I weathered through the winter. Good goddamn.
When I started playing Don’t Starve, I had no idea what exactly I was in for. Very few games wrangle me in the way this game did, and my obsessive playing in the last week or so is downright terrifying.
I don’t even want to admit how many times I restarted my save files, and not because of the easily-attained character deaths. I love starting games over; all the opportunities and chances fresh for the taking, the joy/art of customizing your character and min/maxing their meager starter gears. When I would play Might and Magic 2 for the Sega Genesis as a kid, I would just sit there and re-roll stats for hours and hours. When the game finally began for real, I had already moved on.
Not so with Don’t Starve. The game pulls you in immediately with a real sense of urgency in this randomly generated (and somewhat customizable, though I always hit “default” on everything) map filled with adventure. And yet, the game is deceptively not-difficult in so many ways. In fact, the most challenging part I’ve encountered in the game is trying to do anything in combat, since my little dude always seems to want to walk around behind the enemy and give the foe a free shot before swinging at them. That, and the fact that I never seem to get the right pig parts to drop so’s I can build anything useful out of my ham-beast buds.
But the game isn’t about combat—Don’t Starve is all strategy, and knowing what to do, and what order to do it in. Which can be exceedingly difficult, considering that the game tells you nothing. And I love it for that.
Mechanically, it’s very simple. A single-player game, you control a little man (initially Wilson, gentleman scientist) on a massive isometric map. You click around or use WASD to move, and you can interact with objects in the world by clicking or hitting spacebar when within proper operating distance of the thing you’re trying to make do stuff. You have three life stats: hunger, sanity, and health. Here, the strategy is to attempt a proper manipulation of resources. By creating, consuming, and conserving properly, you keep these statistics up. Fail, and you start over again (unless you have the proper random-object-of-resurrection doing things for you).
At a time when B-movie-quality exposition, dialogue, and plot lines dominate the AAA titles, it’s nice to play a game which generates an actual desire to continue playing and a true sense of joy simply through (surprise) actually playing the game. And yet, it somehow does this through mostly mundane tasks. True, you’ve got some killing, evading, and building, but that all mostly takes a backseat to the gathering.
You gather food, materials, followers, and enough courage to press forward even in the face of the super-spooky. And yes, gathering itself, and what you then do with what you’ve gathered, is one of the biggest, strategy-consuming parts of the game. You could spend all day gathering berries to make sure you follow the initial suggestion offered to you by the developers in this game’s title, but will those tasty berries help you fight off a random monster, or stay warm through the night? You think you can just sleep on a pile of delicious jam?!
You even gather new characters to play through with, unlocked by making it through enough days (with, or without dying. Just days played overall). The game is frustrating at times, but it knows how to carrot-on-a-stick you through the toughest parts, and each death is really just the beginning of a new grand strategy; that elusive attempt that will make it—all the way.
The game’s unique style and atmosphere is to be addressed in this paragraph. It’s old-timey and big-liney and cartooney and kind of steampunkish. I like it. Also, characters talk in English-subtitled trumpet blasts and oboe wails. Watch a single trailer and you’ll know what you’re in for.
If you’ve got a bunch of free time or a life partner you’re trying to lose, and fifteen bucks lying around, you should get this game and give it a go. It’s simple enough have been released on an iPad, but difficult enough to make you want to bookmark the Wiki with a left-right glance and a shame-faced look. Games such as these are an experience, which you continue to unlock by continuing to play, not by looking up the answers (though at times you kind of have to because the game doesn’t reveal too much). And you may find yourself continuing, for hours and hours on end, measuring in your mind how much further you can get before real life kicks back in.
And there’s something joyful in that. Don’t Starve is a great way to remind yourself that you CAN still focus on one thing, intensely. While playing, everything outside of the game’s window becomes a distraction to be avoided if at all possible. It’s pure escapism ironically rooted in our oldest primal survival tendencies, and it kicks a lot of ass.
What it is:
- Strategic resource and response-to-stimuli management and survival simulator
- Quirky Canadian independent game simulator
- Full of gathering
- Occasionally frustrating and deathful
- Easy to pick up, difficult to yadda yadda
- Stylized isometric steampunk science-magic
What it isn’t:
- Very good at combat
- Straightforward with its intricacies
- Easy to turn off
- Big budget AAA title