We scavenge our way through hands-on time with Don’t Starve

Don’t Starve is developed by Klei Entertainment and currently in its alpha phase. Early access to the game is available through Steam for $14.99. A copy of the alpha was provided for this feature.

You may have heard of Klei Entertainment. They’re the fine folks who are responsible for the stealth title Mark of the Ninja that is widely considered one of this year’s Game of the Year contenders. The next game to come out of the doors at Klei will be Don’t Starve, a game built around every boy scout’s dream of surviving purely off of nature. As the story goes, our protagonist Wilson has been teleported to a strange and mysterious world by a demon. Players step into Wilson’s shoes with no instructions, map, tools, goals or objectives other than survival and the acute possibility of returning home to the world that our hero and scientist was so rudely pulled from. When you start the game, a world is randomly generated for you, and you’re on your own to survive what awaits you.

The first thing that jumps out about Don’t Starve is the distinct hand drawn art style. The game looks, feels and moves like a Sunday newspaper comic strip brought to life. The game’s atmosphere is light and cartoony, although it manages to simultaneously seem dark and dangerous. You really do feel like you’ve been dropped into a strange world that’s ripe for exploring and chock full of the unknown. The world that surrounds you is full of wonder and it’s all brought together by the visual style. If and when you discover an island inhabited by pig-men speaking broken English like we did (more on that later), you can’t help but smile at the game’s charm.

Equally as charming and also instantly noticeable is the game’s music. The combination of tunes and in-game sounds really bring the concept of living in the wilderness to life. While the music itself isn’t eerie or dark, it does somehow have a slightly unsettling effect on the player. The game’s score really helps add to the notion that you’re alone in this foreign place, scraping to survive. The cartoon comparison again comes to mind. While the music may boil down to simple riffs and jingles, it has a much larger effect on the player and tone of the game. Whoever it is at Klei that knows how to play whatever string instrument that’s the centerpiece of Don’t Starve‘s score gets a big thumbs up.

Once you settle in and have absorbed the game’s personality, the delight and fear of freedom sets in. In true “Minecraftian” style, players are given a few basic blue prints for things to build and are tasked with collecting the goods to build them. The game doesn’t actually tell you to build them, you have to figure that out on your own. There’s no one way forward – it’s all about getting by, surviving, discovery, and doing what you want to do. To unlock new recipes and blue prints for things to craft, you must feed your science machine (which is itself crafted) with things you find around the world. Each item that you scavenge from nature and feed the science machine is worth a set number of research points. You then use your research points to unlock new recipes for crafted items that will help you survive and progress through the world.

So how does one actually go about survival? It’s simple really. All you need to do is avoid being killed by hostile creatures, and keep yourself fed. Don’t Starve is the name of the game after all. It sounds pretty simple right? It is, and it isn’t. The world around you is a complete mystery. Imagine if you were left in the wilderness is a land that you didn’t know, all by yourself. You obviously need to eat to survive, but are those berries you just found poisonous? Is that creature over there going to run away in fear when I get close to it or will it attack me? If it does, will I be able to fend it off or is it more dangerous than it looks? These are the kinds of questions that you have to ask yourself while playing Don’t Starve. There’s really only one way to find out about the things in the world around you and that is to engage them and hope for the best. Sometimes you may be pleasantly surprised, other times it may be the end of you.

Don’t Starve uses a day-night cycle, which plays a major role in the game. By day you’ll be exploring and hunting for food and supplies. When night rolls around, you have to build a fire. Wilson reminds you of this every time the sun starts to go down. As it gets darker and darker, your field of visibility gets smaller and smaller, until eventually, unless you build a fire, you won’t be able to see at all. Huddled around the fire at night, you’ll be able to prepare for the next day by cooking food, constructing items, and dropping more items into your Science Machine for research points. There’s one catch, however: if you do attempt to wander off into the darkness or if you don’t build a fire either by choice or lack of supplies, you won’t make it through the night. When you first venture into the darkness, you will start to hear strange noises. If you’re smart you’ll turn around and run back to your fire (if you have one) right then and there. If you’re not, you will be attacked by faceless things that go bump in the night and meet your end without ever knowing what it was that ended you. If you do desire to go venturing about at night, you can build a torch, which acts as a mobile light source.

Speaking of the end of you, every time you die in Don’t Starve, you lose everything in your inventory. You can respawn, but all the “stuff” you had is gone. All your tools, food, traps, raw materials, everything. All the recipes and blue prints that you’ve unlocked through the Science Machine do carry over, so while you may need to build up a stock of food and tools again, you still have the ability to build all the items that you’ve unlocked. The idea is to survive for as long as you can without dying. The longest we managed to make it is five in-game days.

So now that you know how Don’t Starve‘s gameplay mechanics work, just how is the game? Seeing how long you can survive and what new things you can discover in the world can be quite addicting. Every time you discover something new, you can’t help but wonder what else is out there and just how big the world of wilderness around you is. Since it takes quite some time to unlock and construct all of the items in the game, you’ll always have a certain self-imposed objective in front of you. Whether it’s building something to aid you in your quest for survival or a styling aesthetic item like one of the dozens of in-game clothing items, there’s always something to do. This concept is furthered by the fact that Klei is constantly updating the game, adding new things to the game’s palette. If you want to keep seeing what the world of Don’t Starve has to offer, you’ll have to ensure that you keep coming back for more.

One other thing worth noting about the gameplay of Don’t Starve is that you’re no Rambo. You’re a scientist attempting to live off the land. That means that you’ll have to pick and choose your battles. In our early hours with the game, we’re running around in nothing but our clothes with nothing but an axe to defend ourselves. As you unlock more recipes, you’ll be able to build armor and better weapons, but just remember, survival is the name of the game. You can’t just go killing everything you see or you’ll likely end up right back where you began, starting from scratch. It only takes a few hostile enemies like a trio of spiders, or one of the mysterious tentacles that seems to lurk in swamp land to put an end to your life and set you back to day one.

Not unlike other single-death survival games, Don’t Starve will create memories of crazy and/or hilarious moments for the player. One of our early experiences involved picking berries off a bush, only to discover a turkey hiding in it that immediately fled. In need of food, we of course decided to chase it. The hilarity of seeing the fearful turkey being chased by a man with an axe half way across the continent was just too good to ignore. We never did catch him, though we later learned that you can obtain a trap for catching winged animals. Beware turkey, we’re on a mission at Steam Game Fans to hunt you down!

In another one of our adventures in the world of Don’t Starve, we stumbled across a land bridge not unlike the one that used to connect Alaska to Russia. After following it, we discovered a small island-like land mass inhabited by pig-men walking upright. They’re literally walking pigs. They had built their own little houses with electricity and everything. They greeted our hero by saying “YOU NO PIG!” The funny juxtaposition of introducing yourself as a new species to them has to make you smile. Here, they are the majority and you are the strange intruder. Feeding them berries that we had picked instantly caused them to have bowel movements that we in turn used for manure to create a plot of farm land. The pig-men also have a King, who is four times the size of the rest of his gluttonous people. He is so fat that he cannot move. But the crown rests upon his head and we have a feeling that feeding him the right thing may allow you to befriend the islanders. It should be noted that you can also attack these pig-men, but so far we haven’t dared do so. Who knows whether they will flee or bum-rush you and use your body for fertilizer.

In our short time trying to survive in the wilderness with Don’t Starve, we’ve found a lot to like. The game’s charming art style and musical score are enough to immerse players of any age into the world and drive them to discover what’s out there. The game strikes a great balance of collecting, building, exploration, and discovery that drives the player to try new things and then dive right back in when they fail. The only real question that surrounds Don’t Starve is Klei’s ability to keep the game fresh in the long term. While the game beckons players to keep coming back for more, Klei is going to have to have to continue to introduce drastic and game changing new features and in-game novelties to the title, much in the way Mojang has done with Minecraft. That said, the core of Don’t Starve is strong. You have the ability to get in on the action, experience it, and give input that will help Klei shape the final game. So what are you waiting for? Put on your favorite demon-world of wilderness survival outfit and prepare yourself to attempt to make a living off nature, attempt not to starve to death, and avoid making a bad name for the human race in this strange world.

About Ryan Reynolds

As a life long gamer with experience in a variety of fields , Ryan has written about games on and off through his life. When he was fourteen he started his own gaming site that had him attending expos at the tender age of eighteen. Now, at the age of twenty five, Ryan has been with the Involved Fans Network for two years. He resides in upstate New York, where he also serves as an elected official and works in management. You can follow Ryan on Twitter @RyanReynoldsIII.