Within the title of Don’t Starve is its instructions and its goal. Don’t starve.
Simple enough instructions for a game, though the game has layers of familiar systems that make not starving a bit complicated.
While one might not might recognize it on the basis of a quick, initial glance, this is a game that has some elements in common with many RTSes (in that learning efficient and effective build orders is a key to long term success). It is a game that also borrows elements from Minecraft, from The Sims, from the board game Agricola.
After choosing a character to save from starvation, the player awakens on a randomly generated island whose environments and inhabitants appear like something lifted from a cartoon by Charles Addams. A dapper and vaguely Victorian figure appears in a poof of smoke and says,“Say, pal, you don’t look so good. You better find some food before night falls,” before disappearing just as suddenly as he appeared.
And that’s pretty much it. You are left to your own devices. Left to explore a rather dangerous land, gathering seeds and berries, saplings and cut grass, in order to feed yourself and build a fire to survive through the night.
A day-night timer marks your progress, as your three stats, hunger, health, and sanity, slowly erode either due to the passage of time or to dangerous encounters with the fauna of the island.
Gathering resources and putting them to use is the key to success of course, building tools, useful machines like a crockpot (to prepare more satisfying food), weapons, and some basic structures for the sake of security all become the dominant occupation of the player of Don’t Starve. Since there is no tutorial beyond the aforementioned statements, you’re going to need to figure out how to build things, how to find things, where it is best to set up camp, and how it is best to avoid the creatures of the night largely through trial and error. On that level, the game is engaging and challenging.
To what end, do you do these things? Well, to not stave.
When you do die, be it of hunger or be it by being torn asunder by a creature whose eyes you have only glimpsed in the dark of night, the game tells you how many days you survived and you “level up” unlocking new characters with different abilities (usually rather charming ones, like Wilson’s ability to “grow a magnificent beard,” which, surprisingly, is actually a useful ability because shaved hair can be used to build some other items).
The game then is about maintenance in a manner similar, perhaps, to The Sims. You spend your time taking care of your needs (predominantly, of course, slaking your hunger) and building items that make doing so easier over the long haul. Winter also will eventually come to the island, complicating the avoidance of starvation with a new need to “not freeze.” But winter will end eventually, returning the focus to avoiding starvation once more and again preparing for the next winter. You maintain to maintain to maintain.
And that’s when my interest wanes.
I’ve written before about how sandbox games like Minecraft make me, as a long time gamer, realize that in a sense I don’t know how to play (”I Don’t Know How to Play”, PopMatters, 13 October 2010). I know how to “game,” to attempt to accomplish predetermined goals within a system, or in other words, how to attempt to “win.” But left to my own devices within a system and world to make my own fun, to create my own goals, I’m often left unsatisfied and bored. I need a win-state, I guess, to make my play into a “meaningful” game. I’ve also written before how I’m slightly bothered by checklists of sub-quests, especially in open world games, that make me feel like I’m accomplishing a “to do list” at work or something (“Post-It Note Role-Playing, or the White Collar Warriors of Skyrim”, PopMatters, 18 January 2012).
In some sense, playing Don’t Starve reminds me of both issues that I have with games of this sort. The game leaves me feeling listless and unconcerned with its outcome because I know its outcome, a fail-state or quitting at some point are the only way to “finish” the game. In that, the game just feels like life.
You maintain. You maintain. You maintain. And you might even get good at maintaining. Then, it ends.
To me this is a game that is soul-suckingly absurdist in tone, and it makes me want to go save a princess or a world or just complete a damn puzzle or something, something to make me feel satisfaction and resolution, not endlessly existing to exist.
Now, I really don’t want to disparage Don’t Starve. I deeply admire its aesthetics (the world and characters are grotesquely beautiful), and I was certainly engaged by its emphasis on exploration and learning by experiment and through other forms of trial and error. However, this is a game that provokes only existential angst in me through its reflection of endless maintenance within a system. I feel like if Franz Kafka had created a game, this would be his kind of game.
I know, however, that there are players for this game. There are players for whom Minecraft or The Sims are endlessly joyous experience of self-motivated and self-guided play, and they may want a more hardcore mode to experience such a sandbox through (if so, Don’t Starve is, indeed, that more hardcore mode). But I find no joy in this kind of play.
Also, I could be wrong that this experience is in some sense “eternal” because I have avoided reading FAQs on it (in deference to the notion that the game seems most interesting when driven by self discovery), and it is, after all, still in beta. Maybe there is a long term possibility of escape from the island or some secret to discover there. However, I may have had my fill of it long before I can reach that revelation and the experience of it that is so endlessly banal speaks more loudly to me about hopelessness that I can’t hang in long enough to find out for myself.
I guess, instead, I feel that I need external affirmation. I guess I need to idealistically believe in conquest, accomplishment, victory. I guess I am quaintly idealistic about the representation of a world where your actions matter in some great way in the long run.
I don’t want to just not starve.