The Amazing & Astonishing RPS Advent Calendar: Day 1

By RPS on December 1st, 2013 at 9:00 am.

This probably isn’t a warning you need in this, the year of Luigi month of Christmas and all its attendant gluttony.

We’ll say it anyway, just in case you’ve lost your turkey and the supermarket’s run out of Twiglets: Don’t Starve. Klei’s survival rogueunlike tested our sanity and our berry-picking skills back in April, and proved blissful trauma enough to earn itself a spot on our mighty list o’wonders.

Jim: The survive ‘em up genre is one that is so close to my heart that it has begun to displace my lungs, and so it was inevitable I would fall for Klei’s spiky masterpiece. I would never have imaged that this year would bring three 2D games to capture my heart with their randomised doom, but Don’t Starve (as well as Knock, Knock and Teleglitch) did just that, and they’ve dominated my time.

What I find most odd is that Don’t Starve feels fresh each time I play it. I might not play for all that long, but I return to it, and I am engaged again when I do. This feeling arrives from a number of sources. To some extent that’s because the art style is like a dream of the kind of things that I feel games usually mix – character, deep abstraction, and faithfulness to their concept art ideals – and I love that it manages to look and play like nothing else. But the feel runs beyond the aesthetic and into the general absorption of my attention and the reward of their time I put in. The cycle of the game, and the pace of it, are ideal for my current level of frenzied business, and my troubled attention span. There are other games that seem to suit these sorts of needs – Spelunky being a fine example – but it was Don’t Starve that whispered in my ear most convincingly.

The sort of inevitable player death in Don’t Starve brings a broadly arcade feel to it: it’s one of those games where you’ve having a go, trying to get further, rather than in any sense unravelling a story or “beating” it, and so often these kinds of experiences are the ones that linger with us. They contain their own fragmentary mini-narratives, and they fill quiet moments between other things. They are an experiential gloop, running down into the cracks between everything else. As such I doubt Don’t Starve’s teleologically helpful name will resound down the ages, but it does underline this year, and much that has happened in it.

Adam: I wish the games that held the strongest grip on my fascination were also the ones most likely to make me string weird words together. That’s not always the case though, otherwise you’d have been reading a lot more about various pinball machines and Crusader Kings 2 (again) this year. As it happens though, Don’t Starve is exactly the right combination of bizarre Gashlycrumb horror-tale aesthetic and manageable survival mechanics to tickle my diary-glands. How could I not love a game that made me write this?

An involuntary bark of laughter erupted from his throat as he retrieved the roasted arse. Nervous sweat drenched his body as he offered it to the creature, and when it took it, chewed it, savoured it, swallowed it and then pledged its allegiance to him, Jeremy’s mind snapped.

Almost a year go, I spent four or five nights with Don’t Starve’s beta, eager to learn all of its secrets. I failed, beautifully, cringing from the darkness and caressing a dwindling fire while waiting for the spiders to claim me. I can still remember the shape of those maps, randomly seeded onto my hard drive, their terrain as vivid as a handcrafted tapestry. The sounds that accompanied my fumbling and fainting are just as easy to recall – a tiny orchestra of instruments detuning as the body decays and confusion creeps across the horizon, hand in hand with the moon.

Klei have been had two fine years, back-to-back, honing a visual style that is allusive but recognisably their own. Mark of the Ninja is a tighter and more focused game than their odd ode to survival sims, but Don’t Starve reaches for more distant stars. Where the compact stealth of Mark the Ninja strived toward a kind of perfection in its 2d spaces, Don’t Starve was an evolving experiment, growing over time and creating a flexible ecosystem of sorts. It’s a marvellous place to spend time, even if those hours are occasionally harrowing, and it fills me with confidence that the wait for Incognita might well be worthwhile.

Alec: I, er, can’t remember much about this, which I’m going to blame on the fact I played it in the week before my daughter was born rather than on the truth I don’t want to face, which is that I’ve inherited my father’s broken memory and thus will likely spend my remaining years telling the same anecdotes over and over again. But clearly something stuck in some inaccessible, deep memory lake at the bottom of my brain, for I nodded enthusiastically along to the suggestion of its inclusion here.

Reading back my own Wot I Think about it, which I also don’t remember, it appears I was particularly impressed by the game’s essential tension between exploration and subsistence, the risk reward of upgrades vs simply not starving.

It also seems that I compared the game to the opening minutes of a new Minecraft world, which sounds to me like a recommendation.

I was impressed, past-me tells me exhausted today-me, by the complexity and co-dependencies of the trapping system, how everything in the world connected together in an unseen food chain and organic tech tree.

It should be praised, I’ve now re-established, for how little it tells you but how deftly its many requirements make themselves known nonetheless; learning on the job, and the sense of brief accomplishment which comes from that.

However, I’m told (by myself) that I did find Don’t Starve a bit of a grind, that the early stages – which apparently I saw often – become repetitive and in need of more variety rather than just the same slow teching-up. Perhaps, were that different, I’d remember more about the bally thing. It certainly sounds like the kind of game I’d enjoy, though.

John: It’s a sign of how spoiled we’ve been this year that Don’t Starve isn’t my favourite Roguelite. Because it’s damned brilliant. And also a survival sim. And a bit of a craft-em-up. And manages to be all these things with the minimal amount of fiddle and faff. It’s also upbeat, which is an impressive way to approach a game about slowly failing at staying alive. And oh god, the bees.

I guess if I have a problem with it, it’s that I invest too much into each try. I had this trouble with the fantastic, and entirely different, Dungeons Of Dredmor, where defeat after a lengthy play also left me needing to walk away from the computer and do something else, rather that frantically starting over. I kept that little spiky-haired dude alive because I CARED, dammit! And I guess that means it’s working.

I note that I haven’t gone back to it, in the way that I have with, say, Rogue Legacy or Teleglitch, and I think that’s my failing rather than the game’s. Because I think ultimately Don’t Starve offers more to do that either of those, and a deeper and more varied result of returning. I’ve just talked myself into playing it some more.

Back to the calendar!

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38 Comments »

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  1. Ooops says:

    This is one game that didn’t click for me. The grind that Alec mentions is just too bad. For a game whose joys comes from discovery and experimentation, it’s very unfortunate that you get punished for just that: if you die as a result of your experimentation/exploring, you get punished by being forced to relive the early game, which is really a fixed path for the first hour. In the end, I couldn’t take that first hour any more, after being forced through it again and again, so I just quit.

    • AngoraFish says:

      I bought in early, and love the approach (in theory) and the art style, but ultimately for a game that should revel in creativity it is far too predictable. Don’t Starve is an open world game that is ultimately a linear disappointment.

    • Jumwa says:

      Agreed entirely.

      Getting started in this game is just too tedious by far. There’s no fun to be had in collecting mass quantities of literal shit, rocks and sticks as you begin the slow, tedious crawl back to meaningful tasks.

      I’ve wanted to love this game, so badly did I want to love it, but it just failed at that primary task I set games to do: be fun. Don’t make me feel like I’m wasting my leisure time on tedium.

    • Chris D says:

      Unfortunately I’d have to agree. Roguelikes need each game to present a fresh challenge but Don’t Starve doesn’t really manage to do that. The randomisation essentially just means that you have to explore a little more before you find your stocks of wood/stone/gold but never really makes you change your strategy from one playthough to the next. If anything, the pressure to optimise means that once you’ve found something that works your going to stick with it.

      I did really enjoy Don’t Starve when I was encountering new stuff but as I progressed further into the game it took too long to get past the busy work into a meaningful challenge.

      • GunnerMcCaffrey says:

        Playing with a different character — or just setting different goals or challenges for yourself (if you always settle in the forest, settle in savannah, etc.) — tends to take care of this. I’ve played enough to say that there are definitely many different strategies that work. And if you play long enough, the unexpected will keep things fresh. I still think back “fondly” on the time I returned to camp at dusk to find a Spider Queen napping beside my fire pit.

        Anyway, until Gone Home this was my GOTY. But I knew it didn’t get much hivemind love, so I’m just glad it made the calendar.

    • dE says:

      The main issue to me is how it’s basically the same subset of actions everytime. In any other roguelike, the experience changes with the equipment I find and the enemies I encounter, requiring me to adapt and change. In Don’t Starve it’s the same everytime. I really loved it for a while and absolutely got more than enough value for my money, but ultimately I was a tad disappointed after all. Especially since the game seems to have that much more to offer but I just can’t force myself through the early steps again.

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        tumbleworld says:

        This is my main issue with the term “Roguelike”. Yes, repetition a flaw of Don’t Starve’s, possibly its biggest problem, but it is absolutely a core part of Rogue and the Roguelike experience. All the Roguelikes of the last thirty years — Nethack, Moria, Omega, Angband and its many *-bands, Crawl, DCSS, ToME, &c &c &c — are highly repetitive in their gameplay. I know it’s become this year’s fashionably lazy way to say “permadeath”, but there’s a lot more to Rogue and its dungeon-exploring children than just a single, easily-snuffed life.

    • Michael Fogg says:

      Maybe this could be fixed by an unlockable way to speed up or skip the early game, like the Tunnel Man in Spelunky?

      • Philotic Symmetrist says:

        Try the Default Plus world setting; it makes some things a bit harder (eg spider nests start at level 2), has more boons but most significantly, gives you 3 chests at the start with stacks of food, basic materials (including a stack of gold) and blueprints.

    • dethtoll says:

      Yeah, likewise. I love the art style but the game itself isn’t actually any fun to play. Seemed to be purely luck-based, getting worse with patches.

    • Antistar says:

      You know, I once found myself reading a several-years-old article on RPS (about Morrowind, from memory), and coming across a comment where I agreed with every point so strongly that I thought I had found my soul-mate… until I realised that it was a comment I myself had left and then forgot about.

      I’m reasonably sure that you (Ooops) are not me, but I’m getting that same uncanny feeling again; I agree with everything you said there. So do most people who left comments here, it seems.

      Don’t Starve sounded so good up until I played it, and found three separate problems that in combination made the game just not worth the time or money I spent on it (which was nil, since it was kindly gifted to me by a friend who had an extra copy):

      1) Enforced permadeath. If you like permadeath, great; you can choose to play all your games this way, if you want. If you don’t like it, it shouldn’t be forced on you; it should be an option you can disable when starting a new game, at the very least.

      2) A main drive of the game is experimentation and discovery, but experimentation is usually punished by (effectively) instadeath.

      3) The thing everyone here has already mentioned; an incredibly tedious, repetitious early game.

      So all three together: You perform (the same, again) menial tasks for an hour or so, try something new, are immediately punished with near instadeath, and are forced to start all over again. Or abandon the game and play something with less bloody-minded design, which is what I did.

  2. Grey Poupon says:

    The grind itself wouldn’t bother me too much if it didn’t feel like the game expects me to do the same things every time. If I could grind different stuff and be just as well off. There’s a lot I like about the game, but it really does start to feel old quite quickly.

    • Ernesto25 says:

      Pretty much how i felt with rogue legacy , i liked this but yet i played it in the beta and never could be bothered to play the full game.

      • Yglorba says:

        Rogue Legacy wasn’t as bad for several reasons.

        One big one was the Architect; if you lock down the castle you can use any teleporters you previously found for as a many lives as you want, allowing you to progress by using teleporters as ‘savepoints’ rather than just starting the whole castle over. While this imposes a gold penalty, it’s still an effective way to get runes and late-game blueprints, which can rapidly make the ‘central’ area of the castle a breeze — and you can always choose which direction you want to explore in from the central area, so there’s less enforced repetition between lives.

        It felt like Rogue Legacy gave me a lot more freedom in terms of how I wanted to play it, so if I was getting bored with repeating one strategy ineffectually I could switch gears and try something else.

    • mouton says:

      Yeah, setting the same infrastructure up over and over again was a bit annoying.

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    Andy_Panthro says:

    I loved the atmosphere of the game, and the style. But after a while I just got a bit frustrated with it. After a bit of exploration (and a few deaths), I found a system that allowed me to feed myself and keep a fire going. However, going through the upgrades felt like a real chore, and I lost the motivation to continue.

    Dungeons of Dredmor, which I was playing at around the same time, clicked much more for me. But it is almost a traditional roguelike, so it’s mechanics were familiar from the outset. Saying that, after failing a couple of times to defeat Dredmor I have not gone back to that either (too many other games).

    • deadly.by.design says:

      This was exactly my experience. I fell in love with the premise, art style and music, but never really clicked with the final product. Dungeons of Dredmor, like you mentioned, was a wholly superior experience for me. When Dredmor catches my attention, as has happened two or three times since purchase, it completely sucks me in. Entire weeks of gaming time are consumed with it in exclusivity. (which is to say, what time I have to spare to gaming goes to it and only it)

      That level of enthrallment has only happened with Dredmor, at least as far as roguelikes go. Dota 2 has retained a year-long grip on my gaming time, but I suspect for entirely different reasons. I need to stop talking about Dredmor, though, before it

  4. Rick Lane says:

    I found that altering the world seed so that the more basic stuff appeared in greater abundance helped alleviate those early frustrations and let me explore and enjoy the game’s world a bit more.

  5. KirbyEvan says:

    I’m with Ooops on this one: I love the sense of dangerous mystery the game provides, but in reality it’s just experimenting until you die and then grinding until you get to your previous point of experimentation.

    I’m always tempted to look up how to do the cool stuff like Pigmen interaction, but I keep on feeling that it would ruin the game’s sense of the unknown and therefore it’s main appeal.

  6. serioussgtstu says:

    On the first day of Horacemas
    my true love sent to me
    an Ocelot in Assassin’s Creed.

    • Revolving Ocelot says:

      For the record I do not approve of being forced into cramped spaces, and if your true love decides to shove me into a Hidden Flag I shall have to get bitey.

  7. Perjoss says:

    I first saw Dont Starve at the Eurogamer Expo a while back, at first I was put off by the 2d style but some time after I started reading about how it was actually quite an in depth and challenging survival game. I eventually bought it on Steam and have clocked up over 30 hours on it. It’s an awesome game and surviving your first winter is quite a challenge and very rewarding :)

  8. fish99 says:

    The comments above have covered the main issue the game has – i.e. the further you get the less motivated you are to start again when you die, because the early game is a chore.

    There’s a few specific things I didn’t like though – like the scripted Hound attacks. By all means have random events, but not regular inevitable ones. The darkness mechanic too, It feels more like a 3 second countdown to death, rather than being attacked by enemies that were already out there in the dark. The game also has some issues with 3D picking, which makes combat a little random at times.

    The other issue I had was how the game discourages exploration and therefore stops you getting the rare resources that would make your life easier.

    • Ernesto25 says:

      Its one of these games which you feel you want a quicksave in but then realise it take away the something the game has.

  9. bill says:

    @Alec:
    I had a pretty good memory until my daughter was born. 9 months on zero sleep melted my brain though, and the memory centres have never recovered.

  10. realitysconcierge says:

    I actually still play this game today. I have a save that I keep coming back to, (115 days woo!) and it seems like once you get that infrastructure and really get survival down pat it turns into this different game that really captivates me. I don’t know why I like it so much, but something just clicks with me. It’s almost relaxing in a way.

  11. Vinraith says:

    Off to a strong start! I played very few 2013 games in 2013, but this one really grabbed me and, when I have time to game at all again, it’s one of the few I plan to go back to. Marvelous little thing. And now, I’m going to run away, for fear of spoilers…

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    kdz says:

    Those Advent Calendar articles are just going to remind me of how little games I’ve actually played this year.
    :(
    My newfound love of comics is good and all, but doesn’t help with gaming time when coupled with my very short attention span, laziness and having just started university :(

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    Martel says:

    I just got Don’t Starve in this Steam sale, so my adventures are still very young. The line about it being just like the first 30 minutes of a new Minecraft world is very accurate. I’m worried about the grindy feeling long-term, but it feels more like a game that you play occasionally rather than nonstop, so I’m not sure how that will hit me.

    It does feel like one of the unlocks should be an expedited start, say getting you going with some of the basic items unlocked and ready to adventure rather than grass farming for 30 minutes.

    • whorhay says:

      There is a playable character unlock that essentially does a lot of that. She is a librarian and so doesn’t need a science machine to prototype that first tier of items. And building the science machine will let her prototype stuff that you usually need the alchemy machine to do.

      All of that lets you skip the very annoying situation of getting a world where it takes you a week to just find your first gold nugget so you can get started building a base camp. Just get some twigs and flint and make that shovel right on the first day while still scouting for a good location.

      • Philotic Symmetrist says:

        The Default Plus setting actually does precisely that (with some side effects); you start out next to 3 chests with stacks of food, materials (including a stack of gold) and some blueprints.

  14. Monkeh says:

    One of my favourite games this year! I haven’t played it in quite a while, but with 140 hours on record and being able to survive for however long I please, I got way more than my money’s worth out of it.

  15. Fiatil says:

    I’ve got over 100 hours logged into this in steam. I had been waiting for a new survive em up since playing Unreal World years ago (and replaying it recently), and this answered all of my prayers. Lots of random map gen options, and several unique characters to provide variety in the start up experience.

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    Mr Coot says:

    Clocked up 185 hrs w Don’t Starve this year. Very funny and fun game. My only wish would be a toggle for perma-death. So many times I had the most fantastic base with all mod cons, effectively limitless food and perfect positioning near Beefalo, Pig Men etc. only to do something stupid and die. Forever. Goodbye, Utopia.

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    drewski says:

    It’s rare that I feel like I’ve wasted money on an indie game, because they’re usually so cheap, but I really don’t think I got my dollars worth with Don’t Starve. Just bounced off it really hard – had no idea what I was doing, could never seem to find any resources and even resorting to wikis just meant I was confused about what I had to find and how to find it and where it was.

    Love the art style and I feel like if you’re good enough at it that you have a plan, it’s probably quite good, but there’s so little direction that I just don’t know why I’d want to go through it again.

  18. Jakkar says:

    The same experience here – the game is is simply a grind. I want the mystery, I want to wander in search of adventure, but if I don’t sit at home frantically collecting bits of grass or gold or whatever the hell I know I’m going to die very quickly, and have to do it all again. Graarghrl. A fundamental failure in the design process that they don’t seem willing to go back to – the game is punishing in all of the wrong ways, as compared to say Demon’s Souls, which punishes you in all the right ones.

  19. Solar says:

    There is grind but there is also an ebb and flow to this. Knowing what to harvest when, when to prepare for exploration or just wing it in the hope your direction of travel bears literal fruit. There are fundamental resources you cant do without and this requires work to maintain. The outcome of this is twofold; the effort feels like a perpetual struggle against a twisted world making progress more satisfying while death is often unexpected leaving that hollow feeling of wasted effort.

    The deaths however are avoidable and learning about the amusing dark and entangled elements is part of the fun; for those inclined to investing in this sort of game.

    I certainly cant play this all the time but it is still fresh and still growing with updates. The other day I spent a highly enjoyable few hours watching a family member spend a few lives. Surprising how much new stuff was found very early on.

    One final thing. MODS! The screecher was a fantastic little gem and most of the gripes people have of the main game have various work arounds.