Published on May 7th, 2013 | by Andy Astruc9
Not starving to death seems like a pretty simple goal. Positively low key in this world of alien chest-rippers, crater-riddled war zones and dragons with fricking laser beams in their heads that we gamers call home. Remembering to eat seemed almost laughable in comparison to my usual tasks, so I took it patronisingly under advisement and went about my business. And that’s how I died with my axe halfway through a tree.
Only a few days had gone by in the wilderness, and I had been busying myself with gathering supplies, fending off the odd spider attack and building the sturdiest fire pit known to mankind. That’s when Don’t Starve hit me with a big stick, as my hunger dropped to zero and my health began to ebb away. Frantic running in all directions looking for carrots yielded nothing but quizzical looks from nearby birds, and, before long, I made a horrible gurgling noise and left a very embarrassed corpse. You see, contrary to appearances, Don’t Starve is actually a game about surviving. It’s a game I’ve grown to absolutely love, but it continues to hate me. And I keep trying to impress it, like a sad child running after an indifferent father. Why won’t you just hug me, Don’t Starve?
On first spotting the game, you might be drawn in by the storybook art style, with the game’s hero (such as he is) staring grumpily out at you and a playfully spooky forest bringing back memories of Grimm fables and Tim Burton productions before he stared too Depp into the abyss. But Don’t Starve has more in common with the truly twisted works of Roald Dahl, with some Twin Peaks and Lovecraftian discomfort mixed in for taste.
The narrative is deliberately sketchy, with Wilson (the Gentleman Scientist, or a host of other characters) waking up in a strange wood as a tall man with a cigar suggests he look after himself before vanishing in a puff of smoke. Your goal is nothing more complicated than surviving for the longest time possible. Much like real life, actually. There is an adventure mode with more story to cling to, but in true Don’t Starve fashion it’s hidden behind a secret door in the survival mode. Various items and creatures you stumble across in the course of your adventure will lend themselves to filling in gaps, but this is overwhelmingly a world that reveals itself through experience; how much you get out of it — and the game as a whole — is dependent on your willingness to mess with it.
Within some very strict, but very natural, guidelines, that is. Don’t Starve‘s randomly generated worlds operate under certain rules, and learning, following and sometimes disrupting those rules is the only way to avoid a million tiny deaths. Trees, rocks, plants and animals can be used to make tools to aid your survival. Hunger slowly ticks down towards zero, so you need to eat on a regular basis amid all this industrious activity. Food you find lying about, such as berries and seeds, only provides a small boost, so you will inevitably have to learn how to trap and hunt animals. And that’s before we even get started on cooking. At the end of each day it will begin to get dark, and if you get caught without a fire something unspeakable and indescribable will happen to you in the blackness of night.
All your activities and their accompanying requirements flow effortlessly back and forth through the course of a day. Wilson needs to build a fire pit, so he has to collect the required wood and stones. To do that he needs a pickaxe and a regular axe, which require flint and twigs. In the course of mining for stone, he discovers enough gold to build a Science Machine, which in turn allows him to finally construct a farm for growing vegetables. The harsh nature of the wilderness and the interconnectedness of tool recipes means there is never a single moment where you’re left with nothing to do. New things can be built, new areas can be explored and new pieces of land can be tamed.
Some will be harder to wrangle than others, and randomly generated maps ensure you can never predict how dangerous an area will be until you wander into it. While you’re likely to be dropped into a quiet field replete with evergreen trees, useful grasses and screeching bunny rabbits, a minute’s walk in any direction could lead to a vast, rock-covered savannah, a village of Pigmen or a dank, swampy zone where purple tentacles try to whip off your oversized head. You might set up camp in a quiet spot, only to discover that a spider nest — dormant during the day — has burst and sent an army of hairy-legged doom into your camp. Giant birds will headbutt you, and sometimes a pack of angry dogs will chase you and rip of your delicious face for seemingly no reason. You can combat these foes with a variety of weapons (if you’ve managed to actually craft them instead of getting distracted by building bird cages) but fighting has costs, and often you’ll prefer to run like a cowardly little baby.
Any fight could be your last, and 30 days of farming, hunting, crafting and surviving will be gone forever. This creates a strange and tense balancing act in any given playthrough, as you work to collect resources without forgetting to protect yourself against the many dangers. And you need to make sure you don’t starve. The unforgiving, stony face of Don’t Starve means your first few (dozen) tries will either be very cautious and sparse exercises in bare bones camping, or haphazard lunatic runs through the woods poking and prodding everything in sight.
I was a fan of the latter, being far from a patient person, and I managed to stumble through one playthrough by forgetting to eat, dying at the outskirts of a pig village, being resurrected by a strange totem I had jabbed earlier, getting distracted and accidentally angering a swarm of bees (I thought it was a rabbit), fleeing across the map to a graveyard. I then ignored my pitiful health and started digging up graves instead, finding a wealth of treasures. I disturbed a ghost in one grave, which followed me slowly across the map and murdered me next to my own straw bed.
I was immediately revived by an amulet I robbed from a grave earlier. In celebration I had a delicious steak, which turned out to be poison. Game over.
Even after playing Don’t Starve for so long — particularly as I’ve toyed with it since the beta stages — I’m still rather overwhelmed by the possibilities it contains. Each new game begun is a voluntary slap in the face; a contract between you and the mysterious woods to make the most of one another. You are simultaneously presented with so much possibility and so much risk to overcome, and the whole ordeal is oddly energising. And the game thankfully offers fabulous intrinsic rewards for your progress and learning. Struggling through your early days crouched over a tiny campfire, fending off monsters with a stick, becomes part of your grand tale when you sit proudly at the centre of your very own Pigman village, vast vegetable plantation or stone fort.
Klei have created a masterpiece in Don’t Starve. It manages to be endlessly charming to experience, even when eldritch horrors sneak into the corners of your vision and jovial tuba music punctuates an accidental forest fire which decimates your pet collection. The game is crazily simple to pick up and start experimenting with, but holds enough depth to get me thinking about my own real-world survival skills (or lack thereof). The experience is potentially vast, with the possibility to focus entirely on cooking desserts or building stylish huts, but the solid framework and harsh survival focus means play lends itself to emergent experiences. Play it, fail, and become a better person as a result. Virtually, at least.