Trying to Stay Alive in Don’t Starve [Preview]

Joel Couture
Guest Writer
 
April 16th, 2013

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It was a mouthful of rotten food that cost me two hours’ worth of work in Don’t Starve. I’d made a lot of bad decisions early on in the game, but I’d been very careful for the better part of an hour. My health wasn’t in great shape, but at least it was going to take more than a hit to kill me. I’d learned to attack my enemies very carefully, getting the attention of only one at a time or picking off stragglers. While going to a familiar hunting spot, I found several pieces of meat just lying around. Thinking I’d gotten lucky for some stupid reason, I crammed the raw meat right into my mouth since my hunger meter was down a little bit. I think I screamed when I realized what I was doing, but it was too late. Your life is hanging on by a thread the entire time you’re playing Don’t Starve, and often the biggest danger is the moron at the keyboard.

Don’t Starve isn’t very big on warnings or correcting player behavior. The game dumps you in a field right from the start, letting you twiddle your thumbs if that’s what you want to do. The game is about using the tools in your environment to survive, and doing so without anyone telling you what you ought to be doing. The game will make suggestions, though, which typically involve killing you. You either learn how the game works, or you’ll find yourself grumbling and looking at the title screen a lot.

There’s a lot of stuff in the environment that you can pick up, so my first instinct was to just start loading up on everything. The pack rat in me was pumped as I ran from bush to bush, gathering tall grass as if it meant something to me. There were also sticks and rocks that I could pick up, and I loaded my inventory with them. I’m pretty sure I died with that same junk in my pockets once night fell, having failed to figure out what any of it did. Like I said, the game doesn’t go out of its way to teach you.

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Well, it does tell you one thing: you need a light source by nightfall. Your character will mention it, and hopefully you’ve figured out the game’s crafting system by then. All of those goofy things you can pick up can be put together to form some basic tools like an axe or a pick. These let you harvest things like firewood or ore, opening up different sets of tools and equipment that will make your life easier. That firewood will save your life during that first night, but if you’re going to survive for long you’ll have to be doing better than messing with trees and rocks.

There’s that whole not starving thing from the title, though. Surviving nightfall and having a handful of rocks and sticks is great, but none of that is putting food on your plate. You can try to run around grabbing carrots, berries, and petals, but they won’t keep you going for very long. You are not vegan. Now, you can try to catch some of the birds and rabbits that run all over the place, but you’ll need to craft more special equipment to get them. I hated using the traps to catch rabbits, as you had to charge at them so they’d run into the trap. Most of the time they’d dart out of the way, or weave right around what I’d set up for them. I heard that many players don’t have as hard a time as I did, but part of the beauty of the game is that you can play it however you like. Not everyone’s going to have the same amount of luck with certain things.

I found it was easier, although a lot more dangerous, to go after prey that can fight back. I tended to pick on frogs in a swamp since they didn’t hit hard and the food you got from them didn’t kill you. I’d tried collecting spider meat by picking off one whenever I could catch one, but they tend to travel in packs. You’ll probably also find out that their meat is poisonous even after you’ve cooked it, watching in horror as the meal you worked so hard to prepare tears through your health. This is how we learn in this game, though, so you’d better get used to it.

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That’s assuming you found a group of enemies you could kill. Like in nature, there are some things you really shouldn’t be fighting with a homemade hatchet. Groups are almost always going to tear you apart, but there are also some much larger enemies that you need to stay away from until you feel comfortable with your equipment. It’s not impossible for you to kill these things and there may come a point where you should be killing them, but it’s always going to be a big risk when you tackle one of these things. Do you want to lose all your progress because you thought you could kill that huge, black, bird-like thing? When are you actually in a position to fight it, anyway?

Good luck finding out, because death is permanent. You can save your game and pick it up later, but once you get killed it’s back to the first day and collecting sticks and rocks again. It puts a ton of stress on you when you’re debating whether you should branch out into another part of the map, fight a monster, or even jam a piece of food into your mouth. Everything carries a huge risk in the game until you’ve tried it out, but the game encourages you to do so. I was really mad when I died from a mouthful of food, but I learned not to do it again the next time I played and I got a lot farther.

What I didn’t appreciate dying from was not being able to click on the object I wanted to. There are a lot of items you can collect in the game, but because of that many of the screens can be choked with stuff to click on. That’s annoying when something you want falls behind a tree, but it’s fatal if you’re trying to attack a monster near a bunch of trees. The game really needs to prioritize collectible items and enemies over things you can interact with in the environment, or else a lot of people like me are going to die some cheap deaths. It’s still in beta for a little bit longer, so I hope something gets done about that.

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While you’re playing through it for the hundredth time, you can appreciate the aesthetics of it. The game has an odd art style, one that the developers compared to Tim Burton or Edward Gorey. It’s got this misshapen look to it, with exaggerated characters that look like they have all been scratched in with a thick-tipped pencil. It makes the characters look pretty strange, but the monsters look incredible. Many of them look like they’re made from masses of jagged darkness, and they look like something that’s hopped out of a child’s nightmares.

They sound like something from them, too. All of the monsters make some strange noises, with the spiders emitting a loud hiss once they see something they can kill. The other monsters have their own bizarre sounds, letting you know when they’re near even if you can’t see them. The game is pretty good about letting you know what’s coming with the specific sound it makes, so you at least have a few seconds to squint at your inventory and pick out a weapon.

Speaking of squinting, your inventory boxes are pretty small. It keeps them from interfering with what’s on the screen, but I have a brutal time trying to find which item is my weapon on a fifty inch screen. I know I wear glasses, but my eyes aren’t that bad. Don’t rely on the game to make it easy to find what equipment you need in a hurry, because you’ll be scrambling to grab your weapon and end up pulling out your shovel. Organize your equipment, because it’s kind of hard to see what’s what when a mob of spiders are running your way.

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You could always make it easier on yourself, though. The game has a robust editor for the level it generates for you when you start; letting you pick anything from the enemy frequency to the length of a day. If you’re having a hard or easy time with it, you can fiddle with a slider for almost anything to make the game better for you. Even if you just hate one enemy type, you can remove it from the game entirely. It’s a neat option to have, although it really does feel like cheating at times. Still, it’s a lot more useful than the standard easy, normal, and hard difficulties; letting you tailor the game to your taste.

Other than the small problems I had with clicking on things, the beta seems right on track. The game is unforgiving – has been designed to be – but it teaches you something with every death. The game has a lot to offer someone who’s willing to put the time in and be patient, as there is a lot of neat stuff I know I still haven’t seen even after playing for six or eight hours on one character. It’s also very freeing to play however I want, even if the price of making bad decisions is really high. It should be interesting to see how many more ways I can accidentally kill myself once the full release hits in a few days.

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A horror-obsessed gamer, Joel is still spending his days looking for something to scare himself as much as Fatal Frame. Even so, he has ridiculous action games and obscure gems to keep him happy in the meantime. A self-proclaimed aficionado of terrible retro games, he's always looking for a rotten game he hasn't played yet, and may be willing to exchange information for candy.

Specialty: Horror

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