Don't Starve is about telling stories. I mean, it's about loads of stuff, and the great majority of it will kill you, but really it's all about telling stories.
Stories like how I befriended a pigman by giving him meat, and the guilt I felt when he was murdered by a pack of spiders having followed me into the forest. Or, how I was reincarnated on a stone altar having been stung to death by a nest of bees while cramming their honey into my mouth. Or, the time I was chased around my campfire for an entire night by three spiders, unable to venture out into the darkness beyond and forced to Benny Hill for my life until the sun came up.
Forced Benny Hill-ing becomes a thing because, on top of everything else that will kill you in Don't Starve, like the spiders and the bees and the lack of eating anything, there's also the dark. Or rather, the unseen things in the dark which find you and consume you. To play Don't Starve is to manage a set of basic needs on a clock; to service hygiene, hunger and mental health on pain of death, and to keep a torch burning against the night on pain of even more death.
The practical upshot of this is that you need to gather things constantly. Or, to start at the beginning, the upshot is you'll die almost immediately and then realise you need to be gathering things constantly. Items like grass and flint to make an axe, which you can then use to cut down trees, so that you can combine the grass with chopped wood to make a life-preserving fire. You can also use the axe to kill a butterfly and eat its wings, but that's another story. For now, the important thing is that the world demands you provide for yourself, and there's little time to spare.
Once you're happy with the fire (and after all it is warming and preventing your death from an unknown terror), the chances are you'll realise you're starving to death because, for all its good points, you can't really eat fire, at least not without an appreciative crowd.
You will need to look for food, and you will start with the basics. Berries. Seeds. Carrots. In another of my stories, I chased a rabbit for almost an entire day and punched it to death in the name of progress, but it yielded little in the way of nourishment, partly because it was very small, and partly because I hadn't thought of cooking things yet.
This is the next thing you're likely to do - retread the first monumental steps of human progress by realising that making things hot before you bite them makes them taste better and, crucially, is also better for you. In the forgotten mists of pre-history, this was gauged by people dying less frequently, but here you have the advantage of actual gauges, situated in the top right corner of the screen, which measure your burgeoning starvation, vital signs and sanity, as well as a dial tracking the course of each day leading up to that lethal sliver of black.
And here, or somewhere around here, is where Don't Starve is revealed to be excellent - at the moment you find yourself not only gathering things and putting them to urgent, basic use, but combining them with other things for more sophisticated effect.
For instance, meat plus pigman, as I discovered, leads to a loyal, stupid friend and a brave end. Actually it's not quite this moment, but the one directly after, when your first few successful experimental combinations lead you to cast an eye over your surroundings looking for hidden potential and advantage, if only because the game has so often anticipated these ideas and obliges with satisfying outcomes - like, for instance, placing carrots in a trap to lure a rabbit to its doom, instead of punching it until it becomes food.
"Don't Starve is about taking fantastic leaps into the unknown."
Stripping all this right down to essentials, you could say that Don't Starve is a foraging, crafting surviving game that, like Terraria and Starbound, takes obvious inspiration from Minecraft, or at least owes its prominence to Minecraft's success. That's true, although it's not meant to trivialise its own achievements - it's more a sign that Minecraft's vast size has redrawn the lines of the genre and pulled other games into its orbit. Besides, Don't Starve's tilted top-down 2D perspective sets it apart mechanically, and its scratched-ink art and Victorian trappings give it a unique style.
Actually, they give it something more important, too. They evoke a nineteenth century sense of adventure that complements all your exploration and experimentation wonderfully, conjuring the last time the world housed great, unfathomable mysteries before they were stamped out by the rush of civilisation and instant communication.
In this way, with its permanent deaths and education by mortality, Don't Starve has more in common with Spelunky than Minecraft - both stern disciplinarians with a firm belief in capital punishment, although here instead of a physical explorer, our character is a gentleman scientist frantically pursuing some chemical advancement before his sudden transportation to the world of spiders and dark.
Don't Starve isn't just about staying alive, it's about taming the uncivilised through trial and error and taking fantastic leaps into the unknown, whether that's jumping into a wormhole (an actual worm, with a ring of teeth) without knowing what's on the other side, exploring dank underground caves by torchlight, or eating everything you lay eyes on in the name of science.
And that's what makes it such a fine conduit for storytelling. The lack of respawns give weight to each life; every attempt to apply a stiff sense of Britishness to the wild is meaningful, not just because you have to start again from day one should you die, but because you'll never encounter that particular wild again, just randomly generated likenesses. Quite apart from a game about managing resources, about taking risks, about strategising and surviving, Don't Starve is a platform for endless surprise and adventure that sparks wonder at everything you discover - and have yet to learn - about its world.
Like bottled Jules Verne - a charming, funny and stern trial-and-error adventure that slowly unfolds into something special
- Permadeath leads to brilliant drama
- Deep, mysterious world
- Hours of discovery
- Co-op would've been magical