Since science is a cornerstone of Don’t Starve, it seems appropriate that it’s an experiment for Canadian indie Klei. It’s the first of its games that’s been shaped by a public beta, with an impassioned community helping steer development. And while Klei’s previous works have been puzzlers and side-scrolling action games, Don’t Starve is a game of survival in an isometric otherworldly wilderness with a touch of the infernal about it.
When we say survival, however, we don’t mean that in the sense videogames normally do. Lara Croft’s most recent outing trotted out the theme, for instance, but mostly as an excuse for some wince-worthy cutscene batterings and a reason to skewer a thousand cultists’ faces with arrows. Don’t Starve is more like what you’d expect if you packed Minecraft’s penchant for crafting and exploration off to the Bear Gyrlls school of wilderness taming.
Dropped in the middle of nowhere with no obvious goal bar staying alive, you’ll soon discover that you have three meters to manage: your hunger, sanity and health. It’s daytime, but night is coming soon, and you won’t make it to day two without a fire. Dark creatures roam these gnarled woods and treacherous swamps, creatures best avoided until you can get together the tools of civilised man. Wandering about the randomly generated landscape, you’ll pluck berries from bushes and seeds from the ground with a click, filling slots on an inventory bar. You’ll strip saplings for sticks and find flints to craft an axe, then chop trees for firewood. Using the simple crafting menu, you’ll plop down a fire as darkness draws in and wait out the night.
Morning comes, and with it choices. You’ve got to prepare for the next evening, sure, but now you’ve got the latitude to mine rocks to make a permanent fire pit, say. Soon, you’ll also want to make a science machine, which opens up a whole world of useful equipment in your drive for self sufficiency.
There’s a lot to experiment with, and it’s best discovered for yourself, since that’s the main reward for playing Don’t Starve. The game certainly won’t spoil anything for you, and indulges in next to no handholding. In practice, that means it’s up to you to work out if it’s a good idea to scoff spider meat or take on some of the local fauna in your new grass romper suit. It’s a liberating level of freedom, but some of the methods to get your hands on certain resources are obscure, and the results of many actions unpredictable. You’ll need to figure them out through trial and error (read: court death), or pore through the wilds of a wiki page. But the logic here is knotty at times. Why do fires not produce ash, while burning plants does? How come you can build houses for others, but not live in them yourself?
It’s a world full of choice, and the game is not above harshly punishing wrong decisions. In fact, it seems to delight in it. Death is swift and permanent unless you’ve made or found a resurrection item, booting you back to the very first day (or out of adventure mode if you’ve found the way in). Sadism works in the context of this Dantean hinterland, but while some will see this as a spur, it curbed our enthusiasm to start all over again. Especially since the only things you take away from each hours-long attempt are a little more knowledge and XP with which to unlock new unfortunates to play as.
More damning is that the point soon arrives at which Don’t Starve leaves us hungry for more. Not content – there’s plenty of that, and more to follow – but more satisfying solutions to the problems of survival. With little scope for automation of basic collection tasks, days soon descend into flurries of busywork. You’ll click, click, click away at all and sundry, gathering more materials to build an ever-better base of stuff. You’ll click, click, click to cook more filling foods, just to keep topping up that insatiable virtual stomach. You’ll click, click, click to defend your base from nightmarish monsters. You might endure in Don’t Starve, but you rarely prevail.
Redemption comes through nuggets of emergent behaviour between species, as well as the genuine shocks Klei has laid in wait for dogged explorers. The atmosphere is rich, and the hand-scribbled Victorian Gothic aesthetic is wondrous. The soundscape deserves special mention, being full of tootling horns and faintly sinister noises.
But despite a world rich in character and initial wow factor, when you do finally hit the point of sustainability, it feels hollow. It doesn’t take long to realise why humans pursued the path to civilisation: merely surviving is mundane. Don’t Starve’s set of pre-made items doesn’t offer the room for self expression of a game like Minecraft, either, so what to do once you’ve found your place in its land? Klei’s limp answer is to simply change the rules a little and ask you to survive some more.
If you persist long enough, you’ll discover there is a mystery here to solve. But the process of unravelling it is long, punitive and indistinct. More importantly, it’s no respecter of your time, requiring a number of base restarts in new circumstances. Since the early game is the least interesting part of the process, it’s difficult not to resent this.
Don’t Starve is by no means a bad trial run for Klei’s new way of working, but it’s a pursuit for those with a wealth of patience and an appetite for pain. Klei may have modelled Hell brilliantly, but that doesn’t mean we want to live there.