|Release date(s)||Microsoft Windows, OS X, Linux
|Genre(s)||Action-adventure, survival horror, sandbox, Roguelike|
Don't Starve is a 2013 action-adventure video game with survival and roguelike elements, developed and published by the indie company Klei Entertainment. The game was initially released via Valve's Steam software for Microsoft Windows, OS X, and Linux on April 23, 2013, with a PlayStation 4 port the following year and further versions for the PlayStation Vita, iOS, and mobile phones under consideration. Downloadable content titled Reign of Giants was released on April 30, 2014, and a multiplayer expansion called Don't Starve Together was announced in May.
The game follows a scientist named Wilson who finds himself in a dark, dreary world and must survive as long as possible. Toward this end, the player must keep Wilson healthy, full, and mentally stable as he avoids a variety of surreal and supernatural enemies that will try to kill and devour him. The game's "Adventure" mode adds depth to the sparse plot and pits Wilson against the game's antagonist, Maxwell.
Don't Starve was Klei's first foray into the survival genre, as Klei tries to experiment with a new genre for each release. Conceived during the height of a game industry trend of dropping players into a world with few instructions and a goal of survival, the game was influenced by Minecraft, which spearheaded this trend, as well as by filmmaker Tim Burton. The game received positive reviews from critics, which commended its original art style, music, and variety of ways for the player to die, although its high level of difficulty and implementation of permanent death were less warmly received. Within the calendar year 2013, it sold over one million copies.
Don't Starve is an action-adventure game with a randomly generated, pseudo-3D open world and elements of survival and roguelike gameplay. Combat is handled by pointing and clicking with the mouse, while other activities are controlled by the keyboard. The goal is to survive as long as possible, with a count of the number of days the player has survived shown onscreen. The game keeps few records of player progress besides the total number of experience points and the playable characters unlocked. Wilson is the main playable character, but the first character, Willow, can be unlocked with 160 experience points—the player receives 20 each in-game day and keeps them after dying—while Wickerbottom, the last, requires the game's limit of 1,280. As is common among roguelikes, death is permanent, barring the use of an item called the "Touch Stone," which is single-use, is difficult to find, and respawns the player in a vulnerable state.
The game relies on a day/night cycle that causes meaningful fluctuations in gameplay style. During the day, the player spends most of their time exploring the large 3D world; gathering food, firewood, and other items; discovering "recipes" to combine available items; and avoiding enemies. With nightfall come lower temperatures, which the player must stay near a fire to be safe from, and more dangerous enemies. Crafting, which uses recipes, allows the player to create weapons like axes and shelters. The player is omnivorous, able to gather and farm plants as well as hunt animals for sustenance; food can spoil, however, so the player cannot keep it for too long- of course, eating spoiled food results in loss of health, sanity, and an increase in hunger. Each in-game day takes about 10 minutes of real time.
Death can occur in a variety of ways. The player has three gauges displayed on the game's heads-up display, which respectively track hunger, health, and mental stability. Hunger and mental stability worsen by default, but they can be replenished with food and mentally stimulating activities, such as sleeping or picking flowers. When hunger and mental stability get too low, they begin to chip away at health, which will eventually result in the player's death. A large variety of creatures can attack; these include giant one-eyed birds, tree monsters, tentacles whose owners are not shown, and even small, weak frogs that will nonetheless try to accost and eat the player. Additionally, at low enough mental health, figments of the character's imagination become corporeal and able to attack the player. Some creatures, such as a tribe of pig-like creatures, begin as neutral to the player, but the player's actions may lead them to be allies or hostile foes.
The game's bulk occurs in Sandbox Mode, but there is a second mode, Adventure, which the player can access by finding a location called "Maxwell's Door." Adventure serves as the game's campaign, and consists of five levels that pit the player against Maxwell, the antagonist of Don't Starve. The player loses all items and recipes upon entering, and can only pick four to keep upon completion of each chapter. Death or completion of all five chapters results in being returned intact to Sandbox Mode.
Wilson, a gentleman scientist, is the protagonist of Don't Starve. While Wilson has no special abilities beyond growth of "a magnificent beard," other playable characters do; a few examples follow. Willow, a firestarter, is immune to fire damage and can light objects on fire when it is dark. A girl named Wendy receives visits from her twin sister Abigail when summoned. A strongman named Wolfgang has higher health and offensive capabilities and takes longer to starve. WX78 is an android who nonetheless needs to eat, sleep, and stay mentally stimulated, but does not become ill from spoiled food.
The game's antagonist is named Maxwell. Maxwell is described as a puppet master who is "dapper" and "frail" in stature. He is part-demon and transforms incrementally as his anger at the player increases over the five chapters of Adventure. He is the final unlockable character, obtained after completion of the story rather than with experience points.
As the game itself opens with Maxwell snidely informing the player of their gaunt appearance and includes little further story, the game's setup is told through its trailer. On a dark and stormy night, Wilson appears to be getting nowhere in a chemistry experiment until he is startled by his radio speaking to him. It reveals that it has noticed his trouble and has "secret knowledge" for him. When he eagerly agrees, a flurry of equations and diagrams encircle him and fill his head with this information. Using white rats, a typewriter, and his own blood, among other tools and materials, Wilson creates a giant machine. The radio commends his work and tells him to pull the machine's switch. He hesitates, but at the radio's insistence, he does it; the machine rattles violently and a pair of ghostly arms whisk him into a different world while an apparition of Maxwell cackles.
As the player wakes up each morning during the Adventure mode, Maxwell appears over them and comments. At first he seems impressed at the player's hardiness; he then becomes irritated and urges the player to turn back. He offers the player a truce but then becomes completely enraged.
At the end of Adventure, the player reaches an island called Maxwell's Island with a hall belonging to Maxwell on it. The player finds Maxwell trapped in a throne encircled by short stone pillars. The player is at first unable to free him, but finds a keyhole, as well as a key nearby. The player sets Maxwell free, but he turns into a skeleton and disintegrates as soon as he stands up. The ghostly arms from the trailer then grab the player and ensnare them in the throne. An epilogue implies that the player will take on a villainous role similar to Maxwell's using newfound powers given by the throne, but will nonetheless be trapped forever.
Conception and design
Don't Starve was developed and published by indie studio Klei Entertainment. The game began development as part of a 48-hour game jam in 2010. The team liked the idea but shelved it until two years later, when they had the time to flesh it out. Full development commenced in 2012, while Klei was nearing the end of the development process of Mark of the Ninja. This was during the heat of an industry trend of creating games in which players are dropped into a world with few instructions and a goal of survival. The torch of this movement was held by the 2011 sandbox game Minecraft. Member Kevin Forbes stated in an interview that Minecraft was one of the team's biggest influences, particularly its exploration elements. However, as the game was conceived as a "weird experiment", the team's main goal was to innovate in terms of gameplay and aesthetics, specifically by adding a layer of emphasis on characterization and themes. Another influence was the 2005 Nintendo DS title Lost in Blue, which contains similar supernatural elements and a day/night cycle.
The game's dark and supernatural yet cartoonish art style was influenced by the work of filmmaker Tim Burton, to which it has been frequently compared, and by writers Edward Gorey and H.P. Lovecraft. Forbes noted the team's ambition of creating something "dark and creepy." After conception of the basic game setup, Forbes penned a backstory influenced by steampunk and horror, and lead creative director Jeff Agala added comic strip-like art elements. To further the game's atmosphere of loneliness and directionlessness, Klei decided firmly against multiplayer gameplay. Klei has received numerous questions about multiplayer, but fans are typically understanding when directed to Klei's thread about why they are not developing it.
Development was marked by a few changes to the game's formula that would be reverted. Most notably, at one point during development, Klei wanted to add quests to the existing open gameplay. Klei shelved this idea when they realized that "having external goals is extremely counter to what is fun about the game." Nevertheless, Klei co-founder Jamie Cheng has emphasized that Klei values the freedom to try different approaches that being tied to a major publisher would not afford them.
Cheng related in an interview that Don't Starve's development taught Klei a considerable amount about the nature of the emergent gameplay that was endemic to its open and random world; Klei tries to experiment with a new genre with each project and prefers not to create sequels to any of its games. These lessons would later be used to balance the mechanics of Klei's upcoming project Invisible, Inc.
Releases and updates
Klei employees argued at length about whether to release Don't Starve as a free-to-play game. Forbes stated that he "wouldn't rule it out as a business model" but that the team was not ready to make such a decision. It was, however, free in the early days of beta testing.
Don't Starve was released in beta form in 2012, a move that Klei decided on to find out "what aspects of the game players are really responding to, and [nip] usability issues in the bud." Klei's Cory Rollins has stated that he finds that most developers' beta periods simply serve as an early release of the game and result in few glitches being fixed, and wanted to make more use of the strategy. Added benefits the team discovered during beta testing were that it forced them to make important decisions about the game's upcoming release well in advance, and that it solidified a player base. In addition, Klei added the ability for food to spoil during this time, inspired by a forum thread about such possibilities. Cheng found Don't Starve to have "ended up a way better game because of the community." It spent a few months in beta testing, and Klei continued to give updates for months after its release.
In June 2013, shortly after the game's main release, a PlayStation 4 version was announced; it would not be released until January of the following year. In a January 2014 interview, Rollins mentioned internal discussions of creating a PlayStation Vita version of Don't Starve, citing massive community interest in playing it on the PlayStation 4 remotely. The company is also considering iOS and other mobile phone adaptations, as well as a potential sequel, but is not prioritizing them.
Don't Starve: Reign of Giants
Don't Starve: Reign of Giants, the game's first paid downloadable content expansion, was announced on February 18, 2014. Three cryptic teasers were released, each named after a season of the year. The first, "Fall", shows a badger-like creature, while "Winter" adds an unlockable arachnid character named Webber and "Spring" a furry leg accompanied by a hatching egg. The expansion was made available as early access at the beginning of April and was released on April 30. It contains new items, characters, and environments.
Don't Starve Together
On May 7, 2014, Klei announced that a free multiplayer expansion, Don't Starve Together, would be coming in the summer of that year. As they had initially decided not to create multiplayer, Klei clarified on their official forums that they originally had not been "confident that it would actually work both in concept and implementation" but had changed their minds in response to popular demand and bringing in new help.
Don't Starve Together is expected to debut both on Steam and as a standalone application. It is planned to support up to four players at a time, who can be either existing friends or strangers and can play in public or private games. The expansion is planned to contain most, if not all, features of the single-player game, but with balances for multiplayer.
Most details are not yet set in stone, but Klei has stated that Don't Starve Together will likely follow in the original game's footsteps by entering public alpha before heading to early access beta. While the expansion will be free for all current owners of Don't Starve, the price of Don't Starve will rise to $19.99 USD with the addition of multiplayer.
The game's art style was critically acclaimed. Summarizing that the "distinct art style and atmosphere set a cool vibe," GameSpot's Nathan Meunier commended the atmosphere and visual design. Marty Sliva of IGN claimed an "immense appreciation for the paper-cutout graphical style and whimsical presentation", going on to praise the threatening qualities bestowed upon mundane objects by the "gothic-inspired look." Game Informer writer Jeff Marchiafava stated that "the cartoony art style makes exploring your massive, randomized world a joy." Writing for the newspaper Toronto Sun, Steve Tilley called the art "whimsical and wonderful" and the presentation in general "captivating." Reviewing the PlayStation 4 version specifically, Jordan Devore of Destructoid said that it looked and played very well on the console, though he did note some pixelation effects when the screen zooms in on the inventory. He also found that the gamepad controls, while less efficient than a keyboard, were similarly enjoyable.
The music was generally well received. Sliva compared it to carnival music and called it "immediately catchy" though lacking in variation. Giancarlo Saldana of GamesRadar called it "eerie [yet] calming" and praised its role in complementing the simultaneously lonesome and dangerous world.
Critics universally acknowledged, but gave a mixed opinions on, the game's high level of difficulty. This sentiment was epitomized by Sliva's comment that "Don't Starve will never, ever hold your hand, and I both love it and hate it for that." For example, he felt some of his deaths were unfairly caused by the game's camera system obscuring needed objects. Meunier stated that "survival doesn't come easy, but there's an undeniable thrill to the challenge," but also placed the high difficulty in his list of the game's cons. Leon Hurley of Official PlayStation Magazine claimed that "learning is half the fun and even the smallest victory makes you feel like you’re winning with a capital FU." Reviewers also felt that players' levels of satisfaction would depend heavily on their levels of commitment to survival.
The lack of a permanent saving mechanic and permanence of death were criticized. Marchiafava, while normally a fan of permadeath in games, found it problematic in Don't Starve because, unlike other games such as The Binding of Isaac and Spelunky, Don't Starve is much longer and so death felt like more of a loss. Meunier noted that the novelty and thrills of each new run wear off somewhat "when you're stuck tackling the same menial tasks over and over again to regain lost ground." Sliva expressed disappointment at being given "nearly no recognition from Don't Starve itself" upon being killed by a frog, and reported being bored for roughly 30 minutes at the overly familiar starts of later playthroughs. Brown thought similarly, also calling the early game in particular "a bit dull." Saldana, however, reasoned that "you at least gain some knowledge of how things work" and would thus make incremental, enjoyable progress.
The variety of unusual, numerous, and frequently placed ways for the player to die were singled out for praise. Focusing on the harm caused by subzero temperatures during winter, Meunier found that "these interesting wrinkles add depth and additional difficulty to the already challenging survival mechanics at play." Jessica Conditt of Joystiq praised the high number of possible causes of death as well as the game's efficient and easy-to-understand display of the player's health, hunger, and mental stability. Saldana noted that the unfamiliarity of some monster designs would help to keep the player wary.
Don't Starve was a finalist for the grand prize and "Excellence in Design" subcategory at the 2014 Independent Games Festival awards ceremony; it also received honorable mentions for "Excellence in Visual Art" and "Excellence in Audio."
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- Klei Entertainment. Don't Starve. "Biography: The Gentleman Scientist / 'I will conquer it all with the power of my MIND!' / *Grows a magnificent beard"
- Klei Entertainment. Don't Starve. "Biography: The Firestarter / 'Things are so much prettier when they burn.' / *Immune to fire damage *Starts fires in the dark"
- Klei Entertainment. Don't Starve. "Biography: The Bereaved / 'Abigail! Come back! I'm not done playing with you! / *Has visitors at night"
- Klei Entertainment. Don't Starve. "Biography: The Strongman / 'I am mighty! No one is mightier!' / *Higher health, bigger stomach *Hits harder"
- Klei Entertainment. Don't Starve. "Biography: The Soulless Automaton / 'EMPATHY MODULE NOT RESPONDING' / *Can eat spoiling food with no penalty"
- Klei Entertainment. Don't Starve. "Biography: The Puppet Master / 'Freedom!' / *Is dapper *Is frail *Brings his own sword"
- Klei Entertainment. Don't Starve. "Maxwell: Say. pal. Let's make a deal. You can stay here. Settle down, even. I'll give you food, gold, pigs, whatever you need. All I want in return is a truce."
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- Klei Entertainment. Don't Starve. "Maxwell: What? You're still here? Impressive, but you should probably stop while you're ahead."
- Klei Entertainment. Don't Starve. "Maxwell: Say, pal. You're really pushing your luck. Turn back now, or I may have to resort to drastic measures."
- Klei Entertainment. Don't Starve. "Maxwell: The throne won't allow that. I've tried."
- Klei Entertainment. Don't Starve. "Player: Looks almost like a keyhole."
- Klei Entertainment. Don't Starve. "Alert: Take pity? The key looks like it will fit. You can free Maxwell, but I doubt his captors will be pleased."
- Klei Entertainment. Don't Starve. "Epilogue: The End. And so the cycle continues. Will [character's name] ever escape? Perhaps [he or she] too will tire of this wretched place, and use [his or her] new powers to tempt the unsuspecting."
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