Wildcard Wednesday: Don't Starve
Posted by Ken Barnes
Are you afraid of the dark?
Wildcard Wednesday is where we open up the floor to one of our writers to talk about any game that they have fond memories of, on any platform. From Pole Position on the Atari 2600, through to Journey on the PS3, no game is off the table. This week, Ken jumps back in to PC gaming, and a little game that induces some big-time fear.
Not being much of a PC gamer – I work at the PC all day and much prefer shifting myself over to the couch for my gaming funtimes – it took a fair amount of persuading from a friend who’s utterly head-over-heels for the game for me to take the plunge and give Don’t Starve a go earlier this year.
And how glad I am that I did.
You see – and this won’t be a popular opinion – I’m not a massive fan of Minecraft’s non-building sections. When I first played the pixelated sensation, I was told that the goal was to build a shelter before day turned to night, in order to protect myself from the masses of nocturnal enemies that would seek to do me harm if I was wandering around at night. So I got busy building my abode. Set into the side of a hill, the construction was basic but would provide adequate protection from the oncoming horde. The sun went down and I waited, staring out of the window of my ramshackle little house to see the sort of things I’d have to face if I ever found myself roaming the landscape when the lights went out. At that point, a single creeper could be seen on the horizon. I waited for his dastardly friends to join him. And waited. And waited. And waited. I waited as he took a comedy pratfall into the water and was regenerated. I waited as he struggled to work out how to get up a hill. I walked outside to see if I could coax him into chasing me. Nothing. Feeling brave, I wandered up and swung my sword at him, almost in the hope that it would do nothing and I’d have to run away and that the game would begin.
And down he went. So I proceeded to flaunt the main rule of the game and run around outside all night without seeing so much as a hint of another enemy.
The apprehension and fear that was instilled in me by the game’s introductory messages was never acted upon properly, which lead to nothing but disappointment. I wanted to be scared. I wanted to feel as if I was under threat of attack if I just strolled around without my wits about me.
And that’s where Don’t Starve comes in, for Don’t Starve offers up very much the same premise (albeit with an isometric camera as opposed to a first-person one) but actually follows it through to your ultimately gruesome death. You start off by controlling Wilson, a lad with spiky hair who has been unceremoniously plunked down in the middle of the game world, with nothing about him other than the ability to pick things up and occasionally combine them when needed. You quickly learn that young Wilson can succumb to madness, be killed by fierce enemies that lurk about the massive map, or indeed starve to death as the game’s title would indicate. He can even be killed by the dark itself, meaning that by the time your first day in the game is over, you’d better have found some way of fashioning a torch or campfire of some kind, or your game will be cut brutally short.
The fear of the night combined with the main character’s initial feebleness is the game’s main driver, and no mistake. You can make it through the first week and get to the point where you’ve created a few weapons, learnt how to cook seeds to provide extra nourishment, and set up a sort of home base for yourself. No problem. But if you take your eye off the ball for a moment and find yourself out in the wilderness with no way of shedding some light on the situation come nightfall, you’re done for. On top of that, the meters toward the top right of the screen tell you how close Wilson (or one of the other characters, if you’ve unlocked them) is to losing his grip on sanity, how close he is to starving, and what his general level of health is like. And they tick away, constantly pushing you to take care of one thing or another. Enemies – who can oftentimes be turned into food, providing you have a weapon – lurk all over the map, and you truly have to tread carefully in order to survive. See that bee? Don’t be taking a comedy swing at him with your axe, brother, or you’ll find that you’ve awoken a hive of the wretched things and will end up having to beat a hasty retreat as they chase you…more than likely miles from your base, meaning that…yeah…it’s getting dark now. Raining, too. Damn.
But the real beauty of Don’t Starve is how it teases you and drives you to take greater and greater risks. Within two in-game weeks, I could have built a relatively safe place to live and could pretty much sit there night and day, occasionally popping outside to grab some berries or seeds to stave off the hunger. But what’s just off-screen? What goodies could I find if I just took a little bit of a walk and went a tiny bit further than I’ve walked before? New tools? New materials? Something better than I have now? Something that I could kill or make that would generate experience points that would allow me to build bigger and better – and ultimately more secure - things? Sure! I’m going for it! I’m gone!
And before I know it, I’m out in the wilderness again, away from my home base. I’ve gone so far that I’m lost. Wilson is disoriented, hungry, and teetering on the brink of madness as my poor decision to tell him to chow down on our last piece of food – a hallucination-inducing uncooked mushroom - threatens to throw him under the bus, stability-wise. But I’m still in control and I can save him. The game is threatening to wrest even that idea from me as it tries to extinguish the last flickering flame of hope for us but for now, I’m still the master of the terrain and ultimately, Wilson’s destiny.
Nagging away at the back of my head though, is the fear. The fear that night is on the way because in Don’t Starve - much as in life - night is always on the way, and what lurks in the night can be enough to push you over the edge.