Wot I Think: Don’t Starve

By Alec Meer on April 26th, 2013 at 6:00 pm.

Don’t Starve is an isometric 2D survival-roleplaying game, set in a randomly-generated fantasy world of threats and food shortages, and from the studio behind Mark of the Ninja. You have to not starve.

Reader, I starved. I feel as bad about disobeying the order as I do about losing my character. A negative imperative – ‘don’t starve’ – is so much more affecting than a positive one ‘orcs must die’. There’s a sense of threat in it, far more of an ‘or else’ than any form of Go Ahead And Do This. Don’t Starve really is about trying not to starve too: not eating is simply not an option. The cold fingers of personal famine are forever on one’s shoulder, and it’s crucial to remember that even as another kind of hunger, the familiar craving for better loot and gear, tries to seize control . When my own imperative was not ‘don’t starve’, and was instead ‘get stuff’, I last significantly less time. All I had to do was not starve: how could I lose sight of that?

Don’t Starve, in which you play an initially helpless character who suddenly finds themselves in a wilderness filled with plants, animals and monsters, is a survival game with a generous helping of roguelike sensibilities thrown in. The best comparison, I think, is the first hour or two in a Minecraft survival game: that panicked period of trying to gather and create a few subsistence basics before night falls and the beasts arrive. It’s that feeling, that vaguely sinister brew of anxiety, exploration, adventure and frailty extended, only without the option to just go hide in a hole in the ground and with the ever-present need to eat.

Eat what? Well, that’s the thing. Initially you can make do on seeds and berries, but they only keep the gastric wolf from the door for a short period. Berries do slowly grow back once picked, but it doesn’t take much to clear the immediate area of found food then have nothing to go on for another couple of in-game days (each of which lasts maybe ten minutes, with a shorter, deadlier night in between them). Hence, you need to escalate, find more substantial food sources and create the tools necessary to obtain them.

Gather enough grass and twigs, and you can A-Team up a basic trap. Plonk it down near a rabbit hole, stick some berries in it, retreat to a safe distance and before you know it you’ll have yourself some long-eared meat. Unfortunately, it’s an awful lot of palaver for what turns out to still be a fairly small meal. Build yourself a fire – which you have to do during the nights anyway, or Things will devour you in the darkness – and you cook it to provide a bit more of a boost, but even then your belly meter will budge but minutely.

Bigger prey still thus becomes necessary, and more elaborate devices required to trap them. Turkeys, for instance, are a decent feast, but good luck catching one. Really you’ll need a blow dart. To do that you’ll need feathers. To get those you’ll need to catch a bird. To catch a bird you’ll need a special trap made of spider silk. To get that you’ll need to fight some spiders. If you can find them. If they don’t swarm you en masse when you do, and roundly murder you.
Even if they don’t, you might be so hungry and injured by the whole affair that you need to immediately eat the first bird you catch with your new trap. The turkey, meanwhile, gobbles off scot free, perhaps never to be found again.

The game’s filled with stressful decisions like that. Any animal is a potential food source, but usually it’s also part of the food chain, a step to catching something far more energy-packed. The dilemma’s forever short-term survival versus long-term planning, and it doesn’t help matters that food perishes if you hang onto it for too long rather than eat it or use it as bait.

Meanwhile, as the hungry days roll on, the nights grow fiercer and your survivor’s mind slowly frays. Flickering shadows gradually coalesce into all too corporeal nightmare beasts, while the similarly hungry wildlife of this land (especially the damned spiders) will increasingly seek you out as a tasty food source. You need a base, of sorts, which begins as a simple fire pit but gradually grows to contain defensive walls, research machines and a stash of all the resources you don’t have room to carry around with you.

Again, very Minecraft, but again, you don’t get to hide and again, even if you just stayed out of trouble you’ll starve to death in no time. You have to go on the offensive even though you’re a frail thing. So precious resources, grass and wood and flint and stone and all the things they could be turned into, like planks and bricks, have to spent on armour and weapons. Very quickly, you’ll run out of something or other, and that means you’ll have to roam further afield from your makeshift base to find more, risking not making it back before nightfall.

Much like FTL, Don’t Starve is a well-oiled machine of threat and adventure, requiring you to push on even though you’re terrified to. Unlike FTL, it can quickly feel something of a grind. Upon death, you start over with a new character and, if you choose it, a new, randomly-generated world. Trouble is, what random essentially means is different placing and amount of grass, berries, trees, spiders, pigmen and whatnot.

There isn’t, at least in the early ‘days’, too much in the way of surprise, so every time it’s a slow, arduous matter of gathering and building the same essential things, just to get back to the point where you can start to take on bigger challenges and build more elaborate traps. I really want to get further, survive longer, fight and eat bigger things, but I’m not sure how many more times I can face repeating these same early procedures.

That’s the consequence of anything with perma-death, of course, but I just wish there was a way those early stages could mix it up more. You can, when starting a new game, tweak the quantities of any of the lifeforms and resources around, so at least those early days could be sped up, but it feels an awful lot like cheating.

Still, the long-running beta of Don’t Starve has seen ongoing updates and additions, and that seems set to continue post-release too. The downside of that is the game already feels a bit busy, perhaps too willing to depart into the esoteric rather than stick to ‘pure survival’, but in criticising attempts to add variety I suppose I sound like a hypocrite.

(You should also bear in mind that I’ve played the game intensively for a couple of days, the perennial cost of reviewing, whereas someone who plays it at their leisure mightn’t feel the burn of frequent repetition quite so much. I’m increasingly mindful of this factor these days).

These, I suppose, balance issues aside, Don’t Starve is really onto something. The focus on survival rather than conquest keeps it compelling even when it does feel grindy, and it does tap into an almost primal urge to keep going even in the sure knowledge that only doom lies ahead. I know I can only fail, yet I have to continue. Again, it’s the power of that negative imperative. I must obey.

The look of thing’s a perfect match for its nature too. The scratchy ink-drawing aesthetic fuses charm and encroaching madness, its fractured edges meaning it can create the unease of being unsure what’s real and unreal, and evoke the slow disintegration of the conscience as increasingly barbaric acts are necessary to survive, without being contrived about it. Whether it’s conveying a cheerful rural idyll or a nightmare world of desperation and insanity, is well able to reflect the eye of the beholder and whatever state of mind said beholder is in by that point.

The greatest strength of Don’t Starve, though, is that it tells you nothing. Everything needs to be discovered yourself, and while the ‘Science’ menu which offers new building options provides a guide, how to use what you made or what function they serve in the great food chain is for you to suss out from trial, error, wastage and the occasional meagre meal. There’s no instruction book in the wilderness, after all. Make do and mend. Make do and don’t starve.

Don’t Starve is out now, direct from the dev, on Steam or in the Chrome webstore.

, , , .

56 Comments »

Sponsored links by Taboola
  1. Chalky says:

    Such a great game – the sheer elation that you experience when you finally survive the winter really makes you understand why ancient people would throw festivals to celebrate getting through it.

  2. luukdeman111 says:

    To be honest, I found FTL to be pretty grindy in some places too…. Or it felt repetitive at least, not sure if that’s exactly the same thing

    • Captain Joyless says:

      If you’re just playing FTL to win, grind is explicitly limited by the amount of time it takes the rebel fleet to cross the sector.

      However, if you’re playing for max score, you’re totally right that FTL is incredibly grindy: you can in theory grind on rebel ships forever to achieve infinite score.

      • luukdeman111 says:

        yeah… that’s probably what i meant with my last sentence… FTL was repetitive not grindy… FTL was great, don’t get me wrong, but after working your way through 4 sectors it became pretty much a game of spaceship spaceship spaceship spaceship spaceship spaceship spaceship spaceship spaceship spaceship spaceship spaceship spaceship…. If you know what I mean

        • Premium User Badge

          phuzz says:

          I know what you mean, and I can sense the point coming when I can’t be arsed anymore, but at the moment I’m still loving it :)

      • belgand says:

        Speaking of FTL and more specifically the rebel fleet was I really the only one who initially questioned why they were rebelling and whether I might not want to join in? Do I really accept that their rebellion is unreasonable?

        Make it an invading, xenophobic enemy army that cannot be reasoned with in any way and I’ll be happy, but by making it rebels they just introduced too much ambiguity and doubt.

        Also, since when are the scrappy rebels overruning everything with thier massive fleet and a lone ship from the established order has to carefully sneak along with a vital message? Sounds rather like they got that backwards, but without any greater value than a reversal of the trope.

        • Captain Joyless says:

          The Hegemonizing Swarm would have been a more consistent trope.

          On the other hand, what’s wrong with ambiguity? Sometimes we should mess them up. It’s odd that we feel uncomfortable with the rebels being the bad guys, yet we don’t feel comfortable with “the Federation” being the good guys? It suggests a hierarchy of acceptability or something.

        • xom says:

          xenophobic enemy army that cannot be reasoned with
          That’s exactly what they are.
          Their crews are exclusively human and in one of the random events you get to talk to a Rebel ship to try and convince them to change their ways, if you point out the deaths caused by the fighting they respond with “Humans are treated as ‘equal’ to aliens in the weak Federation. The sacrifice of BILLIONS of alien or human lives are justified if it means we reach our full potential!”

      • LionsPhil says:

        Score is the only thing, though, since FTL cleverly ensures you can at absolute best only break even resourcewise from fighting in rebel space.

        (OK, fine, you could grind crew experience that will be maxxed out by the time of the end boss anyway at considerable risk and tedium.)

    • weevilo says:

      FTL fills a similar gap for me that something like Frozen Synapse fills, something you can load up in a few seconds and be playing in short sessions (the ability to save after each encounter is key here), with relatively interesting strategic choices and fun gameplay, but not something I ever really played for more than an hour at a time. Neither game has ever really struck me as repetitive, though I can see how it would for some types of gamers. Don’t Starve seems like a more open ended, lengthy and hence possibly grindy experience, and this article seems to confirm that – not necessarily a bad thing, but I doubt I’ll sink 100+ hours into this like I did the former two.

    • Sic says:

      Indeed.

      FTL was quite a bit overrated, in my opinion. It was a lot of fun, sure, but for anyone who plays games systematically, FTL got tiresome real quick. You knew after just a few turns whether or not the run would be any sort of successful, and to have any shot at the end-game, you absolutely had to take huge risks.

      There wasn’t enough random events that went in your favour to make the game really work as a rouge-like. At least not when you got to the point that only the end-game was truly hard.

    • pauldin05 says:

      my neighbor’s mom makes $66 an hour on the internet. She has been without work for 5 months but last month her income was $16989 just working on the internet for a few hours. Read more on this site wow65.com
      (Go to site and open “Home” for details)

  3. Captain Joyless says:

    After reading so many posts about this game on RPS, I’ve decided: FINE. FINE. I won’t starve. Have it your way. I guess I’ll be playing this this weekend while waiting for Cataclysm: DDA release .5. Which is more a game of “you can’t starve, strictly speaking, but you will quite often be eaten by zombies because you were so hungry/cold/in pain that you were too slow to escape.”

    I had mixed feelings about Mark of the Ninja, but it had style. I’ll definitely give this Don’t Starve a try.

  4. LionsPhil says:

    Wasn’t RPS doing a play-through diary of this? The last part of it I can find is quite a while ago now.

  5. One Pigeon says:

    Don’t starve and just as importantly, don’t read a don’t starve wiki unless you feel you have to and are really, really (really?) stuck.

    • ulix says:

      Yeah. A large part of the enjoyment in this game comes from discovery. So reading a Wiki would take away quite a lot from that enjoyment. I’d advise against it.

      • mouton says:

        Although I agree going blind is probably superior, I still have tons of fun even when I do read the wiki.

    • dmoe says:

      The wiki and steam guides have been helpful for things like recipes. Especially the more outlandish stuff. I’d rather read up on that than waste resources trying to figure out if they make something or not.

    • benkc says:

      My biggest complaint with the game is actually that the (apparent) inability to look at crafting recipes with the game paused, combined with the overall fiddlyness of the crafting menu*, absolutely encourages looking up a wiki just so you can get a recipe list — which then puts you at the top of a slippery slope.

      * I haven’t played in a week or two so maybe this got better, but I had problems both with scrolling breaking, and with the game refusing to recognize that I was standing next to both a Science Machine and an Alchemy Whatsis.

  6. Shooop says:

    While it’s definitely not my type of game, I’m happy this game got made and people like it.

    Games rewarding players for planning before making their moves is something I want to see more of in other genres.

  7. Fierce says:

    I just want to say that unequivocably, this is a good -nay, great- game. Klei deserves all the money and I’ve enjoyed their work since Shank 1. The comparison to FTL is well deserved, and while I was vaguely aware that it was a game available for pre-order, I did not know that doing so would allow access to the fast developing Beta.

    This is both fortunate (I wouldn’t risk burn out between purchase and v1.0) and unfortunate because I couldn’t provide suggestions to make this game even better. This Wot I Think perfectly reflects my frustration with the DIRE jolt from having a great time with a new stylish rogue-like to an annoying time with the grindy repetitive tasks just to stay alive, and it really does kill the First-Month-Playing enthusiasm that the game is really good at evoking in your first 10 hours (I’ve played 20+).

    Here off the top of my head are a quick list of fixes I think this game SEVERELY needs in order to push past its enthusiasm killing hump:

    1. There needs to be an Axe & Pickaxe between regular and opulent. Opulent is far too expensive for the beginner who can’t find a quarry or meat + King Pig, but Tier 1 pick/axe break too quickly for the amount of wood one needs to do anything real. Why can’t I make a Tier 1.5 Sharpened Pick/axe by tying the flint to twigs with ROPE and sharpening it on a ROCK? Without a Tier 1.5, any decent woodgathering and replanting burns an entire Day or more.

    2. Wood chopping needs to happen faster, as combined with #1 above, leads to the grind. Anyone whos played enough knows Small/Medium/Large trees take 5/10/15 chops respectfully, but the time it takes to watch 75 chopping animations, loot and replant gets boring quickly and burns Daylight. Either chops need to be rebalanced, or every tree should take 5-10 chops with the percentage wear to your Axe handled accordingly via algorithm. 1 chop for 1% wear is too inefficient time-wise. The ability to EXCEL at a skill (be a better chopper the more you chop over time) wouldn’t be an unwelcome feature to add to a patch either.

    3. The game BADLY needs the following three UI tweaks; an auto-arrange inventory button, scroll-wheel FOR SCROLLING functionality on the left-side crafting menu, and conjoined science machine functionality. Make a “gathering” animation a penalty of auto-arrange for balance against kiting, but no one should be penalized with a lost slot because they didn’t notice small stacks of the same item in hotbar & backpack. Burning daylight with the CLICK-REQUIRED crafting menu just to read often locked recipes is asinine in 2013, especially when the Zoom is this worthless. Finally, if I have both Science and Alchemy in my base, activating one should activate both, for full recipe readability. Single machine activation combined with Click-Required crafting menus is a one-two annoyance punch combo.

    My 25 cents for solving what this Wot describes.

    • Fierce says:

      I also wouldn’t be surprised if during the Beta or even now from fresh players like myself, there isn’t a call to make the hotbars more MMO like and not have items self-rearrange at the whims of what you’re doing ingame. While understandable, the “Equipped” state in this game clearly needs to exist in order to prevent Nesting exploits with carrying 12 backpacks with 8 items in each. That’s fine.

      What isn’t fine is the 3 “equipped” slots essentially being extra inventory slots a la any Action RPG in recent memory. Why this isn’t fine is because combining an ARPG inventory without an auto-arrange function with the time/stress sensitive nature of a rogue-like is borderline troll design behaviour and can only seek to frustrate rather than amuse. Using the spacebar is fine for automating gathering and looting, but the inventory and crafting menu behaves as if it were designed for an iPad and not a mouse. Touching Every Single Thing is not necessary in this context.

      So while the hotbar and “equipped” item management is necessary from a design standpoint, their usability needs to be tweaked. The auto-arrange inventory functionality based on standard MMO convention (Tools/Weapons first, then food, then craftables, applied to hotbar & backpack independently) would greatly alleviate annoying interface grind and get players back to the enjoyable time/hunger/sanity management grind.

      (And yes, these opinions have been sent to Klei)

  8. BurningPet says:

    Don’t starve is a brilliant brilliant game. deserve all the kudos and monies it can get.

    The approach to the tutorial, or more precisely to the lack of, is something that other reviewers and journalists should learn from RPS – if there isn’t a hand holding tutorial, some times it only enhance what the developers tried to achieve.

    • ShineyBlueShoes says:

      Haven’t played this yet but I think that’s part of what made Binding of Isaac so awesome. Just the basic controls scratched into the ground of the first room and that’s it. Being left with all these items and enemies and no idea what to do but play. The first time one of the items that’s actually a hindrance dropped I was actually on a good run and it completely screwed me. That moment was so horrible and yet wonderful that I was hooked on the game and put almost 100 hours into it after that.

  9. Quirk says:

    This looks relevant to my interests. I’ve spent a lot of time with Unreal World, which until now has been the best survival sim I’ve found. Is there anyone who’s played both Unreal World and Don’t Starve who could give me an idea of the parallels and differences? (and I’m aware one’s turn-based and the other isn’t, I mean beyond that).

    • Kysaduras says:

      I’ve enjoyed both games myself. The main difference (other than the obvious interface stuff) is that Unreal is concerned with the nuts and bolts of simulating a survival situation whereas Don’t Starve is very loose with reality. They both create similar tension, reward curiosity, foster a man/girl/mime vs. environment feeling, and have a ceiling you can reach where you are past survival and should probably just start again in a more awful situation (an escaped slave or mime, respectively).

      It’s tempting to say Don’t Starve is “lighter” than Unreal World but it’s probably more accurate to call it shorter. A successful life in Don’t Starve will take a fraction of the time a comparable one in Unreal would take, but Don’t Starve will see you coming back again sooner to see what weirdness you missed and to unlock more science.

      Short version: Unreal is more simmy, Don’t Starve is easier to digest, both do similar things in different and glorious ways.

      • Quirk says:

        Thanks very much. I may have to invest in the game.

      • Premium User Badge

        AlwaysRight says:

        Aweome post Kysaduras, cheers.
        I think this has convinced me to purchase.

  10. Christo4 says:

    Only one things annoys me and that is that at dusk or at night your morale keeps going even if you are staying near a fire. I mean i don’t know about you, but having a fire at night doesn’t keep my morale down, it actually goes up…

    • Niko says:

      Your morale is fine, sanity’s what’s going down at night. Tried wearing a flower garland on your head?

      • Makai says:

        Or just build a bed/tent to skip the night and actually get a boost in sanity (but it takes a chunk of your hunger)

        • Christo4 says:

          I know what to do in order to keep my sanity up, it’s just that it seems kinda annoying that your sanity doesn’t at least not go down while your near a fire at night. Also wearing a flower bucket on your head isn’t very manly is it?

  11. ShineyBlueShoes says:

    Why did this and Monaco have to come out at the same time? I only have money for one right now and I have no idea which!

    • mechabuddha says:

      Do you have a friend to play with? If so, Monaco. If not, Don’t Starve.

  12. Niko says:

    It reminded me of the first few hours of Haven & Hearth (if you played it alone) – you don’t have a clue of what to do and how to do it, so you run around, eating some occasional food scraps, and then a bear kills you. Or a boar. Or ants.

  13. torchedEARTH says:

    I put off buying a copy for a while, but this is quite clearly a gem. To even just play it once, not watch a video but actually play it is something very special.

    Sure, one day it will get uninstalled and I’ll be off doing something else, but it will forever be a milestone in the history of games I have played.

    Really well done.

  14. zain3000 says:

    This game is a little gem. The best part about it for me is the sense of discovery. I’m purposely trying to avoid getting tips on how to survive from the internet because I love the fact that the game lets you figure it out for yourself. So few games do that these days. You can’t go 2 seconds without a “Press Ctrl to Crouch” prompt flashing on your screen. A refreshing alternative.

  15. sinister agent says:

    Reading this reminded me very much of my recent times in Unreal World. A marvellous, dangerously, yet somehow inexplicably enjoyable game. And I’m sure there’s lots of it I haven’t seen yet. And the longer my (first ever!) character lives, the more terrified I am that she’ll die pointlessly doing something completely idiotic like falling through the ice or walking into her own bear trap or eating the one mushroom that she knows is deadly poisonous.

    It gets the balance perfect between explaining how you can do things you just tried and failed to do (eg: if you need leather to make a rope, it will tell you so if you try, and note that you can get leather by skinning animals), and leaving you to your own devices. Reading the wiki would undoubtedly ruin half the fun.

    I suppose I will have to give this a go sometime, too.

  16. Tamath says:

    Despite getting completely sucked into FTL I got bored of Don’t Starve after around 5 hours or so. I just found the start-up process after dying too dull to put up with.

    Horses for courses, I guess. Glad so many are enjoying it.

    • Christo4 says:

      I like to start over after dying especially because it’s all random. My friend just bought it and he found stuff in 3 hours that i have never found in 20.

  17. kincajou says:

    The game is also available at good old games DRM-free, i’m unsure as to why this isn’t mentioned in the article

    • Charles de Goal says:

      And I got the Linux copy through Humble Store.
      Thanks a lot to the developers for making a Linux version, by the way. It works quite nicely.

  18. Ernesto25 says:

    I don’t want to spoil it but there are ways to stop insta death and re-spawn your character i found out though luck. Good game to play on – off and i always feel their more to discover. I played early beta left it a bit after the insanity update which seems to be fixed now and found loads of new stuff that doesn’t feel intrusive to my enjoyment unlike say tf2 updates. The only problem i have is i never want to stray too far from the science and alchemy machines leaving alot unexplored but maybe there’s a way to carry them.

    • C0llic says:

      There isn’t a way to carry them, but you can dismantle them (with a hamer) and get the all important gold nuggets back, so re settling to a new area is quite doable without really losing anything.

      • Ernesto25 says:

        Ah thank you, i never dismantled anything due to thinking i would lose the resources due to the nature of the game, although would be a useless use for the hammer bar the pigmen homes.

  19. Bobtree says:

    I like the game, but the balance needs serious work. It’s just too dependent on tedium and luck. I’ve survived two winters on my current game (around 70 days), and I’m starting to think I’ve just been totally screwed by the map generation. There are some critical resources which I cannot find anywhere.

  20. Moth Bones says:

    Three and a half hours, Willow unlocked and I’m in love. Just let me look at my recipes, map and inventory while the game is paused!

    • twaitsfan says:

      Oh man, Moth Bones, do I agree with that : ” Just let me look at my recipes, map and inventory while the game is paused!”

  21. Thathanka says:

    I’ve played everything since the Commodore 64 was the latest thing. This is a truly great game.