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.