Stayin' Alive, Stayin' Alive - The Horrifying Nihilism of Don't Starve
The other day, a friend asked me to explain what exactly Don't Starve is to him. "Well," I said uncertainly, "it's a roguelike. You play a character in a strange little world, and there's crafting, and a tech tree, and monsters and things. It's a bit like Minecraft, I suppose."
"But what's the point?"
What indeed? After a long, thoughtful pause, I said "To not starve."
Don't Starve is described by its creators, Klei Entertainment, as "an uncompromising wilderness survival game full of science and magic." Which, admittedly, doesn't say much more than what I outlined to my friend. Really though, as games go, this one is both deceptively simple and surprisingly complex. Simple, insofar as the objective is the title: Don't Starve. Complex, insofar as your character is plopped into an environment that they know nothing about and must learn to adapt to if they are to continue not starving.
In terms of instruction, in the single-player Sandbox mode (yes, there is a "campaign" of sorts; one which you will horribly fail at if you have not familiarized yourself with the game through multiple Sandbox games) your character is visited by a strange spectre of a man who calls himself Maxwell (though again, this information is only revealed through completion of the campaign mode). Maxwell says to the player "Hey pal, you don't look so good. You'd better find something to eat before night comes!"
And poof, he's gone. From there, you have freedom of movement to explore the island you now find yourself on. Your mouse is your guide, and hovering over objects tells you what action you will perform when you click on them. You can see trees. You can examine the trees. You can see saplings. You can pick the saplings. You find flint. You can pick up the flint. What was that dinging noise? Oh, a button on the left sidebar has become illuminated! I can make the flint and the sapling twigs into a crude axe. Hmm, that warning about the darkness coming seemed important. Maybe I'll chop down some trees...
And so it goes. Common sense will dictate a lot of where you go from there, but common sense is apt to go right out the door when you start to enter the Lovecraftian nightmare that seems to haunt the island at every turn. Yep, turns out this game, like so many others, implements a sanity meter, and it's not just for show. This island has problems, and the giant spiders are just the beginning.
If I were to look at this as a normal video game, I'd call the next step you take "progress" but that would imply a goal beyond that of not dying. In truth, the only goals in this game besides basic survival are those that you set for yourself. As such, only those players who choose to do so will discover a plugged sinkhole, and descend first to the Caves, and then to the Ancient Ruins.
I had mentioned the sanity meter before. A further word on this before I explain the ruins is necessary.
Above and below ground, as your sanity steadily decreases, bad things will happen. Sometimes they're harmless: weird noises, blurry vision, and of course the inevitable nightmare visions of otherworldly beasts. However, at a certain breaking point...the visions become all-too-solid.
In the Ruins, no matter your sanity, at certain hours, when the statues weep blood and the runes glow bright red...the nightmare monsters are omnipresent.
Why, oh why, would you ever choose to come down here? Well, aside from housing the latest rejects from the Amnesia universe, the Ruins is also where you can discover the rarest and most valuable crafting items in the game. With which you can build...!...more stuff that will keep you alive just a little longer in the overworld.
It's somewhere around this point that you'll realize you're trapped in a lesson on existentialism, or maybe nihilism, depending on how you interpret Don't Starve. There certainly is merit in either argument. You either make your own fun in Don't Starve, and have a great time building absurd things and killing monsters and nomming down on delicious food, or you become numb to the experience, watching your character bounce about the environment like a wee little puppet on a string (there is no way this animation cycle was unintentional), and you realize that everything you are doing is meaningless and your last act in this universe will be to die spectacularly as your equally meaningless possessions explode out of you like nihilism confetti.
I think this is the real horror of Don't Starve. Forget that exploration is rewarded all too often with hellbeasts, the true nightmare is coming to terms with a shallow existence. Some people may take pleasure in the magical trinkets that can be uncovered, and some may simply stare at it and go "that's it?"
So what if existence were to boil down to animal instinct? What if the perfect nihilist was plopped down into a solitary existence with no goals, no religion, no friends, no family? What would they be left with?
Two words: Don't Starve.