Klei Entertainment might be best known for their platforming action adventure games like Shank, Sugar Rush, and Mark of the Ninja. Strangely enough, all of these games also featured a linear story – and minimal levels of choice – with main characters swinging blades and other various instruments of destruction. They were fun and humorous, yet all were straightforward in their storytelling. In a complete change of pace, Klei Entertainment redirected themselves in their latest title: an open-world survival game that still maintains their quirky and unique sense of humor. The title of this new game says all you need to know: Don’t Starve.
In Don’t Starve, you awaken in a strange new world, greeted by a strange lanky man who gives you the only real tip you get in the entire game: “You don’t look so good. You should find someplace before dark.” After this, there are no more hints. The entirety of the world is left open to explore and learn about through experimentation. It’s an uncompromising, unforgiving, and overall exciting proposition.
The first few times playing through Don’t Starve can be a little disorienting, exploring the world to slowly unveil the map while gathering what resources are available, all the while watching your daylight and stomach/hunger meters tick down slowly. For the first few game days, the only things that matter are food and fire. The day-evening-night cycle means planning ahead, gathering during the day while preparing to huddle around the campfire at night. As time goes on, new components are found, new instruments are researched, and the priorities change, if only slightly.
Combining what little resources that are available at first eventually grows to the point where components can be combined to create tools. These tools allow you to gather more resources, which in turn can be used to create more complex tools and instruments. Don’t Starve continues like this until the research tree has been completed – no easy feat. On the most basic level, it could be looked at as progressing from a hunter/gatherer to a basic farmer and eventually the creation of a miniature town – all centered around surviving.
While food starts as the primary objective – it is the most immediate – other concerns soon rise. Like the resources, the threats in Don’t Starve start off small, from hunger and light, and eventually ramp up to a twisted version of Maslow’s Hierarchy of Needs. As the research tree and settlement become more established, the hierarchy of needs progresses as well, from Physiological up through Safety, Belonging , Esteem and Actualization. Physiologically, Don’t Starve imposes the basest of needs, like food, in order to survive as soon as it loads. Once this is done, you can start climbing up the ranks. This means building a base of operations, meeting (and using) the local friendly population to your advantage, building to the point of confidence in the long-term survival, and finally, the ability to start doing things for no real value other than experimentation and fun. Before the pyramid can be climbed though, it’ll require exploring what resources are available and where.
While your stomach shrinks at a visible rate, so does your sanity, though at a much slower pace. Exploration and Science can help fight this – think of it as feeding your mind – and there are always more advanced weapons and armor to research. The requirement to explore is compelling, and not just because of the resources, but the strangely quirky and creepy world entices you to.
The world of Don’t Starve has an amazingly disarming hand-drawn style that belies its creepy world. The character designs evoke a Tim Burton-inspired appearance that creates a cartoonish approachability while still macabre. Even the inhabitants of the world come in all shapes and sizes. Some creatures are straightforward, like the buffalo-like Beefalo and hostile Spiders, while others are more absurd, such as the eyeballs-on-stilts Tallbird or the walking foliage Treegaurds. Some are hostile, while others only attack when threatened – an important distinction to make.
Though the playable characters of Don’t Starve don’t speak, they make sing-song noises reminiscent of the adults in a Peanuts cartoon. It’s not all dark and deadly though, as there is a great sense of humor throughout Don’t Starve as well. Some of the text when investigating the environment can be hilarious, if perhaps in a dark tone, with phrases from “take that nature” after cutting down a tree, to the darker “I envy their escape” when inspecting a pile of bones. Even the simple way in which the characters’ movement animations cause them to look like they’re doing some combination of skipping and hopping along. It’s clear that a sense of humor was important to Klei Entertainment when making Don’t Starve - probably to dull the sting of its unforgiving nature.
For those looking for more than the open-world survival in Don’t Starve, there is an option for a more story-driven approach. There is a door somewhere on each map that starts a journey through progressively harder worlds towards the goal of some sort of conclusion. In most cases, however, the free play mode will be more than enough to keep players occupied. The story mode is a nice addition for anyone who finds they need just that much more challenge.
Even for those who forgo Don’t Starve‘s story mode, the game packs plenty of challenge. Each map is randomly generated upon creation, but there are some standard artifacts that will appear on each. It’s this exploration and trial-and-error of the open world that make Don’t Starve what it is. Regardless of how many times we played through or how long we lasted, each playthrough retained a sense of exploration and hurried wonder. There was always something new thanks to the randomly generated world that reacts to the player’s influence – or lack thereof. Despite some less-than-productive runs where the world and circumstances just seemed to doom the playthrough from the start, the majority of the time failure comes when confidence outpaces reality.
Death will be a common occurrence, with many people’s first attempt lasting in the single digits of days. Though death is all but guaranteed, Don’t Starve does not make it feel penalized. Rather the opposite, each death is a learning experience, in more ways than one. The player gains the experience of how things work – what items combine and what they do. The characters gain experience as well upon death. When dead, the score – based on time alive and items built – is cashed in to unlock more characters, each with their own attributes or abilities.
Some might not find Don’t Starve’s bare bones “here you go, survive if you can” approach all that fun. However, the sense of accomplishment when the counter ticks just one day further than the last record is intoxicating. Death, though never welcome, has its sting lessened and only serves as another chance to try again. All of this amounts to a frustratingly addictive good time that will keep you coming back for more sadistically good times.
Don’t forget to check out our Don’t Starve PAX East 2013 interview!