Games

Some of the most profound evolutions in video games are occurring in smaller DIY story games such as Under a Star Called Sun. By Jini Maxwell.

Under a Star Called Sun

A still from the video game Under a Star Called Sun.
Credit: Cecile Richard

Under a Star Called Sun, a short, poetic video game by illustrator, graphic designer and independent game developer Cécile Richard, follows an astronaut as they go about their daily ministrations on their spaceship and reflect on the life and relationships they left behind on Earth.

First published as part of Liminal magazine’s luminous GLITCH series, in Melbourne’s brief reprieve between Covid-19 lockdowns, the game reflects an emerging body of Victorian art that ruminates on alienation and uncertainty in a world that has suddenly shrunk to a small domestic space.

Under a Star Called Sun was created in the tiny game editor Bitsy, a free browser-based game engine designed to be accessible to those with no programming knowledge. Bitsy allows creators to make games in-browser, which are then downloaded as HTML files and can easily be embedded into web pages. Created by Adam Le Doux, it is part of a DIY game design movement that has more in common with zine culture than the mainstream output of the commercial video game industry.

The styling of Under a Star Called Sun recalls comics conventions, playing out across a series of 2D still screens. Richard’s background as a graphic designer shines within the strictures of Bitsy’s minimalist visual style; the game is striking in its aesthetic simplicity. Rendered primarily in mint green and black, the short narrative plays out in the domestic space of the ship, with occasional flashbacks to the astronaut’s former life on Earth.

Even within a limited colour palette and low-resolution pixel art, the spaces of the game that Richard creates feel incredibly tangible. Subtle and consistent visual signposting makes the foreign environment of the spaceship feel personal and intuitive: an orange sparkle flickers across a window, signalling interaction, or an arrow pattern on a wall suggests a walking direction to the player. A flashback to Brunswick’s Sydney Road displays a series of terrace shopfronts that are startling in their recognisability.

Much of Richard’s work is interested in the emotions that follow loss, whether from distance, death or conflict. Novena, Richard’s first Bitsy project, is a poetry game that considers porous boundaries and emotional alienation; named for the durational devotional prayer, Novena is an early indicator of Richard’s interest in ritual and repetition as a vessel for emotional release. This theme is readily apparent in Under a Star Called Sun; as the astronaut makes coffee, waters their plants and traces a familiar path around their spaceship, the routine provides a backdrop for the probing internal monologue that constitutes the narrative.

As the game’s exploration of grief and the fallibility of memory deepens, this sense of isolation becomes absolute: the player is positioned as witness to the protagonist’s emotional reflection, rather than identifying with the protagonist directly. We are enmeshed not with the ‘I’ onscreen but with the general ‘you’ that the astronaut addresses and reflects upon throughout – rather than providing the astronaut with company on their journey, the player is addressed as if they, too, are part of a lost past life the astronaut doesn’t even trust they can perfectly recall themselves.

Richard’s work has a distinct role in Australia’s art-making field. Alongside the work of poets such as Shastra Deo (whose poetry game Variations on the Word Ghost is also included in Liminal’s GLITCH series), Mohamed Chamas and Rory Green, pieces such as Under a Star Called Sun and Novena have an equal place in local literary and game-making communities. In the past year, Voiceworks Online has run digital literature jams and Voiceworks editors have appeared at Freeplay Independent Games Festival; the Emerging Writers’ Festival commissioned Twitter poetry bots, and Under a Star Called Sun itself – first published in a literary magazine – won the 2020 Australian Game Developers Award for Best Narrative.

The digital marketplace itch.io, where Bitsy and Under a Star Called Sun are distributed, plays a crucial role in this emerging creative culture. Founded in 2013 as a response to the barriers to publishing on mainstream digital platforms such as the Steam Store, itch.io allows its creators to set a profit split between creator and platform, or to opt out of it entirely. Consequently many games, including Under a Star Called Sun, are free to download or are playable in-browser. Itch.io also plays host to an active creative community whose members challenge each other to make tiny games and prototypes as part of timed creative events known as game jams. Novena was created as part of a 2018 Bitsy jam that was themed “Ocean”.

Advances in video game development are typically discussed in terms of technical endeavour. In 2020, headlines around the release of The Last of Us Part 2 focused on the crunch – or mandatory overtime – that Naughty Dog developers undertook to finish the game, and then on the characters’ fully refractive eyeballs, complete with eyelashes that cast shadows, or the million-plus voxels – data points – it took to make the game’s fog catch the light realistically. The year before, Rockstar Games’ Red Dead Redemption II drew attention for the 100-hour weeks that were demanded of the developers, but on release, press attention quickly shifted to the almost absurd level of detail in Arthur Morgan’s frontier world – even the horses’ testicles retract when the weather is cooler.

But video game development doesn’t just take place in million-dollar studios. With free tools such as Bitsy, Twine, Cheap Bots, Done Quick! and more being self-published every day, video games can be created on a laptop, without installing new software, in an hour or less. This zine-like approach to game-making foregrounds community and experimentation, and it has about as much in common with triple-A game development as a love letter does with the Marvel Cinematic Universe. Perhaps unsurprisingly, these approachable tools have been used to create the most dynamic, affecting and interesting digital work, questioning the norms, tropes and values typically associated with video games.

Games such as Under a Star Called Sun are carving out an artistic space in digital work that is marginal, personal, curious and – perhaps ironically – genuinely playful. Born of the democratising influence of creative communities and tiny game engines, these poetic, personal works are a world apart from the technological arms race of triple-A development. And they represent a less obvious but more profound evolution of the field. 

This article was first published in the print edition of The Saturday Paper on Mar 20, 2021 as "Lost in space".

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Jini Maxwell is The Saturday Paper’s games reviewer.