The DigestVideo

Games Of April 2013: Don’t Starve

Are the meager resources in this survival game a sign of our cash-strapped times?

By John Teti • May 22, 2013

Those of you who witnessed my obsession with The Binding Of Isaac last year know that I’m a fan of “roguelike” games whose worlds are generated anew every time you fire them up. I like the improvisational style of play that naturally emerges from roguelike—the sense that you can learn some broader rules of how the game works, but your most important skill will always be an ability to think on your feet. Drew Toal knows how to think on his feet, and that’s why he returned for this final installment of this month’s Digest. (Also, he couldn’t resist those frog-shaped gummy candies.) Thanks for watching The Digest this month!

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  • HobbesMkii

    Teti’s comments about how the games prior to this point have been a “have it all” approach got me thinking that an RPG game where it would actually be difficult to come out ahead in the economy and you’d have to go into fights with less than stellar equipment could have some fun to it. I feel like most RPGs have easily conquered economies, and that sets the tone for the late game, where you’re an unstoppable death machine. And especially with the prize nature of loot dropping, the Big Bad is almost always done in by some wondrous weapon you picked up ten levels back.

    For instance, I’ve been playing a lot of Fallout: New Vegas (still the Revue Club’s Game of the Week!) and have amassed over 40,000 bottle caps, which isn’t so much in terms of how I could be squeezing caps out of the economy, but is well and away more than I could ever use on anything, save possibly repairing weapons (but, of course, repair kits aren’t that expensive). I suppose I could buy the rare weapons, but so far I haven’t found a single weapon that beats the Riot Shotgun, which I obtained maybe two hours into the game.

    • http://mathmanmustdie.blogspot.com/ Mr. Glitch

      Hey, umm…how does that book club-y Steam discussion work? Is it a live chat or is it posts to a message board?

      • HobbesMkii

         Posts on a message board. And then we make comments about it here. You can get there from the Steam symbol under “Our Many Tendrils”

        • http://mathmanmustdie.blogspot.com/ Mr. Glitch

          Ahh, thank you sir!

    • http://www.avclub.com/users/ghaleonq,4597/ GhaleonQ

      I can think of a few examples that require complicated details about balance, and I don’t think you mean the subgenre of dungeon crawlers.

      However, an obvious response to your thought is Pokemon, which requires real devotion to 1. purchase materials to collect new/rare monsters 2. beat high-level challenges 3. make your monsters effective weapons.  I don’t think it’s even possible to be a juggernaut in the later entries.

    • The_Misanthrope

       Well, there’s Dark Souls, of course, though some might say it goes a little too far to the other extreme.  When the game started me with a sword hilt–not a full sword–as a weapon, I knew that this game wasn’t aiming to be an overblown power fantasy.  Progress is incremental and the level up get exponentially more expensive.  Granted, there are optimal builds, but you still have to be careful around mobs of enemies.

      • CrabNaga

        What I love about Dark Souls is that once you understand the game and its mechanics, you can do practically every challenge in the game as soon as you encounter it. Your first playthrough of the game is most likely going to be you just managing to scrape by in practically every situation: losing your souls and humanities from particularly stupid mistakes, dying to bosses numerous times before finally figuring them out, making dumb stat investments for your character, etc. What’s even more interesting is that you develop this instinct to use every resource you have immediately. You’ll just constantly pour your souls into levels that you don’t “need” and kindle every bonfire because you don’t want to lose your humanities and you need the extra healing.

        It’s only once you go through the game once or twice that you finally start to get comfortable with what you can and can’t do, what preparations you need to make before you head into any encounter, and so on. You’ll start to amass souls and humanities in advance for some specific item or upgrade materials, and keep humanities on your person to boost your defense and item find. And then you’ll die from trying to fight a platoon of silver knights all at once, accidentally roll off a cliff on the return trip, and all your amassed souls and humanities are gone forever because of your hubris. Then you curse yourself and go back to being more careful until you feel like the game is starting to become easy again.

      • HobbesMkii

        Yeah, I think Dark Souls does approach this, but I’m not sure that it’s so much that they’ve created an economy of scarcity so much as they’ve created a world in which an economy of excess does very little to help you along. Same results, perhaps, but different method. I’ve never felt like something was unobtainable in the game, but rather that I didn’t feel like putting the effort into obtaining it because the risks and trade-offs weren’t worth it.

        I think there’s a headspace you enter when you realize that you’ll have to go into a fight under-equipped and survive through some other method (i.e. your wits/skill). I think Dark Souls has a similar headspace during fights, but I don’t really feel like I blame the world for my deficiencies so much as I blame the level and difficulty of the enemies.

        • Alkaron

          I’m probably being Captain Obvious here, but Pathologic succeeds at an “economy of scarcity” with flying colors. There are items in some shops that are literally impossible to obtain unless you play like a total sociopath and constantly break into people’s homes and rob them blind at every opportunity. If you play the game the “right” way, you’ll never get within sniffing distance of the best gear, or even of good gear. (And if you do choose to play as the sociopathic type, the rest of the game punishes you with lower reputation, which requires more fighting, which requires more weapon repairs, which requires more money … etc. etc.)

          Also, prices are always in flux, making it impossible for min-maxing types to get ahead through meticulous planning. Not only is stuff scarce, but the stuff you need most is always the most expensive due to supply/demand. The game makes no secret about being unfair on purpose. You count yourself lucky just for keeping your head above water—forget about getting ahead.

    • http://twitter.com/Evad_Dalrymp Unexpected Dave

      RPGs are extremely difficult to balance, due to the amount of optional content and character customization.

      Most developers balance the difficulty for an “average” player rather than an obsessive min/max player*. This means that the more thorough players will have a cakewalk in the endgame. In the first Final Fantasy, for example, a party of three fighters and a red mage will cruise through the game. It’s a necessary tradeoff. Once you’ve picked your party in Final Fantasy, they’re locked in. You don’t want to get halfway through the game and be forced to start over because your party can’t get strong enough to beat a certain boss. (This kind of approach can work in shorter RPGs, like Roguelikes.)

      Of course, players can always self-impose restrictions if they find a challenge more fun. Minimize your grinding, and scrape through bosses by the skin of your teeth. Think “Knights of the Round” makes Sephiroth too easy? Skip it! Some games even integrate these sorts of challenges into their trophies.

      *As @GhaleonQ:disqus observes, Pokemon is a notable exception to this. 

  • George_Liquor

    I sincerely wish you guys did these videos more often. I dig the unimpeachably awesome game analyses and the Pee Wee Herman suits. 

    • Eco1970

      Point, counterpoint! I prefer text, as I can’t watch video in work easily.

      Adding a link to a transcript of the dialogue would be awesome.

      • Cloks

        Here’s a generic version that can be filled in:

        John Teti: Good morning, and welcome to another edition of the digest. Today we have (video game) and we’ll be eating (food?).

        Drew Toal: (Comment about food)

        JT: Laughs. (Fact about food, hesitation to eat it, tries it, gives reaction.)

        DT: (Nervously eats food while eyeing plasma-gun he has concealed in trouser pocket. Gives like reaction to food.)

        Clip of game plays, following comments are given over video

        JT: (Video game) is a subterranean anti-farming simulator. (Basic description of game.) Developed over a period of thirty eight years in various third-world countries, this game has been just released on the Dreamcast.

        Clip ends.

        DT: (Drew is seen paying off large, intimidating mercenary as the camera snaps back to John and Drew.) When I first played (video game), I had (opinion) thoughts on it. John, I know that moose-shaving puzzle games are one of your favorite genres, what did you think?

        JT: Well Drew, I (offers opinion on game). What made this interesting to me was (points out uniqueness of game while forcing Soupy into a bandolero costume.) However, much of this was undone by the game’s (points out flaws).

        DT: It’s interesting that you’d say that. I feel like (flaws) added to the uniqueness of (video game). After all, most games don’t require you to purchase a flight suit that has no bearing on game-play and carve a Jack-O-Lantern whenever you want to save.

        (Friendly banter continues between Toal and Teti. While this is happening, the room starts to melt around them and holes, seemingly to nowhere, rip open on the back wall.)

        JT: Well, this has been another edition of the Digest. Join us next time as we pledge our undying loyalty to (ancient god) and eat (the blood of our viewers).

        Gameological splash screen is displayed

        (Brief clip: What appears to be Drew’s disembodied head is seen flying around the room, shooting at John with a plasma-gun)

        • http://twitter.com/Evad_Dalrymp Unexpected Dave

          The only thing this transcript is missing is a moment where Teti interrupts his guest for no reason.

        • HobbesMkii

          Gah! A script! I knew I should have posted my script to an episode of ToalTeti-ly Crazy!

        • ProfFarnsworth

          I would like to meet this moose.

      • http://gameological.com/author/johnteti/ John Teti

        Yeah, this request for transcripts comes up from time to time. It’s an entirely reasonable request, and I’m flattered by the interest! No kidding, I really appreciate it. Because it has come up a couple times and because it is such a gracious request, I think it’s only fair to tell you that it’s not going to happen. The Digest is a video—from beginning to end it’s produced with the end product of a video in mind. As such, I can stand behind it creatively as a video. I wouldn’t be comfortable standing behind a text version, because the creative process for The Digest doesn’t account for text—nor do I want it to, because that would change the nature of the thing. The vast majority of Gameological’s criticism happens in text, and I like seeing how the discussion changes when we assess games in a more conversational format, with the more direct human contact of a video. That’s part of the essence of The Digest for me.

        Naturally, you can consume it however you like. Have it play in the background and treat it as a de-facto podcast. Hire someone to write up a transcript for you to read on the toilet. That’s all up to you. I know there are people who either can’t or don’t watch videos, and I’m okay with that—you can’t appeal to everyone (although you can kill yourself trying). My only responsibility lies with the making of the thing, and given finite resources and creative energy, I’ve chosen to focus on making it the best video I can each month.

        • Eco1970

          Well that’s a pretty gracious response there, Mr Teti. Whenever zi do get to watch the Digest, I enjoy it immensely, and although I think a transcript would be fine (your strange point about the creative process not accounting for text makes me think they’re scripted in some fashion now), I can get behind simply not being arsed to do one. I nean, it’s a video of you guys having a chat, right? I can watch it when I get home! :D

        • http://gameological.com/author/johnteti/ John Teti

          @Eco1970:disqus You are too nice! Thank you.

    • http://twitter.com/MikoSquiz Miko the Squiz

      I just can’t be arsed to watch videos of people talking, personally. It’s not like article-as-audio stuff where I’m just unable to absorb any of it unless I sit on my hands, close my eyes, and focus hard, but it still demands too much sustained attention for the amount of stimulus.

      So what I do is, about once a week I take a deep breath and force myself to close the browser window that’s accumulated 20-odd tabs of unwatched videos, because I know I’m never going to watch any of them.

  • The_Helmaroc_King

    I really like that you mentioned the “anti-power fantasy” aspect to a lot of smaller games in recent years. It’s not a perfect representation of what smaller developers are doing, but I think it’s almost a rejection of what a lot of larger, blockbuster games have trended towards.

    Even series like Resident Evil and Dead Space, nominally part of a genre defined by players’ lack of power, have become similar to the more popular power fantasies. Other than a few instances of helplessness, which tend to be defined by QTEs of varying difficulty, a large part of Resident Evil 6 and Dead Space 3 is about cutting down large hordes of enemies; they have a lot of the trappings of horror, but playing them sure doesn’t feel disempowering.

    Indie games aren’t the only ones approaching this feeling, but the largest game I can think of that actually does that is Telltale’s The Walking Dead; admittedly, I just finished playing through it this weekend. The Walking Dead also explores the feeling more from a narrative perspective. Roguelikes are probably one of the better ways to explore it from a mechanical perspective, but it’s also hard to influence how players will react with games that rely largely on random chance to determine your possibility of success. Adventure and horror games are the other two genres that come to mind when I consider how someone can explore this kind of feeling.

    Hopefully, the anti-power fantasy won’t be the only kind of experimentation we see from indie games, and by this point it’s not exactly the boldest experiment, but I think games like Papers, Please are trying to take things in a new direction.

  • Swadian Knight

    I have a weird relationship with roguelikes: I’ve become obsessed with a few of them in the past, but can’t stand to play most of them and have no clue as to what the big difference is. For instance, Shiren The Wanderer was pretty much all I’d play on my Wii for a few months, and I wouldn’t even call it a good game, but I couldn’t bring myself to play The Binding Of Isaac for two hours. Don’t Starve actually sounds really appealing to me, so I guess I’ll keep it in mind until it goes on sale.

    Also, this had to be done.

  • NakedSnake

    I really welcome the resurgence in roguelike games like Don’t Starve, The Binding of Isaac, and FTL. There is something about the looming threat of perma-death that makes the game experience so real. Can you imagine how one-dimensional FTL would seem if you could just load a savegame whenever something went wrong? The thrill comes from constantly having to make decisions that may very well spell out your doom. The ‘power fantasy’ in those games is the dream of building up enough equipment and supplies that you feel somewhat less stressed about the looming specter of death. But of course, the most likely scenario is you die anyways. Winning the game is not to be expected. What is satisfying is having a good ‘run’. In that sense, roguelike games remind me a lot of old-school NES games, where you worked hard to stockpile lives and equipment in early levels with the hope that they would allow you to survive deep into the game. But no matter how good your ‘run’ went at first, unexpected obstacles and bad luck would usually end your experience long before the end of the game. It was a huge thrill just to make it to Level 6 (looking at you, Battletoads).

  • His_Space_Holiness

    I recently encountered Fatal Labyrinth on Sonic’s Ultimate Genesis Collection, and I was surprised to see an honest-to-goodness roguelike in the mix. It was pretty fun never playing the same game twice, but the problem was that the randomly-generated levels would occasionally spawn without, say, a path to the exit. Presumably that’s not a problem anymore.

  • HobbesMkii

    As I’ve been sitting here on my lunch hour, considering Teti’s further discussion of the gamification of “triage,” I bumped into this article about video games from Christian Brown at The New Inquiry and their ability to teach the concept of failure: http://thenewinquiry.com/essays/born-to-lose/. He doesn’t mention Dark Souls as @The_Misanthrope:disqus and @CrabNaga:disqus cite, but he does touch on Spec Ops: The Line and (my personal game Bible) Dwarf Fortress

    I’m not sure it’s wholly related to what’s discussed in this game, but it made me think of the games I’ve been playing recently, specifically Receiver, where I have failed exactly every time I’ve played, and Reus, where I “win” but it often feels like I’ve lost. 

    In fact, Reus is a great example of the Teti Triage Principle. The game lays out how you could potentially achieve a perfectly functioning society where each village grows without attacking each other or your elemental giants, but in practice, I’ve found that I often have to appease the most belligerent and powerful villages by sacrificing the weakest ones in order to progress. And that progress doesn’t necessarily translate to winning, it just means I get to upgrade one of my giants’ powers incrementally.

  • boardgameguy

    This is a guess, but is John’s in-game avatar a representation of Hair at his healthiest with a human head and body underneath and Drew’s is the handle-bar mustache character?

    Also, will we be getting a Digest on Starseed Pilgrim? I’m curious to hear more about this game, especially since there are vocal opponents of it. Perhaps the discussion can lead to John’s first on-camera descent into fisticuffs.

  • Electric Dragon

    Minor nitpick – Games of April 2012?

    • HobbesMkii

      Ach Mein Gott! We appear to have time-traveled! Although I can’t tell if 2013 traveled back to 2012, or if Teti and Toal traveled forward from 2012 to review a 2013 game in 2013.