Imagine waking up in a strange world with nothing but your wits and a warning: you’d better find something to eat before it gets dark. As the sun sets you wrap some tall grass around a branch as a makeshift torch, just in case you can’t find more sharp rocks to fashion an axe with. Across a small plain you find a suitable piece of flint and chop down a tree. As the sun drifts below the horizon you fashion a passable campfire. Your stomach grumbles, so you roast some carrots, the last three you have in your pockets, and scarf them down, barely sating your thirst. The hard ground is cold and unforgiving, you can’t sleep a wink on it. The dark closes in around you, right on the edge of the campfire’s light you could swear something flits by. You spend the night weaving tall grass into makeshift rope, when suddenly your fire puffs out, you’d neglected it too long. Within moments you feel a presence creep up to you. The sun crests over the nearby ocean…revealing nothing.
This will be typical of your first few nights in Don’t Starve, a sandbox survival game by Klei Studios. You play as Wilson, a scientist conducting odd experiments when he is transported by a demon named Maxwell to a strange world where you are forced to harvest the land for resources to build tools and harvest food, and hopefully find a way back home.
Escaping the world you’ve found yourself in is the primary goal of the game, but pursuit of that goal lies far, far away. Your initial drive in the game is simply to live. Your character possesses three meters: stamina, sanity and health. Maintaining a strong amount of all three is your best chance at living, at least until you can explore the paper-crafted world and discover more about how everything works.
Don’t Starve is a game that rewards goal-oriented thinking. Virtually any single task is simple, clicking a basic resource will immediately harvest it. Holding the button on more complex resources like trees and boulders will strike it with the requisite tool (so long as you’ve made one) until it breaks down into its various rewards. Where Don’t Starve really shines is the way that all its elements work together. While picking some berries is not particularly difficult, locating a berry bush while being chased by spiders in the dark, as your torch burns out due to the rain is. It is further compounded when you think you’ve found an arbitrary light source that is actually a forest fire caused by a lightning strike, and you run head first into a crazy shadow beetle, a product of your growing insanity.
The game is filled with curious and oddly amazing paradoxes and difficult choices. Building a base adds a nice place to return to, one where proper implementation can offer a solid light source, additional storage, and a place to sleep (crucial for sanity emergencies), but the constant harvesting of resources makes positioning incredibly important, and as each world is procedurally generated, there isn’t necessarily a guarantee that there will be enough stone or tall grass nearby, and you never seem to realize how important those simple resources are until you can’t find any. Silk, for instance, is harvested primarily from spiders and can be used to make all manner of useful things, from clothing to fishing rods. Setting up a base near some spider nests is dangerous, and might increase your silk yields, but you’ll need to move further and further from your home base to collect other resources you might not have at hand.
By the same token you’ll have to decide things like whether you feel armor or inventory space is more important: the difference between a suit of armor woven from grass or logs or a backpack. Do you use your spare gold to make a special extra-durable axe or a lightning rod to protect your structures? Then you realize its almost the evening and you’ve only got one carrot to try to hunt rabbits with.
When you inevitably die, whether by starvation or vicious hounds, you’ll be rewarded with experience that unlocks new characters with different abilities. Each character is functionally identical, save for their special abilities: Wilson is the only character that grows a beard, which he can shave in order to collect beard hair. Wolfgang the strongman has an extra large stomach, hits harder than any other character and also has the most health of any of the characters. Each character has a distinct personality that goes along with them, and the janky, oddly dapper atmosphere drips from every pore of each of them.
The game offers plenty to love for gamers that dig resource management and clever thinking. While the game never feels too cheap upon death, I’ve rarely felt more infuriated upon losing a couple of hours of work than I have with this game. Whether that’s a testament to how invested I’ve become in what I’ve built or if it means that deep down I blame myself for my failures in-game I don’t know. What I do know is that this is a game that is fully worth the twenty dollars it costs. I’ve spent the better part of three weeks talking nothing but Don’t Starve with several friends of mine that play, discussing all the different ways we play, where we set up, how we advance, etc.
Forgive me if this seems spastic and ill-built. I’ve been tired from all the sleep I’ve lost trying to live in the wilderness of Don’t Starve. You should, too.