When you first start Don’t Starve — and I hope you do, because it’s the cleverest game I’ve played in ages — you’ll be tempted to treat it like Diablo. Klei Entertainment’s new delight, now out on Steam, bears so many superficial similarities to Blizzard’s murder-death-kill click orgy: It’s a randomly generated outdoor setting filled with monsters and collectibles, viewed from a three-quarters top-down perspective.
And if you do treat Don’t Starve like Diablo — that is, click on the nearest thing to try to make it die — you’ll lose almost immediately (as I did). Either: a) The thing will kill you, b) The thing will easily run away from you, or c) You will manage, with some difficulty, to chase the thing down and kill the thing, and in so doing you will fail to gather the supplies necessary in time to build a fire pit for the night, and be eaten when the sun goes down. (The game, at times, seems to be poking light fun at its behemoth of a cousin: Your first suit of “armor” in the game is not the “Epic Plate of the Dragon” but a grass skirt.)
Like Starseed Pilgrim (which I wrote about earlier this week), Don’t Starve doesn’t tell you how to play it. Unlike Starseed Pilgrim, its object becomes very clear almost instantly: Do whatever it takes to survive.
The way you progress in Don’t Starve is simply by lasting through the night. You’re on a constant timer: Your stomach slowly empties (and doing the things necessary to fill it drains it faster), you slowly lose your mind as you do the things necessary to survive, and the light of the day slowly drains away. The game leaves you just enough time, between chopping wood for your fire and gathering sticks for your rabbit traps, to plot ways to make your survival marginally less hand-to-mouth. About an eighth of the game is spent in total darkness (except for your fire), and you’ll spend these moments thinking very carefully about what you are going to do (what you are going to click on) in the limited daylight.
That’s the brilliance of Don’t Starve: It takes a command that feels in most games meaninglessly repetitive (the single click) and assigns it real structural weight. If you spend too many clicks breaking rocks, you won’t have enough clicks left to gather the food you’ve worked yourself into needing, etc., etc.
In lesser hands, all of this time management and incremental progress might bore. The game’s developers have wisely focused a lot of attention on aesthetics. Don’t Starve takes place in a hand-drawn, fin de siècle world of wormholes and “science machines” and handlebar mustaches. It looks like something Tim Burton might have doodled during European history class in the 11th grade, which is to say, you’ll almost certainly find yourself in the position of being charmed by the monster that just killed you.
So! If the monotonous Diablo 3 bored you, if the faceless and cynical Sim City left you feeling cold: Play this $15 gem.