What am I Playing This Week? Finding it’s incredibly hard when the goal is Don’t Starve

I have a weakness for Sandbox games. They originally look so shiny, and pretty, and full of promise. I look at these games and think, “So many possibilities, so many options…but so little direction.” Inevitably, if you give me a sandbox game with no driving force, no real direction of travel, I end up travelling nowhere. Therefore, there are quite a few of these games that make it into my “one and done” pile. Usually they make it more than once, but as soon as I realize there is no easily visible goal, it gets put aside and forgotten. One of the more recent games to suffer this fate, recently on sale, and with an update upcoming is Klei Entertainment’s Don’t Starve.

Don’t Starve follows the standard sandbox-playing archetype, you start with pretty much nothing, and have to harvest, food, materials, and gather supplies from your environment so that you…well, don’t starve, aren’t eaten by the local flora or fauna, and generally improve your life. As you gather more materials you find more plans and blueprints to make more effective weapons and tools, you can plant farms, and work on getting more materials so you can end up in a safer position in the game’s world.

What attracted me to Don’t Starve is it’s very distinctive artistic style. Everything is drawn in washed out black and white or sepia tones, with gothic stylized images that seem inspired by Tim Burton. The various characters look like they were plucked from Poe’s stories, and all of them seem to have little twists and quirks that make them more or less difficult to play, but give you little tweaks on how you play the game. The monsters in the game have a distinctly Cthulu-esque sensibility, and it even has a sanity meter to indicate how your character is slowly going insane by the very wrongness of the world they inhabit. Overall, the art style is very distinctive, and quite charming, and actually almost elevated this game out of the “one and done” bin.

Then…I played it for a while, and I found that the game, even at easier difficulties, was extremely hard to advance past sustenance survival. The recipes for upgrades in equipment and technologies always had rare components that I never found. Since your sanity, health, and hunger/food always got worse, I found myself struggling just to maintain the character…and then, nights started getting longer. When the nights got longer, the horrific creatures from the abyss started getting harder and harder to survive. Light stopped repelling them, and the weapons and armor seemed…less than effective against them. So eventually I just couldn’t find enough resources to heal myself and repair the damage to my little camp, and died to the monsters in the night.

I think I could have tolerated that…but I didn’t find any goal to the game. I understand there is one, something about building a portal, or escaping, or something like that…but damned if I ever found anything in the game that would help me accomplish it. Surviving longer meant unlocking more characters, but even with roguelikes that let you earn things by dying; at least you know what the end goal is for the game.

So, Don’t Starve has a lot of the components I really enjoy in a game, personality, interesting art, and easy to get into gameplay, but it’s also rather abstract, scatter-brained, and non-directional. Except…well, one direction, to the “one and done” pile.

But…well…they’re adding multiplayer. So, this might end up finding its way to the surface once again, if someone wants to help me not starve.

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