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.