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.

2013 04 15 00 22 20 dontstarve.mp4 VLC media player Dont Starve and the Penalty of Death

Ooooooh… I gotta go.

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!

Author: Jessica Cook

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5 Comments

  1. While I love the artistic style of the game (reminds me a lot of Tim Burton’s drawings), it took some getting used to the isometric view. I prefer the 1st or 3rd person view you can choose in Minecraft, not being able to see far ahead in a survival game just feels wrong to me.

    After getting used to things, I’ve made it to day 16 after tweaking the world settings. the default settings are definitely too survival for me, the constant hunt for food and short day-night cycle got boring very fast. I enjoy having some time to roam and build stuff without constant interruptions. and while I understand that it’s all about surviving winter, I’m not sure that purpose in itself is enough motivation for me to play on. DS has some funky mechanics but in the end its very limited in playstyle and freedom compared to MC. maybe one shouldn’t even compare them. I think sooner or later players will miss the ability to be more creative in this game (as also mentioned by that dude who made it past 500 days on youtube, yikes). I look forward to what else they will add tough.
    Syl´s last post: Three Indie games, three ways of handling story

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    • Mkay, I feel like I have to correct my above statement somewhat; after playing DS for the past 3 days am thoroughly hooked! :D it gets a lot more complex and once you hit the 440+ pages long wiki, you realize this is srs business. also: omg mods! I have started to test a few and there’s a ton of potential. not tried adventure mode yet, for now I’ll keep at the sandbox mechanics and try perfect my farming. I love the style of this game! :)

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  2. You know, the game is actually based on a surreal book called The Gashlycrumb Tinies that showed 26 children dying in horrifying ways, each corresponding with a letter of the alphabet. For example showed someon looking just like Wilson shivering in the cold wilderness. The caption below the illustration reads, ” W is for Wilson, who starved to death. Pretty interesting, huh?

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    • I love the Gashleycrumb Tinies, and you’re right that the style is totally the same. However, I believe W is for Winnie, embedded in ice. :)

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