Dana and Libby Review “Don’t Starve”

Don’t Starve is a ruthless survival-horror-adventure game for the PC where everything is crazy and all of the consequences are permanent. When you die, you die. You lose all your stuff. You don’t get to restart, you don’t get to reload. The world itself and everything in it is out to kill you by any means possible, including by starvation (duh), forest fire, monster attack, bigger monster attack, lightning strike, killer swamp vines, killer bees, killer goose-moose giant hybrids, frog rain, Scottish walruses in kilts, Krampus, werepigs, giant spiders, spoiled food, the messed-up manifestations of your own steadily slipping sanity, and Charlie the two-strike monster in the darkness.

We swear, though, it’s brutally good fun.

You choose a quirky character with his or her individual perks and weaknesses and go out into this strange, humanless country with the sole purpose of staying alive long enough to, maybe, find a way off this otherworldly island and figure out why you’re here. You forage, hunt, gather resources, build, fight, explore, and delve into the darker sides of science and magic just to last another day, another season. Of course, the game doesn’t actually tell you what to do to get there. Or really how to leave. If you can leave.

Libby: Well, I for one have not managed to leave. I’ve been camping in the snow for about four years, game-time, and have had everything destroyed by the horned snow monster twice. I’ve got a bunch of storage chests of feathers and minerals and pretty much every other useless thing you can imagine, but I’m terrified of actually trying to use them to go through Maxwell’s Door. I can’t even stay alive going underground. There are scary bunnies and things.

Dana: It’s a Deerclops. That horned snow monster is a Deerclops.

Libby: It killed my Beefalo! All of them! We had a symbiotic relationship!

Dana: Miraculously, I actually never encountered the Deerclops until probably my…some absurdly high time playing the game, so for a while I thought it only appeared when you made your second winter. [For those of you not familiar with the game, the seasons change as time passes, shortening or lengthening your daylight hours and bringing temperature and weather changes.] And then I was scared out of my mind because this thing was breathing in my ear through my headphones and shaking everything in my camp. It then destroyed everything in my camp. I have, though, learned to use it to destroy beehives so I can have honey later, because I am afraid of attacking bees. And most things. I play very cautiously.

Libby: I don’t. Because I cheat. But that’s okay.

Dana: You dirty cheater. I got so far with Wilson once that I was getting really into all the magic and science. I had life-giving amulets, weapons, traps…I’m not actually sure if I died in that file or if I just haven’t gone back because, once I get out of the rhythm of my particular playthrough, I find it hard to get back in. But it was so, so satisfying to finally have all that stuff together and to have a system down where those damn wolves couldn’t get me.

Libby: Wait. I’m sorry. You came up with a system where the Hounds couldn’t get you? (For new players, they’re these evil beasts that viciously attack you every now and again. More and more often, as the game goes on.) The only way I’ve been able to get rid of them is to foist them off on other animals. Pigs fight them pretty well. My Beefalo were awesome at it until the horned snow beast ruined everything. Spiders work sometimes, and so do those eyeball plant things.

Dana: Yeah, actually, I made use of the Pig Village nearby. The pigs were pretty much surrounded by spiders and swamp, so getting there was like running the gauntlet myself, but usually by the time I reached the village I had picked off the pack on the environment. And then all I had to do was run around a nest or a pig until they got the rest of them. But that didn’t always work, like if it was too cold or too dark to run that far, so I built the walls around my camp like a maze and funnel system. The wolves will attack your walls–and wreck them, which is ridiculous–but they’ll go for the path of least resistance first. So I set up my walls to funnel them right into tooth traps, which usually gave me enough time to escape out the back exit.

Libby: And the tooth traps worked for you? All they seem to do for me is to annoy the thing I’m trying to trap. Like, I want to kill some pigs to eat (which is ironic, because I no longer eat real pigs). But I don’t want to deal with Krampus, so I keep trying to get the pigs with them. No dice.

Dana: I never tried killing pigs with traps. I mostly bought their affection with monster meat and used them to destroy trees without accruing tree monster hatred. The spiders would sometimes kill pigs inadvertently, though, and then waste not, want not.

Libby: But the pigs are cannibals. You’ve got to be there at the exact second the spider kills it, otherwise it’s happy piggy dinnertime.

Dana: I never found that too hard, or at least I was never that hard up for meat. I had an excellent rabbit-catching system. Once I had that figured out, I was more likely to die by monster attack or by freezing to death. Like I said, I played very cautiously, so I probably didn’t learn all the tricks you did by trying weird stuff. It took me forever to work up the nerve to use a wormhole when I first started playing. But I love exploring and uncovering more of the map. I put myself in more danger to find Chester every game than I really probably ever need to.

It could be worse. (Klei Entertainment)

Libby: I’ve got the entire map on my current game. That’s really, really helpful, except for the fact that I now have about five wormholes, so I never know where I’m going to end up. And I’ve had to put crockpots and refrigerators everywhere. It’s made me think that you’re safe from the — what was it, the Deerclops? — as long as you’re out of the way of the main path, the simplest way to get from one side of the map to the other. Unfortunately my main campsite isn’t.

Dana: I’ve never uncovered the whole map! I’m jealous. And the Deerclops works by tracking the player’s structures and, maybe, the player themselves. So, if you keep moving around between camps and structures, that’s a good way to keep the Deerclops from cornering you and breaking all the stuff you worked so hard on. I never got a refrigerator, I’m so jealous. I just trapped scores of live bunnies in chests.

Libby: You’ve got to bait the robots in order to get the gears you need to build them. I can understand why you’d want to avoid that. But I’ve got a ton of them now, because the robots also chop down bunches of trees, and I’m too lazy/scared of the Evil Giant Tree to chop trees myself.

Dana: I’m way more scared of the robots than the trees. The robots shoot fuzzy lasers at you, I can run away from the trees. Plus, I play as Willow, so I can always just burn the forest down. Yeah, no, it sounds like I missed a lot of stuff because I was so focused on staying alive long enough to build the “Wooden Gate Thing” to see if that was a way to “win” or I just wanted to find Maxwell’s Door.

Libby: I play as Willow, too. I’m not sure how anyone survives for very long without being Willow. I was the librarian — Mrs. Wickerbottom, or something? — for a while, but she’s incapable of sleeping, which doesn’t exactly help you stay sane. I am thinking about taking Willow underground, though. I haven’t done that with her yet. She’s got her lighter, which might potentially stay lit forever, so maybe she won’t die because of a giant bunny she didn’t see, the way Wickerbottom did before. Seriously, I am so scared of those giant bunnies. Which you haven’t encountered yet. And honestly, you don’t need to.

Dana: I’m not sure I will. The further I get in a run, the more cautious I become, because it’s so much work to start over from scratch again. I keep telling myself that if I’m going to do caves I need to make five torches or whatever and just jump down there on Day 5 or something. Although, part of the reason why I’m so reluctant to risk things is that I really enjoy setting up my base camp. I got so bored with Minecraft because it felt so pointless. Don’t Starve literally throws you to the wilds and the woods and leaves you to figure out for yourself how to get tools, food, build things, learn to fight things, so it’s very challenging, but there’s also the implication that there is something more to discover, some hidden story, so I was intrinsically motivated to keep going and keep trying and keep learning. Plus, the world has a wonderful aesthetic with some very sassy humor. If the characters weren’t so sassy, I don’t think I’d have as much fun getting killed in ridiculous ways.

Libby: Wickerbottom was the sassiest. I miss her (although not enough to be her again). Anyway, I’ve been underground and you haven’t, but you’ve actually been through Maxwell’s Door, which I’ve never felt ready enough to attempt. That’s supposed to be the way to “beat” the game, isn’t it? (Although I’m not sure I know what that means.) What was that like?

Dana: Well, I had a very, very good run with Willow to find it, though you don’t actually do anything fancy to reach it. You just explore the map until you reach it in a patch of trees. I think there is a way to “beat” the game through Maxwell’s Door, but, uh, assuming I’ve seen the right spoilers, it’s not exactly the happiest ending, and you have to go through absolute hell to get there in the first place. Plus, the game’s universe keeps expanding, so it’s really hard to tell what’s canon narrative and what’s up to you and whether the current ending is the ending. But, the Door. When you step through the door, you lose everything you’re carrying. You essentially pop into a new game level and start from scratch–you have all your health and sanity, but none of your tools or food, etc. And the new level you step into is an absolute horror compared to the one you left, and there are five levels, and the order of the “Five Levels of Maxwell Hell” (my term) is randomized each time you go through the door. You can’t even play the new level the way you did on the base world because the levels of Maxwell Hell are so weird.

Libby: Oh my god. I thought you got to bring your stuff with you. I’ve been duped. I’m never going to be ready for this.

Dana: Bringing stuff would help, but since it’s randomized, and you can’t leave unless you die, you can’t really plan, and they’re so different. In one, for example, it’s constantly raining frogs. Constantly. Rain drains your sanity, and frogs attack you, and rain also severely diminishes Willow’s fire-based perks. In another one, there seemed to be one spit of normal grassland with limited food and resources, and all the rest was a swamp full of fish monsters and death tentacles. You have to constantly run through the swamp, and presumably there are some other islands out there to give you more food and supplies, but I don’t know. The good news is that when you die in Maxwell Hell, you return to your base world unharmed.

Libby: Weirdly, my current sandbox mode has no fish monsters. I’ve explored the entire map, and they’re not there. So I’m kind of scared that when I do go through the door, there are going to be thousands of them, ganging up on me. I guess the only thing to do is to work on my running-through-swamp skills. Willow’s pretty good at this point. Chester still needs to work on his agility.

Dana: Willow is our only hope. Sassy little Willow, the great Fire Master, survivor of us all.

“Everything is better with fire.” –Willow. (Klei Entertainment)

Basically, Pudding Shot friends, there’s a lot we still don’t know about this game, including (but not limited to) how to stay alive amid storms of falling frogs. But ultimately, that’s what makes it such good fun. The pleasure is in the puzzle, and though we may never figure it out (says Libby optimistically), it’s the trying to figure it out that ultimately makes the experience worth it.

Have you played Don’t Starve? Have you fared better than we have? Leave your experience in the comments!

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