It’s About Time…
We held off reviewing Don’t Starve from Vancouver-based indie game developers Klei Entertainment for this long because we wanted to wait and see just what, exactly, it would become – the game’s development path is a decidedly modern one in this age of crowdfunding and early access paid betas, but a little different. We are glad we held out; with several months of release on Steam under its belt, we feel the game is substantive enough, and “settled into place” sufficiently to deserve a review in earnest, having now demonstrated what it will ultimately become.
Let’s dial the time-wheel back a little to better understand what that means…
Mr. Wilson’s Humble Beginnings
It all began innocently enough: When we first saw Don’t Starve at PAX Prime 2012, it was in a small corner of Klei Entertainment’s booth near the indie wing of the huge convention center, where community manager Corey Rollins was passing out business cards beside a simple table with a 22″ HD display running a demo of the game. When I asked him about the Edward Gorey-styled paper-cutout images moving onscreen to a macabre 1920’s carnival soundtrack – likely of shock-haired Mr. Wilson running from spiders through a burning forest, he uttered, quite obviously by rote: “Don’t Starve is an uncompromising wilderness survival game full of science and magic.”
Watch IGR’s original video interview about Don’t Starve with Corey Rollins at PAX Prime 2012:
Rollins mentioned that it was already available for purchase on the Google Chrome store as a paid beta and that they would be rolling out regular updates in anticipation of their Steam launch sometime later in the year or as late as Q1 2013.
What We Think:
I went back to my hotel and instantly purchased it for US$13.00 which also awarded me a second copy I could gift to a friend, which I immediately passed along to my PAX colleague. I started playing it that night, and couldn’t stop. The game was uncompromising indeed, but hours later, I realized that in spite of its early development state, there was something about the game that successfully balanced all the most addictive elements of a game – easy to pick up with fast-scaling complexity, logical but interesting tech trees, short and long range goals, discovery, mystery, causality and the non-linear challenge of seeing how long you could last before your own idiosyncratic impulses led to your untimely and irreversible demise in an open world.
Edo Ergo Sum
A tall, thin man in a pinstriped suit welcomes Wilson (or on of several other unlockable characters) in the midst of the wilderness, with naught but the clothes on his back. The first stages of his survival require him to gather food, and materials for a fire that can last through the night. To accomplish these tasks, the player can mouse over various items on the screen and click to interact with them. Some will result in picking up a resource that can be used or combined with other elements. Others (such as trees and large rocks) might require the acquiring of buildable axes, pickaxes or shovels as the case may be, before they can be manipulated.
By climbing this gradual hierarchy of needs, Wilson can eventually create a Science Machine, allowing for the creation of more advanced implements. While the milestone is impressive, the new creations should be pursued with caution, as Wilson will still meticulously gravitate towards malnourishment without the occasional roasted rabbit or two.
I Blinded Me With Science!
I learned this the hard way. After a series of moderately successful rounds of survival, I encountered my first gold nugget, and eagerly constructed my mechanical brain-booster. I toiled over new tools and niceties well into the night. It wasn’t until I noticed that my health was plummeting that it dawned on me: It had been nearly a full two days since the last time I trapped a rabbit. Scouring my inventory revealed that all of my edibles had gone into my brainy exploits. My quest ended, and I was returned to the title screen. Oh, right…Don’t Starve…
In hindsight, The Science Machine was but the tip of the iceberg. The Alchemy Engine opens a second tier of goods that be can prototyped from more refined materials. Whip up a crock pot, an ice box, and a drying rack. Not only will you be able to keep meat from spoiling for longer, but by combining meats and veggies, you can whip up tasty treats that come packed with boosts to all three attributes.
Should you choose to explore the entirety of the crafting tree (note: it gains branches with every content update), the capability is there for Wilson to create a wealth of helpful items that will assist him in farming, the preservation of food, and weaponry, but only if he doesn’t first keel over from hunger.
Starving for Knowledge
This delicate balance is what generates the real challenge. You’ll need to scavenge and hunt to keep your belly from shriveling into a husk, but you need to make discoveries and create new items to keep your mind active. While a starvation death makes for a far more drastic end, losing your mental focus will result in the emergence of ethereal shadow beasties. They’ll only lurk near you at first, but for each Cocoa Puff you drop in the insanity bowl, they get more and more substantial.
Eventually, you’ll be battling it out with invisible critters that can nevertheless sink their fangs into you. Also keep in mind that every time you start a new game, (which will be often when you first get going), the world is randomly-generated. There are extensive controls for tailoring in what way it may be generated, adding biases for certain elements etc.
In some games I had a world of grassy pastures patrolled by manure-dropping beefalos, while others were chock-full of pig-men and spiders at war with one another.
In some there were gold nuggets literally laying about as if they were raining down from the sky, while others I couldn’t mine a gold vein if my life depended on it, which made any scientific research impossible and starved me out intellectually, rather than physically.
Piggy Has The Conch
All of the beasts (real or shadowy) share a cartoon-like whimsy. Most of them look rather harmless, but getting too close or carelessly lashing out at any of them can result in a quick death, or a run that will take you far from camp. Some beasts will require you to develop some hefty upgrades before they can be feasibly confronted, but most of them are going to trounce you if you’re fool enough to challenge a pack.
Not all critters automatically want to eat your face. Some can be bargained with, and might even toss a few haymakers about should a nefarious brood of pack animals decide you smell delicious. There’s nothing worse than getting gang-mauled and having your carefully constructed slice-o’-paradise go to waste, so make friends and don’t be afraid to sweeten the deal with a savory morsel here and there. You can even gain the knowledge of how to construct domiciles that will attract allies; think of it as a primitive barracks at the edge of town.
GAMEPLAY TIPS: Specifically – while you can attack and carve up the pig-men for a late bacon snack, you may consider keeping your faction with them on the happy side, and build your HQ nearby – this way, when the nasty follering-dog-pack comes nipping at your heels, you can kite them through the pig village and have the oinks do all the dirty work.
Alternatively, and perhaps the better solution, is to build your HQ in a savannah, near a dense cluster or rabbit holes, and then, once you are far enough up the tech tree, build a hammer and break down some pig houses to relocate nearby. This way you will have a steady supply of food to dry on meat drying racks (that produce jerky) to get you through the long winter. Don’t forget to lay as many traps as you can over those rabbit holes though!
Gameplay Tip Caveat Emptor
Should you choose to indeed build your nest near the pig folk, be sure to keep a watchful eye on the moon phase, as when it becomes full, your snorting buddies will turn into were-creatures for a good two minutes and are very dangerous and difficult to outrun. During this period, you may want to camp out in a remote location, and return after the moon begins to wane. Note that you may also trigger their dark side by feeding them too much monster meat (4 units actually). Besides this dangerous eventuality, however, they make good chums to keep about.
In the event that you are having trouble making friends with any of the strange creatures in the strange land you are inhabiting, there are (sometimes) shrines that you can tap which will allow you to resurrect your character, albeit without all of the materials he or she has so painstakingly gathered. Alternatively you can build a meat effigy deeper along the tech tree. Perhaps the gods of Don’t Starve are merciful after all?
And this sense of loss – rez spots or otherwise – is where the game will polarize players – some may find it simply far too exasperating to lose so much time with nothing to show for it but some daft memories, and maybe a character unlock. Others will find this is survival, time-management game a big slice of Heaven pie…
Did We Mention the Slow Cooker?
Don’t Starve may not be for everyone – for those who hate grinding, this is anathema. Essentially, it can become a game predominantly about grinding. Then again, I remember when Everquest 2 decided to offer two paths – the adventurer path and the craftsman. At the time I thought – why would anyone want to forego hack-n-slashing Orcs to go mushroom picking instead?
Well, I got schooled. Gathering and hunting is a noble and exciting path all its own, and this is what Don’t Starve relies on, because what combat there is, is decidedly unfair in the enemy’s favor, and provisional at best. By the way, this is not a criticism of the combat, it is a necessity in the world of the play as it heightens the nightmare belaboring your character – like trying to run from a killer, but not ever gaining any momentum. In fact, the false sense of security that spears, fire darts and twine armor afford, is an ingenious way of heightening the sense of fear, urgency, dread and suspense in the 2D world Klei has created.
For those who find time and resource management and experimentation the height of entertainment, Klei has created a gift for you wrapped up in big pink bows. Striking a careful balance between your hunger, health and sanity is addressed in a manner far more creative and generous than simple gauges that rise and fall (there are now mods that allow you to repurpose the GUI for when you mean business) – they have gone a step further to artfully craft the symptoms of their effects into the very fabric of the experience.
The Loss of Innocence
Once you have got your bearings, figured out the tech trees, and maybe even made it through winter, having crafted some bunny muffs, a puffy jacket and a barbecue, with your trusty heat stone safely stowed on your person, it may be time to finally leave the endlessly fascinating variation of the sandbox and find out just what in the darkest of hecks is actually going on.
Because in fact, that tall man in the pin-striped suit you met way back at the beginning of this Count of Monte Cristo-like prison? His name is Maxwell, and he means you no good. In fact in a sort of JJ Abrams style twist of fate, you may in fact be a pawn in some far deeper endgame, and the only hope of respite for your soul, is to track him down and figure out what it is he wants from you after all.
Suddenly the game opens up into a whole new scale, as you discover a strange mechanical device marked “Maxwell’s Door” and upon engaging it are warned that you are about to leave the little concept of a world you have thus far fashioned, behind – along with everything you have so meticulously gathered – and leap into a far more perilous odyssey.
I can’t divulge much more here without spoiling things for you, dear reader, but the comprehensive Don’t Starve Wiki will be more than happy to do that for you, along with answering hundreds of questions you may have accumulated by this point.
Needless to say, many may never even arrive at this campaign mode, but it is rather remarkable that an entirely separate kind of game exists beyond the initial scenario to which you are presented.
Meanwhile, in Meat Space
Six months after my first taste, the company had released a series of updates and patches, all of which added substantial new gameplay elements – weather, mental health gauges, new beasties, additional crafting, rich modding tools, and even a new underworld (still a work-in-progress), all of which also recursively improved the way they had been done up until that point.
Many suggestions came from the user forums, and many of those were considered or addressed in some way directly by the developers. This long paid beta, and wide-open transparent dialogue with the public was a very alluring and evidently successful collaborative method for improving the game in the direction that its demographic desired, but never cowing to their every whim – thus maintaining its integrity whilst demonstrating the framework to be adaptable.
I stepped away from the game in this time, just to give it some breathing room in hopes that I could see it more clearly as the full game it was destined to become, and I was simply astonished by the amount that was added from the time I first got hooked all those months before. It had already been a fun, engaging, and highly replayable title, but now it had enough variety that even two good solid nights of play still had not revealed all that there was to discover. Indeed a year later, this remains true.
Picking at Nits
I will say, that every so often, on my Quadcore laptop with integrated AMD graphics, the game can sometimes choke up a little, and I have to close all other running applications or restart the game. Other times, when I would try to plant something, Wilson seemed unsure of what I wanted and would stutter back and forth in place until I reclicked in a spot that pleased him. Perhaps this is intentional, but it looked glitchy, and not something that should be happening this late into release.
I am not exactly sure I can blame it on the game, but it may be a little further optimization is required on the dev’s side. It most definitely is not a killer, but it is there and worth mentioning, as so much timing and precision is required to beat the three clocks you have constantly ticking down, and stand to lose so much, that smooth gameplay is a must with this title.
For example, when you have only moments of daylight left and your fire needs to be built and you left it too late, you could technically build a campfire, but if clicking doesn’t happen in a split second, all goes dark and you are going to die at the hand of the boogeymen. At one point I was trying to click on my logs to add fuel to my campfire, but they would not pick up, and then there was no turning back, so yes, precision and timing matters and any lag on the game’s part can cause you to lose hours upon hours of work.
Only for this reason, and the fact that it may not appeal to everyone for its “uncompromising,” unforgivingly grindish mechanic does it not get the perfect score it otherwise more than deserves.
In fact Don’t Starve is easily one of the most engaging and entertaining games of 2013 or any year, in any category – the artwork, with its Georges Méliès styled undulating ocean waves, the beautifully sinister Klezmer soundtrack and woodwind-voiced avatars, the time management game design are all creatively first-rate and compose a deliciously villainous universe to romp around and tinker with. The animations all feature lovely subtle variation, and every object in the world feels alive, even expressive – from the way the trees pop up or shrivel, to the vast array of critters fluttering, skittering, crawling and stalking about, all with unique proximity responses to your player character.
Klei: They Deliver
The updates keep coming – new characters have been added, along with new craftables, whole new zone types (the bunny caves which can be accessed by mining randomly placed sinkholes), all manner of creatures and “power-ups”. What Klei has done is defined, in the best way, a new legitimate way of procedural game development; rather than charge a smaller sum for these expansions under the guise of downloadable content (aka the ubiquitous “DLC”), they simply keep expanding the original idea with a healthy dose of feedback, suggestions and requests from the growing fan base. It is a case study in how to do this right.
A little over a year since I first started playing Don’t Starve, I feel like I have barely scratched its necessarily multi-terrain surface – the same surface that now covers an even more mysterious subterranean adventure and answers to questions, so very many questions…
I’m coming for you Maxwell. We are late, for a very important date.
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With additional contributions by Callabrantus