A Starlight Shores Analysis: Time & Ambiguity

Header Image from Starlight Shores.

Note that this analysis of Starlight Shores does contain spoilers for the story. As such, it will sparingly show screenshots from the game; however, they will not portray the integral story beats per se. Instead, I’ll be using them to convey what I believe capture some of the themes of the game. Still, if you only want to hear my thoughts without spoilers, this will summarize it:

Starlight Shores is a hidden gem masquerading as a writer’s first full-release. The dialogue is poignant, and the short-novel style fully utilizes the medium while playing into the theme of time.

No review copy was sent to me, nor was there any other incentive for writing this analysis. Starlight Shores was bought with my own money and my connection with the development team is limited to following them on Twitter and tweeting at them sporadically. 

Starlight Shores is available on both Steam and Itch.io

The development team as documented on the Itch.io page and in the game’s credits:

Sam Kerr- Creative Director and Lead Developer

Nanae Lia- Creative Director, CG & Character Artist

Tanuma San- CG & Background Artist

Alcaknight- Lead Composer

BackgroundTK- Outdoor Background Artist

Re.Alice- Logo Designer

A special thanks to Uncle Mugen, CC backgrounds were from his lemmasoft page!

Click Here for their Discord!


I don’t know what I expected from Starlight Shores (SS). I played the demo of Tidal Blossoms (TB) a while back, also written by Sam Kerr of Delphinium Interactive, and from what I can recall it was quite decent. I wouldn’t single it out as anything too spectacular, but I think it’s still important to bring up. The fact that they’re both in the same universe and SS is a sort of prequel to TB aside- from a writing perspective, it’s very interesting because the tones are perceivably different, or at least that’s my feeling.

Tone is something I’ve commented on before and even then I noted that I’m hesitant to do so because it’s such an ephemeral and subjective concept. It’s very easy for tone to control an author’s writing rather than it purvey throughout. As such, intended tones often come off heavy-handed and almost amateur in their application. Its role in Starlight Shores though is dare I say excellent. But before that, what is Starlight Shores? 

To quote the the short blurb on the game’s page:

“Starlight Shores is an island-themed romance game where you’ll visit the town of Seaside with your friends. Party under the stars, play games together, and remember that your choices matter!”

It’s very straight-forward about being a romance game which is quite ironic in retrospect when we view the dynamic of Theo, Lena, and Will who is our main character. To start, while Will is the MC, he is by no means a blank slate to be puppeteered around completely by the player. His history is extremely relevant to the story as Theo was his close friend and their parting left a sense of longing and regret which aided in dividing the two. Being able to reunite after so long, it’s both a blessing and a curse. People change over time and without significant introspection, it’s difficult to consciously notice that change within one’s self, regardless if it was for better or for worse. After so long, will the memories they made remain consistent with who shows up at Seaside? 

That’s a good hook in its own right, but the personality and views of a person aren’t the only things that change with time. Our lives are never static. Conversely, they’re always in development and that brings new stories and new characters, even if we’re sometimes stuck in the past. That’s where Lena comes in, the new best friend of Theo. She’s affectionately referred to as Theo’s replacement best friend, a stand-in for Will, and that has very relevant implications. Top among them is the formation of a perceived romance barrier. Yes, Lena is not just a love interest for the protagonist. She too carries feelings for Theo and draws very significant parallels to Will as is mentioned time and time again. 

The dynamic of the previous two paragraphs is the crux of the story in a nutshell and your choices dictate your answer. All that was only to explain the premise but henceforth I’ll be talking about its themes. The themes which stood out the most to me were these:

Time & Ambiguity

I’ve already discussed time’s role in the synopsis, but I talked about it in a way which denoted inevitable change. I don’t mean to contradict that, you can’t stop time, but critical is what we decided to do within that context. We are not helpless bystanders that watch the world go by. Though our lives are fleeting, all the more reason to seize what we want while we still can. Carpe diem. But what does that really mean? Does that involve reconnecting with and romancing Theo? Does it mean to date Lena? Does it mean to reconcile that your feelings were not romantic but platonic?

If you date Theo, then you’re affirming that while both you and her have made mistakes in the past, you still love each other and vow to be there for one another in the future. That goodbye kiss, whether purposefully memorable or done spuriously, bound you two together in a relationship not to be confined by distance. Lena though? She’ll never end up with Theo who she loves dearly. She missed her chance by waiting too long. Maybe she can accept that, but can you? 

A similar conundrum persists if you date Lena. Perhaps you do contend that you love Theo in a platonic way and so you choose Lena. Well, she still loves Theo. Your choice is then to hook up with Lena for the night or abstain, in the case of the latter not knowing what will come from that choice. You can spur her on, but at this point all you can do is hope the future will prove fruitful for the two. Do you opt for sex for the sake of it, again hoping that a proper relationship will further blossom from that? Only time will tell.

And of course, when you maneuver a path to bring Theo and Lena together, for the most part, you step out of the picture. You’ll be there to support the two, but are you alright leaving Starlight Shores like that? You’re playing a romance game, so the game’s objective in theory is most likely to end up in a relationship. It’s your choice to walk away knowing that your preconceived goal wasn’t met, but perhaps this was the supposed correct choice. Or was an ending without a relationship between the player and someone else a waste of time?

I don’t have an answer, but I do know that there’s no correct choice. I’d posit that the author didn’t have a canonical choice in mind either. You find this string of text at various different endings: “This wasn’t the night that I expected, but I’m glad that I’m here.” Your choices are something you have to live with. You don’t always need to justify your actions and you won’t always know where you’ll end up. There’s nothing wrong with that though. It’s through the passing of time that we ourselves bring meaning to our choices and our lives in full. 

Throughout all of this analysis, there’s been a level of ambiguity present reflective of the VN. Sometimes ambiguity is frowned upon, but usually that critique is levied at a lack of information which prevents readers from formulating any cohesive meaning from a work. That isn’t the case in Starlight Shores. There’s undoubtedly ambiguity, but it’s tactful in its use as the meaning needs to be both ascertained by the player and the characters themselves. Take this for instance:

Besides the fact that it’s a beautiful line, the context of the scene is discussing the past of Theo and Will’s and if they were ever truly in love. The ambiguity here is not just well placed, but it’s accurate. Relationships and emotions in general are ever so complicated and sometimes our minds get a bit boggled trying to make sense of the events around us. It’s easy to second guess and doubt ourselves, especially when we’re in stressful situations and I think it’s fair to say that the isolation that came from moving away from a potential partner and the rigors of college life are significantly stressful. Moreover, the quote plays into the idea of personas and romanticization. We wear a mask to appease different social groups. Individual masks subtly alter our mindset and behaviour, though not too far from the cumulative average. These masks though are not only relevant when outward facing. When we view them all, our emotions must be consistent with them otherwise one of them must change. This conflict of memory and emotion, not knowing which is correct, leads to a downward spiral as one’s self is lost. 

I’d like to bring in an academic article titled My Time, Your Time, or Our Time? Time Perception and its Associations With Interpersonal Goals and Life Outcomes by Yu Niiya (2019). Niiya talks about the concepts of zero-sum and nonzero-sum time. The former is when time is viewed as a limited commodity or resource, usually taken up, taken away, or spent on another in an interpersonal relationship (p. 1440). A nonzero-sum on the other hand is when time is not perceived as property, neither given or taken away. Rather, it’s unowned and exists for everyone’s benefit. It’s argued that people most likely perceive time as zero-sum or nonzero-sum in different situations. The conclusion to take away from that article are the primary results about time perception, interpersonal goals, and life outcomes: In layman’s terms, people who wish to help others are more likely to have a nonzero-sum perception of time since they view the processing of helping to aid in self-growth resulting in no perceivable loss. Overall, there was a correlation between nonzero-sum perception and happiness (pp. 1451-1452).

These conclusions are considerable when we think about the dialogue contained within Starlight Shores. By not looking at time as a commodity, we stand to be happier for it. Thoughts about wasting each other’s time should cease, though that’s definitely easier said than done. However, this does happen at certain points in the game, principally select endings. It fits thematically as that’s the culmination of their life experience and conversations that transpire- learning to live in the moment, uncaring of judgement by others, wholly trusting, and only wishing to be happy with one another.

Parallel Timelines

Before I close out, it wouldn’t do to avoid talking about the “short story” romance style of the game. On a meta level, the player experiences the story through parallel timelines via their different choices. It’s through these different stories that we learn about different facets of individual characters’ lives. The background information is both relevant to understanding them and substantial when accumulated over multiple playthroughs. It’s even on a meta level that we once again return to the core themes of time and ambiguity. We can see that on certain routes, say when Will romances Theo, Lena is willing to grant them reprieve and essentially gives up on her chance with Theo by returning to the house. With this knowledge of character’s actions and mindsets, we can make a more informed decision about what we really want to do.

I think this is of the utmost importance to other developers who also develop their games in the “short story” romance style: consistency, and Starlight Shores does it well. There must be consistency in actions and if not, there must be a very good reason. Undoubtedly characters are dynamic and their words and actions should suit the situation, but they need to remain true to their personality. Otherwise, you run the risk of ruining players’ expectations of how a character will act, negating any sense of knowing that character on a deeper level. Breaking those expectations is no doubt useful, but that’s a tool to be used sparingly.

With that, we’ve reached the end of this analysis. Starlight Shores is a wonderful game that has somehow managed to claw its way into my list of favorite VNs. Admittedly, I didn’t expect that, but credit where credit’s due. The writing was superb, the artwork was beautiful, and the music a joy to listen to. Thank you for reading and I implore you to buy Starlight Shores if you haven’t done so already.

Critique

As I don’t review games as I’ve done in the past, I’ve opted to bundle my critique of the game here. Firstly: the amount of choices. It’s an odd critique to be sure, but I do believe it’s justified. At junctions, I sometimes felt unsure as to which choices were relevant. Couple this with the amount of choices, and there are quite a number of permutations to go through. I don’t feel as if it detracted from the experience, and as has been stated, there is importance even in the finer details of small junctions, but something to note nonetheless. 

I believe this problem of “getting lost” when searching for a new end doesn’t need to be solved by lessening those choices, though practical and aesthetically pleasing ways of doing so are difficult to think of. The most efficient and fitting way I can come up with at the time of writing is implementing coding which denotes that a choice has been picked before. Other mechanics to consider are a hint system or a flow chart that effectively serves as a chapter select after a certain amount of progression has been achieved. These two systems don’t seem very pleasing though and I’d opt for the initial recommendation. For all that, this is the critique and recommendation of one person. Other methods are available if the critique is to be agreed with in the first place. 

Two other minor critiques are the speed at which text fades in and the settings (preferences) screen. I think the fade-in is a tad too slow and could use a slight bump. Maybe allow that speed to be configurable in the settings. The settings screen itself is, and this really is the most minor of critiques, a bit plain. There’s nothing wrong with something default, but in the future and with a bigger budget, it’s a little detail that would be appreciated. 

Despite these critiques, I still vehemently believe that the quality of Starlight Shores is worth your time and money. 


The game’s credits and potential conflict of interests are listed again for redundancy:

No review copy was sent to me, nor was there any other incentive for writing this analysis. Starlight Shores was bought with my own money and my connection with the development team is limited to following them on Twitter and tweeting at them sporadically. 

Starlight Shores is available on both Steam and Itch.io

The development team as documented on the Itch.io page and in the game’s credits:

Sam Kerr- Creative Director and Lead Developer

Nanae Lia- Creative Director, CG & Character Artist

Tanuma San- CG & Background Artist

Alcaknight- Lead Composer

BackgroundTK- Outdoor Background Artist

Re.Alice- Logo Designer

A special thanks to Uncle Mugen, CC backgrounds were from his lemmasoft page!

Click Here for their Discord!

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