Man Vs. Wild

You may not starve in Don’t Starve, but there are so many ways to die.

By Joe Keiser • April 30, 2013

One of the strangest consequences of Western mass-market culture is that everyone who has been a child in the last hundred years knows to fear and respect the dark German woods. The agrarian folktales that were collected by the Grimm Brothers have been endlessly retold for decades. These days they are so ingrained that even toddlers understand that those ancient oak walds, so necessary for lumber and communal pig grazing, will snap your neck like a twig in the night and leave the truth of your passing hidden in a thousand years of myth. Okay, maybe they don’t know the pig part. I haven’t talked to a toddler in a while.

Don’t Starve does not seek to retell any specific Grimm tale, but it is built in the spirit of Germanic lore. This is a game about dying in the woods. It’s also a game about dying in the swamps, or the grasslands, or whatever they call regions where everything is made of rock. And this is a game where that death has real consequence. When you succumb in Don’t Starve, everything you’ve done up that point in the game is deleted. You have to start again.

It doesn’t tell you this when you begin. In fact it doesn’t tell you anything when you begin. You wake up in the wild. A maleficent man suggests you find food before nightfall, and then you are left to learn the game on your own. Fortunately, the basics are self-explanatory. Clicking a small object will collect it; another click and collected food, like berries, will be consumed. Collect enough items and a light bulb will appear in an ever-present menu of contraptions. From here, your items can be combined into new tools and devices. Before long, you’ll be hacking down trees with a handmade axe.

And then the sun will set, and you will be eaten. Now you know that you need to prepare for night to survive until morning.

Don't Starve

If the point of the game is to learn to survive, then this is the cadence with which it teaches you—mostly with a gentle hand, until it suddenly slaps you and forces you to start over in a new, randomly generated landscape. There are times when I would discover the recipe for a magical item and revel in the newfound power it provided. And then there are times when I was chopping a tree and, suddenly, after dozens of times of this not happening, the tree stepped out of the ground and murdered me. Both such moments are surprising. Only one of them is delightful.

Still, the finality of death is an essential part of Don’t Starve. It makes the narrow escapes from strange new threats thrilling, and it lends a supreme important to anything that improves your chances of survival.

So it’s curious that late in the game the specter of death proves to be a drag on the experience. For all of the starting and restarting of Don’t Starve, after a few hours you are sure to discover some combination of relatively safe tactics that could sustain you indefinitely. At this point, there are a few options to keep the game interesting. You could continue to play it as a sandbox—though this isn’t a game where you can build what you want, when you want. (There is a set menu of items you can build, and it will run out. For their part, the developers are committed to add to the menu for the next six months).

Don't Starve

There is also an Adventure mode, which you can access by finding a magic door. You can find a small bit of story here, filling in the tale of that maleficent man from earlier. But seeing this side quest through requires exploring multiple worlds full of intense challenge. My attempts all started with being naked in winter, a hostile season where no food grows and you slowly freeze to death. This is hardly an auspicious way to begin. It’s a small mercy that dying in Adventure mode only ends Adventure mode, and you can enter the door any time to try again. Finally, you can opt to scour the landscape for a collection of “things” that will combine into a portal to another world, essentially “winning” the game.

The concern with any of these options is that pursuing them brings the chance of dying back to the fore, and if you die, you may not get another stab at them until you’ve re-built your sustainable life. If you want to eke more than a few hours out of Don’t Starve, you have to ask yourself, “Can I be bothered to spend the time rebuilding?” It’s not an easy question.

Don't Starve

But for those who can invest the time, there’s plenty of challenge built into the back of the game. And even those who can’t should still consider experiencing those early hours. Don’t Starve is an immediately beautiful game, with an art style reminiscent of Tim Burton and a score that’s perfectly married to this threatening fairytale. Those first moments of feeling your way through the forest while keeping your character fed, uninjured, and sane are interesting—though not as interesting as fed, uninjured, and insane. There’s also a comprehensive world editor, so the challenge can be ramped up or down for a quick traipse through a Disney-fied wood.

It makes for a reasonable weekend, but it’s unlikely to have the staying power of its inspirations. And it’s unlikely to end with a stark victory or a chilling moral. Instead it fizzles, like a light going out in the shadows, never to be seen again.

Don’t Starve
Developer: Klei Entertainment
Publisher: Klei Entertainment
Platforms: Browser (Chrome only), Linux, Mac, PC
Reviewed on: Mac
Price: $15
Rating: Not Rated

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20 Responses to “Man Vs. Wild”

  1. rvb1023 says:

    I liked the idea of this game, though I don’t like the idea of finding a way to survive indefinitely. I think I would have like this more if there was a stronger exploration element.

    • The_Helmaroc_King says:

      Roguelikes are a style of game that I have a begrudging-but-distant respect for; I’ve only ever played two seriously, but in both cases they were strongly goal-oriented affairs that could be played through relatively quickly and built upon their goals on subsequent playthroughs.

      From what I’ve heard of this game before its release, the developers actually had some difficulty encouraging the kind of play they wanted via intrinsic vs. extrinsic rewards: when they added clear and specific goals to the game as a list of tasks to accomplish, it actually limited how players would interact with the system they developed. Instead, they had to encourage play via the UI and the environment.

      The article I linked to doesn’t mention any of the story-based quests mentioned in the review, so they may have added these later in development. Personally, if it actually takes a few hours to reach these elements, as the review suggests, then I may give this game a pass, but I feel like I could be swayed either way.

      • Joe Keiser says:

        If you try to find the door to Adventure Mode organically through play, it is almost certain to take several hours. You could also use the world editor to make an easy world, which could cut down the search time but even then you might get unlucky and stumble over it late. 

        It’s also worth noting that here “story” doesn’t mean “quests”; the quest structure in the article you linked is well and truly gone. What we’re looking at here is more of a gauntlet of difficult worlds where your goal in each is to build the portal to the next, with some small bits of story tying it together. 

        • The_Helmaroc_King says:

          Thanks for clarifying! I didn’t mean to conflate the quests mentioned in the article with the adventure mode mentioned in your review, so my apologies on that.

          I might enjoy the game, but I can’t say how long it would hold my interest. Since the Adventure Mode doesn’t reset the rest of the game on failure, I suppose one could camp the door to that mode once found?

      • duwease says:

        Fascinating article.  It really drives home how much of modern game design is behavioral psychology.

        Despite being an achievement lover, I agree with their conclusions.  Free-form exploration and self-directed play carry their own joys, and having a goal to complete hijacks those and places completion of the goal first and foremost.  Even ones that should come naturally (say, “Chop down 50 trees” in a game where firewood is central to play) entice you to get it done, and chop down trees unnecessarily to get it checked off.  I can’t tell you how relieved I was when I downloaded The Walking Dead and the achievements were all just for progressing in the story.  I was expecting “Don’t miss any shots when the zombies attack the town!”, which would have gamified the situation and removed a lot of the immersion.

        That said, they still have their place.  But developers of similar games should take note of the ideas in this article — achievements affect the experience of your game, as opposed to being the fun afterthought many developers seem to treat it as.

        • Girard says:

          This reminds me, mechanically, of this account of a mid/late-90s video game fan site, and how the creator’s enthusiasm was really high when it was basically a free-time hobby, how that enthusiasm picked up when he added Google ads and started making money off of the site’s popularity, and how his enthusiasm rapidly died once the ad revenue started dipping.

          It seems like once the project stopped being a free-time labor of love and had a more tangible, material goal (money, in this case) imposed upon it, that goal became significant enough that that when it was no longer relevant, the project just kind of died. Which reminds me a bit of how chasing achievements can atrophy the free-play sensibility of some games, to the point where once you’ve completed the gameified elements you no longer feel compelled to enjoy the less-structured elements of the game.(I’ve tried to totally cut Kotaku out of my online reading, but I have a friend who posts links on his Facebook page, and every so often there’s one that sucks me in… It’s a good way to get the cream of the crop, and if I avoid the comments my soul doesn’t die, I find.)

        • NakedSnake says:

           @paraclete_pizza:disqus pretty interesting article. Reminds me of something I once read about non-profits: overall, employees in NGOs with high salaries report lower job satisfaction than those in in lower salaried NGOs. Again, the money hijacks the intrinsic motivation.

      • NakedSnake says:

        Yea, I definitely think that roguelikes need strong motivations pushing you forward. The world is dangerous in roguelikes, and what you’re ultimately seeking is safety. If you can achieve some kind of comfort/safety in the game, the fear of death can be a powerful disincentive to exploration. It’s crucial to the roguelike experience that you’ll feel like you will die if you don’t progress. FTL did a fantastic job of balancing this. I never felt bad if I died while taking a risk, because the world was so dangerous that I felt like I would die anyways if I didn’t take risks. Also, even though FTL didn’t have much of a plot, it was finite experience. Same could be said for Binding of Isaac.

      • Raging Bear says:

        I was so excited the first time I survived for three weeks. Then it became winter and I froze to death. I didn’t have anything like the materials needed to make winter gear, and I didn’t have anything like the materials needed to make the weapons I’d need to kill the animals from which I’d get the materials I needed to make winter gear.

        I had one play through where I scoured the map for a couple of hours, and never found a single stone, which is essentially the one thing you need in order to start crafting anything besides torches and campfires.

        And the one time I found the adventure door, just as in the review, I fucking froze to death without finding a single thing of use.

        I’m simply not sure I’m on board with roguelikes.

        • dreadguacamole says:

           I’m totally on board with roguelikes, but in this game in particular, perma-death really grates; getting killed for experimenting and exploring is not a lot of fun if it then makes you wade through the boring early bits to get back to the point where you can resume experimenting and exploring…

    • Girard says:

      Yeah, it’s weird reading this description, which seems to describe essentially a kind of truncated Terraria experience, but with less creativity or exploration allowed on the part of the player.

  2. HobbesMkii says:

    We also have dark foreboding woods in New England, as popularized by Nathaniel Hawthorne and his Puritan predecessors who viewed their surroundings as being a natural home of the Devil.

  3. Naked Man Holding A Fudgesicle says:

    Joe, nice review, and I have high hopes for your future review of the upcoming Syrian Games version – Don’t Starve: Kirk Douglas.

  4. Aurora Boreanaz says:

    I have a great game idea, I just need a programmer to write it for me.  It’s called “Don’t Play”.

    It’ll have beautiful, lush 3D environments with full particle physics.  A tropical locale full of exotic animals.  A full range of customizable weapons.  And if you start a game, you lose!

  5. From ‘Mark of the Ninja’ to this? Klei Games you so crazy.

    But as others have testified, this game is wicked, wicked, WICKED hard!  I’ve barely made it 10 days in game, without eating poisonous berries, or being smashed by giant tree-men, or mauled by spiders or accidentally turning a village of pig-men against me, or awakening a strange bird-cyclops, though I’m proud to say I’ve never starved to death!

  6. Effigy_Power says:

    I’ve been playing “Don’t Starve” since I was able to preorder it, having fallen in love with the art direction. In its early beta, the game was hard, but simple. Find food, build basic gear, find shelter, build better gear, move on.
    Sadly every patch, every addition has muddied that simple game-style to the point where it now feels like exploration and survival are secondary to the general dread of running into the odd monsters of this world. Being chased by an angered Ent 5 minutes in is rarely entertaining, yet it has a fairly high chance of occurrence.
    The game is fine and with a bit of luck you can indeed find stuff to do other than run away, but sadly that’s not the main aspect anymore.

    PS: Screw your metaphysical horrors of the forests embedded in civilization. There are fucking bears up here. I’ll take psychological unease brought on by contemporary mythology above the chance of being mauled and eaten by 800 pounds of fur, claws and teeth, thank you.