Klei Entertainment (developer of Mark of the Ninja and Shank), has created another title in an underutilized genre with solid mechanics and a unique art style with the game. A cross between Minecraft and survival games, and featuring a permadeath system (wherein death forces the player to restart the game), Don’t Starve is a great game. Always applying the appropriate pressures to hunt, craft, research, and survive, without feeling overwhelming but suitably anxiety-inducing, the core gameplay loop of survival is captivating. However, the game never answered the question, “why not?” to its imperative to not starve in a way that I found fulfilling, ultimately leaving the experience a little hollow.
Thrust into the shoes of the Gentleman Scientist (or one of several other unlockable characters, each with a unique ability), the game introduces the player to a systemically generated world of their own. With little fanfare and practically no tutorial, the player must learn to chop wood, hunt food, research and craft new tools, and build fires at night to hide from the grue-like creatures that lurk in the darkness. The goal is straightforward: scavenge, hunt and harvest to survive as long as you can. This feedback loop hits that strange attractor wherein it rarely feels repetitive and never superfluous. However, simultaneous pressures to fend off the occasional mob of enemies, seek new areas, and hunt down rarer materials to research new items provide distractions from the core survival mechanic and keep things fresh. Dying is never really an issue either way, as there is largely a lack of win or lose conditions.
The comparisons to Minecraft are inevitable due to the focuses on crafting and survival, despite the dramatically different tone. In Don’t Starve, there is less a focus on creation and self-expression as compared to Minecraft, and to facilitate this component recipes are unlocked from the get-go (with additional tiers available later). The player then knows what tools are available to them and what they need to build them, taking experimentation largely out of the mix. Yes, you begin both games by chopping wood, but Don’t Starve is more proscriptive in its approach.
The art style, a mix between Klei’s own distinctive approach and a Tim Burton or Edward Gorey inspired visual flair, does a great deal to convey the tone of the game and set it apart from the pack. Little touches such as a beard the Gentleman Scientist grows after surviving for a few days, or the way grazing beefalo (the game’s buffalo) perk up as you pass them go a long way to giving an otherwise very mechanics-heavy game a good texture. Charming warbles from the player-character and the occasional goofy touch help add some levity to the darker tone.
Klei also used Don’t Starve as an experiment with soliciting and incorporating player feedback; constant updates resulted in 15 hours I recently put into the game being significantly different from the 20 or so I invested back in December. This gave a nice incentive to revisit the game after I would rage-quit after an ill-conceived adventure would terminate my game.
One of the more significant updates added an adventure mode to the game. Nested within the sandbox mode and only accessible to players who are already familiar with survival in the game, this mode added a bit more direction and difficulty to the gameplay. This mode addressed one of the larger issues with the game by adding in some kind of goal. However even after the inclusion of adventure mode, there is effectively no narrative, and no real win-states. Once the novelty of the art style and core gameplay wore off, the game seems to be more about killing time and pushing off the inevitable more than anything else. This results in an experience that feels more hollow than it should, resulting in Don’t Starve feeling more like a request rather than a necessity.