It’s a pity that Tim Burton hasn’t been involved in video games: both his visual style and his storytelling abilities would be welcome additions to our industry. Thankfully, niche approaches to style can find a welcome home in today’s indie market, and the folks down at Klei entertainment have turned that particular style onto the video game scene in their new 2-D open world survival title Don’t Starve. It’s a refreshing and unique entry into the genre, one that puts extra emphasis on the ‘surviving’, and that’s sure to give players a welcome challenge.
The goal in Don’t Starve is simple and straightforward (hint: read the title). The player takes control of a forlorn, classically British-looking protagonist, and although there is only one default starter character, other playable characters with potentially useful abilities unlock as the game progresses. When you start in the world, you’ve got only your bare hands to work with. There’s no tree-punching, thank goodness, but you’ll need to start off by hunting down some flint and sticks so you can fashion yourself an axe. Your first priorities are simply to acquire fire (which you must have to survive a night) and food (which, as it turns out, delays starvation). As luck would have it, it’s not enough to simply peg down a steady source of calories; if you’re not careful, you can also be killed in the conventional manner, in other words, by being ravenously eaten, poisoned, or pecked to death by some of Mother Nature’s wonders. There are also some native inhabitants, better armed and armored than you, who are probably best avoided. As if that weren’t enough, there’s one more danger that feels just a tad artificial: your character starts to go insane without having new things to think about (aka, crafting new items or gathering pleasant items). This provides an impetus to keep you gathering harder-to-find materials, and although this seems like a bit of a poor man’s way of encouraging you to explore and ‘techify’, the crafting is fun enough that it stands on its own two feet. Generally you’ll be quite happy to spend time gathering special items just because you want to, say, build yourself a suit of armor, or a new kind of animal trap. There are even cute hats to make that have the added bonus of keeping your sanity up.
If all of this sounds like an open-world creativity journey, think again. Don’t Starve does give you several nice options for survival. For example, your food sources can come from scavenging, farming, hunting, or even cultivating your own bees. However, in the harsh climates that you’ll be fighting through, your options are usually so limited that you’ll need to focus all your efforts on whatever strategy is most likely to let you live another day. It’s not a game of fun and frolicking: you’ve got to fix your problems now, before they grow to big and doom you by your own stupidity.
That’s all well and good for the basic ‘survive-and-thrive’ aspect of Don’t Starve, but there’s also a form of campaign in the guise of the Adventure Mode. Here, the player is placed into specially created worlds with particularly difficult settings: it might be extra cold, or extra dark, or the food might be extra hard to come by. Surviving in each world long enough to collect pieces of a McGuffin allow the player to progress to the next challenge, slowly uncovering a thin story as the adventure continues. It’s not a strong enough narrative to be an independent draw for most players, but gives a nice added challenge to the standard gameplay.
From its title to its music, Don’t Starve does an excellent job of perfectly nailing a unique tone: it’s always a little dark, a little humorous, and a little self-conscious. The soundtrack is mostly made to mimic small-ensemble Victorian era motifs, the sort of thing that you would expect to hear in a haunted mansion movie. That said, it feels like there’s not enough of this high quality music to go around. The light-hearted morbidity of the game is even reflected in what characters you can play with: it’d be so easy to simply make the player a terribly frightened little girl or boy, crying for his or her mommy. Instead, the characters in the game gleefully watch trees burn and take pleasure in slaughtering whatever cute furry animals they can find. It’s a kill-or-be-killed world, and your character loves every minute of it. But the best part about the game is that the environment itself practically has a character. Nature isn’t just a harsh environment: it’s out to get you. Chop up too many trees, or wring the necks of too many fluffy bunnies, and you might find yourself facing some particularly vengeful avatars of the outdoors.
The worldbuilding in Don’t Starve is a special treat, and is quite possibly the most enjoyable aspect of the game. The scenery and enemies are given a dark, edgy sketch style that looks a bit like a flannelgraph or felt puppet show. Birds and critters all have their distinctive hoots and whistles, and even the trees quiver when they grow new leaves (which, appropriately, happens in a sudden ‘pop’). Genre-wise, Don’t Starve sits nicely in that sweet spot of gothic aesthetics, partway between simple turn-of-the-century technology and homespun magic.
Comparisons between Don’t Starve and Minecraft are inevitable, but unfair. Don’t Starve isn’t nearly as open-ended: it’s more focused on the challenge of survival, and there’s very little call for customization at all in the game. All recipes are technically given to you in advance, although you may need to traverse a tech tree in order to gain access to them. The crafting in Don’t Starve is also more focused on utility - generally speaking you’ll be so busy trying desperately to build the weapons or shelter that you require, you won’t ever find yourself making something just for the fun of it. Instead of offering limitless exploration, Don’t Starve offers a particular feeling; that of being in a creepy, kooky horror story.
With only a few biomes and enemy types currently implemented, the game as it is only carries a decent amount of material, and replay value is sadly limited. The sticking point here is that, like Minecraft, Don’t Starve promises continual updates (and cleverly posts the date of the next game addition on its main menu). This makes the purchase of Don’t Starve something of a gamble: maybe it will fill up to the brim with new content, maybe it won’t, and only time will tell.
More so than in other genres of games, world building in survival games is important, because the world is your enemy. Just like every good heroic RPG needs a delicious villain to focus your conflict against, a good survival game needs to give the environment itself a personality. While most outdoor survival games do this by making the environment be something like an inviting, friendly host, Don’t Starve goes in the opposite direction by making the Mother Nature seem more like that weird cat lady who lives in the boarded-up house. It’s not so much an invitation to explore and enjoy yourself as it is a long list of dangers to avoid. Don’t pick fights with the locals. Don’t stay in one place for too long. Don’t ignore that growl you hear in the night. Oh, and just in case you forget... try not to starve.
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