Monday, 3 March 2014

Morality, Modern Gaming and Don't Starve

With a spare couple of hours, I've gotten back into Don't Starve...and subsequently discovered you have the rightclick-option "Murder" for animals caught alive. This is the kind of artsy-fartsy indie game I can get into...unless that was seriously supposed to make me consider my actions, in which case I really am a monster for laughing.
"Yeah, yeah."
"You've got a command to take me back to my family? Cawsome! I'll just...HEY!"
This is a supposed to be a satire of indie-game pretension, right? A description of the gamestate at any time sounds far too much like a Molydeux tweet - eg. "a 'soulless' robot gathers flowers at the ragged edge of the world, making a tiny crown in a futile effort to preserve its sanity" - for even asides like this to be intended in complete earnesty.
Besides, I can turn them directly into food items by way of the euphemistic "Cook" command, while they're just as alive. Moral dilemma averted. Electing to "Murder" the bird just shows the stock Hanna Barbera whirly-hands animation and deposits its uncooked carcass into your inventory anyway.

"Fine, eat me. If you can live with everyone thinking you're admitting being wrong! Caw haw haw!"
Granted, they have deeper strategic uses alive, but being able to apply those depends on surviving much further into a session than you can with an empty stomach meter. Generally, my only viable options are "Murder" and "Cook (Alive)". How pleasantly grim.
(Also, it can be done! Bunnies will run (awkwardly against the perspective) from both you and fire, so if you only give them the two options, you can hunt them on foot with no bait! Also, I managed to force a Gobbler (big hootin' cartoon turkey) up against the side of the map and pickaxe him to death, but the meat flew uselessly into the water and vaporized. I still count it as a successful effort, though.)

On the actually-attempting-to-play-the-game-right front, my number one cause of death remains tabbing out and forgettting to pause, closely followed by suicidal overconfidence and catlike curiosity (and there's a redundant pair of terms) regarding Tallbirds. HARD-EARNED HINT: Lighting its nest, even if said nest is occupied, will not divert an enraged Tallbird's attention from you.
Precious, precious Tallbird eggs aside, the overall loot system in Don't Starve is sparse, but compelling enough given the hunger and shelter motives and the crafting system. The absence of any real mystery beyond the first dozen or so plays detracts from it though. I'm comparing it directly to Nethack on this point, too, and it's hard for any game to compare favorably to 'Hack in its own field. That's the price a developer pays for getting in on the now-trendy genre years after the fact - the game inevitably has to face comparison to the ur example, which has had years of refinement and playtesting that puts Don't Starve's 'extended beta' to shame. Unlike Nethack or even Toejam and Earl, what you see is generally what you get in terms of resources. The world is plenty mysterious, but in such a way that once you've seen something once, you know what to expect every time. Even with never-before-seen items, at the very least the Science Machine immediately shows what can be crafted from it (and inherently harmful edible items can really only fool the player once.)
Adding item randomization would require significant change to the game's formula - so much it doesn't seem like a reasonable expectation it would be there in the first place - but that's the main thing keeping Don't Starve from becoming the life-eater a roguelike can. There are positives to Don't Starve's kinder approach to the item system, though, and they even make up a good portion of its appeal. For one, you can actually assume your possessions are going to continue to exist moment-to-moment, even unattended (unless you've gone out of your way to do something incredibly foolish, like engaging a pack of Toads or attracting the attention of Krampus). The persistent fort is a core aspect of gameplay, rather than an optional approach for maximizing your haul - and securing those glaringly missing resources for the perfect camp serves to keep me coming back even after yet another adventure is prematurely ended by those goddamn stupid red bees.
They aren't without their uses, of course...
Don't Starve is also a prime example of a major philosophy shift in the last two decades of gaming. Mercy is now the default stance, cruelty (or even mere indifference) the unusual variation. Don't Starve isn't easy by most definitions, but the game gives you a lot. In a very cool feature, the levels of resources and enemies are adjustable from the World menu, but there are core concessions that actually seem to favour the player. First and foremost, there's a detailed and useful world map. This not only shows where you left your stuff, but enemy encampments and environmental features, too. There are even checkpoints, of all things - although you still have to do a corpse run for your possessions.
Most tellingly, you can do one thing you absolutely never should in Nethack, hold an action key to "burn turns" (as much as it can be called such in a real-time game). Rather than inevitably getting killed by an unseen Rothe (sometimes, you get that desperate for MP), holding the Spacebar gathers the nearest resources, with the animation interruptible as always in case an enemy ambles onscreen. On the subject of gathering, it's a small but extremely nice touch that you can still *pick up* and immediately eat food or stoke firewood from your hands when your inventory's full, rather than having to shuffle an empty space for no reason. There's putting all management in the hands of the player, and then there's just giving them busywork.

It's mainly the fort-building that's kept me interested in Don't Starve - at its core, it's still a direct variation on "Isolated room, locked chest, Wizard Lock the door, Elbereth the floor", but there's a considerable amount of depth and enjoyment in equipping and maintaining your meager lodgings. Anyone who was in grade school when such things were still permitted and built stick-forts to defend against imaginary ninjas and mutants will find a familiar experience here - and being able to openly play with fire only improves it.
Pictured: work in progress.
Don't Starve is now included on an embarrassingly short list: modern games I've kept going back to both after a month and after they were no longer the newest entry in my library. Whether that's embarrassing to myself or to  modern gaming is a matter for continued debate.

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