Procedural generation rewards replayability. Minecraft never ceases to be the experience it advertises because your control over diverse elements remains constant no matter what the world generates for you. Even death is a lesson in surviving the game’s limitations. When the roguelike combines procedural generation with permanent death it implies that the player’s skill will be the currency that carries over across diverse playthroughs — the lessons you learn in death shouldn’t be altered by the changing landscape.
The problem with Don’t Starve is that it makes replay, the economy of learning for a roguelike, a chore. The game’s model, of a higher intensity but on the same spectrum as Harvest Moon and Stardew Valley, actually punishes the player for a normal learning curve.
Here’s what I mean. Anything you already know how to do becomes a chore to do again. The first few days you’ll spend clicking on grasses and twigs and berries, maybe making an animal trap, keeping close watch over your recipe for a campfire, and looking for gold. But you can scarcely perform these tasks any better through repetition, as you might get more adept at the levels in Spelunky or Downwell.
When night falls in Don’t Starve, it’s an accurately disorienting nebula of real darkness, without a sliver of a chance of surviving the onslaught of night beasties without at least a little ember to keep you warm. The first time it happens, it’s a moment of stunning realization that the game has abandoned you in the best possible way, to fend for yourself with only your wits in an adverse and terrifying world. Learning to make a fire and doing so is a great moment. It’s a great moment that you have to tediously pantomime every time you start a new game, because in your previous game you were a little too adventurous and lost all your twigs and grass to a random monster or a dangerous new area. Despite advancing on the learning curve, Don’t Starve makes you repeat a lot of actions in a world that, because of your limited abilities, might as well not even be procedurally generated at all.
The problem is that with permanent death, Don’t Starve limits the learning opportunities to the game’s mechanics and teaches you almost nothing, even indirectly, about its situations. I might chance on a monster that kills me almost instantly, only to be sent back to the beginning of the game with no idea of how I triggered it and not even a promise that I’ll ever encounter it again. If I do, I still won’t know what to do about it.
The best example I can think of to describe the game’s unpolished vision as a roguelike is with an in-game structure called a touch stone. If you touch it, you get an extra life when you die. But all the stuff you had on you remains on the ground where you died, and since the game doesn’t teach you about its processes, going back for it will almost certainly result in the exact same death. You don’t have to go back for it, but otherwise you’d have to re-farm all those twigs and rocks again and at that point, you might as well just start over.
This effect diminishes as you start to build structures, store items in chests, and create a permanent home for yourself in the isometric little death prairie. But once you’ve done that, death is devastating, as you feel the tremendous weight of all the lost resources and wasted time. Contrast this again with Spelunky, where dying almost feels like a gift to play the bite-sized levels again even better than last time.
A series of small levels has always lent itself well to permanent death, which was the only way to die back in the arcade days. Don’t Starve creates an imbalance by teasing variety but punishing a normal learning curve. Dying should be an opportunity to see what threats the world contains, and to try and conjure up a solution to navigate or defeat them. I’m not asking the game to be easier, or even more fair. It’s non-invasive approach to player learning is refreshing and even ingenious. But I feel cheated when I die (sometimes by something as random as a lightning strike) and I have to climb up through the early-game tedium again.
It must sound like I don’t like Don’t Starve but this article has been exclusively about its fatal flaw because of how much I enjoy it and want to be able to play it more. The music, while repetitive, is haunting and jaunty, a contradiction extrapolated by the art style into a Tim Burton-esque rural fantasy full of eyeball monsters, pen scratches, pale faces, and smoke. The crafting rewards smart planning even if traversing back and forth from your base to the unexplored corners of the world just to fetch your supplies can be tedious. I like how palpable death is for Don’t Starve, a game with a title as brilliant as it is simple. Every element of the game forewarns starvation and rewards clever planning. After you starve the first time, food becomes an all-consuming necessity, an integrated and recurring need only encouraged by the threat of permanent death.
In this way, the decisions in the game’s mechanics seem to have been directed by the game’s intended mood more than its gameplay. Don’t Starve is a masterclass in artful imagination, in creating a corollary to a feeling in the actions demanded of the player. I felt warily stalwart playing it, like I wanted to set out into unknown wilds but couldn’t for lack of knowledge and food. With a save system, the synthesis might have been perfect. As it is, death usually feels like a sucker punch, and as you should never do when playing a roguelike, almost always gets me to illicit a groan at having to play this wonderful game, starting with its worst parts, over and over again.
M.C. Myers is a graduate of English Literature and a geek even when it’s in vogue. When he’s not writing about video games he has a semi-regular column on Bright Lights Film called “Watch it Again.” He can be reached at his email: firstname.lastname@example.org