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Don't Starve

(Klei Entertainment; US: 23 Apr 2013)

Don’t Starve is a roguelike survival game with a clever title. Your entire motivation is summed up in that title. Not starving is your ultimate goal and your moment-to-moment objective. Unfortunately, that title is also the closest thing to a tutorial that you’re going to get. “Don’t starve” is your goal, but it’s also your only instruction.


When you click Play, you wake up in a randomly generated world, and a mysterious man tells you, essentially, “Don’t starve,” then the game begins. Inevitably, everyone who plays it the first time will simply stand around for a few seconds waiting for something else to happen. When that something doesn’t happen, you’ll start to click around and realize that the game has started. Your next inevitable thought will be: “What am I supposed to do now?”


This lack of explanation is the game’s biggest appeal but also its biggest drawback. This is a tough world and survival is hard, but it often feels like survival is hard merely because I don’t know what to do. It’s not that the game is unusually difficult. It’s actually far easier than other roguelikes like The Binding of Isaac or FTL. It’s an artificial difficulty that stems from trying to play a game before you know the rules. Those players that stay with the game and learn all its intricacies will likely become converted evangelists, if only because the time investment is so demanding. Most players are likely to stop after an hour, not because Don’t Starve is too hard, not because it’s not fun, but because why play a game when you don’t know the rules? Within the context of gaming, discovery is fun, but learning (again, within the context of gaming) is not.


Whenever we start a new game, we suffer through the learning curve because the fun begins afterwards, once we understand the systems and how they interact with each other. It’s only then that we can begin to discover: We discover how deep a system goes, how those initial lessons can be applied to new situations. We discover new systems that contradict old systems, forcing us to make tough and interesting decisions. We discover new ways to play, but that discovery is only possible because it is built upon that initial learning.


Don’t Starve is indeed filled with this kind of discovery, but its learning process is so long and laborious that it becomes work, not entertainment.


Semantics aside, Don’t Starve is quite engaging when you get over that vicious hump and start discovering things. I would advise any incoming players to use a Wiki, visit a forum, read a strategy guide, do everything you can to shorten the learning process because there’s still so much to discover afterwards. Its one thing to read about a Tallbird or Treeguard, but quite another to encounter them in game.


Your personal story of survival is always compelling. Clicking around the world, scrounging carrots and berries, twigs and grass, rocks and flint, and then building up from there, more complex structures, better tools, building a home. Then you strike out into the unknown wilderness, building other campsites as you go. You become an explorer on an expedition, mapping the uncharted wild, learning how to cook and scavenge the local fauna, observing the habits of fantastical species and then killing them for food and fur.


Then you’ll die and get so depressed that you stop playing, but after a couple days, you’ll come back because maybe this time you’ll do better. Don’t Starve follows the rules of a good roguelike in that every failure doesn’t completely reset your progress. Failing resets your mechanical progress, but it doesn’t reset your competence. Every failure teaches you a little more so that you grow better at the game with each doomed attempt. Unlike, say, the aforementioned FTL, in which I felt the randomness of the world played more of a factor in my success or failure than my actual choices, in Don’t Starve the random world always has enough resources in it so that the onus is on you to figure out how to best use those resources.


However, this also presents its own share of problems. The better I get, the more time I’m able to invest in each game, which means there are more things that I’m able to build, which means there’s more for me to lose when I inevitably die. Every failure teaches me something, but that growing competence only leads to a stronger sense of loss in the end. Eventually it gets to a point where I’ve lost so much in a single game that I don’t want to play it anymore, yet those lessons that I’ve learned take root in the back of my head and compel me to try again. It’s a bizarre struggle in which I try to simultaneously convince myself to play, and not to play.


Thankfully, Don’t Starve is aware that its fundamental game design can be off-putting to many, and it allows you to change all sorts of settings every time you start a new game. If you’re having trouble finding food, you can increase the number of carrots and berry bushes available. If you’re always running out of supplies, you can spawn more rocks and trees. You also unlock more characters as you play, each with their own useful abilities that can significantly change your survival strategies.


Once you get over the hump Don’t Starve becomes a more approachable game full of discovery and death, the kind of game that you can boot up and play for 20 minutes before going to work, except that you’ll never play for just 20 minutes because the exploration and survival are so tempting. It still feels eager to screw me over, as if every passing second it is just biding its time until it can kill me with something I hadn’t even thought to expect. Even when it’s approachable and tempting, it’s still frustrating and depressing, but that’s the point. Don’t Starve is a test of endurance, and any frustrations are born out of this consistent design philosophy. I may love it at times and may hate it at times, but I always respect it.

Rating:

Nick Dinicola made it through college with a degree in English, and now applies all his critical thinking skills to video games instead of literature. He reviews games and writes a weekly post for the Moving Pixels blog at PopMatters, and can be heard on the weekly Moving Pixels podcast. More of his reviews, previews, and general thoughts on gaming can be found at www.gamehounds.net.


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