the artistry and psychology of gaming


Don’t Starve

Don’t Starve

The Good:
+ Unique genre blend meshes together very well
+ Heavily-interwoven game mechanics are impressively balanced
+ Varied content and difficulty settings support multiple play styles
+ Plenty of personality via offbeat humour and aesthetics

The Bad:
– Early gameplay gets repetitive quickly
– Controls are imprecise and ill-suited to combat

The roguelike is fast becoming one of my favourite genres. This is only partially because of the reasons most commonly cited by fans: its use of random content generation genuinely means no two playthroughs are the same, and its incorporation of both RPG mechanics and arcade-style retry-centrism is a built-in example of how to achieve depth without being overly complex and alienating. But mostly it’s because “roguelike” defines a genre with a certain structure and theme, rather than with specific mechanics, as with, say, “shooter”. This means that apart from some broad guidelines, developers are free to experiment with gameplay, narrative, and aesthetics to their hearts’ content, as demonstrated by the radically different experiences offered by recent indie roguelike hits The Binding of Isaac and FTL: Faster Than Light.

In that vein, Don’t Starve is what you get when you insert, of all things, an open-world Harvest Moon illustrated by a Tim Burton fan into the roguelike framework. And if you’re onboard with the slower pace that entails, the result is an original, charming, and functionally-airtight piece of escapism that can keep you playing until you (appropriately) remember that you should have eaten dinner three hours ago. The game actually takes more inspiration from the Harvest Moon spinoff series Rune Factory, since it also includes an indecisively dark aesthetic, and very ill-conceived combat as a core feature. But even though the combat is clumsy at best, its underlying systems still sync cleanly with the other threads in Don’t Starve’s elaborate web of intersecting game mechanics, so the overall experience is definitely worth checking out.

Doesn’t look remotely safe, but you still want to check it out. Don’t Starve gameplay in a nutshell.

Despite the concept seeming tailor-made for video games, there aren’t many well-regarded pure survival games. Don’t Starve is probably the best realization of the idea I’ve seen so far, because of one crucial factor: every element is tied into every other element. There are too many games that try to throw a dozen pieces of other, better games onto a design document and call it a day, not realizing that, individually, those pieces are soulless and boring. Don’t Starve understands this, so instead uses its pieces to reinforce and complement one another. It successfully balances hunting, gathering, building, farming, a day/night cycle, a weather system, a sanity system, and of course, a hunger system. And in doing so, it creates a game that can be approached from dozens of angles, with hundreds of results.

This accessibility-through-variety extends to the game’s approach to difficulty settings, as well. Much of Don’t Starve’s challenge level is customizable, as you can toggle most large-scale mechanics on and off, or adjust the frequency with which smaller resources and hazards appear. This allows veteran players easy access to nigh-impossible self-imposed challenges, while also easing the sting of that most infuriating roguelike mechanic, the reliance on random chance. Don’t get me wrong, this is still a roguelike, complete with the equally likely possibilities of stumbling into the powers of a god, and stumbling into a world of murderous tentacles all shouting “Fuck you, skill-based gaming!” But the open world and innumerable options make the negative outcomes a lot less devastating and the positive ones a lot less game-breaking.

Although if this happens to you, you’re still pretty screwed.

Of course, there’s still that other problem roguelikes have practically by definition: the start of every playthrough consists of going through the same motions over and over again. The random generation alters things slightly, but the first five days of each new attempt at not starving are still just about gathering the same resources in the same order until you construct your first “science machine”, at which point the game begins to branch out. Having half the mechanics lifted from Harvest Moon doesn’t help, because while that series is all about performing menial tasks at your own pace with a pleasant cartoon atmosphere, Don’t Starve can be downright stressful at times, what with the dwindling hunger meter, increasingly antagonistic sanity effects, and general lack of creatures that aren’t trying to eat your face off. And I don’t know about you, but to me, stress and repetition combined is a recipe for a second job.

Compounding the problem with things that want to eat your face off, the combat in Don’t Starve isn’t quite as agreeable as its other major features. This is mostly the fault of the overly simple control setup. While using the keyboard for movement and mouse for actions works fine for static objects, it’s completely inadequate for targeting pursuing enemies and dodging attacks. A lock-on system and dedicated attack button would’ve gone a long way toward cleaning it up, but it would still suffer for the enemies’ sweeping attack animations, which make guessing safe distances to retreat to literally hit-or-miss. I also wish the game would pause when you open crafting menus — currently it’s safer to just play the game with a wiki page open.

It’s a shame, because the animation as a whole is quite enjoyable, as is the rest of the game’s childlike romanticized gothic style. In addition to being pretty to look at, I’m fond of how every stylistic choice ties back to the “order from chaos” trend that emerges from the gameplay: player damage is announced with a wailing musical instrument, and the title theme is a jaunty symphonic mess, while item collection and daybreak are signified with single chimes and chords. The game even manages to inject quite a bit of humour into its characters’ short observations, often with a bit of fourth wall-breaking. And finally, I can’t help but find the game eerily relevant, as one of the primary mid-game concerns is settling down and manipulating the environment into a sustainable ecosystem, usually after a few failed attempts at nomadism.

I’m serious. Plan ahead, or you will starve.

Those of you who follow indie games likely heard about Don’t Starve a long time ago, albeit missing many of the things I’ve mentioned here. This is because Klei Entertainment wisely adhered to the Minecraft distribution model for its release, wherein the game has an official release date of April 23, 2013, but existed in a very playable form as far back as October 2012, with the developers adding features on a regular basis before and after release. As with Minecraft, it’s the perfect system for a game like this: the core gameplay stands strong on its own and will probably be the initial drive to play, but it’s the modular enhancements the game has received and will continue to receive that give the game that addictive quality that a roguelike desperately needs.

But then, it’s not just a roguelike, is it? There’s nothing quite like the refreshing blend of genre and tone that Don’t Starve offers. While the inherent limitations of its ancestors ensure it’s not for everyone, it’s worth playing just to see how well it all fits together. If you’re the kind of player for whom this particular collection of RPG, simulation, survival, and horror tropes resonates, this could be the only game you need to play for months. Just remember to eat.

Score: 7/10

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