Dying as a Feature: Don't Starve and Impermanence (and Beefalo)

These are the ways I remember dying in Call of Duty: Black Ops: shot in the head by somebody; shot somewhere else by somebody; injured by grenades; fell off something; many variations on these themes.

These are all the ways I can remember dying in Don't Starve:

  • Wilson went insane from lack of sleep and repetition, losing a battle with black-blob demons that stalked him more closely each night.
  • Wendy survived 18 days, built a formidable and well-stocked base camp, then inadvertently lit a prarie on fire and was stampeded by angry Beefalos.
  • Wolfgang's hubris at having acquired so much gold, cut stone, and weapons meant he forgot to gather cut grass and wood. He couldn't build a fire or torch, and night creatures got him.
  • Wilson died of starvation. His last move in life was setting a trap next to a rabbit hole, lunging to herd the rabbit into the trap, then watching it run into a different hole. Max picked up the trap, it broke, and he collapsed.

Dying is a big part of Don't Starve. Dying is the most intriguing feature of Don't Starve. There are games where you die more often, where you die on more random occasions, and games where dying sets you back just as far. But as the name suggests: Don't Starve is not about winning so much as staying ahead of broad, creeping death. Which is kind of how life works, too.

Dying as a Feature: Don't Starve and Impermanence (and Beefalo)

Before we get into the heavy stuff, some words on how you actually play Don't Starve (currently $15 on Steam for Windows, Mac, Linux, and SteamOS). It's a cold open: you wake up in some field or forest, with a mysterious, dapper fellow telling you to prepare for nightfall. The world looks like all the plants, creatures, and objects were drawn on little bits of paper by art students doing a dissertation on Tim Burton's Frankenweenie. Those bits of paper are then stuck to a landscape and features that are procedurally generated; that is, they are random, but tweaked to be reasonably balanced, stocked, and somewhat fair to the player.

As Wilson (or, later on, one of the alternate characters), you mostly click on things (unless you're playing on PlayStation 4, which is a weird choice, but you'll get the idea here). You click on grass or flowers or berries to grab them. You click on a sidebar to build things with your meager findings. You click on trees or creatures to chop them when you're carrying an axe, you click to plant seeds in a little farm plot when you're carrying seeds, or you click in a bird trap to set those seeds as bait. You click to run away from things, to fight, to build out your camp.

I heartily recommend the use of a good mouse and pad over a trackpad. All of the game's technical weaknesses reside in whether you can click on the exact thing you need to click on, and whether the game should or should not stack things in the way of your clicks. It works fine most of the time.

Dying as a Feature: Don't Starve and Impermanence (and Beefalo)

On an immediate level, you are trying to keep your health, your hunger, and your sanity at decent levels. Once you live through a night or two, you will get ambitious, and you will want to build lasting things. Things like a fire pit, a "science machine," and a box in which to keep your excess stuff. Oh, and some farming beds, so food is occasionally right there when you need it. Maybe plant some trees, too, for firewood. Some traps would be smart, as would somewhere to actually sleep next to the well-fed fire.

Play this game just an hour or two, and you soon grasp two things like never before: Maslow's hierarchy of needs (minus the sex part), and why your home is so stuffed with objects that might be useful someday.

And then you die.

You die because you forgot to make a flower headdress or sleep and then nightmare creatures ooze out of the screen edges to get you. You die because you get so obsessed with gathering silk from angry spiders to make bird traps and a bug net and a sleeping tent that you neglect your farms and traps and you starve in the middle of the pitch-black night. You die because you encounter a new creature, one you assume you can defeat with your spear or blow darts, and then you realize, as the WeeTusk gets the last inch of its horns through your neck, that you are a sad little human with short, sallow limbs and lots of trinkets and nobody is going to look after your berry bushes when you're gone.

Dying as a Feature: Don't Starve and Impermanence (and Beefalo)

When you die in Don't Starve, it is quite permanent. The game saves progress every night, so that you can exit the game and come back, but dying erases your last night's save. There is an uncommon temple-like structure you can use to save a state of yourself, but you come back diminished and missing things. Mostly you just come back to lying in that field, the foppish guy telling you that night is coming soon, and rushing to get together wood for the night's fire.

When you get mad at Don't Starve, right after your third perma-death, you might feel like the game is artificially raising the stakes. "Why can't I just go back to the night before," you wonder, "so I can avoid awakening that Treeguard? Why are they denying me a useful feature?"

But I say that a lifetime of playing adventure games as a third-person omniscient figure has given you and me a strange sense of a "challenge." There are few if any puzzles in Don't Starve. There is no level-grinding, no ability to buy things with real-world money to ease the grind. Gathering the stuff to build an ice wand and take on a batch of underground creatures, knowing you can re-load to the moment before you enter the cave, is one thing. Walking into that cave, knowing that failure means losing the wand, the stuff that made it, and your 26-day streak of staying alive, is something else.

It works the other way, too: your triumphs are big, multi-day, against-all-odds victories. Whatever stability you can make is yours to savor in moments between crises. You had no choice of where you started, but you made the most of it, and you have learned to make smarter decisions. It feels great while it lasts. Kind of like ... well, you get the idea.

Dying as a Feature: Don't Starve and Impermanence (and Beefalo)

More than a month after starting Don't Starve, I am exactly where you are: about to start a new game and make the first night's fire. There is an "Adventure Mode" that brings the loose story behind the game forward through five levels; I am nowhere near ready to experience that kind of loss yet. The "main" game's challenge of making it one more night, or stretching yourself to build something slightly more complicated, is quite enough.

It's a big thing, staying alive, and Don't Starve's actual deaths press some meaning into the challenge. Getting something done in this game gives you far more than experience points.


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