“A giant cathedral of flesh has appeared in the middle of the ocean on a dying world. A small group of scientists are secretly investigating it when a mysterious woman appears, facing an impossible task.”
Important note right ahead:
This review will discuss existentialism, COVID-19 and eldritch beings. Also, there are major spoilers ahead, so I suggest playing “Stars Die” first. If you cannot afford to spend 5.00 USD on the game, Eric G. Juvillà offers you a free download on the itch page.
“Stars Die” was released on itch.io in 2018 and on Steam in 2020, and also appeared in Haunted PS1’s EEK3 Indie Horror Showcase 2020. You play as a woman named Dybowski, survivor of a worldwide cataclysmic event known as “the Hole”. Her boat runs out of fuel on a mysterious alien island. Dybowski explores the area and then comes across other people who are conducting research about the location – and soon she is drawn into their quest for answers.
That is, if you want her to be. “Stars Die” is a “[non-linear real-time science fiction] mystery”, and that means that the main character can decide for herself whether or not she wants to be involved in the actions of the other people, which allows her to completely discard their individual, separate missions. There are even several moments when you can tell the people around you to just fuck off! It is all in your own hands, and that is pretty awesome.
Gameplay-wise, “Stars Die” is an exploration game with choice-branching decisions. The low-poly graphics style, along with the otherworldly aesthetic and thoughtful dialogue, made it feel like a Lovecraftian “The Elder Scrolls III: Morrowind” mod. I greatly enjoyed walking through the strange area and speaking to each of the residents – after all, it is the story that really makes the experience shine.
As Dybowski scouts the island, she can meet the other people: The doctor Ngugi, the security guard Eldridge and two scientists named Rygg and Miyazawa. If you follow the main storyline involving these four, you will accompany them as they investigate tremors in the island, hoping to find a way to fix the Hole. Together you discover that the earthquakes are actually heartbeats: The island actually is a “giant cathedral of flesh”, not just in the metaphorical sense, but a living being that has the power to repair the Hole.
Each person reacts differently to this revelation: Eldridge flees, Ngugi gives up, Miyazawa wants to destroy the creature and Rygg wants to save it so it can change the world. Choose one person and choose your ending. Or, as mentioned above, forget about them and go your own way. But when you make your final decision, it is important to take into account the lore given to the player throughout the game.
The Hole seems to have been some sort of impact in the Earth, and the closer you get to it, the sicker you get. We also learn that after the Hole, humanity came together to try and stop the apocalypse, which led to the creation of the Union. The Union is a council of scientists who, as Eldridge says, “[took] over governments, or what was left of them.” Different characters have different views of the Union; Eldridge sees it as a desperate group capable of mass deception, while Miyazawa views it as a symbol of humanity banding together for a better future. With all this information in mind, let us take a look at the four main endings of “Stars Die”.
If you escape with Eldridge, the two of you can leave by boat, only to find the island once again as you sail through the dark waters. Perhaps it continued to grow while you were gone and was able to catch up with you? Regardless, trying to leave the island did not solve anything. Surrendering to fate with Ngugi yields different results. The two of you wander into the ocean to escape “the crushing truth of uncertainty”, and after you close your eyes, the game shows us the same ocean, but now with two large flower-like structures poking out of the water. Have Ngugi and Dybowski become part of the island? It remains unclear.
Miyazawa walks off to stop the creature. She says: “If we let something else fix the problem for us, the Union will lose all reason to exist. The next day, all the nations would be at each other’s throats again and back to square one. We will have learned nothing.” If you go to the center of the island with her, she sees that the creature’s plan is “to tackle the Hole itself by transforming Earth, not to change us directly.” Therefore, she wants the being to heal the world, but also let the Union take credit for the change and then blame the entity to create a new common enemy for people to battle: “[As] long as there is something to fight for, humanity can endure… We won’t resign to the whims of outer beings. And they will pay the price for this interference.”
With this objective, she sets out into the inside of the extraordinary creature. If you follow her, you wake up in a strange white area surrounded by what appear to be galaxies. Miyazawa’s words flash on the screen, and she drops this revelation: “This is all that will be left. The Hole was just another symptom… Within a larger problem. But they’re just as powerless as we are. We were never meant to be saved. What do we do now…?”
Rygg, on the other hand, wants to accept the entity’s help and let it transform humanity entirely. “Earth was eating itself from the inside out[.]”, she declares, talking about how the creature will bring about a rebirth and change humankind into something greater. In this ending, she and you are on the moon, transformed, watching large triangular appendages circle around and embrace the Earth, presumably the being from the island in its full form. Rygg says it is a beautiful sight, but she wonders: “They care about us… Right?”
Because of all these details, there is a lot to unpack about this game – YouTuber Darksmiter made a whole video going over everything in depth. In the same video, Darksmiter’s conversations with Juvillà make it clear that “Stars Die” was not intended to be deeply reviewed. But, if I may quote John Green’s words on literary analysis: “Whether an author intended a symbolic resonance to exist in her book is irrelevant. […] If we, as readers, could have a bigger and richer experience with the world as a result of reading a symbol and that symbol wasn’t intended by the author, we still win!” This is a point that applies to all art forms, not just literature. So let us dig into “Stars Die,” shall we?
Especially in a world like ours, where a pandemic has been raging for nearly two years, the expectation of a united humanity as shown in “Stars Die” reads more naive than anything else. If COVID-19 has shown us anything, it is that worldwide disasters do not cause us to come together as a species, but rather groups drawing deeper lines in the sand. Miyazawa understands this in part because she sees that humanity will be divided again if the Hole is erased. However, her belief that humans need an evil foe to stay together is a flawed way of thinking, too. Not only because a common enemy does not guarantee unification, but also, as one of Dybowski’s choices notes, “[if] global catastrophes are the only thing that stop us from fighting each other, maybe we need to rethink the way we live.”
Besides, the Hole was only part of the reason humanity came together. The response to it through the formation of the Union is what sealed the deal, in my opinion. It overthrew the governments and replaced them with scientists who were presumably focused on finding a cure. Thus, the Union eliminated the ruling powers that wanted to divide the people by turning the Hole into a war, and by doing so, they gave humanity a focused goal. But when the Hole is gone, the Union will no longer be needed, and the divided powers will return, as Miyazawa states.
So does this mean that Rygg is right? Are we a doomed species, and is a complete rebirth the only way to save ourselves? That is a messy question, because the eldritch creature does not seem to be interested in social change or small steps, but in a physical and planet-wide shift that encompasses the entire Earth as it transforms humanity. All or nothing, yes or no. There is no in-between here, but a total metamorphosis. Not to mention that both Rygg’s and Miyazawa’s endings reveal that the eldritch being is not as omnipotent as we have been led to believe. If that is the case, maybe Eldridge and Ngugi are on the right track? Perhaps we should resist the rebirth, even if it eventually catches up with us. Before it comes, at least we will have lived fully, because to be human is to choose one’s destiny, regardless of the opinion of flesh cathedrals.
There are a lot of complicated questions to which there are a variety of answers, but none of them are simple and satisfying at the same time. Perhaps the two secret endings will shed some light on these matters. In one of them, Dybowski gets the power to fix the Hole; I do not know what happens in the other, because it is a real challenge to get it, and I have not been able to figure it out. If anything, we have to acknowledge that the eldritch seems optimistic about repairing humanity. But optimism is not enough to change a species that is bent on conflict.
Ton conclude, I found “Stars Die” to be a thoughtful and interesting game. I appreciate the questions it raises, and find them more relevant than ever, given the pandemic. The game is well worth its price, and I highly recommend playing it. This wonderful gem should not be missed. [PLAY]