Don’t Starve is a brutal wilderness survival roguelite set in a dark, forlorn setting. The game was developed by Klei entertainment, the masterminds behind Invisible Inc. and Mark of the Ninja. In Klei’s take on survival, you are dropped into the wilderness with nothing but some half-hearted advice and a heaping dose of “wtf?”. Despite being years old, the game enjoys continuing popularity due in no small part to it’s lovable characters, multiplayer installments, sandbox gameplay, and replayability.
The unique point of Don’t Starve is the world in which its “story” takes place. It’s a strange and artsy Tim Burton-meets-Survivor Man hybrid. Combine that with a whole host of crazy wildlife like giant spiders, surreal pigmen, and trees that come alive to stomp you when you chop too much lumber. You wake up in a disconcerting world with an odd sense of loneliness and confusion, with very minimal explanation of how to play the game. Soon, you realize that virtually everything in this word, including time itself, is looking to kill you.
The game is deceptively simple in its delivery. There’s an action button, movement keys, a tool bar and three gauges to manage. Health is your physical wellbeing, hunger is self-explanatory, and sanity slowly drains due to sheer loneliness and proximity to bizarre creatures. Available are tons of items, creatures, and an in-depth crafting system that allows a broad spectrum of play styles.
For example, stealing the odd, scarecrow-like tallbird’s egg may provide dinner but it also produces an angry, fast, and dangerous enemy that takes some luck to escape. Farming and trapping rabbits offer sustainable forms of food but cost an arm and leg worth of valuable time that could be used to explore, craft tools and walls, and find the way home. Every action you take to gather food may keep you alive a little longer, but could also result in a swift and permanent demise.
Dying in Don’t Starve is unavoidable. By pressing play you make the agreement to die by starvation, or attack of wild animals, or by the hallucinations that plague you at night, or in one of the other baffling ways Klei Entertainment displays a dark sense of humor.
Sanity is an elusive and important resource in Don’t Starve. You start with plenty of it, but before long eating monster meat and going days without sleep leaves you shaking and squinting into the darkness. Just being alone in the wilderness slowly drains mental strength, but fighting outrageous creatures and eating questionable mushrooms in an attempt to avoid starvation will very swiftly rip the humanity straight out of you. Fighting to find time for “normal” things, like shaving your beard and picking flowers, is every bit as important as finding your next meal, and often you will be forced to choose only one of the two options. You may be hungry tonight, but if you don’t take care of your mind, it will kill you. At first apparitions begin to appear in the corners of your vision. Then you notice eyeballs staring at you from the dark, and shadowy hands come and steal wood from your campfire. The rabbits and harmless animals turn into black, bearded creatures and your demons become real enough to tear you apart. It’s a slow, steady, and terrifying descent that needs to be constantly avoided by babying your brain.
But there is also the time problem. The thing to know about time is that it’s always moving. Before long, I realized that every moment of serenity is followed by a crazy and random event that I should be preparing for. Sure, spending all day bagging rabbits may seem great, but is it really the best way to spend twelve hours? You came away with ten rabbits to tide you over for a few days, but you forgot to chop enough trees to keep the fire going all night. As a result, you spend the night slowly feeding your twigs to the dim fire and watching your sanity slip away. By the time the sun comes up, you’ve burnt half the twigs you spent a whole afternoon gathering so you would be set on the axes you craft with them. Worse still, spending all night huddled around a tiny flame has driven you insane. Now, because you’ve underestimated both the value and importance of the time spent yesterday afternoon, you are left frantically picking flowers to regain some sense of humanity instead of hunting for furs to make the coat you need for the hellish winter that is marching swiftly toward you. Things spiral out of control very quickly.
Realizing the value of time and learning to plan and execute a schedule that will keep hunger, health, and sanity steady is the first and foremost lesson of Don’t Starve.
Just to really mix things up, there’s also magic. Your character can turn a simple top hat, some rabbits, and some wood into an impressive crafting station that imbues all sorts of mundanities with magical powers. You can make night lights that is fueled by your nightmares, powerful weapons that cost you a piece of your mind with each swing, teleportation portals that can send your enemies into a trap-filled field, a voodoo doll that brings you back from the dead, and so much more. Oh, by the way, all of that stuff will rapidly make you go insane.
It’s uncommon that the player has enough food, health, or sanity to feel very safe and the environment, creatures, precipitation, and your mind itself are working tirelessly to kill you. Death is permanent. There is no recovering a world in which the main character dies, and death means restarting in a new randomly generated world with no resources, items, or hard-fought upgrades.
The difficulty of the game makes it rewarding. Surviving a near-lethal brush with a swarm of randomly generated hounds or harvesting a long-awaited crop of dragonfruit from your handmade farms gives a rush of elation that mirrors a deranged version of Harvest Moon. No two play-throughs are alike and replay value is enormous. It’s not unheard of to see people with hundreds upon hundreds of hours of playtime on steam.
Despite the extreme depth of the game, it is still relatively accessible. It’s an “easy to learn hard to master” kind of situation, and even after lots of time there will still be a lot of things you won’t see.
The world is alive and interactive. There is a feeling that the creatures are living their own lives and you’re interrupting them. You’ll often see denizens fighting each other for food, consuming your pick ups, raiding berry bushes, dying in horrible fashion, etc. The world itself feels very much alive and immersive. Simply put, the game has a lot of heart. Updates are also released frequently, and expansion packs are available, all of which are worth the investment without a second thought.
Rogue-lite games aren’t for everyone. You will die a lot in this game, and when you die, you lose everything. It can be frustrating to try to rebuild a base after losing one you spend 20 hours in, and the early game consists of a point-and-click resource collection that can be more than a little underwhelming. It can easily be an hour or so until anything really interesting starts to happen.
There are no tutorials here. Maxwell, the antagonist, pats you on the butt and sends you off to die. For some players that’s great, but for many it’s off-putting. Lack of direction combined with a complete ignorance of how to do anything in the game can be a highly frustrating combination.
The viewpoint can sometimes hide important items behind trees and similar problems. This can be overcome by habitually checking different camera angles. Changing camera angles without anything resembling a compass can also lead to getting terribly, hopelessly lost. The map helps, but it will take awhile to get your bearings.
Don’t Starve is a perfect example of an unforgiving survival sim. If you’re into hardcore gameplay, base building, crafting, trapping rabbits, getting lost in caves, or sandbox gameplay, it’s a must try. It will take some time to get used to and to figure out what’s going on, but it’s worth it.