You May not Starve in the Burtonesque World of 'Don't Starve', But You Definitely Won't Survive
Iris Ophelia's ongoing review of gaming and virtual world style
Lately I've been getting engrossed in Don't Starve, a survival-something game from klei entertainment that's currently in a buy-in beta phase in Google Chrome (Mac and PC) as well as Steam (currently PC only). I call it "survival-something" because what that something is depends quite heavily on your play style. Survival-action, survival-adventure, even survival-horror, it all comes down to what you make of the creepy/cute/hilarious/horrifying little world the game gives you. The only sure thing is that you will die. Repeatedly. And that's okay.
Let me explain:
When you start playing Don't Starve, you will only have access to Wilson the gentleman scientist, a weird little guy whose special power is growing a beard (which is much more useful than it sounds). There are other characters that are unlocked the further you get, like Willow the firestarter (currently my avatar of choice). The world is generated randomly when you start, though when you die you can just keep returning to that world to explore it further. You'll be starting more or less from scratch, since the only progress you keep is your research and your experience. That might sound a little dull, but these aren't small worlds. There are several distinct biomes on each map so the longer you spend on one map the more you'll see of what the game has to offer.
The goal of Don't Starve is survival: The longer you survive, the more experience you'll gain, and the sooner you'll unlock the next character. But survival's not as simple as starving or not; of all the times I've died, I've never once actually starved. I'm a compulsive gatherer in fact, so while I'm exploring I'll pick up every last seed and scrap of food or materials, and after a few days I'll usually at the very least have a healthy stockpile of roasted carrots in my inventory. However eating also heals you, so if you prefer to play the game in a much bolder fashion than I do you'll need to eat much much more to recover your health after your regular monster skirmishes. And there are loads and loads of monsters. Tallbirds (death number 3), tentacles, wolves, some sort of pine tree monster that came to life to exact vengeance on me for his fallen brethren... Honey will heal you much more efficiently but, as death number 2 taught me, bees aren't big on sharing. Known monsters aside the most terrifying threat is the one that lurks in the darkness of night. If your campfire ever goes out, or if you stray too far, you probably won't have to worry about healing.
Fundamentally Don't Starve is based around ressource gathering, and unlike other gathering-focussed games like Minecraft the goal of all that gathering isn't really to build. There is a fair amount of crafting that you unlock, but each item only helps you explore the world better or gather new things-- it makes you safer or stronger or more efficient. There are no safehouses or shelters, and ultimately you'll always be one flickering little flame away from oblivion.
Normally I would find this offputting. Dying in videogames tends to make me really anxious so I'll do almost anything to avoid it. As a child this meant that I never played Ecco the Dolphin past the first level, because fuck sharks. Likewise the treadmill of always gathering holds very little appeal to me if there's no treehouse to build or mine to fortify at the end of it all. Yet Don't Starve is different. It's accessible and unique, and it doesn't exactly make you feel bad for dying-- at least no worse than you would feel drawing a bad hand of cards. The roguelike element of the game is couched in this charming Gorey/Burton aesthetic, with weird fluttering woodwind instruments instead of voices and dozens of quirky little jokes and surprises. The payoff of playing is just getting to play more, and see more of the world the developers have lovingly designed... to kill you in dozens of different ways. And considering how regularly the game is being updated, there's no shortage of new things to see and do (and die from.)
It's been a big year for survival games, but even if that genre doesn't hold much appeal for you I'd recommend checking out Don't Starve's free demo here or watching this video review from one of my favorite gaming sites, GiantBomb. With the adventure, exploration, action, and even horror aspects, I suspect there's something to this game for almost everyone.Tweet
Iris Ophelia (Janine Hawkins IRL) has been featured in the New York Times and has spoken about SL-based design at the Fashion Institute of Technology in Manhattan and with pop culture/fashion maven Johanna Blakley.