, and they abandoned you forever. Don't you want to be loved for your imperfections? Don't you want someone to see the ugliness of you, and stick around anyway? Oh boy, you killed a thing, and it was a little scary? This is the literal end of the world.

But anyway, I fucking loved Odile. She rules. Loved Mirabelle too...

You know - okay. I know you're meant to hate them but I think Loop was my favourite character! They're just - gah. So aggressive. So fabulous. From a narrative standpoint, if you had been allowed to kill them, I think I would have loved them even more. Like! You tricked me into killing my friends? Without any guilt, or apology? I fucking love you?? Okay, haha, in all seriousness, the themes of all the characters were really well thought-out, and very poignantly written. Someone cared very much about getting them right. It's hard not to love that.

But come on, you pull your weapon on them! They're there to help! Loop was the best, and it would have been so interesting if you'd been able to kill them: because they would have been fine, but they would have remembered it. The one person in the time-loop you want to murder is the one person for whom there will be consequences. Guh. What makes it perfect is that yeah, they're actually your friend, they're just also a peice of shit sometimes. Loop was the bomb, imo.

Okay, shift over, and so is this ramble. If you want a cool game about timeloops and friendship, go play it, you wont be dissapointed. Or watch it, whatever.

Final note, though: the interesting thing about In Stars and Time, particularly compared to Undertale, is that it's definitely the kind of game you only need to play once. It gets its concepts across, it delivers a baller story, and it dips. There's no replay value: the thing itself is entirely about replaying something, to the point of madness. You don't want to go back. And in that, I think In Stars and Time succeeded where Undertale didn't... the core message of change, and of moving on, actually resonated with me enough that I don't need to hold onto this game beyond this moment. I'm moving on. I'm embracing whatever comes next.

And I call that... effective gameplay. So, kudos.

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