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Impressions: Oxygen Not Included

Oxygen Not Included (ONI) is a base-building and resource management game currently in Early Access, in the vein Dwarf Fortress and RimWorld. At least, that is what people tell me, as I have not played either one of those. What I have played is Craft the World (pt1, pt2), and ONI is basically that, minus the dwarves and goblins.

ONI_Base1

My first base. Doomed to failure.

The premise of ONI is actually kind of compelling. After picking three Duplicants from a roster of randomly generated ones, they appear in the middle of an asteroid. The ostensible goal is to survive as long as possible using what resources you have available. Instead of controlling them directly, you the player can generate and prioritize tasks like digging out certain squares, constructing machines, etc, and your Duplicants will work to make that happen. Contrary to the title, some basic oxygen is included in the form of oxygen-generating rocks, but it is not nearly enough to last long-term.

Indeed, oxygen-management is indicative of what you will be working on over the arc of the entire game. In the beginning, you will create machines that convert algae (mined from special squares) into oxygen to supply your base. However, your Duplicants exhale CO2, and that will gradually accumulate in the lower reaches of your base (science!). So, eventually, you are going to need to either research technology to convert that CO2 into some other form, or at least pipe it elsewhere. Meanwhile, you also have to grow food, find water, and research some method of disposing of all the poop (or polluted dirt, if you prefer) your Duplicants generate. Have I mentioned there are germs and stress to worry about too? And the fact that you are in the middle of an asteroid, so the whole “pump the CO2 elsewhere” is really just delaying the problem for another day?

ONI_Gases

Gas management is much better in my current base.

As of right now, I do not believe there is a story or “campaign mode” for ONI, and I do not know if there is any planned either. The goal is to survive as long as possible, and there are some very optimized base configurations out there to ensure that is the case. However… I’m not sure that is enough for me, game-wise. Klei’s other popular game, Don’t Starve, also features an implicit goal of surviving as long as possible against escalating threats. The end-state of death there though, usually comes from violence or mistakes rather than slowly running out of finite resources. I felt much more agency in Don’t Starve, in other words, even if the outcome was very similar.

What I will say is that Oxygen Not Included grabbed my attention very early with a compelling premise, and makes me wish there were more Terraria/Starbound/etc survival games out there that I haven’t already played . Hmm… maybe it’s time for RimWorld then…

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This Peeve of Mine: Blind Choices

It is amazing how many games you can work through when you aren’t playing an MMO. For example, I cleared through Metro: Last Light, StarCraft 2, Ori and the Blind Forest, The Swapper, Wolfenstein: the New Order, and am currently plowing through This War of Mine. All in the last two weeks. Granted, many of those all had completion times below ten hours, so perhaps that isn’t too surprising, but nevermind.

While I am not entirely done with This War of Mine yet, I did want to talk about it a bit. Specifically, about how the game has one of my least favorite “features”: blind choices. Or maybe “blind choices” is not entirely the correct term, but rather (unintentional?) obfuscation.

I first complained about blind choices nearly four year ago:

Perhaps I am simply too far down the metagame hole at this point, but how can anyone consider a choice with unknown consequences as meaningful? I mean, fine, all decisions and choices we make technically have unforeseen consequences. But these game designers are literally giving you nonsense to choose between on top of said unforeseen consequences. I don’t consider the choice between door #1 and door #2 to be meaningful at all – I may as well flip a coin or roll a die for as much thinking as it requires.

The game I was referring to at the time was the original Witcher, when the game asked me which quest reward I wanted to choose. While the game didn’t hide the the rewards themselves, the relative utility of each choice was very much in question. A book about vampires, your own hut, or the Wreath of immortelles? I chose the latter because italics, and it allowed me to easily bypass a long, involved quest.

Despite having chose the one with the most overall utility, I did not feel particularly clever because the choice itself had no real meaning. Do we praise the stopped clock for being right twice a day? Avoiding a designer trap only highlights the fact that the designers included a designer trap in their game in the first place, which automatically lowers my view of the overall design. It’s a cheap gimmick – one that is overcome only with knowledge that a player obtains after the choice is made. “Giving players the choice to fail” really just means the designers were unable to give players two or more good (or bad) options to choose between.

This concept get a bit murky when it comes to the roguelike genre though. Many roguelikes specifically include things like colored potions that have randomized effects on each playthrough. Sometimes you can minimize the mayhem such potions can cause, by being at full health and in a safe place before sampling the rainbow of colors you have collected. Such testing technically involves risk assessment and valuing the odds, which are pretty high-brow player skills. I was fine with The Bind of Isaac’s random pill effects, for example, largely because everything else about that game was so random it almost didn’t matter. When you could find out early which pills did what though? It sets you way ahead of the curve.

This War of Mine is more or less a roguelike. While the loot you can scavenge is random, it is also random which “scenario” you might encounter when going to a new location. This is generally fine. Roguelikes need randomness to maintain replayability in what otherwise would be short playthroughs. What I found less fine was when I realized that you didn’t need a lockpick to open locked doors, you simply needed a crowbar. That “makes sense” in a sort of logical way, but not always in a game logic way, especially not in a game that also features vegetables that grow to maturity in four days under a heat lamp.

Should the crowbar’s in-game description mention it opens locked doors? I would say yes. There is still a meaningful choice between crafting a lockpick over a crowbar (specifically the amount of noise it generates) when you know the full depth of information about the two. At the same time… well, Minecraft certainly doesn’t give you all the information you might need for a successful¹ run. I haven’t played it in a while, but the last time I did, I knew there was no way I would have ever guessed the correct configuration of materials necessary to craft a bow or shears.

Examining my discomfort in more detail, I suppose it comes down to wasting resources when outside knowledge is readily available. I had no problem playing Don’t Starve for hours and hours despite dying and losing all progress to the most mundane of causes. Murder Bees are serious business, after all. But chasing down the mats to build a blowgun and darts in what ended up being a nigh-useless tool? That pisses me off. I will happily fail in service to muscle memory, even if I lose progress along the way. I will not, however, be so keen to fail because I didn’t read the Wiki first.

There is a distinction between the two that I can feel, even if I cannot enunciate it clearly.

¹ With what constitutes success in Minecraft being left undefined.

October Surprise(s)

October is shaping up to be a busy month.

Hearthstone is going to have its first (and only) beta wipe coinciding with a large rebalancing patch. And apparently more opt-in beta waves. Which is an important distinction from open beta, which this will not be. The good news is that there isn’t going to be any further beta wipes, so progression for those that are in the beta is going to be permanent thereafter.

The “rebalancing” is of most interest to me (of course), as Blizzard is going to have a thread a needle made out of graphene. I have talked about some of the imbalanced cards before, but the most salient point is that the devs do not have the same access to the balance “knobs” as they do in, say, WoW or Diablo 3. Hypothetically, making the Pint-Sized Summoner go from costing 2 mana to 3, for example, is an enormous balancing change that has wide-ranging repercussions on how (and if) the card is played at all. I would personally change the Pint-Sized Summoner to be a 1/1 or maybe a 1/2; the former makes it a dead draw against Mage and Rogue decks, but honestly, I don’t feel like an Arena game should revolve around whether you have a turn-2 removal spell in your opening hand. Maybe they could change it to be only 1 mana off the cost of creatures and leave the rest alone?

Speaking of digital card games, Hex will be beginning its Alpha testing on October 8th. To be honest, even with the weekly Kickstarter updates, I sorta forgot about the fact that I pledged $85 (!) to this game nearly 5 months ago. And even more honestly, Hearthstone kinda sucked all the oxygen out of the CCG room. For however lame its been to go 0-3 or my most recent 3-3 record in the Hearthstone Arena, at least I could choose to pay $0 for those games; going back to $6 drafts will be rough. The Alpha test will give everyone 4 copies of all PvP cards, so at least I won’t have to decide whether to “waste” all my Kickstarter packs before the game comes out (which hopefully dilute the skill pool a bit).

Although I have not been playing it regularly, PlanetSide 2 is due for a huge optimization patch on October 23rd. I’m not actually all that excited about it, even though the devs are supposedly touting a ~30% gain in frame rates across all types of computer configurations. Why? First of all, this optimization work is at the expense of everything else. Changes to the Infiltrator class? Pushed back. New air weapons pushed back. New continent pushed back. And so on.

A fire was clearly lit under someone’s ass about poor performance, but with players leaving in droves, I’m not sure that chasing after the ones that left over computer issues is a winning proposition. And that leads me to reason number two: it’s all really a cynical ploy to get the game ready for the PlayStation 4. “Cynical” as in they only bothered caring about performance nearly a year after release, and only when the opportunity to cash in on a new market presented itself.

I’m a little bitter, if you can’t tell. Every time I get the bug to go play some more of PS2, I hit Instant Action and am sent to some deserted facility that changed hands an hour ago. And when I do happen to find some action, it inevitably dies down quickly and I’m left staring at the 5, 10, 15 minute capture timer. “Open world” and “emergent gameplay” is nice and all, but when I end up playing longer on my phone waiting for something to happen in the main game, something has gone horribly wrong. Ain’t nobody got time to wait around empty bases.

Luckily for me, and rather unfortunately for Sony, Battlefield 4 comes out October 29th.

I am not really all that certain I will be purchasing it on Day 1, although I had a blast playing Battlefield 3 for the six or so months that I was doing so. Looking back in my archives, I didn’t really talk about my experiences with it all that much. Basically, I see it as PlanetSide 2 without the waiting. While BF3 is technically more similar to Call of Duty than a sort of “open world” like PS2, the reality is that all PS2 brings to the table (or my table, anyway) is the ability to hop into a vehicle or airplane without having to wait/steal it from someone else. Every single other thing is better in BF3 – the shooting, the graphics, the action, the tactics, the depth. Again, technically, PS2 can have deeper strategy via Outfits and the like, but to the average player in the average game session, BF3 can’t be beat.

I haven’t really been following the Battlefield 4 news all that closely, but I find it interesting that the new game modes are being heavily skewed towards Call of Duty. Not that CoD invented any of them, of course, but I am more referring to that sort of play-style. Domination, Defuse, Team Deathmatch, Squad Deathmatch, and Rush are all CoDish to me. Conquest is still there in all its glory though, and Obliteration sounds somewhat interesting with its hot potato gameplay. But sometimes I just feel like shooting people in the face, you know? So that’s probably okay. Plus, technically every game mode will be available in all 10 maps, so it is not as though you’re stuck in the same handful of maps for every Conquest game.

Also coming in October: Terraria‘s 1.2 Patch, Don’t Starve‘s final two content patches (October 1st and presumably the final one 3 weeks later), and I guess GTA Online.

Regarding the latter, I am, of course, holding out for the PC release.

Review: Don’t Starve

Game: Don’t Starve
Recommended price: $10
Metacritic Score: 79
Completion Time: 20-60 hours (variable)
Buy If You Like: Roguelikes that don’t kid around, amazing indie games

Pro tip: everything kills you.

Pro tip: bees will STAB you TO DEATH

Don’t Starve is a harsh, survival indie roguelike with dark humor, a fairly unique visual style, and a pointed lack of hand-holding. You control a man named Wilson who suddenly wakes up in the wilderness, is told that finding some food before dark would be a good idea, and then… you are on your own. From there, the basic idea is to scrounge for some carrots/berries while using available materials to craft torches, tools, traps, and other basic gear as you do your best to survive in a world that wants you dead.

Moving around and interacting with the world is surprisingly easy and intuitive. You can move around via left-clicking the ground/objects or by using WASD. Interacting with objects is done either with left-click or right-click. Pressing the Spacebar will cause your character to perform some context-sensitive activity, like start chopping a tree if equiped with an axe, pick up something if it is nearby, or attack an enemy. Combat is not particularly deep, but the “shallowness” combined with the roguelike nature of the game lends a tremendous amount of gravitas to battles. It reminds me of survival horror games that have clunky combat on purpose, to ratchet up the implicit difficulty.

Don't worry, I got this under control.

Don’t worry, I got this under control.

The default game starts you in Survival Mode, which is really more of a Sandbox mode. While there is not really an “endgame” in this mode, the game’s structure naturally (and ingeniously) lends itself to a sense of progression and escalating danger. Establishing a base camp is pretty typical and allows you to stockpile materials and research structures, making the maintenance of your Hunger, Health, and Sanity easier. On the other hand, resources generally do not regenerate very quickly, which forces you to forage farther and farther from your base camp with each passing day. And ultimately, the arrival of Winter will stretch your capacity to survive to the very limit, given how traditionally easy sources of food dry up (plants don’t grow, ponds freeze over). This is on top of an escalation of random hostile encounters by the Hounds, or other boss-level mobs.

Those in search of a more structured endgame can seek out Maxwell’s Door, a set piece randomly located somewhere on the map. Once entered, you are in Adventure Mode, tasked with surviving five randomly-determined theme worlds while collecting four Things in order to open the gate to the next world. Even if Don’t Starve consisted entirely of Adventure Mode, it would be enough to cover at least 20+ hours of gameplay. Especially given how the brutality of Survival Mode holds nothing to Adventure Mode worlds in which you are trapped in an endless Winter, or constant rain, or even a world with zero sunlight.

I'm pretty surprised myself, actually.

I’m pretty surprised myself, actually.

While I have been infatuated with Don’t Starve for quite some time, the game isn’t for everyone. Don’t Starve is extremely unforgiving, even in roguelike terms, where death is both easy to stumble into and results in a deletion of your save file. That said, while death is easy, it is almost always going to be due to mistakes you have made, rather than randomized deathtraps. Even if you get one-shot by a particular mob, that is only because you chose not to wear armor at the time, or because you were being reckless in not running away. Compare that to a game like The Binding of Isaac, where a white pill might randomly give a buff in one game and permanently reduce health in another.

If you are someone willing to play and lose dozens of hours of progress in a roguelike though (or cheese the system via console commands or making backup save copies), I cannot recommend Don’t Starve enough. It has style, it has substance, and it is receiving developer updates every 3 weeks (at the moment). It is simple to get into, impressively complex when you start planning ahead, and always engaging while you struggle to survive.

There Can Be Only One

With an odd sense of inevitability, I beat Don’t Starve’s Adventure Mode Sunday night.

This is what they call "overkill."

This is what they call “overkill.”

In one sense, my victory was all but assured the moment I zoned into the first world as WX-78. As I may have mentioned, each of the various alternate characters have different pros and cons. The default Wilson has no negative qualities, and has the benefit of growing a beard; if left unshaven, the beard acts as insulation against the cold, while shaved beard hair can be used to craft a Meat Effigy (placeable respawn structure). Wickerbottom has higher penalties for eating spoiled food and can’t sleep, in exchange for the highest Sanity pool, the ability to craft spell books, and can use a lower-level research structure to build higher-tier items. Meanwhile, WX-78 has the lowest starting stats and takes damage in the rain, but can eat spoiled food with no penalty and can eat gears to regain health/hunger/sanity while also increasing said stats by 20 each (to a certain maximum).

With the exception A Cold Reception – where it rains constantly – victory was more or less assured with WX-78 due to the gear bonus alone. While the locations of the Things you are hunting are random, the set pieces in which they are located are all the same. Thus, you know there will always be at least four mechanical enemies at the “exit” to a given world and they will drop two gears each. Gears stack up to 40 in a single inventory slot, do no spoil, and as mentioned earlier they provide a huge boost to all three meters.

In fact, it turns out that I wasted a significant amount of time cooking food throughout most of the worlds given that one gear snack would have been enough to sustain me for an entire day – I waltzed into the final world with 40 gears and left 4 days later. Compare that to my best Wilson run, where I was constantly in dire need of sustenance in a world where plants don’t grow and rabbits need to be dug out of the ground. Indeed, my death in that last level was due to stopping to dig up mushrooms to boost my health/sanity, which was completely unnecessary with WX-78’s gears.

Do I feel satisfied? Well… more or less. I definitely feel like a switch has been flipped off in my mind, allowing me to move on (for real this time). The difference in implicit difficulty sort of made it feel like I had godmode on, although I suppose I should not discount the fact that I had 50+ hours of experience and knew what to expect going in. Another part of it though? I think that I expected to have beaten it that last time with Wilson. The roguelike aspect of having to redo the whole thing generated more hours /played, but not necessarily more enjoyment.

Just shy of 60 hours.

Just shy of 60 hours.

In any case, there is actually more to do. The most recent update fleshed out the Cave system even more, which acts as its own mini-Adventure mode insofar as dying in a cave simply respawns you outside the entrance. I could also seek to, you know, actually survive in Survival Mode – the farthest I got was about day 40. Or… I could move on.

I’m going to try the latter and see if it sticks this time.

Console Counselor Councilor

Okay, I am contractually obligated to divulge that I sit on a THRONE OF LIES.

I may or may not have orchestrated this slaughter.

I may or may not have orchestrated this slaughter.

To be fair (to myself), I already mentioned how I was was getting bored with Don’t Starve’s Adventure Mode, in part, due to not being able to change characters. When I created a new Save with a new character in an attempt to start Adventure Mode with them, I was stymied by the requirement of trudging across the map trying to locate Maxwell’s Door. So what changed?

As befits my new (?) seating arrangement: cheating. Specifically, I enabled console commands. And with my new god-like powers, I… just teleported to Maxwell’s Door. Problem solved.

Now, it should be noted that I still feel a bit wary. Cheating is, well, cheating. I don’t actually care what other people think about the act per se, but I wonder if this will diminish the accomplishment of actually beating Adventure Mode. Technically, I haven’t actually cheated in Adventure Mode – just getting there. And considering I was at the end of my enjoyment with the game proper, any entertainment gleaned at this point is entertainment that would not have existed otherwise.

On the plus side, the character I chose, WX-78, is a robot that starts with lower stats in exchange for the ability to eat Gears to both replenish Health/Hunger/Sanity and increase their maximum stats. And he also takes damage when it rains. So, of course, my very first world is A Cold Reception, aka Waterworld, aka the world where it rains (frogs) for approximately 14 hours every day.

Nice try, Maxwell, but I’m still coming for you like a hungry ghost.

Familiarity Breeds Contempt

I think I’m done with Don’t Starve. For real this time.

Oh, hey, that's cool. Just spawn a fucking hunting party right at my resurrection stone.

Oh, hey, that’s cool. Just spawn a fucking hunting party right at my resurrection stone.

Thrush’s comment from yesterday sort of gave shape to the amorphous feeling in my mind:

I hate doing things twice. If I go for a walk I go in a loop because I don’t want to see the same scenery twice (weird I know). […] I just can’t get into the roguelike genre for this reason. Once I’ve done 2 hours of work, I don’t want to start from scratch again.

That’s what I was getting at yesterday, even though I couldn’t nail the words down. While my displeasure at what amounts to recycled content is not quite as “extreme” – I have/had plenty of alts in WoW – each subsequent Don’t Starve Adventure Mode attempt generated more bile than the last. It is not about the dying; each death was a novel experience I learned from and won’t happen again. It is not even about the lost progress, really. No, what really pushed me over the edge was the rote, mechanical early game.

Wake up, grab Diving Rod, and then spend the next hour of game time picking shit up off the ground, desperately trying to find a piece of gold ore to build a Science Machine to unlock basic items like the Spear, backpack, and Crock Pot. Subsequent worlds in Adventure Mode are almost always different though, because you retain knowledge of past schematics and are able to bring in four items (and stacks thereof) from before. You might not be able to bring a backpack with you, but you’ll be able to whip one right up after gathering some grass and sticks.

If it’s your first world… well, better start praying for gold.

So, basically, I’m fine with permadeath and roguelikes if they don’t ask you to do the same shit in the same sequence with no possible variation every goddamn time. Or if they do, at least minimize the time spent in what amounts to an unskippable tutorial.

I did start a new Survival Mode map with a different character in the hopes that a new set of pros/cons would liven things up a bit. Then I realized that even a custom map with abundant food and no enemies would require hours (!) of otherwise meaningless exploration trying to find Maxwell’s Door before I could even start again. While I appreciate the commitment to the game’s harsh internal logic, I no longer have time for this shit. By which I mean I’m bored.

Time to play something else.

Roguehate

Do you know the worst part about a roguelike? You can’t even rage-quit! “Oh, I just died? Well… fine! I’ll just delete my saves and… oh.”

Last known photo of my Adventure Mode hero.

Last known photo of my Adventure Mode hero.

The roguelike genre is one I had avoided for years, rebuffed by the mere word “permadeath.” Is that supposed to be an appealing characteristic? It’s like, I don’t need to know anything more about scrotum piercing to understand, at a fundamental level, that it’s just not for me. And so I happily carried on in my non-permadeath gaming, leaving behind the empty husks of my peers who had just lost their 60+ hour Diablo 2 Hardcore characters.

The Binding of Isaac changed all that for me. And then FTL cemented it. I don’t seek out roguelikes, but it is an exotic flavor I am willing to sample now and again.

The problem I am having though, is with all these roguelikes that choose to, well, bend the (unwritten) rules. For me, it started with Dungeons of Dredmor. After dying a few times getting a feel for the game, I went full optimize-the-fun-out-of-the-game mode. Explored every floor, room by room, while collecting and refining every resource. It was pretty clear that I had vaulted over the difficulty curve and would be coasting my way to the very end. That’s the point of permadeath though, right? To encourage conservative play?

Regardless of the answer to that question, the fact remains that I was on hour 22 of my roguelike save. To me, that is starting to border on obscene. I feel like the roguelike structure works perfectly for games that can conceivably be won within a few hours or a single (marathon) session. Anything longer is simply suspect – what useful purpose does permadeath serve then? I have 52 hours /played on FTL and 27 hours on Binding of Isaac, both of which can be finished within 2-3 hours. Permadeath in this scenario, and procedurally-generated encounters generally, thus increase the play-time of an otherwise short game. But if you are already spending 20+ hours on a single life only to die in some asinine way… well, what’s the point of trying again?

If you can’t tell, I’m writing this post because I’m pissed at dying in Don’t Starve. I made it all the way to the final world in Adventure Mode, which I could not even start until I found the doorway on Day 30+ in Survival Mode. You have no idea how close to the end I was. I had collected all four Things and was on my way to the Wooden Thing to assemble them. The last world is exceedingly harsh though, and my sanity was leaking out at a precipitous rate (it didn’t help that I was traversing a swamp). I stopped to pick a Blue Mushroom in the hopes of regaining just enough sanity to push me over the finish line.

Alas, a tentacle I couldn’t even see spawned and spanked me twice. Dead. I resurrected at my Meat Effigy in total darkness, and was one-shot a few seconds later. Dead again. Spawned back at the Adventure Door portal, and would have to go through everything all over again.

…except I don’t think I am. I have 35 hours into Don’t Starve, and was relishing the thought of being “done” with the game once Adventure Mode was beaten. “Done” in the sense of achieving sufficient mental satisfaction to allow me to move on to another game. Now? I just feel so goddamn empty. Dying to the last boss in Binding of Isaac feels terrible, but you are only really out an hour or so. Same with FTL. With Don’t Starve, I just saw 7-10 hours of my life evaporate into the ether. While that is technically how all leisurely pursuits end, I don’t usually end a gaming session feeling, well, like an empty husk.

It’s not really Don’t Starve’s fault – if the game were easier, even a tiny bit, it wouldn’t be the same game on a fundamental level. I like that a harsh game like this exists, as it pushes you into uncomfortable scenarios in which inaction is punished. I just don’t know if I want to be playing “long-form” roguelikes like this anymore. Permadeath is fine in the proper contexts, and said context is always in short games, IMO. Putting roguelike qualities into a game that simultaneously demands X amount of investment just strikes me as cruel and unusual. Some people like that sort of thing, sure. But I doubt that the end reward for our valiant efforts will be sweet enough to cover the acrid, bitter bile that is seeing so many hours go up in smoke.

Fake Edit: I tried again anyway. Died a few times, tried some more. Got the insanely difficult “forever winter” stage as my first level, but persisted anyway. Somehow made it even farther. Got to the 4th stage, and was feeling pretty good about myself. Run into a field of killer bees looking for a Thing, and died. Now at 48 hours /played. FML.

Winter is… oh crap

The night after the prior post, I made it to my first Don’t Starve winter.

The snow birds should have been a sign I was getting close, but they were a warning left unheeded as I wasted several days gathering the materials to build a bee box (for harvesting honey, of course). Bees don’t come out in winter though, and my crops were thinning out. Moves needed made.

Having found and “killed” a lureplant, I decided that I needed to set it up in a more tactically advantageous way. A lureplant is essentially a fleshy bulb plant surrounded by a field of eyeball plants with teeth. Par for the course in a game where Nightmare Fuel is a literal item needed to craft magic items. The surrounding eyeball plants can’t grow on rocky terrain though, so you can build a safe walkway to the bulb and harvest the meat and other materials that the eyeballs “eat.” The problem is that this world randomly has an incredible lack of rocks.

But, dammit, winter is coming.

Bad news all around.

Artist’s rendition.

I made the ~1.5 day trek out to the one location I knew had rocks, while nervously glancing at the freezing ice starting to cover my screen. Torches do nothing to assuage my growing frostbite, so I periodically set fire to bushes and trees near the road. Once I get to the rocks, I realize that I can’t actually dig up the terrain here – the difference must be rock vs rocky. What does “rocky” look like? Oh, shit, that’s a Tallbird that is attacking my walking treasure chest! Oh… but it has left its nest undefended with its beautiful, succulent egg…

Pro tip #1: a Tallbird will one-shot you without armor.

Pro tip #2: resurrecting at a touchstone, practically naked in the dead of winter, with all your items in a pile around a Tallbird nest, is not actually all that useful. Especially when a pack of Hounds just happens to spawn not 20 seconds later.

Pro tip #3: Life is full of emptiness and disappointment and despair.

Day 1? Let's start a forest fire and jump in a wormhole.

This random forest will feel my pain.

I started another two games after that, abandoning the first when my initial 10 minute search for gold was fruitless. The second game though… hey, I might be getting somewhere. Bees? Fuck bees. I got two smoking racks, a bird cage to transform monster meat into eggs, and have 8+ traps on top of the rabbit holes in a nearby field. I’ll look to survive this first winter, erm, first before upgrading my base with bees. Maybe dig up a few more berry bushes and plant them closer, although the fish in nearby ponds are more than enough to keep me sustained.

And that’s when I found it. Maxwell’s Door. Adventure Mode, aka Challenge Mode, aka a purpose greater than mere survival.

I have a very special set of skills...

I have a very special set of skills…

I’m coming for you, Max. You thought you could leave me to die in your hellish wilderness realm? I got news for you, boy: it’s you who are trapped in here with me.

Not for long though. Not. For. Long.

My Current Obsession: Don’t Starve

As I mentioned back in my Card Hunter post, it is pretty rare that I get 100% engrossed in a given game. The all-in immersion in a game’s delicious logical systems is precisely what I desire, but gaming today is typically focused on front-loading the fun, followed by a tapering off of stimulation. So color me surprised when I found myself playing Don’t Starve until 6am again, trying (in vain) to get myself prepared for a winter I have never survived long enough to see.

It's all inevitably down-hill from here.

It’s all inevitably down-hill from here.

In a nutshell, Don’t Starve is an indie survival roguelike. You wake up, get taunted a bit by the above-pictured guy, and… that’s it. As the Steam store description states:

Uncompromising Survival & World Exploration:

No instructions. No help. No hand holding. Start with nothing and craft, hunt, research, farm and fight to survive.

They’re not kidding. Just when you think you’re getting the hang of a particular mechanic… BAM! You get stung to death by angry bees.

Not a good way to go.

Not a good way to go.

If you die, that’s it, game over; your save file is erased. Occasionally there will be a sacrificial altar-looking thing, which acts as a one-time respawn mechanic. You can even construct your own Meat Effigy, which will also respawn you once… but you will have a lower maximum HP for as long as it exists. And keep in mind that you don’t resurrect with your gear – all of your shit is piled on the ground next to the giant spider nest or murloc Merm camp or swamp filled with giant tentacles or whatever nightmare area you died in.

And that’s another thing: there’s a sanity meter too.

But, seriously, Don’t Starve is one of the most brilliant games I have played in years. While I sort of feel like it’s still in beta (there’s a countdown until the next patch on the title screen), how all the game systems already interlock is astonishing. As you might imagine from the title, getting food is important. But actually getting enough food to survive is pretty easy. The problem is that actually foraging all that food will consume a large portion of your day, leaving you little time to explore before nightfall. You can’t just hoard food either, because it spoils. Even worse, no crops grow during the winter and the ponds freeze over and you can’t eat monster meat without going insane and… you get the idea.

This is how far I walked looking for Flint, one time.

This is how far I walked looking for Flint, one time.

What I find so engaging is how I feel like I’m… juggling. You know in RTS games like Starcraft (etc) when you’re trying to micromanage some battles and having your base produce more units and sending scouts out to look for expansions? I actually dislike RTS games that are structured that way – I can do any one of them well, but not all simultaneously – but Don’t Starve somehow threads that needle. I would spend a few days making food supplies, then trek out into the wilderness looking for more of a certain resource I was lacking, foraging when I could, and trying not to get too far afield. Then come back, craft some new feature in my camp, and then get attacked by Hounds and die on Day 22.

And I’m not even mad.

Each world is procedurally-generated, which means next time I might be able to locate an even better starting location for my camp. Or maybe I’ll run across one of those random set-pieces and get a huge leg-up on survival with the ready-made supplies there. Or maybe I’ll actually find that goddamn Maxwell’s Door again and be able to play the game within a game. Oh, did I forget to mention that? The base game is a sandbox, but you can do Adventure Mode (a story-ish game mode) if you walk through Maxwell’s Door. If you die inside though, you get booted back outside into the “normal” world and it’s forever closed to you on this world. Collect four mysterious items though, and you can jump to a brand new world with another Maxwell’s Door located somewhere on it.

But let’s not get too far ahead of ourselves though, because none of us are likely to make it. As it says on the Steam page:

Randomly Generated New Worlds:

Want a new map? No problem! At any time you can generate a new living and breathing world that hates you and wants you to die.

One day, I will see the winter. And die horribly, no doubt. But seeing it will be enough. For now.