Star Re-Bound

This is a follow-up to my Starbound review, which you can find here.

Starbound was a game that I very much expected to like. I’m a huge fan of Minecraft and Terraria, I love science fiction, and some of my favorite games are those that give you a wealth of ways to interact with the world. The formula was perfect for me, and I approached it ready for adventures and creative endeavors spanning the stars. And after a few hours tooling around in it, I dropped it and moved on to something else.

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I came back a couple times, always looking for that magic that kept me spelunking and constructing in other games, and it never happened. Starbound never grabbed me like Minecraft or Terraria did, despite being so much richer in scope and content. I wrote plenty about why that was the case, of course, about how the disjointed design and severe gating of content turned me away from something I should have loved. I was content to leave it at that, to write Starbound off as a missed opportunity, and to move on to newer games with more potential and the older ones I still held a candle for.

Over the last few months, though, I did return to Starbound. I returned hard, and sank another 50 hours into it. I have almost as much time in it now as I do Terraria, the game I maintain is better in all the ways that count. It made me think hard about what I had written originally, about what my 50 hours meant in contrast to my opinions, and if I needed to revisit my review. I decided that I didn’t, and that I would write this instead. So, why did I spend so much time in a game I think is bad, and why do I still think it’s bad?

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The answer is actually pretty simple, but there are a lot of takeaways from it to cover. My first attempts at Starbound were solo affairs, just me and the vast cosmos to explore. When I came back to it this recent go-round, it was playing on a server with four of my friends. Being the only one with prior experience I helped them come to grips with the game and guided them on their adventures. When one of them surpassed my experience and fully mastered the game, I benefited from his aid and saw more of the game than I ever had before. Together, we all made grand plans for colonies that spanned whole constellations, communal space stations, and ships brimming with riches and finery.

So the short version is, I came back because I had people to play with. This isn’t the first time something like this has happened, either. I bounced off the original Borderlands nearly half a dozen times before I teamed up with three friends, and together we beat the entire game and all the DLC and kept dinking around collecting guns for a few weeks. Without them, Borderlands would have sat incomplete and unloved in my backlog forever, just as Starbound was fated to. Co-op play saved these two games for me, helped me find the fun, and captured my attention for dozens of hours.

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Does that make them good games, though? That’s the question that consumed me when I realized how deep I had sunk into Starbound, and ultimately my answer is no. A game that sucks in single player but is fun in multiplayer isn’t a good game and isn’t one I’m going to recommend, and there are a few reasons for this. The most practical reason is because you can’t always guarantee that multiplayer is going to be an option when you get to a game. The community may shrivel up over time, the servers may get shut down, or you might just not have any friends who want to put down the money for it. It’s also not a good sign if a game sucks in one of its primary modes, even if other modes make it tolerable. That’s not a complete game, and one that can’t ever compare favorably to ones with solid single-player experiences.

But looming larger than any of that is the fact that doing things with your friends is fun on its own. Once you involve other people, and especially close friends, the chosen activity becomes less of a focus than the social aspect itself. Seeing a bad movie or bowling at a run-down alley can still be fun because your friends elevate the experience, taking the emphasis off the quality and the details and focusing it back on enjoying the moment. We factor it in when we talk about these experiences even, explaining how “I wouldn’t come back here myself” or “I’m glad you were here to see that” when we try to write off the negative parts. People don’t want to have bad experiences with their friends, so we actively look past the bad parts and excuse them when we can.

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I’ll grant that it’s harder to do this with games because of how the experience is much more focused on the game itself, and how much greater an effect technical or systemic problems have on enjoyment. But absent any game-breaking issues, the social element can still absolutely make a bad game good. I remember one of the worst parts of early Starbound is getting deep into a planet, inventory full of goods, and dying where you’ll never find any of it again. My least favorite of these deaths were from falling damage because they felt so cheap and so mean-spirited in a game about freedom of exploration. In stark contrast to those experiences, falling and going splat with my friends became hilarious because of the slapstick element, because we could pick fun at each other, and because there were people around to guide us back and gather our lost stuff for us.

Multiplayer often provides unexpected work-arounds for bad design, and nowhere was that more apparent to me than in Starbound. Turning falling damage from agonizing punishment to harmless comedy is a perfect example of that, but far from the only one. The hundreds of different block types were agony to collect and sort through on my own, but working in a group made them much easier to organize. Same with the hundreds of furniture and decor pieces, without friends to help gather them for easy scanning I would never have had access to the items that I lavished my ship and homes with. We could share items to get past gear gating, we could team up for annoying boss battles, and we could find easier ways to beat challenge dungeons together. So many of the aggravations I ran into in the single-player experience could be circumvented by multiplayer.

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But it’s important to remember that those aggravations were still there. They weren’t absolved by co-op play, they were avoided. Starbound was just as stilted and poorly-paced as before, I just had access to new shortcuts that let me avoid the issues. It’s also important to note that we couldn’t dodge all of its problems, either. Even in Casual mode the money grind caught up to us, and we eventually ran out of pixels to decorate and buy useful items without taking time away from fun activities to farm cash. We also never broke into the space station and mech systems in any significant way. One of Starbound’s greatest flaws is that all of its content is compartmentalized from itself, and not even friends could get us past that hump to explore all of our options.

In the end our co-op sessions fizzled just as my single-player attempts did, all because of the problems we couldn’t work around. When building and exploring and expanding became too much of a chore, we lost interest. With a social element we persisted far longer than I ever did on my own, but our grand plans were never truly realized. I don’t put a lot of stock in time-to-cost ratios so the fact that I got 50 hours of play out of Starbound pales to the fact that I never accomplished what I wanted the way I did with Minecraft and Terraria. Nor can I ignore the fact that I couldn’t even get as far as I did without a team to help skip past the boring and annoying parts.

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It’s harsh to say that Starbound is a bad game, but my disappointment in it has never really faded. For a moment I saw the full potential in it, for that brief time that the whole universe of possibilities was open to me. But that potential has always been chained by a restrictive economy, poorly-integrated systems, and myriad other aggravations. Despite my best efforts and every advantage I could give it, Starbound still couldn’t get out from under those issues. What enjoyment I’ve derived from it has come far more from those I played with and our shared experiences than from anything the game itself does. That’s been the real takeaway from this saga, and as I turn away from Starbound perhaps for good I look forward to the new adventures I can have with my friends, in games more suited to our goals.

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