Don’t Starve reviewed: A story of sandbox survival, but not one worth re-telling

Don't Starve

By on May 9, 2013 at 12:40 pm

Don’t Starve’s campfire should be the starting point of legends. In truth, it serves more utilitarian purposes —flickering warmth fighting winter’s grasp, defending against the horrors of the moonlit hours, and cooking device for a would-be Bear Grylls. Yet as history will tell, the campfire is also the place for stories, so good they’re told a million times, each variation grander than the last. And what better tool for story creation than a world of horrors and your own papercraft marionettes?

While Klei aren’t new to the frivolities of violence, their experimental curiosity-turned-community obsession in Don’t Starve is their most delicate creation, as if lifted from the very pages it was sketched on. Klei entrusts you with their papercraft pet, Wilson, and leaves you with a parting message. Don’t break it. Don’t kill it. And most of all, Don’t Starve!

What Klei also gives you is a sandbox, drenched in the macabre, brought to life in delicate lines and stood to attention like a pop-up book. It’s the kind of place likely to be written off as “Tim Burton’s Minecraft”, or “Sadistic Terraria”, or perhaps “Wilson in Wonderland”. Yet Klei’s line work has a charm all of its own — a life of its own — seen there in the wide eyes and hesitant expressions drawn to life on Wilson’s as-yet unbearded face. It’s all a picture of childish innocence, kept alive on a sadistic heart, pumping blood to each and every caricature.

The first time you lay eyes on the Tallbirds, tending to their nests and striding about with ease: an eyeball atop legs that tower above you. Your first night spent in near pitch-black darkness, surrounded by hordes of spiders, slave to your curiosity. Or the pigs and their little houses that recall nursery rhyme imagery even as you bludgeon them to death for the berries that grow in their backyards. For a world of 2D navigation and flat plains, it’s easy to fall head over heels and lose yourself in these fairytale forests.

Once the stage is set and the pieces begin to move, it’s a game of timid progress, resource gathering and accidental pyromaniacal tendencies. Much like Minecraft’s axe and torch, the campfire is an early invention cobbled together, there on the first night, but it isn’t one to be discovered on your own: Don’t Starve’s creations all arise from its crafting menu, where new recipes open as you construct scientific machines of wonder and wonderment, in an effort to twist and contort and work your magic to ensure this world spins on its 2D axis around you.

Yet as the nights pass by, the stories to be told become ones of busywork more than bewilderment. Its locales may expand breathlessly and with ease, but its ladder of a progress system forces you up with claustrophobic linearity. In that way all of Don’t Starve’s tales are doomed to begin and end in tragedy — in the gathering of familiar resources and the sudden strike of death — leaving the fleshy in-between to cultivate unique tales built on the randomness of its world and linearity of progress.

In truth, there’s too much of the latter and not enough of the former.

Before too long you see behind — and through — Don’t Starve’s paper-thin papercraft aesthetic, and once you know how its gears and levers bring its props to life, it becomes a less inviting place to be. The hunt for food turns to a search for the unique, in hopes of returning to the campfire with a story worth telling, while instead Mr. Minecraft is regaling onlookers with grandly built towers, and the Hollow Undead tell of demons defeated and fires kindled, in Miyazaki’s otherworldly realm.

For now this campfire is left to the frustrations of Wilson and his growing beard, and the tossing and turning nights of sleep playing host to dreams of what Don’t Starve could have been — or might one day become. And he’s worth cheering for — if for nothing else than an excuse to return to this pop-up book of wonder. Fingers crossed there’s a more exciting story to tell when we do.

Good:

  • A pop-up book of a macabre nursery rhyme world, with a style that’s equally as charming as it is creepy.
  • Opening hours of discovery and entertaining mistakes (Can anyone say burning down your own structures?) that may be enough to make a visit worthwhile.
  • An ever-growing expanse of content: a developer open to feedback and six months of promised content and expansion.
  • Wilson can grow a beard. Now that’s character progression.

Bad:

  • The aesthetic wonder soon wears off.
  • Little room for freeform approaches to familiar scenarios. Start, harvest, build, repeat.
  • Blueprints are a blessing and a curse: less experimentation, less discovery.

Don’t Starve can be purchased for $14.99 on Steam. The reviewer purchased this copy at their own expense.

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4 comments (Leave your own)

I found Don’t Starve to be a neat premise, and the art style definitely contributed to the draw for me, however I would have enjoyed it more if it had some co-op. As mentioned, the systematic formula of tasks pop up very quickly, and it would have been great to have a buddy to distract from that, or even divy up tasks to get more done; I don’t think I would have enjoyed Terraria or Minecraft as much as I did if it was a purely solo experience, and I definitely thing Don’t Starve could have benefitted from its inclusion, especially since they tout a 2 pack deal through steam.

Ultimately, not a bad game, and the first time you accidentally burn down a forest you’ll have a chuckle, then begin to laugh maniacally as you purposely torch a few more, but I found myself bored with it after a couple of hours.

 

I was gifted it by a friend and played for a while, but worked out quickly that the first few days in-game are incredibly boring, and you’ll be playing those days an awful lot. Last time I played I opened a box, which set me on fire and killed me near-instantly. I had no desire to play again from the start after that, and it’s been left untouched.

 

jjager: and the art style definitely contributed to the draw for me

Opposite for me I can’t bring myself to touch it because it looks like an aborted tim burton flick

 

Wilson can grow a beard. Now that’s character progression.

SOLD!

 
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