Don’t Starve and the Penalty of Death
Don’t Starve by Klei Entertainment is currently out in a very playable beta, and after trying the Chrome app sample I picked it up on Steam. I described the game on the podcast as “Minecraft meets Diablo”, which upon reflection isn’t quite right. It’s more like.. Minecraft meets a roguelike.
The goal of Don’t Starve is to not starve. Or drown. Or be poisoned by mushrooms or lit on fire or eaten by spiders or.. let’s just call it staying alive. In his “WTF Is…” video Total Biscuit called it a “survival-craft” title and as much as I hate cutesy portmanteaus it seems pretty apt. In your first game you’ll play as Wilson, a Gentleman Scientist who wakes up on the surface of a strange and harsh land. (You unlock other characters later as a type of achievement.)
As with Minecraft, it’s a good idea to start stuffing your pockets with whatever you can pick up on the first day. Some of those things can be combined to make an axe, which chops down a tree, which.. well, you know how it goes. As with a roguelike, though, death is permanent. When you die, that’s it for this particular version of your world and this particular Wilson. You can always start a new game, but then you’re back to Day 1.
This extreme death penalty certainly makes the game more difficult, which is fine with me. It’s nice to have a survival-craft game with a strong emphasis on the “survival” part. It’s also a great way to pace how fast you learn about the game world.
Much of the charm of Don’t Starve is that you never know what will be around the corner. Maybe it’s just more trees, but often it’s a weird plant you haven’t encountered before, or a strange sacrificial altar, or a named item lying on the ground for some unknown purpose. The threat of perma-death, though, adds gravitas to your decisions and makes you less likely to try new things, particularly the further you get into a playthrough. If I don’t know what a Mandrake does when eaten, I am likely to not bother trying.
This helps maintain the element of surprise and the sense of being in a hostile world long after you’ve started multiple games.
The downside of the death penalty is conservatism in gameplay. I’m often a big fan of compulsively clicking on everything in games thanks to the magic of checkpoints or quicksaves, which is a path to a quick painful death in Don’t Starve. Instead, my Wilson now errs on the side of clicking on nothing or at least nothing out of the ordinary. In a game that relies upon learning on the fly and trying different ways to use and combine your inventory, I’m kind of scared of innovation.
Maybe I’m just too afraid of dying and should be more willing to muck up and start over. If there was permanent death in Minecraft I’d probably never explore anything, but I’m timid that way. I know a good friend has dedicated some of his five game slots to just trying everything with the expectation that those Wilsons will live lives that are nasty, brutish, and short.
This all being said, Don’t Starve is really well made and great fun if you like sandbox survival games. I don’t think it would be any more fun with a more lenient death penalty, but it’s interesting how the game is based on discovery (more so than, say, FTL) while actively discouraging it. I may never see some of the developed content simply because I’m leery of being lit on fire. It means the game is much more difficult and will last through many more playthroughs for me though, so I suppose the trade-off is worth it.
I made a video of the first two in-game days of Don’t Starve!