I’ve written about a lot of games in this column in the last year, all of which I’ve loved very much. But I don’t think I’ve been totally obsessed with any of them in the way I’ve been obsessed with In Stars and Time. For a week, I stayed up late every night because I couldn’t put it down. I dreamed about it. I sat at my desk at work, watching the clock, eager for the hour when I could finally get home and try again to unravel the mystery of what was really going on in the hearts and heads of protagonist Siffrin and his companions.
In Stars and Time fits into a lovely mental box I have going of RPGs that riff on the Earthbound tradition by contrasting themes of earnestness and joy with an unsettling metanarrative that riffs on the very idea of something being a video game. Undertale is the best popular example of this, but I’d put games like Mother 3, Contact, Moon: Remix RPG Adventure, and a number of others into the same category with it. If you like any of the stuff I just listed, buddy, you’ll DIG In Stars and Time.
But critically, In Stars and Time is radically unique in this genre I’ve made up, too. It’s a time loop game: we join the hero Siffrin at the very end of his adventure with his companions Mirabelle, Bonnie, Odile, and Isabeau. Together, they explore and rest in the final town before the final dungeon of their journey. Then, they use the five orbs they collected before the game even started to open the great House of Change, fight their way through its three monster-ridden floors to the very top, where a menacing figure known only as the King awaits them, having frozen much of the country in time for unknown (but surely sinister!) reasons. If it sounds like I’ve just described the entire plot of the final few hours of an RPG, bingo, I have. You now know everything you’ll be doing in In Stars and Time, over and over again. Because as Siffrin quickly finds out, every time he dies on the way to that fateful battle, time restarts. He’s given chance after chance to ensure the safety of his friends, all the way to the end, again and again. And even when the crew finally succeeds in their goals…well, there’s more video game after that perhaps, but I won’t say more.
I don’t have nearly enough room in this little column to gush over all the things In Stars and Time does that made me fall so hard for it, but I’ll try to take you through some highlights. The art in In Stars and Time is splendid, its character portraits and comic panel scenes bursting with personality. That same level of detail is present and appreciated from the game’s stellar descriptive writing, too, successfully convincing me to poke in every single nook and cranny on each subsequent loop, eager to see what text might have changed as Siffrin’s knowledge of the world grew and outlook changed. Mercifully, I didn’t have to endure block after block of text if I didn’t want to each time, since In Stars and Time has multiple useful gameplay options unveiled over the first few loops that let me skip or speed through bits I’d seen repeatedly. Its battle system, too, is a goofy yet effective play on typical RPG systems featuring a “Rock-Paper-Scissors” system of weaknesses and resistances. It’s literally rock, paper, and scissors-based attacks, with different characters boasting different specialties and enemies signaling their own types by, yes, displaying the appropriate hand signs for their types.
It helps too that the cast is easy to adore – funny, complex, imperfect, kind, eccentric, all in different ways. Every loop offers a new onion layer to peel off about each of them, from Isabeau’s unspoken secret to Odile’s mysterious research project. What’s more, they are all, in their own ways, jubilantly queer. They are gay, and bi, and trans, and varying flavors of asexual, and they talk about these topics with one another with the curiosity and care you would want to see from a group of close, loving, supportive friends. I wasn’t expecting demisexuality to be discussed in a video game with the same halting vulnerability I have used only in discussions with those I’m most intimate with, but I found it in In Stars and Time. What a thing to see! In Stars and Time can be a dark game at times, but its queerness is pure joy and love.
But what kept me hooked on In Stars and Time long enough to see all that joy was the mystery at the heart of it all. Fairly early in the game, once the loops get started, it becomes apparent that there’s something more going on under the story’s skin. I don’t want to be too specific, but the late-game hanging plot threads gave me the same tingling, unsettling curiosity I had when I first saw a Gaster follower in Undertale, or when I first dared to break a crystal in Bravely Default. I already know I missed at least a few optional hanging plot threads on my first playthrough, and I’ve been buzzing for weeks now waiting for In Stars and Time to come out so I can compare notes with others who have finished it.
The level of detail present in each loop of In Stars and Time was surprising to me until I learned that developer Adrienne Bazir (who uses both she/her and they/them pronouns) has essentially been intricately dreaming up every plot thread for years now. It’s technically her second game, following a love story about a human and an alien bee called Serre. She tells me she started working on the game’s free prologue, Start Again, in 2020 – but Bazir had been doodling little webcomics of Siffrin, trapped in a time loop, well before even that. And Start Again itself was an attempt to scale back from their big ambitions for the story. Bazir had been advised not to tackle massive, 20+ hour games so early in her career, so she opted to start small…but even the Prologue ended up longer than she had expected, and so too grew In Stars and Time.
Bazir’s work blossoms from a bundle of inspirations I don’t often get to geek out about with game developers. They tell me the game’s party members are partly inspired by the Tales of Symphonia crew of Genis, Raine, Lloyd, and Colette, saying that they “wanted to recreate [the dynamic] of having this group of people that are all very different from each other, and that would probably not even meet each other in a normal world.” Her art style reminds me, on purpose, of Gigi D.G.’s Cucumber Quest webcomic series, which was in turn inspired by Paper Mario and Kirby. Though it’s in black and white, which Bazir says is for simplicity’s sake, but which I start to suspect as I continue to play may have other connotations as well. You’ll have to figure that one out for yourself.
Curiously, her work is contemporary with a recent surge of time loop games (Deathloop, 12 Minutes, Forgotten City, Loop Hero, Elsinore, Re:Call, Returnal, Outer Wilds, I could go on). And like many of them, Bazir cites the COVID-19 pandemic as a conceptual prompt for much of how she dealt with the concept. In their case, this especially manifested within the main character Siffrin’s experience of the loops, and the gradual deterioration of his mental state in response.
“I wasn’t seeing any of my friends, I was barely going outside, so every day did feel like a time loop…I spent a lot of days at home not talking to anyone, so I put a lot of those feelings of isolation, of trying to reach out, but not exactly knowing how to reach out, in both the prologue and In Stars and Time, that whole [feeling of] trying to tell your friends, ‘Hey, can we be closer friends so that we can hang out?’ and then not knowing how to do it.
“…I talked a lot about isolation, but it’s also clearly somewhat of a metaphor for depression as well, and that’s what a lot of people are dealing with as well in recent times. In a lot of ways, a year after I finished writing the game and even before, I knew that writing this story would allow me to get all of those feelings out. But even now, I’m like, ‘Oh, wow. I can tell exactly what I was dealing with with this storyline, that I did with this moment that I wrote, and everything.’ I feel like it’s going to get clearer and clearer as I get away from the game…That’s what art is, putting yourself on the page and hoping that people either see you, or feel seen, or both, or neither, is what art is all about.”
Mission successful for Bazir then, as I wept over the credit roll for this one. I’ve played some grand RPGs this year – Baldur’s Gate 3, Octopath Traveler 2, Sea of Stars, Chained Echoes, Pokemon – but I haven’t played anything in a long time that’s made me feel as seen as In Stars and Time.
Rebekah Valentine is a senior reporter for IGN. Got a story tip? Send it to [email protected].