On…Don’t Starve

Recently greenlit on Steam, the full release of this game came out only a month ago. Before that, it was offering a cheaper beta version with regular updates every 2 – 4 weeks. I picked it up for £8 back in beta, and for that price I got two Steam keys and two Chrome keys as well. A few notes on technical stuff before I delve into the gameplay. It was the first time I’ve ever used a Chrome app but it worked pretty well. I couldn’t get the Steam version to work for the longest time, but when it made the jump to full release, I decided to try it on Steam. It makes a world of difference; things were prettier, more sharply defined, and ran a lot smoother with no lag. I definitely recommend playing on the Steam version over the Chrome version, but if you’ve only got Chrome handy, then that version is perfectly adequate.

Don’t Starve is a survival game in every sense of the word. It’s a true survival games, not a crafting game with survival tacked on like Minecraft, or a fighting game with survival tacked on like Terraria. The main gameplay is all revolved around surviving, and boy does the game punish you for being silly. I have put in a solid 30 hours into the game and I still die all the time from stupid mistakes which are completely avoidable but for some reason, I decide to take a risk. It’s a game which ramps up its difficulty as soon as you get comfortable with it.

dontstarve1

When you first load in, you’re greeted by a mysterious thin villain-type who cackles at you and tells you ‘Don’t starve!’. Who is this mysterious man? You might later discover he is Maxwell, the game’s antagonist who features prominently in adventure mode. For now though, when you start, you’re in sandbox mode. Your goal is just to survive but not much more than that. You’ll pick up flint, twigs and grass, and craft your first axe and pickaxe. You’ll use the axe to chop down trees to get wood and saplings. You’ll use those logs to make a fire to survive the first night. Now, unlike a game like Minecraft, night time is far more deadly. You will insta-die if you are in pitch darkness for more than 3 seconds (killed by the grue). So you have to have a fire for the night and you have to stay within its radius. The first few nights will be relatively boring; not much happens but you can hear ominous howling sounds in the distance. What could that be? You’ll discover soon enough. After a dozen or so nights, you might get attacked by randomly spawning hellhounds: vicious dogs who chase you to eternity and then blow up when they die.  You’ll probably die after a long prolonged escape run, at which point you might swear loudly and mourn all your lost progress.

The first time you play, you’ll probably be woefully underprepared and you’ll die. Oh well. Let’s start over. For this game has a permadeath system which is rather unforgiving. If you die, you get some exp towards your profile which goes towards unlocking new characters with unique traits like a girl who lights fires beneath her feet or a robot who can eat stale food. But you cannot play that character again. Maybe you made it to day 15 or day 50. Maybe you had a fully decked out fortress but died to a swarm of 20 hell hounds. It doesn’t matter. It all disappears. Permadeath is, unsurprisingly, very permanent. The only thing you take with you on the next playthrough is more knowledge about the game and better gaming skills to help you survive.

dontstarverobot

So how can you survive better? You’ll need to craft weapons and armour to defend yourself. To do that, you need to make a science machine which gives you access to things to craft. Once you collect the required resources, you can prototype an item, which means from then on, you can craft that item on the go and not next to a science machine. So you’ll craft a spear, a log suit and then you can handle the hounds. You go out like Rambo and stalk your way through the world, looking for beasties to kill. But now, you’re far away from your base and you’ve neglected to gather any food. That hunger bar in the top right keeps flashing, your stomach shrinks, and you start taking damage. Eventually, you starve, and your character won’t stop complaining about how hungry he is and your screen is glowing red, and perhaps you feel a bit sweaty and stressed out as you desperately try to eat raw berries to starve off your hunger but it’s not enough. Well done. You’ve now starved to death. Let’s start over.

What food can you eat? Well initially you’ll subsist on a diet of carrots and berries which can be found in the wild and picked up easily. But they don’t provide much sustenance and they can take a while to grow back. You notice lots of little rabbits (jackalopes in game terms) running around, darting from hole to hole. You might see some buffalos (or beefalos) covered in thick, warm fur wandering the savannah plains. Perhaps you stumble across a little pig village where pigs walk around on their hind legs like humans and build little wooden huts to sleep in. They sometimes even cultivate carrots and farms. If you’re lucky, there’ll be a pig king in the centre, a massive behemoth of a creature who is so large, he cannot stand. If you give him some valuable items, he might give you some gold. Otherwise, he will just laze around and ignore you.

All these animals look like walking pieces of meat to you. You think to yourself: mmm, you could have a lovely rabbit stew if you could just kill one of those darn darting creatures. Armed with your spear, you attempt to catch a rabbit. You discover the rabbits are smart and fast and will run away down into a hole before you can even say dinner. The beefalo are surprisingly powerful, and they will attack in hordes that surround you and destroy your armour before feasting on you too. The pigs also attack in hordes; they don’t take very nicely to you destroying their village. They will kill you and you’ll have no food to show for it, only a death screen which lets you watch as these wild animals converge on your corpse. Let’s start over.

Now you realise that in your crafting menu, you can make traps. Small traps which can be placed over rabbit holes and baited with carrots will net you rabbits pretty consistently. For dinner tonight, you will dine on a feast of rabbit morsels. Perhaps you also notice that you can make farms. So you craft a few farms and sow some seeds, and after a day, you’ll have grown yourself a nice pumpkin or an eggplant or even a dragonfruit. In the crafting menu, you can also make yourself a crock pot or a drying rack. Putting four food items in the crock pot will produce a lovely home cooked meal which will substantially fill you up. The drying rack can dry meats like rabbit meat or beefalo meat which lets them last longer. Oh yes, food will spoil. This isn’t Minecraft where you can store a whole chest full of pork chops. In Don’t Starve, food has a spoilage bar and eating spoiled food will harm your health. You can build a fridge to slow down the process, but it will spoil eventually.

By now, you’re probably feeling pretty snug. You have a fire, a fridge full of food, some farms, maybe you’ve even dabbled in some structures and have a sturdy wall to ward away the hounds or to trap them with tooth traps. Your base is looking pretty fine and you have lots of resources. You only have to periodically travel out to gather resources like manure, spider webs or random things like cogs. Ah, time to relax.

But wait, why is the screen all white? Why do the rabbits have white fur now? Why do the birds look blue? Your character starts shivering on the screen. You travel too far from the camp and suddenly there are icicles on your screen and your character is taking damage. He shivers and shivers and runs through the snow storm and desperately tries to get to warmth and shelter. But he doesn’t make it; he dies, frozen on the ground. Let’s start over.

dontstarvewinter

You see, it became winter. Winter is harsh and unforgiving. Winter is long. Winter is cold. The cold weather will kill you eventually unless you were prepared. You needed to have a warm wooly hat and maybe a puffy vest and a heat stone to take with you on long journeys. Otherwise you’ll have to stay constantly next to a source of warmth like a fire in order to survive. You’ll learn these things soon enough.

On your next playthrough, you do more exploring and discover these weird wormholes. Bravely, you jump into one and it spits you out on the other side of the map. How odd! You discover these wormholes will let you travel from place to place, covering vast distances in just a few seconds. You gleefully hop from hole to hole, travelling to the furthest reaches of your map. But something seems wrong. There are black ghosts on your screen. You can’t interact with them, but they are there, looking strange and disappear as you get close. What could they be? You notice your sanity bar is dropping. It gets dark, and your sanity bar drops even further. You pick up a mushroom and eat it, but it drastically reduces your sanity. Now the world looks entirely different. The rabbits look like monstrous black furballs and the ghosts on your screen which were previously harmless are hunting you down. You have gone fully insane. The hallucinations drop nightmare fuel when you kill them, but you just can’t seem to kill them all. You try to pick up flowers and craft things to get your sanity level up, and it’s creeping up slowly. The hallucinations ease off. The rabbits start to return to normal. Phew. You’re safe for now. No need to start over.

You chop down some trees for some firewood for tonight’s fire. You think about the stuffed eggplant you’ve prepared for tonight’s dinner. Perhaps you’ll work on building up the wall around your base and maybe laying down a nice wooden floor. As you were thinking all these things, you don’t notice that the tree you just attempted to chop was actually a treeguard. These fiercesome creatures guard the woods and are basically giant ents who can kill you in two swipes. This treeguard kills you in one swipe because you were low from the hallucinations. Sigh. Let’s start over.

What I’ve described is a fairly standard playthrough of someone who doesn’t use the wiki and just sets out to explore the world of Don’t Starve. I personally believe that’s the best way to play. The joy of the game comes in exploring, learning, and improving and yes, dying. Sometimes dying is the better choice. You get exp and maybe you’ll unlock a better character to use. My personal favourite is the robot because he can eat stale food but sometimes I’ll go for the beefy muscleman who can hit creatures harder and has more health but requires more food. But I understand some people hate dying. Some people hate having all their progress reset because they accidentally wandered into a swamp and got killed by the tentacle monsters. So those people might want to consult the wiki or watch someone else do a playthrough before they attempt to navigate the harsh world of Don’t Starve for themselves. Or maybe those people should avoid this game altogether.

The game is hard, but only as hard as you make it. The game rarely makes it feel like you die randomly. You die because you made mistakes. You die from your ignorance. When you die, it is your own fault. And I find that incredibly compelling. Although it’s a sandbox game, you get a real sense of progress just by seeing how many days you can survive for. At the beginning, you’ll only survive for 10 days. After a few playthroughs, you might be able to survive for 50. I think the longest I’ve survived for is 120 days but that was in beta when there was less stuff to kill you. So although the game is hard, the game cannot be accused of being unfair. It is all down to your knowledge and your survival instinct to survive.

And for those who get really good at surviving, there is adventure mode. Adventure mode adds a small story to the otherwise sandbox game. You go through a door and it transports you to another level. The goal of every level is to find four components scattered throughout the world and then assemble it at a certain site which will let you proceed to the next level. You have a diving rod which can help you do that (it beeps as you get closer to the items in question). The levels utilise the same gameplay as the sandbox mode, but they’ll test you in different ways. One level is perpetually winter. Another has you on an island surrounded by swamps and the only way to get to other islands is through wormholes. So if you thought sandbox mode wasn’t hard enough, adventure mode will be the ultimate test of your skills.

Now, apparently I suck at the game so I’ve never managed to beat even a single level. I don’t know what story aspects completing levels will unlock. I don’t want to wiki it as it’ll spoil it if I ever do try. But I can tell you that it is incredibly hard. You have to have a good in-depth knowledge of the game before you attempt it. You need to know how to survive, how to manage your time and how to find items efficiently. I thought I was doing pretty well in sandbox mode but really, sandbox is a piece of cake compared to adventure mode. I wish I could tell you more, but I can’t because I suck.

So what do I think of the game overall? Well, I love its art style. There’s been a trend in indie games towards interesting art styles and Don’t Starve has this kind of pencil drawn gothic-look to it. The sounds are simple but cute; your character doesn’t talk but he/she will make little musical sounds and captions will come up to show you their reactions which are often simple but funny in their own way. The world is beautiful and full of secrets, with multiple biomes and dozens of different types of resources which all come in useful in different ways. I’ve already described the game play and I personally love it. I love sandbox exploration like that. The only downside is there is a lot of clicking; every action revolves around clicking things. Cutting down a tree, for example, involves clicking it over and over. Some people won’t like that. Other people won’t like the death aspect of it. It’s a game which I think you can easily tell if you’d love by watching a trailer or some gameplay, or even if you just read this post and thought “that sounds awesome”. Overall then, I love the game and it’s the type of game I could pick up every so often and just pour a dozen hours into it all over again.

For only £11.99 on Steam, it is absolutely worth the price. It is a compelling, deep survival game which truly does the survival genre justice. Even better, the dev team have promised updates for at least 6 more months since its release; so if you get it now, it’s only going to get better.

Buy it now on Steam or on their website which will give you a Steam key and Chrome key.

Don't Starve

By the way, if anyone reading my blog has suggestions for things they’d like me to write about, I would gladly welcome the suggestions. Topics can be anything from entertainment related things like TV shows, movies, video games, books etc. too current affairs, philosophical matters etc. The only caveat is that I have to know enough about the topic to write about it so if you’re suggesting me stuff I haven’t watched or know about, it might take me a few weeks to get around to forming an opinion. Leave suggestions in the comments or any of the social media ways of contacting me (Facebook and Twitter).

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