An appetizing, lonely feast.
Don’t Starve drives me mad like few games ever do. It provided me with dozens of exhilarating brushes with death, but padded those unforgettable moments with long stretches of tedious busy work. It’s the type of game where you can spend hours mining the environment, outfitting your character, and fortifying your home base, only to have your slice of paradise shattered by a terrifying, nearly-unstoppable shadow beast invasion. It’s a roguelike at heart, meaning that death is inevitable, and once you die, it’s truly game over. Don’t Starve will never, ever hold your hand, and I both love it and hate it for that.
Klei Entertainment’s stylish take on Minecraft’s formula through the lense of a roguelike drops you into the gorgeous wild and immediately abandons you to figure out how to survive on your own. Some adventurers will view this freedom as a liberating canvas on which they can express their patience, creativity, and bravery, but this complete lack of direction or goals beyond simply staying alive prevented me from ever really bonding with Don’t Starve.
I was charmed, though. The moment I landed in my randomly generated world I was struck by an immense appreciation for the paper-cutout graphical style and whimsical presentation. Like a popup book from the mind of Tim Burton, the gothic-inspired look makes even the most benign shrubbery seem threatening. This atmosphere of a child’s storybook gone awry is aided by a novelesque menu system and comically blunt bits of story. The visuals are accompanied by a carnivalesque soundtrack that, while immediately catchy, lacks any sort of variation and quickly led me to switch it off and search for my own creepy music to play in the background.
The gameplay cycle is simple: explore the world and gather materials during the relative safety of daylight, survive the night by crafting a fire and consuming some food, repeat. And while there’s a fair amount of mundanity associated with that, those efforts culminate in desperate and tense struggles for survival. In one game I found myself low on supplies and pursued through the woods by a horde of vicious spiders. Realizing there was little hope for escape, I threw caution to the wind and started a nearby tree on fire. Frighteningly quickly, the entire forest went up in flames, and my attackers were all reduced to piles of silk… which I picked up and used to make a vest.
Of course, a few minutes later my sanity meter drained due to my character’s exhaustion, and my weakness gave a laughably weak frog the perfect opportunity to chisel the rest of my health away. It was a fair death – I could’ve prevented it by doing more mentally stimulating activities like crafting science items like lightning rods – but what bothered me about it is that I was left with nearly no recognition from Don’t Starve itself. No achievement, no leaderboard score, nothing but the story I just told you. Experience is its own reward, but it’d be nice to have something to show for it, too.
Unfair deaths do happen, and some of mine had to do with not being able to pick up a life-saving object that was right in front of me. While the 3/4ths overhead perspective helps show off the gorgeous art and makes the world feel like a living, breathing diorama, it also creates frustrating moments when items are hidden directly behind pieces of the environment. The thing about forests is that there are lots of trees in them, and there’s often times no angle from which an item becomes clickable. When running low on health and chased by one of the world’s many creatures, this hiccup becomes the difference between life and another 30 minutes of repetitive scrounging.
The only real breaks in the cycle are bits of more focused challenges in the form of portals scattered throughout the environment that transport you to smaller, mission-based adventures. Usually they revolve around using a dowsing rod to scour the environment for specific items, all while a tougher crowd of enemies try to devour you. These help advance the sparse, yet interesting narrative, but completing them dropped me back into the dangerous wilds without the sense of accomplishment I so desperately craved.
What always gives me pause when considering starting a new adventure is that the first 30 minutes or so of each new play session is an extremely dull, repetitive experience. Sure, every time I come back having gleaned more knowledge on the inner workings of the crafting system or the behavioral patterns of certain creatures, but my character has not only lost all his worldly belongings, but forgotten how to craft advanced items. The process of re-teaching him reminds me of the way I slog through the opening boredom of Tetris or Geometry Wars in order to get experience those final few moments of frantic survival.
Those introductory moments need more variety. Whether that comes from bigger random events or multiplayer or different character abilities doesn’t matter, but Don’t Starve needs some factor to make the penalty for death feel more like losing progress and less like having to spend a half hour in purgatory before anything meaningful happens. Right now, that something is missing. Klei has promised to deliver substantial updates over the next six months, and I’m definitely curious to see what new content it can incorporate – and if it can make the opening less of a lonely trudge.
Like most roguelikes, progress in Don’t Starve oftentimes feels like a Sisyphean task. Time spent battling shadow creatures, building a farm, and ultimately an inevitable death are rewarding once they get going, but failure to recognize success robs them of meaning, and there’s a long period of doldrums at the start of every new game. While I appreciate the world, atmosphere, and mechanics, I can’t help but wish that there was a light at the end of Don’t Starve’s dark and lonely tunnel.
By Marty Sliva