Design Review: Don’t Starve

Don’t Starve is a fascinating little game available on Steam.  The best way to describe it is that it’s a crafting game with the soul of a Rogue-like.  Your character is dropped on an island (for no discernable reason) and given a simple mission: survive as long as you can.  This is harder than it looks – it took me several tries to get past the 3 day mark.

The island you’re dropped on is randomly generated, with nothing but raw materials you can use to craft tools, shelters, and other things to help you survive.  And much like a Rogue-like, your fate is often in the hands of the random number generator.  Start in a world without much flint, for example, and you’re in for a  very short game, since you won’t be able to create an axe you need to chop down trees which you need to craft a fire, which you need to keep away the evil… something or other.  When it’s dark, it’s real dark, so who knows who ends up munching on your little hiney.

The art style and music are both fun and whimsical, which is nice when juxtaposed with the subject matter of the game – survive or die.  This creates a humor that is wonderfully silly and black at the same time.  But the real joy in the game is exploring the world, and discovering what new encounters and items you find, and what new interactions you discover.  Traps are more effective if you bait them, for example.  Pine cones are lousy for starting fires, but nice fuel once its going.  And not every mushroom is edible without… side effects.

Each game is more different than you would expect, largely based on the world around you.  Gold is required to unlock new science advances, and in one game I spent two weeks helplessly scouring the world for gold.  The next game, I ended up joining the pig people in a war against the nearby spiders.  The game after that, I set up a sprawling rabbit farming enterprise, due largely to a fortuitously placed carrot field that was helpfully near a field sprawling with the little critters.  Your goal is survival.  How you get there depends on how well you adapt to the world around you.

I can’t say that I’ve gotten very far yet – so far, I’ve only managed to survive 12 days max – and there are things not to like.  The science machine, in particular, seems somewhat jarring and out of place, in a game otherwise pushing so hard to live on the lamb.  Night time successfully captures the feel of being tedious and long, largely by being tedious and long.  And while I may not yet be well-versed in the mechanics enough to declare some scenarios as unbeatable, its sure true that some of them seem that way.

Still, this game was a lot of fun, and merits more eyeballs, especially if you happen to like Raphian crafting games.

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