Stumbling onto an icy planet, I huddled near a fire trying not to freeze to death, briefly venturing into the wilds to gather what meat and animal hides I could. Inevitably, the cold would begin to overwhelm me, and I’d be forced to fumble my way back to camp, letting my bonfire slowly push back the onslaught of hypothermia. Before long I crafted coats suitable for weathering the endless winter, and explored the land only to stumble upon a castle with a pair of robots in plate armor guarding the drawbridge.
Eager for civilization, I approached… and they told me to back off, and leave at once. The only bastion of warmth and decency on this frozen hellhole, and they rejected me. So, naturally, I stabbed one, stole his crossbow, and marched through the halls of the massive, randomly-generated castle filling everything that moved with flaming crossbow bolts. When at last the dust settled, and every being in the castle, hostile or innocent, was six feet under… I picked up the dark grey crown, fallen from the head of the robot king I’d murdered, and rested my weary form in his throne. My throne.
These are the moments that all open world survival games aim for- emergent stories springing up from a player’s natural reaction to the world around them, and the way it responds to what they choose. With no dialogue trees, cutscenes, or scripted sequences, it can tell a better story than any game out there… because it’s your story. It’s intimate, personal, and it is told entirely through systems and gameplay. Starbound nails this better than any other game, and it’s because of a little secret- it’s not all randomly generated.
Well, at least it’s not as randomly generated. None of these games are fully random, of course- they are premade pieces assembled randomly. The individual chunks themselves were made by the developers, and then coded to only combine under certain situations. Starbound has dozens of dungeons and little setpieces that it can pull from- the Glitch (robot) castle I encountered to a long-abandoned mine full of broken machinery, a temple full of crazed, knife-wielding cultists, an airship packed with gun-toting mercenaries, or more. They’re presented without comment or explanation despite the obvious amount of time and effort that went into making them, and the player is free to draw their own assumptions and explanations… and such is the nature of the human mind that whatever they think of will satisfy them more than anything invented by the creator would.
While this leads to powerful stories and personal investment, it suddenly becomes difficult to establish an overarching narrative. Any attempt at authoring a specific character or plot is almost certain to contradict the stories the player has written for themselves, and so the story must be kept extremely vague. The current state of Starbound’s story and world is quite barebones, and the team plans to expand on it- how is not entirely clear. Hopefully, they continue to keep the weaknesses and limitations of their genre in mind.
It can, however, be done… and Don’t Starve has managed to do it. This is not the first time I’ve raved about Don’t Starve- my affection is well documented, even here on this site. It plays well, it’s beautiful to look at, and it’s deep. The real source of its magic, though, is in its tone. All the small elements, from the gameplay to the presentation, work together to form a magnificent atmosphere. Even the title sets the stage for exactly what to expect. The implications of commanding you not to starve are obvious: unlike most games, food is not something you will be able to take for granted. At most, titles like Minecraft and even Starbound make hunger a minor hassle- something to managed every now and then so you can get back to more important things. The meter pops up when it’s relevant, and then fades away so that you don’t waste time worrying about it.
You are always worried about hunger in Don’t Starve. Your avatar has the troubling habit of wanting food every day to stay upright and breathing. Food may seem plentiful at first, but like any hunter/gatherer, the bountiful wilderness around you will slowly become depleted by your struggle for survival. You will find yourself having to travel further and further to get enough food. But as much as hunger weighs on your mind, it is the least of your worries. The monsters that inhabit the island are more than capable of damaging your health and sanity in equal measure. They may not even need to, though- the experimentation and tinkering with gadgets (and eventually magic) necessary to defend yourself from the harsh world often proves as deadly as any external threat.
All the while your character offers running commentary on your discoveries and obstacles. There’s no voicework, but any time your character speaks, a noise occurs in the timbre and rhythm of their speech. Each of the playable characters is represented by a different musical instrument- Wilson speaks in the muted bleats of a trumpet, Wendy the light airy tones of the flute, and Woodie voices in deep cello chords. The art is a rough sketch style evocative of Tim Burton’s works, the creature designs feel ripped straight from some grim fairy tale, and the whole package creates a tone and atmosphere of faint whimsy almost drowned out by the air of menace. All the elements of the presentation are in harmony with the despair manifested in the game’s mechanics. For most games, this would be more than enough in the way of story.
What most players don’t ever realize, though, is that there is actually a plot to Don’t Starve- an arc, beginning middle end. The island does have a purpose, you are there for a reason, and there is a way to progress. However, it requires such an investment of time and knowledge to even discover the beginnings of the story that most players never find it. The stories that make the genre so dear are still there- the near escapes, the bizarre discoveries, the wild adventures. By burying the plot, Don’t Starve ensures that by the time you’ve found it, the oppressive atmosphere has won the player over, and both gamer and game are on the same page. You’ve gotten the small, immersive experiences out of the way, and you’re ready for the grand story it has to offer.
When I was younger, short on money and shorter on wisdom, I did a lot of competitive game comparison. Which is worth my dime- Need for Speed or Burnout? Medal of Honor or Call of Duty? Command and Conquer or Starcraft? I wasn’t going to get both, so I needed the “best” of any type of game, and then I would have no need for the others. I wouldn’t even miss them. Of course, for a kid with a limited budget it wasn’t the worst strategy in the world. A little simplistic, dismissive of games I would realize later in life were truly remarkable… but I got by.
As an adult, however, my interests have shifted. Playing the “best” game in a field is all well and good, but when time is a more precious resource than money, you begin to value different things in what you play. Now having memorable, unique experiences is the greatest virtue in a game to me. To that end, Don’t Starve and Starbound sharing the same genre doesn’t matter in the slightest. The experiences they offer, the strengths and the structure, the highs and lows, are so different that I couldn’t possibly pick one over the other. They’re both fantastic works with their own identities, and among the best titles on Steam. Ben recently took a look at Darkout, and found it wanting compared to Starbound. I don’t doubt that to be true. But perhaps Darkout’s goal shouldn’t be to become more like Starbound; it should develop its own identity within the genre, unique amongst its kin, so that it can truly stand on its own. There’s as much that separates the genre as unites it, and that’s a truly wonderful thing.