Don’t Starve: surviving Klei’s sandbox from hell

By Dave Cook
7 March 2013 12:47 GMT

Don’t Starve is the charming but brutal sandbox survival game from Klei Entertainment. VG247’s Dave Cook speaks with Jamie Cheng to find out why it was a happy accident for the studio.

Klei Entertainment

Klei Entertainment is known for games such as Mark of the Ninja, Shank and the Eets series. Check out their website here.

Don’t Starve is the result of a two-day game jam that took place just before the studio broke off for Christmas 2010. It’s currently in beta on Chrome. You can play it for free here.

It’s a survival game similar to DayZ but with a top-down perspective and playful art style. It’s by no means easy though, as the game has spawned a large Wiki guide community full of hints and tips.

As the name implies, finding food is a big part of surviving the game’s hellish sandbox. That and poison, attack by Werepig, eating rotten food and more. Everything is against you.

Trial and error is a fundamental part of self-improvement. If you touch fire and get burned, you’ll know not to do it again. This blend of progression and discovery lies at the heart of Don’t Starve, an intriguing game that hurls you into the deep end from the start and forces you to learn by doing.

I recently checked out the Don’t Starve beta on Google Play, and I found it to be a simple but wonderfully deep survival game. There’s no real tutorial to speak off. It’s just you versus a strange, randomly-generated forest dimension teeming with hazards and savage beasts.

So off you trot as gentleman scientist Wilson, picking up whatever resources you can as you attempt to make sense of what you’re supposed to do. You’ll start by picking up twigs and pieces of flint to craft an axe, and then use it to hack down trees for logs. Your logs can then be set down to make fire.

By simply acting on intuition you can create a big arsenal of tools to help extend your survivor’s life expectancy. But then the game’s day-night cycle kicks in, and I can guarantee that many of you won’t survive your first night, because this is when the beasts come out to play.

You’ll die, but then you’ll be armed with new knowledge for your next attempt, helping you survive that little bit longer. No one tells you to do any of this. It just sort of ‘clicks’ into place, and the feeling is gratifying. This sense of learning by doing is comparable to Dark Souls or DayZ, two games that back away from coddling players too tightly.

If you do get stuck, you can consult one of the Don’t Starve Wiki guides, which have been created independently by players, triggering something of a cult phenomenon and immense discussion among fans. It’s similar to the Demon’s Souls Wiki, which eventually went on to become From Software’s official strategy guide.

Originally conceived as part of a two-day game jam at Klei back in 2010, Don’t Starve’s swelling community has caught Klei’s founder Jamie Cheng by surprise. I spoke with him about the game’s success, and how he feels to see it gain such popularity, given the game’s simple conception.

“It wasn’t meant to be a free game,” Chen explained. “We made it free so we could get some feedback, and then we did want to sell it. The surprising part was how much it sold. All I wanted to do was get more feedback as it went along and start building it up before going into launch.

“But the community has just been so awesome. It’s been so much fun interacting with them and having it explode like that. it’s been a great surprise, but it’s not like we were always thinking this would be a small game per se. We just wanted to make the best of it all the time.”

Currently sitting at 361 pages, this particular Don’t Starve Wiki is indeed a place where Klei forms feedback using polls, and where users dispense their own collective knowledge to help each other survive just one more day.

From figuring out the best way to survive against a pack of attacking Werepigs, to charting the time it takes for your gathered food to rot, the guide is comprehensive, underlining the dedication and enjoyment gamers are getting out of Klei’s endearing experiment. It also shows just how deep the game is below its artsy, playful exterior.

I asked Cheng how he feels having the innards of his game up the Wiki guide before its full launch, “Everything was pretty much organic. It just started growing,” he replied. “There are plenty of things out there that I have no idea about. We try to track it just to get a sense of where things are coming from, and what needs support from our end. But I think there are about three or four Don’t Starve Wikis out there.”

Klei’s willingness to support the Wiki scene is to be applauded, especially as gamers would have a rough time without them, but also as this is an industry that favours secretive marketing strategies and ‘shock and awe’ reveals over transparency. Cheng explained that this has always been the Klei way.

“Personally, we’re probably not going that way in any of our games,” Cheng stressed. “We’ve always been pretty open. With Shank, we showed it at PAX a year and a half before we launched it. Especially being independent, it’s definitely better to just get it out there and to keep that discussion going.

“Personally I think one of the biggest things we did well is that we’ve been able to respond to the community but to also keep [Don’t Starve] stable. That’s a really hard thing to do, to actually update the game regularly while keeping everything stable and working at all times. That’s one of the things I think we did well.”

You’ll realise that keeping things stable is clearly an impressive feat once you start playing Don’t Starve. The game has been built using in-house tech that ensures no two sessions are the same. While this can lead to a lot of bizarre and brilliant bugs, it just adds to the mystery of the fan community, where tales of mad glitches get people talking.

“One of our programmers is a big randomly-generated fan, Cheng continued, “so he’s basically been doing a lot of research into building on that system for the last nine months. But even the weird things are cool. For example we had a bug where sometimes beehives would spawn infinite bees.

“It’s just hilarious. people have these screenshots of them, and everyone’s laughing at the videos. No one minds. I think that’s our job; to build these robust systems that interact with each other in known and understandable ways.

“But then magic can happen, because then players can say, ‘oh, when I do this I know that will happen’, letting them put these systems together to make something really cool. Time and time again the community puts them together to make things that we’d never expected.”

Don’t Starve is a brutal game during your first few attempts, but there’s something so engrossing about tinkering around with resources, or combining elements to make something new. Death shouldn’t be viewed as failure, it should mark the start of a new-found understanding of what it takes to survive Klei’s browser sandbox.

If you’re a fan of Minecraft, DayZ, Terraria or Dark Souls then you owe it to yourself to try out the free Don’t Starve beta on Chrome. You’ll experiment, explore and then die, but the incredible, overpowering sense of gratification that comes with each new milestone will keep you coming back for more.

Let us know if you try it out.

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