Don’t Starve has redefined my relationship with digital death.
I mean, I’ve died a lot. There is only so much in the way of mauling, biting, goring, pecking and downright elephanting one can take before pulling the permadeath plug. Usually, dying this much in a game with (for the most part) permanent death would cause me to ragequit and never return ever.
So why am I still playing?
Don’t Starve begins by dropping you into the middle of an almost entirely unfriendly world with nothing but the clothes on your back and some pretty advanced Boy Scout (or Girl Guide, depending on which character you choose) training. In the beginning, you gather rudimentary resources to make tools to gather more resources, to make more tools, and so on, while keeping an eye on your health, hunger and sanity meters.
Much of Don’t Starve involves exploring the procedurally generated world looking for stuff, and building up a camp with enough supplies to survive the impending winter. In the beginning this is pretty easy: most of the things you need for your immediate survival are just lying around – berries and carrots to eat, grass and twigs and flint to construct basic tools, and trees to chop down for firewood – and all you really need to do is be sure to make a fire before dark (or else the invisible darkness monsters will kill you) and keep your belly topped up.
Then one day you’re innocently gathering firewood for the evening’s fire, and one of the trees comes alive and starts to attack you just for chopping down one of its brethren. Then mother nature in all her wisdom appears to start holding back on the carrots and berries – and they’re not really satisfying your grumbling belly so very much anyway – and you realise that this game is going to involve a lot more strategy than you first thought.
So you die, and start again. If you’re like me, probably a few times.
And eventually you start to get the balance right between exploring and gathering and creating a safe home base and building better stuff. Maybe you’re even fighting monsters and winning. And then a lightning storm hits, or the hounds come, or a weird hand-ghost-thing snuffs out your fire in the middle of the night, and…
You can see where this is going.
But somehow it never gets boring or frustrating. The procedurally generated map helps, along with the random distribution of resources, and the little bonus pickups that are different every time. There are a bunch of different characters to unlock too, each with their own quirks, strengths and weaknesses. There are hats, the like of which have not been seen on this side of sanity.
The things that inhabit the world – both the friendly and the not-so-friendly – have their own personalities, and if they happen to come into contact they interact in not-unpredictable ways. What I particularly like is that, while there’s a lot going on in this world, there’s not too much going on; it doesn’t take terribly long to get a handle on what’s available and what you need to do with it all, and play is straightforward and intuitive.
Everything makes sense (except maybe those damn killer trees) – so when you get killed by a pack of wolves, it’s kinda like, okay, that sort of thing happens when you’re a lunatic trying to survive in a whacked-out wilderness; I’d better make me a bigger spear. Or a meat effigy. (This is a thing.)
As you build up your camp you’re catching bugs and bunnies, cooking varied meals (frogleg sarnie anyone?), growing crops, keeping birds and bees as pets and resource generators, and even harnessing the dark spirit powers of something-or-other; you’re having fun, in other words – and it’s worth bearing in mind that this is still very much a game under development. In a few days after this review comes out, for example, Klei will add caves to their delightfully harrowing sim.
It’s all tied together by a visual spirit tugged straight from Where the Wild Things Are, along with a minimalist script and rock-solid mechanics.
And when you do, finally, make it through your first winter, it’s incredibly satisfying.
Don’t Starve is available right now on Steam for $14.99, or you can buy it directly from Klei Entertainment’s website.