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Don’t Starve: indie sandbox offers more than a Minecraft substitute

Friday, 17th January 2014 09:56 GMT By Brenna Hillier

Random worlds, loads of crafting and a nighttime filled with terrors – is Don’t Starve just a 2D Minecraft knock-off? Nope, Brenna says, finding lots to love in Klei’s stress-inducing sandbox.

Don’t Starve, okay?

Don’t Starve really does what it says on the tin. You have to try not to starve. Unfortunately, even with a full belly your efforts not to starve may be interrupted by going totally insane, or dying horribly.

Set in a randomly-generated open world. Has no win-state, and has a certain rogue-like tang.

There is an element of progression, though; every time you die you earn points towards unlocking a new character, with a unique set of features.

Maps can be customised before generation, and replayed in a fresh game.

It’s really hard to talk about Don’t Starve without talking about Minecraft – but it’s equally hard when discussing a not immodest collection of games that have popped up since Mojang’s life-eater started making waves. Although these games vary significantly in execution – I’m thinking of things as varied as DayZ and Neo Scavenger here – there are a few common elements. You are alone in an inhospitable if not actively hostile environment, and must use what resources you can gather from a randomly generated selection in order to make your way in the world.

So now that we’ve got the inevitable comparison out of the way, let’s talk about how Don’t Starve differs. For one thing, it’s harder. You start starving almost immediately, as soon as the game begins you’re already losing. Every default random seed I’ve seen so far has thrown me down in a fairly friendly area with lots of things to eat and little effort required, but if you don’t start actively sourcing more sustainable options immediately you’ll rapidly run out of resources and find yourself losing a war of attrition.

On the other hand, wandering too far off in search of whatever your strategic first construction requires – say, Beefalo poop for farms – is a chancy business, because you may, in your distraction, end up in the middle of a desert with no food or firewood on hand, eating your precious supply of plantable seeds one by one and burning fistfuls of grass in a futile effort to see out the night.

Let’s talk about the night. It lasts forever. It actually lasts for just a small segment of the clock – about one log’s worth in a proper fireplace – and you don’t have to worry about it will twilight fades completely (during the red portion of the clock, feel free to keep wandering and working). But when you’re actually watching the dark close in, hearing the sounds of the night rise around you, fixedly staring at your last pine cone between darting your eyes at the clock, mumbling a prayer for it to last those last few seconds – it feels like forever. And the first time you lazily let the dark close in on you.

What Don’t Starve really makes you feel is the scarcity of resources, and the importance of finding sustainable production chains – not just hunting and gathering. This really is survival. You’re not here to use the world’s bountiful resources to construct a magical kingdom and defeat an evil beast. You are eking out a miserable existence however you can, and it’s eating away at your mind.

Getting back to Minecraft for a minute, there was a moment which I think most of us had, and which Penny Arcade captured perfectly, when the pleasure of experimentally putting two and two together suddenly turns into something that will result in you staring wildly at your housemate in the glow of dawn, lying about having been to bed.

In the post-Minecraft era, it’s hard to recapture that feeling; you can only lose your crafting virginity once. Don’t Starve gives you crafting recipes from the get-go rather than attempt to emulate that experience, but it still manages to serve up hefty doses of wonder and discovery, because it’s more than a little bit odd, and it refuses to handhold.

When you start a new game of Don’t Starve, you’re just dropped in it. A creepy man leaves you to your fate. There’s no tutorial whatsoever – not even a polite “click to move”. Klei assumes, quite sensibly, that you know how to use a mouse and can figure out a simple, user-friendly interface on your own. Apart from the gentle reminder every day that “it will be dark soon” – a statement which is far too mild to convey its actual meaning – you figure things out as you go along. Why would Klei shove perfectly obvious information like how to control your character in your face, when it’s not going to tell you anything more substantial?

Here are a few questions I came up with during my first few play sessions:

Here’s Sam giving Don’t Starve a go, for your viewing pleasure.

  • Why am I here?
  • Pig men? What?
  • What is out there in the dark?
  • Pig king? What?
  • What the heck are those touch stone things?
  • Pig houses? What?
  • Why do the worm holes look so much like sphincters?
  • Is there actually any way out of here?
  • Is there any difference between these characters?
  • How does the adornment of my skull with pretty flowers make me more sane?

Answering these questions on your tod is very cool. Of course you could also run off to the excellent wiki and get all the intel right away, but to Klei’s credit, throughout the game’s testing period it added mysteries almost as fast as the community solved them, leading to a kind of arms race. This created the kind of collaborative spirit From Software was aiming for with the Souls series – players struggling to unravel obfuscated gameplay systems, banding together to survive. It’s neat.

I like Don’t Starve a lot, but I like it for the same reason I like horror games – it stresses me out. I can’t play too much of it, because I get invested in my hero’s fate, and the constant battle against entropy is a little too similar to the emotions I experience every morning to be truly relaxing. I usually quit and delete my world well before I actually die, accepting the inevitable and determined to make a better go of it next time. The air of mystery, greatly helped along by Klei’s deservedly lauded and consistently gorgeous trademark 2D graphics, is what makes pushing on through the stress worthwhile, and what keeps me coming back for just one more go.

Don’t Starve is now available on Linux, Mac and PC, as well as for PlayStation 4, where it is an Instant Collection title for Plus subscribers.

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17 Comments

  1. Panthro

    I do believe there is a win state actually, which then unlocks some type of story campaign…

    That sounds like such bullshit ^ but I think its true.

    EDIT- http://dont-starve-game.wikia.com/wiki/Adventure_Mode

    Activated when you find ‘maxwells door’.

    I am not surprised that you weren’t aware, I remember stumbling onto this info somewhere outside of the game.

    #1 10 months ago
  2. Panthro

    + Isn’t really an ‘end state’ and more like a means to eventually get an end state through beginning the campaign mode? I dunno.

    #2 10 months ago
  3. dkpunk

    *shrug* I think it’s a good free game. I wouldn’t have paid for it. The rogue-like features are actually a turn off for me. The graphics are nicely drawn though. It just feels like the difficulty was ramped up to avoid the lack of content.

    #3 10 months ago
  4. Panthro

    @3

    I personally can’t get enough of these types of games, I love perma death for some reason.
    Just the feeling of “shit, I fucked up and it cost me” and not “woops I died… Ahh well back the checkpoint to try again”

    That’s to easy for me, same goes for headshots in games… I wish every FPS had one shot to the head kills for enemies and also the player, some FPS games go far to easy on the player in that regard.

    #4 10 months ago
  5. KAP

    “This really is survival”

    BRAVO Brenna!

    I agreed with this article 100%.
    This game wasn’t on my radar before, or after I purchased my PS4 so when I downloaded it via PS+ I remember myself saying YES a game I can play other then BF4 now.. I didn’t know I’d like this game so much.. It feels like a game from back in the day when it assumes your not a dumb casual gamer and simply know the basics right away which I LOVELOVELOVE.

    The magic of discovery yet mystery has been lost of recent years and this game brings it right back with the element of genuine survival I haven’t played for a long time. If ever.

    I can only describe the feeling like when I played Skyrim or Fallout 3, I used to horde things but realised I didn’t need 50 Stempacks, or the 56th cheese wheel but with Don’t Starve eventually, you’ll need EVERYTHING which I can’t describe anymore then incredible.

    Whats more amazing is that there is others out there, like Brenna who love this game as much as I do. Great.

    Never have a played a game where you feel like surviving in impossible odd such as for example when your in Winter in this game. That feeling is astonishing.
    Never knowing where your next sliver of sustinance is coming from. I think Sony should be commended for acquiring Don’t Starve for PS+, because for a gamer such as myself, I would have NEVER played such a game, but glad I have.

    Time to start Adventure Mode.

    #5 10 months ago
  6. Panthro

    @5

    This game has a pretty large following on PC… we love this shit ;)

    #6 10 months ago
  7. KAP

    @6

    Really? Hmmm.. with all the shit us console gamers gets from PC gamers It’s nice to see we can agree on something.

    #7 10 months ago
  8. Panthro

    @7

    Yeah, PC is pretty much bursting at the seams with Survival/ Perma-death games at the moment.

    #8 10 months ago
  9. absolutezero

    I don’t have the patience to play games like this anymore. I just don’t have it in me to bother running around for half an hour with a torch trying to figure out what I’m meant to craft with some wood and couple of bits of rock.

    I do find it interesting that the entire genre is deeply connected to the internet in that its custom built for wikia pages and FAQs, more so than almost any other genre before it. Its all about trial and error and then adding to the pool of shared knowledge which is then taken on board as they move towards figuring what the fuck to do next.

    I just don’t have that much interest in constantly flicking between a game and a web-page in order to play it.

    #9 10 months ago
  10. KAP

    @9

    That’s why they invented the Call Of Duty series… just for you mate.

    #10 10 months ago
  11. absolutezero

    hurr go back to CoD durr hurr.

    What exactly would be wrong with including an in-game encyclopedia detailing everything thats possible in a manner similar to the Mass Effect Codex?

    #11 10 months ago
  12. Panthro

    @11

    I never flicked between game and webpage, if you do that you are just cheating yourself, the game is about exploration and survival this includes exploring what you as a player has to do to keep your character alive rather than just holding your hand and telling you ‘go here, go there, do this, follow me’.

    The game guides you fine, all you have to do is find food and then cook it on a camp fire… I don’t see how you could go wrong with that? And even with crafting more advanced objects it tells you what ingredients you need for what object in the crafting menus…

    #12 10 months ago
  13. KAP

    @11

    The Mass Effect Codex was awesome, for a game like Don’t Starve though I feel it would suck the mystery from it a little.

    I like having that mental memory of, that’s a green egg in it’s nest, a Tallbird is roaming around somewhere near so beware, and 1,000 other things you personally learn within the world.

    It’s great that games take from each other at times, but it also works the other way too. Detract features to get the correct effect your going for.

    There was nothing stopping Klei Ent releasing the game with a codex etc etc but there game is better for it without. Adds to the player discovery aspect.

    @12

    Thank you. 98% of console games hold your hand, so as a console gamer it’s so refreshing to have my 20+ yrs of gaming experience not insulted by “hints” to a game.

    Its a great discussion though about games today being more easier, which isn’t a bad thing, but when will gamers like me, be treated like my experience give a damn to a game.

    Don’t Starve is no way apologetic to that, and its awesome to witness because it’s not shown very often.

    I’m really beginning to see why Sony is pushing Indie so much, and I’m gonna take note more on them.

    #13 10 months ago
  14. absolutezero

    Yet there are far better survival games and there are far better crafting games.

    Sure the complete lack of information/guidance can be refreshing but once you’ve spent an age just working out the basics having to do it all over again in another game and yet another game gets really fucking tiring you know?

    What exactly is wrong with say having a recipe book the character owns which tells you what you can craft and with what?

    I imagine that KAP is correct and I’m simply not invested in the genre enough to bother with all the boring shit at the start of every playthrough, the making the house, the scouting out of food. The mad dash at the start of every DayZ game to try and find stuff and get away from the beach. Beating up trees in Rust for 10 minutes.

    #14 10 months ago
  15. KAP

    @14

    It shows you what you need to craft what on the left of the screen? I don’t quite understand what you mean?

    That very same fustration you have with say Don’t Starve, is the very same one I have with games today, go here, do this, watch cutscenes, now feel sad, now relooad. It’s a pattern I’ve seen for 10+yrs that does my neck in.

    But I like that If I die in Don’t Starve, your punishment is “try again, and LEARN/REMEMBER that fire burns.

    It’s like the Klei felt to make a game they wanted to play, not conform to, and I love that. Maybe I’m late to the party because I’m a console gamer

    #15 10 months ago
  16. dtyk

    I suggest everyone play this game WITHOUT the wiki. In fact, don’t read any articles on your first few plays.

    The whole essence of the tutorial-lessness is to surprise you pleasantly or really really brutally.

    #16 10 months ago
  17. game_on

    Watched the vid for 15 minutes, nearly died of boredom…

    #17 10 months ago

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