This article was originally printed in The Oakland Press.
Day 20. Winter is settling in, and I have only a vest made out of straw to keep me warm. A handful of wild carrots is my dinner for the evening, since my earlier attempts at trapping rabbits left me with nothing but the bait. I should have enough kindling to last me through the night, and tomorrow I can try fishing instead. But what’s far worse is I fear I’m losing my grip on reality. After so long in this harsh wilderness, I think my sanity is slipping. I hear whispers in the daytime, see eyes watching me at night. The other night I swear I saw hands reaching at me from the shadows. Maybe if I can get some rest I’d feel better.
And that’s when I hear the hounds.
The state I was in in one of my early playthroughs of Don’t Starve is par for the course. Made by independent Canadian developer Klei Entertainment, Don’t Starve is a survival game with a unique sense of whimsy, like an episode of Man vs. Wild if Bear Grylls had to survive a Tim Burton-esque dream world. The characters look like cute yet macabre charcoal drawings, and every character talks with a melodic warble, not unlike Charlie Brown’s teacher. Charming and fantastical elements temper what would otherwise seem a dire task.
You’ll be thankful that the game’s title is also your main goal, because that is the first and last instruction you’re given.
In many respects, Don’t Starve shares a lot in common with free-form survival games like Minecraft and Terraria, but with a greater emphasis on survival rather than building a world. Just like Minecraft, surviving your first night is a big challenge. I began by gathering sticks, grass, wild berries, and flint, and I was eventually able to make a makeshift axe to chop firewood. Starting a fire by nightfall is most important, because if you’re left in pitch darkness, within moments you’ll be devoured by some unseen horror. Of course if you’re too zealous in your fire-building, like I was one Night One, you may accidentally start a forest fire. Oops.
Still, you really don’t want to be left in the dark. Taking some inspiration from hardcore “roguelike” role playing games, when you die, you’ll lose everything and need to begin again from Day One, with nothing but the lessons you learned to help guide you. However, each failed run does reward experience points toward unlocking additional characters, each with their own personality quirks. Wolfgang, the Strong Man, hits harder and has a sturdier constitution. Willow, the Firestarter, is immune to fire damage and starts her own fires at night, which can be both a help and a hindrance. And the default character, Wilson, the Gentleman Scientist, will grow a beard. Believe it or not, even a bushy beard has its perks in this game.
Don’t Starve never ceased to surprise me, and every time I felt I had a handle on the situation, a wrench was thrown into my well-oiled machine. In my first run, I tried snatching a bird egg for food, only to be pursued by an enormous cyclopic ostrich named “The Tallbird.” As I thought I had settled and built camp at a nice fishing spot, winter rolled in and froze my main food source. My first attempt at gathering reeds was ended by a purple tentacle monster living in the swamp. My painstakingly constructed wooden fence was destroyed when a “Fire Hound” raided my camp and exploded. And when I befriended a village of pigmen to help me clear out a spider nest, the spider meat they ate eventually turned them into murderous “Were-Pigs.”
Never a dull moment.
The invention system is deep, and unlike Minecraft, which withheld its crafting recipes from you, you will know exactly what you need to create your contraptions. Getting the ingredients, is another matter, however. Juggling my health, hunger and sanity made me never feel as if I could rest on my laurels. Beyond just surviving, there is an adventure mode in the game with specific goals, but honestly I was too busy with the not starving part to attempt a new venture.
Don’t Starve is as addictive as it is deep. I found myself repeatedly bargaining to play “Just one more day” even when I ought to be sleeping. Even dying didn’t feel discouraging; instead I’d immediately start a new game with a fresh strategy in mind.
There is also a touch of an environmentalist message, as the game encourages you to survive in harmony with nature, as many resources are finite. You’ll eventually run out of trees to chop down if you don’t replant pinecones regularly. The “Beefalo” are an excellent food source, but if you hunt them to extinction you’ll be stuck with small game. And the pigmen are far more useful and a friend than as food. Monsters will even come after you in you overtax the wilderness. It’ll be difficult to get firewood once you’ve seen a pine tree rise up on bipedal trunks and chase you all throughout the forest.
Don’t Starve is an excellent, engrossing point and click survival game for the PC, Mac, and Linux. Your first few attempts at it will be a trial by fire, but players who put at least an hour or two into it will be hooked. More updates are promised, so expect more characters and scenarios to be added later on.
Klei Entertainment provided a review code for this article.