AMD Radeon HD 5450
I want to starve to death, it’s true. I long to feel the pangs of hunger and the desert of thirst at my heels as I dive into the escapist valleys of videogames. In a bizarre way, having these intrusive basic needs from the very world I am escaping from pulls me further into the game. I delight in taking swigs of vodka and chasing it with tasteless sausage as I play STALKER. I revelled in the addition of a food meter in Minecraft while my friends bemoaned it. For me, there has never been enough survival aspects in the realm of videogames. So it’s armed with this survivalist love that I head into Don’t Starve...
Don’t Starve, the child of studio Klei Entertainment, bringers of the ultraviolent Shank and Mark of the Ninja. Don’t Starve is a very different breed of game, however. Klei eschews the Tartakovsky-esque aesthetic of their previous games for something a little more Tim Burton. The smooth and expressive animations are still on show, but this time there’s a little more texture and an atmosphere a bit off kilter. It works well, and especially with the waves near the shoreline, recalls the old hand drawn maps of the pre-cartography years.
Plant a tree, build a house, raise the kids...
As the game starts, you are dropped into the middle of nowhere. A mysterious gentleman appears warning you to that you should likely find something to eat before the dark comes. Thus you are off, without direction or guidance of any kind. You’ll wander about, gather some items and find that the bar on the left lights up when you’ve gathered enough materials. From this sidebar you’ll be able to build a variety of tools, check out some possible future projects, and move towards building yourself a sustainable future. It’s here that Klei’s experience with their first game, Eets, becomes relevant. At its heart, Don’t Starve is a puzzle game of sorts. While Shank had you controlling crowds, and Mark of the Ninja tested your use of space and deadly tools, Don’t Starve has you maximizing your efficiency and attempting to scramble together a plan before the overwhelming night sets in.
It’s a deep, dark night as well. Crippling both atmospherically and mechanically, the night of Don’t Starve is the encroaching primal darkness of our childhood fears--the kind we imagine monsters dwell in. This time they do. Fail to build a campfire in time and the dark will overtake you, blanketing the screen in total darkness then having you cut down by the jaws by some unseen horror. While you can fend off the darkness with a torch, ultimately you’ll need to set up camp with a fire and some flammable material to survive until the morning arrives. It’s important to note that death is permanent as well. Getting killed sets you back to day one of the game, and you can only save by quitting or getting to the next day. To offset this a bit, the maps are randomly generated and each death adds a bit to an metagame experience bar that moves you closer to unlocking new characters.
You will die. My first few games saw me caught off guard by a lack of resources and an inattention to my basic needs. Even later, as I learned the recipes of multiple items, more efficient methods of obtaining resources and started to form plans I found myself caught off guard by new dangers lurking around the corner. The progression of the game mirrors that of Minecraft to a degree. You start with nothing, confused and without direction, but as you continue on you begin to learn how to create your own tools and slowly progress towards a state of mastery over the environment. Don’t Starve’s progression is more methodical and calculated, however. While it is still mysterious once you begin to understand the mechanics at play, you’ll soon learn the path to progression, even if you have difficulties getting there. The simple act of forging your own path and unraveling these mechanics and connections is a vital and satisfying part of the gameplay, and mechanical spoilers will be abound when talking about it, so proceed with caution.
To provide an example of a typical day, you’ll begin by collecting grasses, and pulling branches from saplings. Combining the sticks with flint you find in the area, you can form a variety of tools: axes, shovels, pickaxes etc. Axes, of course, are used to harvest wood, which becomes helpful later at night when you need to build a campfire. From there you can pick berries and build a bigger backpack to carry more stuff. Survive long enough and you’ll find that berry picking is a fruitless endeavor that won’t keep you afloat for long, and you’ll find ways to hunt the game in the area.
I’m going to stomp all of you dead!
Here the game rewards shortcuts and efficient solutions. Finding out that it’s better to pick carrots and use them as bait for traps instead of eating them, digging up entire saplings for more materials, building a better campfire using the stones you’ve mined, is both rewarding and satisfying. These discoveries prove to be very time saving, and potentially lifesaving. One of the greatest discoveries I had, was born of desperation. I had been futilely attempting to chase rabbits into my traps, having run out of bait. I’d used up most of my materials to create a backpack and traps, suddenly finding myself without enough materials to build a campfire. In a desperate attempt to ward off the night and the residing monsters nipping at my heels, I lit a half burned torch. Not only was I able to gather enough materials to create a better fire pit, but I discovered that at night some of the rabbits fell asleep outside of their rabbit holes, leaving them completely vulnerable to my attacks and allowing me to effortlessly harvest their meat for future consumption. And just when I think I’ve got a good thing going, a new danger shows up and kills me dead.
It’s the creation of this kind of perpetual motion machine that drives the game forward. You continue to find ways to create a more efficient, more sustainable way to survive the night, until a wrench is thrown in, or a gear gets caught and breaks down the entire machine. Then you rebuild it and make it better until you come to the next problem. It’s a rhythm that’s intentionally very rogue-like in nature, having you come back again and again, each time slowly starting to understand a little bit more. While the previews of items in the tech tree give you an idea of what to work towards, you never really know what the items’ true uses are until you play around and experiment in the world with them, finally finding a new way to exert your will on the environment. Klei’s very much aware of it as well, with small touches such as the tongue in cheek, adventure game style description of the items in the game, or the way your character’s beard begins to grow after a few days. “Take that nature!” he shouts as you examine a cut down tree and build a razor to shave with.
While it’s still early to make any final decisions, Klei seems to have a grasp on a satisfying flow between the mundane immediate tasks of gathering materials, and the eventual payoff of discovery and survival. While the game’s directive may start off vague, and a bit obtuse it always gives you hints on what may be coming next, and like the more involved puzzles of Dark Souls and La Mulana, it proves very satisfying to forge a solution out of what you are given. The logic of interaction creates the same kind of payoff that better entries in the point-and-click adventure genre inspire.
Where Don’t Starve lags behind however, is in the ultimate feeling of carving your impression into the environment and the general feeling of being in a well crafted world. The procedural generation feels more random, while there may be roads and forests created none of them feel memorable or unique, and even with the built in map feature it’s easy to get lost. Until you begin to build a science machine, which allows you to build new tools and use gold to research new ones, it’s hard to feel like you’ve set up a unique base camp, or made any permanent mark on the world. Additionally, the world isn’t much fun to explore. There’s a sameness to the environment, and a feeling that it’s not much more than a set of resources in a sandbox for you to exploit. You’re never restricted to any paths, or have to find your way around any obstacles and the world becomes “flat” because of it. Admittedly, the game doesn’t lend itself much base building or navigation, but without some way to make the space yours it seems to be lacking something.
Probably just a paradox.
Ultimately the game is designed towards having you reach an ultimate goal, death is going to be a frequent visitor and, as such, it’s probably better that you don’t have a home to get attached to, and instead live the life of the nomad, slowly gearing yourself up towards elite scientist-warrior status. It’s much less of a sandbox that it initially seems, and it’s definitely not going to have the same mass appeal Klei’s previous titles had, but so far it’s proved compelling, frightening, confusing, humorous and definitely unique.