I sat across the fire from my longtime companion, Philip the pigman, in complete silence. Philip and I had been through a lot together, hunting down terrifying creatures of the night, felling mighty trees, and scoffing all the food we could find. He was both my best friend, and my only friend.
But tonight was different. We'd revelled in our abundant resources, feasting every night, completely oblivious to the shorter days and colder weather. It was now winter, and we were starving. Philip didn't utter a word as I slowly walked over to him, spear in hand. He wasn't the most intelligent of creatures, but the truth was that he simply trusted me, his bosom buddy.
I wailed on him, ignoring his squeals and shrieks, continuing until he was nothing more than bloody meat. I cooked his remains over our open fire, now just my fire, and tore into his roasted flesh. I was sated for one evening at least. I didn't starve, but at what cost?
Don't Starve made me kill my best friend, and that's the least of the game's many horrors.
Don't Starve (PC) Developer: Klei Entertainment Publisher: Klei Entertainment Released: April 23, 2013 MSRP: $14.99
Don't Starve is both the title of Klei's latest videogame outing, and its single objective. Waking up in a savage wilderness, players are warned that night is approaching and that they should find something to eat. That one instruction is the impetus for a gruelling adventure filled with ravenous monsters and bad luck.
It's a survival game by way of a roguelike, with a permadeath system just waiting to steal everything you've earned. Death lurks around every corner, and pretty much anything can spell your demise. An excursion into the forest for timber could end up with you getting pummelled into oblivion by a sentient tree, eating some unusual meat could give you food poisoning, and even the necessary act of starting a fire could end in a blazing inferno, consuming hundreds of trees and your own flesh.
There's all that to look forward to if you manage to actually find something to eat before you die from starvation. At first it's actually quite simple, even if you do have to figure it all out for yourself. Berries and carrots can be found quite easily, and require no tools for gathering; so finding your first meal is as simple as walking around and using your eyes. Twigs and flint, required for making a torch, are also abundant, and so surviving for at least one night is not too tall an order.
Simple scraps won't sustain your rapidly shrivelling belly for long, unfortunately, and the need for more hearty fare is what drives crafting and exploration. Cooking berries and carrots makes them a bit more nutritious, and that requires a proper fire -- none of that torch nonsense -- which means stones must be found along with logs for fuel, and this leads to the crafting of your first axe and pickaxe. Take that, nature!
Have you ever chomped on roasted carrot before? It won't stave off a rumbling stomach for much longer than raw carrot. So once more, bigger morsels must be searched for. Rabbits can be snared, and that necessitates a trap, or the mighty beefalo can be hunted, though not without decent weapons and armor.
The wandering life of a beefalo murderer is not a glamorous one, I can tell you. Half of your day will be spent running away from a charging herd, and that's no fun at all. So it's a good thing that farming is an option, albeit a dirty one that smells of manure.
Playing Don't Starve is a bit like watching the history of human civilization in fast forward, if humanity amounted to one man trapped in a horrific wilderness. Simple hunting and gathering leads to farming and construction, and that in turn leads to light industry and invention, but it doesn't take thousands of years.
Within a few days, I had gone from a half starved nomad with a bushy beard and a grass tunic to a clean shaven farmer with cooking appliances, several farms, and even some beehives. It was around that time when I first met Philip.
Pigmen are cowardly and stupid, but unlike everything else in the god-forsaken world of Don't Starve, they won't try to kill you unless you try to kill them (or unless it's a full moon and they've all turned into werepigs, I shit you not). They can even be befriended, should you feed them some of your delicious meat. Pig friends will join you on your adventures -- as long as it stays light -- chopping down trees, fighting monsters, and providing much needed conversation... well, they speak at least.
I befriended Philip because I felt sorry for him, and because I was responsible for his status as an orphan. During one of my expeditions, I had encountered a silky, bulbous sack, which I sensibly prodded with my spear. This caused several ebony, skittering, evil spiders to erupt from the sack, and chase me. Lamentably, I led them right into Pigtown.
The pigmen sprung into action, punching and shouting at the foul invaders, but it didn't look like they were going to manage to fend them off. I did the only rational thing a man with a torch could do -- I burned down the whole flipping place. It did, I'm proud to say, kill all of the spiders, but it also lead to the deaths of six pigmen.
All that was left was a lot of meat, which I grabbed, and a lot of silk, which I also grabbed, and one solitary pig, young Philip. I fed him some of the meat I'd just acquired, and thinking about it, I probably fed him his uncle or some other relative. Regardless, he became my chum.
Even with a companion, Don't Starve is a punishing experience. When night descends -- with unseen monsters and alien noises -- getting caught without light causes death in mere seconds, and as time plods on, new monsters appear, and even daylight ceases to provide safe harbor. There are so many threats that survival becomes a juggling act, requiring a lot of risk assessment.
You're starving, so you need to find more food, but you're also exhausted, and sleep deprivation is turning your hallucinations into tangible horrors that will almost certainly kill you. Do you construct a sleeping mat and grab forty winks? Or do you risk venturing out into the wilds to hunt down a potentially dangerous animal?
With short day and night cycles and rapidly increasing hunger and decreasing sanity, Don't Starve has a constant sense of urgency -- there's never any time for relaxation. It's stressful, and if you do happen to get caught with your pants down, you'll have to start the process all over again with none of your resources, and on a new map.
Starting the exhausting experience all over again can be a bit of a grind, especially during the first few days. Don't Starve's early-game is a bit dull, with berry picking and carrot hunting taking up most of one's time, and if you've done it all before, it can be extremely monotonous. The randomly generated maps -- which can be customized before you begin -- offer up a lot of replay value, but it doesn't make the early stages of the game any more entertaining.
A day is less than ten minutes long, however, so within half an hour, things start to pick up again. The desire to improve and to live longer is a great motivator when starting over, and the continual escalation of challenge should keep anyone looking to test their mettle content. Extra characters, each with their own unique quirks and strengths, also go a long way to increasing the longevity of the title. Sometimes they can make it easier, but sometimes they increase the difficulty.
Though it's hidden away, there's an adventure mode -- complete with a story -- to be discovered within the main survival mode, and that represents the greatest of Don't Starve's challenges. The game ceases to be about mere survival, and becomes a desperate attempt to escape from an invisible prison.
As with all of Klei's games, Don't Starve has a strong, memorable art-style, though it stands out from the developer's other titles. It looks like a pop-up story book devised by Tim Burton, it's quirky but hauntingly ominous. It's matched by a dark sense of humor that permeates throughout the whole game, with characters making quips or amusing observations, and monster appearances being absurd as much as they are off-putting.
Playing Don't Starve can be infuriating. There's absolutely no guidance, and the initial punishing difficulty only increases. It demands that players figure things out for themselves and progress through exploration and experimentation rather than being spoonfed hints and tips. Its uncompromising nature will undoubtedly leave some unsatisfied and irritated, but for those who are willing to work and take risks, it pays off.
The feeling of accomplishment when you manage to fend off countless cruel beasties, survive unrelenting foul weather, and fill your belly is potent. Mastering the wilderness is a difficult road, but from it comes a sense of empowerment. Of course, you could still lose it all in an instant. Such is the fickle nature of Don't Starve.
Charming - Not perfect, but it's easy to ignore the rough spots when faced with so many engaging design decisions and entertaining moments. A memorable game that's hard not to like and recommend to others.
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