Spoilers: I guess?
Audience Assumptions: None
Part One: How to Pace a Non-Story
Well-crafted stories – that is, stories that are balanced by tight pacing, engaging narrative, cohesive structure, and artistic merit – can, in my opinion, outperform any story that excels in just one area. Video games are not always narrative because of their interactive nature, but they’re often distilled exclusively down to one of their key features. A game is considered “good” when it excels in one area and is at least competent in the rest. More balanced games are not difficult to find, but I’m not sure they get the praise they deserve. Making a well-crafted video game is arguably more difficult than doing the same for a book or film, and often they’re judged merely as toys of some sort or another. If a game isn’t spectacular or world-changing, it’s likely to fly under the radar
Okay, then. What does any of this have to do with Don’t Starve?
Don’t Starve is one of those games that feels like a cult classic when you play it, but has too much presence to be a hidden gem. Maybe you’ve never played it, but you’ve definitely heard of it. It came out a few years back as part of the wave of survival-crafting games that hit the games market, and since then, it’s gained massive popularity. However, despite its widespread appeal and the number of people I know who love the game, I’m not sure anyone considers it all that exceptional. Its art style, mechanics, creative elements, and structure are all good, but you can think of games that have done better in any one of those areas. Plenty of games gain popularity as part of a marketing push and feedback loop (I mean, just look at the Elder Scrolls series), but I don’t think that’s the case for Don’t Starve, at least not exclusively. Don’t Starve is appealing because it’s balanced.
The game is streamlined to the point of being ridiculously easy to pick up yet essentially impossible to finish – insofar as an open-world game can be finished. Essentially, you play a [usually] human character dropped in a Tim Burton-styled fantasy world full of resources and monsters. During the day, you must stave off various threats to your health and sanity, find food, then build a campfire to keep from getting killed by monsters lurking in the shadows. Different environments have unique resources and threats, and if you survive long enough, you’ll have vicious hounds and the cold of winter to deal with.
Don’t Starve’s most immediate selling point is its length – you can play it for hours, but you only really need about fifteen minutes to have a good play session. Each day is only about ten minutes long, and everything is collected or crafted almost instantaneously. Rather than having to collect hundreds of resources to build structures, each craftable item requires only a few items to build. The map, while large compared to your character, is also densely packed; you never have to travel far before something interesting appears in your line of sight. Specialty items are difficult to find, like in any game, but everything you theoretically need to survive in the long term (food, wood and grass for fires, flowers to keep your sanity up) is almost always on the screen or a short walk away, especially in the early game. There are so few critical resources that almost anyone can pick up the game (even if, like me, you’re too dim to build a fire the first time you play and immediately die on the first night).
But if everything’s so easy to find and quick to build, where’s the challenge? This is where Don’t Starve’s second merit comes in: it is DIFFICULT. The short wait periods mean that your stats can drop quickly, and as is the mantra of the survival-crafting game, you have stats that drop whenever you aren’t actively preventing them from doing so, namely hunger. Combine that with a world full of creatures that can kill you in a few hits, dangerous weather, and items that slowly rot or degrade and you have a good blueprint for a challenging game. The difficulty curve is beautiful, and exceedingly frustrating because no matter how good you get, there isn’t really a way to win, even though there is a clear losing condition. You will eventually run out of resources, even if you plunder the entire map and manage your goods carefully. Nearly everything is finite in some capacity or another. You can find new islands through island hopping, but this is a feat itself. Even without the threat of diminishing resources, the difficulty of the game continuously ramps up. Every few days, hounds will appear out of nowhere to chase you, and though manageable at first, each round of hounds gets larger and stronger. You can find places to resurrect your character, but these are limited in number and one-use only. At most, you can hope for a long-term homeostasis. Eventually, though, you will die. If tension is the goal, however, this is an excellent way to achieve it.
Part Two: In the Wake of Minecraft
Crafting and survival games have gained a real foothold in the medium. Even though their popularity has waned in the last few years and strict survival-crafting games are uncommon, their mechanics have been incorporated into many major releases, from Fortnite to Horizon Zero Dawn to the most recent iteration of Spider-Man. This is a curious phenomenon because it’s one of the few major trends in games that has a single clear root. Even though crafting-type mechanics vary from game to game and genre to genre, and have been around in some form for ages, Minecraft undoubtedly popularized the feature in its most basic form. Gather elements by hitting trees and rocks, build tools out of those, use tools to get rarer elements, use those to craft more things, and so on.
It’s a simple model that has relatively little flexibility – alien wood is still just wood, even if it can be combined with Mystery Goo – but its appeal is evident. A crafting tree implements an immediate difficulty curve into the game, and it adjusts according to player skill level. Early in the game, everything the player can interact with is limited – there are usually only a few starting elements and craftable items, and if the player comes across something they can’t yet use, it’s often readily apparent if it’s worth saving for later. A winter hat is likely to come in handy after a while, while some rare gemstone or metal is better to sell or toss if you’re only a few minutes into the game.
There are three main issues that plague survival-crafting games. First, when game designers fail to test their concept against various play styles and don’t offer direction to their users, the crafting can easily become unbalanced. Certain resources are impossible to find or way too common, the effort it takes to build certain components isn’t worth the benefit they offer, and the balance only skews worse as the game progresses. ARK: Survival Evolved has this issue in spades.
Another common problem is that the crafting mechanics are simply uninteresting; after digging for two minutes or chopping wood for two minutes or waiting for metal to smelt for two minutes, the player grows bored. And with good reason – waiting for a bar to fill up or unseen stats to count down is inherently uninteresting. The only thing that makes it interesting is if something is happening in the meantime (like if you need to find a way to keep the fire burning), or if the reward you get at the end is new and shiny. When crafting components that you’re already well acquainted with, the novelty of the reward disappears. This issue is so common for crafting-based games that some opt to cut the timers entirely just to make the game playable. Again, ARK is the poster child for survival-crafting game problems.
However, the biggest issue crafting games face (and the one thing I can’t really knock ARK for) is lack of content. After a while, why are you still gathering resources? To survive? In most survival-crafting games, survival is only an issue in the early game. To make new things, then? After a while, you run out of new things to make. Even if there are high-level items that would take hundreds of hours to realistically acquire, what happens when you get them? Most survival-crafting games have open worlds with very little narrative. The point of finding something in a crafting game is to use it in some way, but even with late-stage content, the mechanics of a game must always be limited. Eventually, items don’t feel worth the effort it takes to craft them, even if the crafting is still technically balanced.
Some games satisfy players by providing a narrative or allowing the world to be a full sandbox where the player can flex their creativity. However, survival-crafting games often struggle to incorporate these features, either because their open world limits narrative structure or the constraints of crafting limit creativity. Minecraft maximizes creativity by allowing every component to connect to a simple grid and be easy to move or place, and by offering Creative Mode where resources are unlimited. Sunless Sea (which is less of a survival-crafting game but still draws heavily from the genre) maximizes narrative potential by keeping its missions consistent.
So how does Don’t Starve measure up? Its simplicity and style gives it an automatic leg up on other survival-crafting games as far as its appeal is concerned; the sketchy, exaggerated figures are a delightful combination of cute and macabre, and the game is streamlined to a T. The HUD is clean and easy to understand, which helps players jump right into the action, and as I mentioned, its difficulty curve keeps the game engaging at all stages. The game’s polish and simplicity gets it past the first two major hurdles of survival-crafting games, ensuring the gameplay is well-balanced and always fun. However, Don’t Starve struggles with direction as most survival-crafting games do; each time you play, it’s the same game with the same trajectory.
The game does has a few tricks up its sleeve to compensate, though.
Part Three: Plunging the Depths
Once you’re familiar with the basic mechanics, this game opens up to reveal a wealth of new features and potential playstyles. This is normal for survival-crafting games, which tend to peak in their midgame, after the player understands the basics but before the player runs out of novel content. However, it’s rare for survival-crafting games to keep this trend into the late game. Don’t Starve somehow manages to do just that.
Even with just the base game, I was astonished to see the variety of high-level features the game had to offer. I’ve sunk well over a hundred hours into Don’t Starve over the years and still it manages to surprise me. Combat is appropriately challenging, even at high skill levels, as weapons and armor both difficult to acquire and only able to help so much. However, there are plenty of ways to prepare for combat scenarios, and the game encourages creative problem solving once you’ve mastered the core mechanics. Luring opponents into fields of Beefalo, recruiting armies of pigs, and setting traps are just a few of simplest solutions to higher-level combat. The game provides features that offer players just enough support that they feel empowered to try new things, but not so much that those new things are easy. The altars can be a godsend, but spawn in the middle of winter without a supply store nearby and that godsend turns into a curse in disguise. High-level items are scattered around the world, but many are partially depleted and like all limited resources, eventually you’ll run out of them. The game pushes players out of their comfort zones as they become accustomed to the mechanics.
Even those who struggle with the ramped-up difficulty can find new ways to play the game. I was astonished to learn that the game had an adventure mode accessible through an ominous gateway hidden somewhere in the world. It’s not really based in much narrative, but it creates a new goal for the player, requiring them to navigate custom-made worlds to find a series of items to teleport to the next level. The worlds come with their own unique challenges, some with unique weather, others with sparse resources, and a lovely few that do both. The end reward is small – some unique cutscenes and a new character – but the difference in scenery is engaging on its own.
The epitome of what this game has to offer in terms of depth is somewhat literal. Occasionally in your travels around the game world, you’ll come across a blocked cave entrance. The caves are immense, another world stacked below the starting one and filled with unique content. Most of the creatures and items are found nowhere else, and the cave levels are structured as winding ledges, often with dead ends. Appropriately, the caves are in eternal darkness save a few glowing creatures or plants, making them exceptionally difficult to explore even without the increased hit and damage points of the creatures that live there. Most games would love to reach even this level of content, but Don’t Starve goes even further, offering not one unique caves level, but two, each with their own creatures, designs, and resources.
Eventually the game does run out of content, but unless you want to sink your life into this one little game, good luck finding it. Don’t Starve is far from perfect and won’t appeal to everyone, but if you’re looking for something small that can expand as you get more skilled playing it, this little survival experience is worth a try.