Don’t Starve: Life Begins at the End of Your Comfort Zone

Comfort Zone

I passed by this sign walking through town the other day. I liked the message – it was an exhortation to keep pushing yourself and not to go slack the moment things get rough. Taking a rest now and again is okay, even essential, but we should never stay there very long. There’s too much to do, too much to see, too much life to live and things to learn. To truly live is to be challenged and to change – staying where it’s safe and familiar is simply existing.

It’s one of the reasons that games are important. Games are a safe place to learn about the world, its systems, and ourselves. They let us practice at being human, whatever we interpret that to mean. They change us, shape us, hopefully for the better.

But they don’t always. A game can also leave you where you are, free to act on your own impulses, running on autopilot. It’s a comfortable state of mind, and games that indulge it tend to value self-directed play above all else. But should we be celebrating life within your comfort zone? Because without a little prodding, that’s where we tend to stay, content to lay about, wrapped up in who we already are. Too often, we prefer existing to living. And that way lies boredom, stagnation, and dormancy. In order to keep us from that self-inflicted state, a game’s design needs to intervene.

To Each Their Own?

There’s been an awful lot of Don’t Starve in my play time lately. This 2013 title by Klei Entertainment is often described as a survival game, but amid so many other games billed “survival” and theoretically in the same vein, Don’t Starve is one of the few to live up to the name.

The biggest reason is that it’s one of the very few survival games that seems like it’s truly designed. It seems like many survival games are content to simply dump a haphazard cluster of “survival things” into the design, define an arbitrary list of crafting recipes for each one, maybe add some token bad guys, and call it a day. By contrast, Don’t Starve is an intricate, interconnected system with acute pressure on the player to acquire and manage resources efficiently – and thereby survive. Instead of turning you loose in the world to do whatever (indeed in some cases design the game yourself), Don’t Starve firmly directs your open-ended play with urgent and often competing priorities, not the least of which is “don’t starve.”

The components of the game are highly interactive with each other. Most resources are useful in many ways, but time constraints force you to decide which way is most useful to you in the moment. Denizens of the world like pigmen and spiders interact not only with you but with each other. If two sides get into a fight with each other, even if you’re not involved, which side wins carries implications for you that can make or break your plans.

On top of all this, nearly everything in the game is a double-edged sword. Things that are seemingly bad for you frequently carry up-sides you can exploit in the right circumstances. New players are often devastated when they find that the food they’ve been stockpiling rotted away before they could eat it, but it becomes a game-changer when they realize that rotten food can be used to fertilize crops. There’s a number of deterministic risk/reward cycles that threaten with increased danger, but simultaneously promise valuable resources (ask me about spider dens sometime – they’re pretty rad).

In the midst of this elaborate system is an intriguing fulcrum for this hunger game: the crock pot. When you place your valuable food items into it in certain combinations, it turns them into even higher valued food items. But these aren’t simple “upgrades.” The food that comes out of the crock pot often shifts around the benefits the food gives you in terms of health, hunger, and sanity, three competing priorities you must manage together. Inputting ingredients that are weighted toward hunger might give you an output more weighted toward health instead. Depending on how you choose to assemble them, your food can be not only more efficient in the value you get, but also more targeted toward the need you most lack. Creating your first crock pot is a big step forward in that it frees up a lot of time you would otherwise need to spend gathering food. But the stringent stipulations on what you need for each recipe, as well as what type of value you get from that recipe, makes recipe selection a little bit of an art.

If you talk to Don’t Starve players, they will often have varying ideas on what the best crock pot recipe is. Some will tell you that fish sticks are the best with its huge health-restoring component. Others swear by a diet of taffy, whose components practically make themselves, and whose sanity boost is quite convenient. Still others say that dragonpie is king, requiring nothing but a farm-grown fruit and a huge pile of sticks you likely already have.

As for myself, my favorite was honey ham. Building the necessary infrastructure to make it is quite attainable, it’s great for both hunger and health, and it feels quite economical considering you can use the otherwise inedible monster meat in the recipe. So I found it strange when I found out that a good friend of mine – one who’s put four times the number of hours into this game as I have – had never once made honey ham. In fact, when I inquired further, he seemed completely clueless about bees and honey in general. It was a glaring blind spot in his knowledge about the game, and it struck me as uncharacteristic of him, who otherwise knew loads about the components of the game and its more advanced strategy.

But for my part, I’d spent a healthy amount of time with the game too, and had never made his favorite food – dragonpie. In fact I hadn’t done much with farms and crops at all. It had felt like too slow of a start and was moreover unavailable in winter. So after an initial unsuccessful attempt with it very early in my Don’t Starve career, I had written it off entirely in favor of the first thing that worked well: honey ham.

But clearly dragonpie must work and work well if my more experienced friend hails it as the best without a second thought. So if my friend was missing all of the game play surrounding bees, how much of the game was I missing due to my own strategic conservatism? And for that matter, how much of the game was any given player missing if they fell into the same tendencies?

It turns out that a player’s knowledge of the crock pot and its many valid recipes is actually a really good barometer of exactly how much of the system that the player is forced to contend with. Deciding what to make with what you’ve got can be tricky. With so many recipes and so many ways to make them, each valid in their own right, it seems like it’s the mark of a well-balanced game. But if players are only engaging regularly with a small portion of the crock pot’s depth, maybe the game is failing to force the player to fully leverage its versatility. A little bit of repetition is understandable – the nature of the game often has the player dealing with hunger in bulk so as to move on to more important tasks afterward. But if players find themselves able to fall back on the same recipes game after game after game, something is wrong. It means players are stuck on script, able, but not willing, to break out of their comfort zone.

And in a game as unforgiving as Don’t Starve, you can understand why. Beginning players struggle to get enough food to survive, leaving no time to do much else. By the time they’ve finally found a recipe that lets them think about something other than immediate survival, they’re quite unwilling to part with it. As they improve, the early game becomes a race to build the infrastructure required for their favorite food, a race they get exceedingly good at. And since everything they need is available every game, there’s no reason to deviate from their master plan, a plan they decided on before the game even generated the map.

But what about those randomized maps? Indeed, Don’t Starve features procedural map generation to ensure you never play on the same map twice. This is a technique used by many games to try to keep players from memorizing the game, to keep them off-script. Randomized maps are intended to make decisions more situational, and weird edge-cases often crop up that shake up any plans that you make. So why isn’t that working here? Why are players able to stick so closely to their regular habits? Why is everyone still in their comfort zone?

Adventure Awaits

It took a number of plays to settle into my own routine, and every play thereafter was the same: collect food scraps on the way to find the savanna, make camp, set traps for the rabbits while working to domesticate some bees, and use the beefalo herds for campfire fuel and defense from hounds. And it worked – every single game. Even if it took longer than usual to find the savanna, it was only a matter of time before I settled into my rhythm. All the tools I needed were present, ready to be found, every game. There was no need for me to change, so I didn’t.

So as I continued to refine my method, the game became more streamlined – and more boring. Even though each world was randomized, they all felt about the same in the end. So I was pretty close to moving on from the game when I finally attempted Adventure Mode. That’s when everything changed.

Adventure Mode is a special challenge mode for Don’t Starve. While the goal of each game is to escape the island, Adventure Mode asks you to do this five consecutive times. In the process, each successive map throws you a curve ball in how it works. Boy, will they screw with you.

On my first attempt, I became pretty concerned when I couldn’t find any berry bushes, an early-game source of food I relied on to get me to the savanna. I really started to panic when I finally reached the savanna only to find there were no rabbits for me to trap. And as I wracked my brain trying to come up with an alternative plan, frogs started raining from the sky. Their aggressive nature coupled with the way they defend each other when attacked had a way of throwing huge amphibian death-balls at me from all directions.

I was pretty good at the game, or so I thought. But this simple rearrangement of the game rules was so disruptive, my brain was working so hard to adjust, that I had to pause the game and pace around my living room just to give me a chance to catch up. I finally returned to the game with flimsy, half-formed plans only to have the rain start back up and send me more frogs.

I didn’t last too long after that, but as I was preparing for another game, I realized something: all those confounding situations, those moments of “Ummmm, what do I do?” – that’s how the game had felt in its earliest days. The game was new again – in fact, it was even better than new! My play experience in the beginning had been filled with a lot of questions of “What is this thing?” But Adventure Mode was different. This time I knew what all those things were – I just didn’t know what this particular arrangement meant.

Handily defeated, but excited to see more, I dove right back in. This time the game hit me with an immediate and permanent winter. Winter is already not an easy time for players – many sources of food close up for the season, and the harsh cold limits your ability to travel freely. But there’s one more implication to a winter that never ends, one I’d never been forced to consider: each source of sticks and grass could only be collected once ever. These essential resources, normally in renewable abundance, do not regrow in winter. So in order to get two of the most basic building materials, whose bulk usage I had previously taken for granted, I would have to travel further and further afield in a climate the discourages those long forays.

Don't Starve Winter
Not pictured: the many, many sticks I need that don’t exist.

 

All the things I knew about surviving in winter were turned upside down. Given no time to prepare for winter, let alone such a huge shift in its dynamics, there was a harsh pressure on my standard routine. Every single stick that I used was keenly felt. Even torches, the most basic and renewable light source, now carried an oppressive cost, but one I had to pay on those long outings searching for more sticks. Paying sticks to get sticks gave me a sense of getting nowhere. Something had to change, and that something was me.

Each new scenario carried with it implications that locked me out of my natural instincts. Even at the game’s most fundamental level, I could feel the game pulling against my play style. I had to get with the program or get left behind.

The “Play Style” Trap

But conventional wisdom says that’s not okay. Often we hear of players’ inherent “player types” or “play styles.” We hear of the things that drive players to play certain games, even to play them in certain ways. Game makers are hungry for this sort of information – after all, a missed player type is a missed sale. It’s easy to perceive these play styles with a certain immutability – players just are these play styles intrinsically. As such there’s a lot of pressure not only to pander to as many of these play styles as possible, but to allow players to lounge comfortably in their supposed identity. This pressure can feel especially acute for a single-player game where it might feel like there’s no cost for supporting many play styles. After all, if players aren’t competing, you don’t have to worry about competitive balance.

But a play style is by definition the player’s basic instincts and tendencies. It’s the decision set that you rely on first. And if your natural inclinations are all you need to succeed at the game, then chances are that’s all you’ll ever do. Even if the game does support many play styles, you might not ever see that because you’re too comfortable where you are already.

If the game is only fun when you’re doing what comes naturally, it’s not very much of a game. Hopefully it’s fun to do everything in the game, not just what you usually like to do. If nothing else, just doing the same thing over and over again gets boring. The game needs to break that cycle and push you toward the rest of the system, not just the parts that are intuitive to you. Don’t Starve starts out as a game that makes demands of you that you learn what it takes to survive. If that learning process is fun (and it is), then it seems obvious that prolonging that learning process could only be a good thing.

A game ought to push players to eventually develop a more complete understanding of the system and all its delicious nuances. In that way, a single-player game’s lack of competitive play can actually be a liability since a designer can’t rely on competitors to target weak spots in players’ knowledge and judgment. Instead, the designer of the solo game must seek out other ways.

That’s precisely what Adventure Mode was doing for me. By closing off all my regular paths through the game’s quandaries, I was forced to map out new ones. The reason I hadn’t explored the rest of the system was because up until that point I’d never been in a situation that required me to do so. Adventure Mode changed that by presenting brand new problems that I could only solve by thinking outside my box. And in the end, that’s exactly what games are supposed to be about: players should change and grow in some way as they come out the other side, emerging from the game as a different person.

I have a much better understanding of the crock pot now. Each new scenario had a way of showing me the use case of individual recipes, both in terms of the disparate values of the food and in the practical logistics of acquiring the ingredients. I learned to appreciate the all-taffy diet when I played on a map full of islands joined only by wormholes, two-way portals that drain sanity every time you use them. Taffy’s sanity-restoring component was just the thing I needed to travel more freely. That particular map also showed me another food interaction. Since I began and built my infrastructure in a swamp, I could often pick up the free fish left behind by the constant in-fighting of the swamp creatures. These fish easily became fish sticks whose massive healing component was a perfect complement to taffy, which hurts you slightly when you eat it.

And you know what? I finally did make dragonpie. As it turns out, the frog-rain map from my first outing is excellent for farming with its near-constant rain. As soon as I built a few farm plots, living off the crops instead of berry bushes was easier than I had ever imagined. And before I knew it, I had my first dragonfruit to propagate. The frog-rain map also features a very short cycle of the seasons, so it was easy to stockpile enough crops during summer for a winter that only lasted a few days anyway. Everything came together to teach me the circumstances where farms really shine.

And Don’t Starve Taketh Away

It’s now become obvious that randomizing Don’t Starve maps doesn’t disrupt players nearly as much as altering resource availability does. Procedural generation may spit out a different map each time you play, but those maps are ultimately not different enough. The standard game never truly takes away your tools and resources – it only rearranges where they are. They’re always there for the taking when – not if – you find them, and so that randomization fails to shake up the gameplay. In order for the game to truly require you to engage with its entire experience, it must, ironically, take parts of the game away from you, and force you to make due with whatever is left.

There are other ways the game takes your habits away. Don’t Starve also features unlockable characters, each of which has some pretty game-changing perks and quirks. A great example is Wigfrid, who excels at fighting creatures, but may only ever eat meat. The implications are complex and far-reaching. None of the readily-accessible foods players can casually forage in the early game are meats. Several popular and effective crock pot recipes such as dragonpie and taffy are forever off the menu. It’s positively game-warping, and your comfort zone won’t escape unscathed.

But that’s not how most people see or engage with the different characters. Instead they see them as embodiments of play styles. Each one is a dichotomy of pluses and minuses, each of which lends itself to one personality or another. And after a brief period of sampling each one, it’s easy to fall into using your favorite one – the one that supports your play style. Even simpler, many opt for using exclusively Wilson, the default character, which pushes no play style on you at all.

I was no exception – my gut instincts had me playing only characters that complemented the player. When I played Don’t Starve Together with my mate, I had more practice with the precision required to fight effectively, so I played as the combative Wigfrid. My mate played Wendy, a character quite ill-suited for direct combat, but has a ghostly companion that fights for her. It seemed perfect. Since I expected to be doing most of the fighting, I played a character to help me do it, and my mate could still contribute with her ghost friend without worrying about twitchy fingerings.

But after some reflection, I realized I had it completely backwards. Both of us were playing the game the easiest way we knew how, squarely in our comfort zones. That’s when I flipped our roles. I pushed Wigfrid on my mate to force her to learn to fight. At the same time, I pushed Wendy on myself to make sure I didn’t do it for her. By reversing our roles, I pushed us into unfamiliar territory and new lines of thinking. Suddenly I had to rely on her for the foraging expeditions while I tended and built the base at home. When I did try to step outside that role and fight things, I was severely hobbled. My usual solutions proved untenable, and I had to make new discoveries, just as my mate was doing in her explorations. And we both had a lot of fun doing it.

Learning the Hard Way

In 2015 Jamie Cheng, founder of Klei Entertainment, spoke with Soren Johnson on the Designer Notes podcast. It was keenly refreshing to hear him talk about how Don’t Starve is just inherently fun to play and needs no extrinsic motivator to justify the experience to the player. But then he said this:

“Don’t Starve has a problem: the first half-hour isn’t different enough from time to time [from game to game]. So you’re not learning. You’re not having interesting decisions. You’re going through the motions, so that part is probably the weakest part of the game – the first half-hour.”

How interesting: one of the designers is, on some level, aware of this problem. I think he underestimates it. The play-by-rote section of the game probably starts at a half-hour, to be fair. But without a solid push into all those mind-bending scenarios recorded above, it gradually increases to larger and longer stretches until it’s the whole game that proceeds on the rails of the player’s comfort zone. It might look like a normal case of players settling into optimal play as they get better. But in this case, those players are leaving significant aspects of the game’s depth utterly unexplored.

Don’t Starve is a game rich with discoveries, complex interactions, and surprising connections. It’s not obvious just how cohesive the system is at first glance, and that fact makes it all the more special. It’s a system clearly assembled with care, and every new discovery is a thrill. The ability to cut through a complicated situation with just the right solution is empowering.

But players don’t care about any of that, not in the heat of the moment. What the player cares about is success, and once they start succeeding, it can be hard for them to break out of whatever got them there. It’s not enough that a game have depth enough to chew on – players need to be able to find that depth. A game needs to serve as a tour guide for its possibility space. It needs to flush the player out of one small corner and out into the rest of it.

Raph Koster, in his 2004 book A Theory of Fun for Game Design, builds upon the idea that the fun of games stems from learning, and eventually concludes:

“The definition of a good game is therefore ‘one that teaches everything it has to offer before the player stops playing.’”

In that way, it was never about making games hard for the sake of hard. It’s about using that difficulty for a purpose. It’s about showing the player the full extent of its interactions, all the while pretending to be their adversary. It’s about helping the player to grow and change as a person, and to give their brain a bit of exercise. And players can’t grow when they trap themselves in their comfort zone.

So break them out. Harry them. Take their stuff away. Surround them. Make them rethink everything they know. It may seem risky to take away the parts of the game they engage with the most and seem to enjoy. But when you do, when you force them into that uncomfortable, humbling place where they have no choice but to mentally adjust to a new reality, you also help them discover greater truths about your game and themselves. You develop their ability to devise ways to do more with less. And when you do that, you add to them as human beings. After all, as comedian John Brent once said:

“It’s very important to work on your brains. Smash your brains! Y’know, crack ‘em! Yeah? That’s when it can start happening for you.”

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