Don’t Starve: Stewardship and Survival

We went to a lecture the other night on hunting and human expansion – it was a great little talk, charting various shifts and explorations and studying the way in which humans decimated certain animal populations before moving on (largely from necessity) into other areas. There was always an element of surprise on the part of the humans – there was a great little anecdote about how bison hunters went out to the prairie during hunting season, fully stocked and loaded for a season of fruitful hunting – and the bison just didn’t turn up. They were all dead. 

It got me thinking about how sustainability and ecology functions in survival games. I’ve been playing a bit of Don’t Starve lately – it had a new expansion release recently – and there’s a new balance of different ferns and creatures that you can farm to keep yourself alive. I can’t speak for all survival games, of course, but in Don’t Starve there’s a clear game dynamic of sustainability and ecological destruction. Most things are relatively renewable: grass and twigs are torn down to stumps, but will regrow within a few days, and although you can strip berries off the bush, the bush itself will remain intact – so you come back a few days later for another helping of berries. By contrast, when you cut down a tree, you’re just left with a stump – so you can’t steward the singular object in the same way. You can, however, harvest seeds and the like from fully-grown trees, and create your own little nursery. You just have to wait until the trees are fully-grown – so there’s an element of stewardship over the environment, in that regard. If you don’t treat your trees right, you’ll depopulate the area, and you’ll have to move on.

So different types of materials have different availabilities. The real priority is food, in the sense that if you don’t have it you die – there’s a clear contrast with things like wood or stone, which are great for making progress, but it’s a bit different – there’s not the same survival imperative motivating sustainability. From a game perspective, it’s inefficient to rely on scavenging for food. You want to have a guaranteed food supply – nobody wants to run around merely hoping that they’ll run into a couple of carrots. It’s unsustainable, and (possibly more importantly) it stops you doing other, more exciting things.

There’s a few different approaches to creating a sustainable environment. Either you get a good environment, you get a useful environment, or you create your own environment. The first option includes finding a pack of berry bushes in relatively close proximity – it means there’s usually still some leg-work involved, but it’s a nice naturally occuring option. Apparently you can transplant bushes and move them closer together – that makes sense, when you think about it, but I wasn’t aware previously (I’ll use that in my next run!).

The second option means finding things like rabbit warrens or beehives. You can set traps to catch the bunnies, or you can murder honeybees, loot their corpses for honey, and hustle off before the angry defender-bees catch up with you. There’s no guarantee you’ll get honey, so often rabbits are a more reliable food-source – and they don’t fight back either, so that’s nice. The only disadvantage to farming animals is that, in the longer term, Krampus will spawn and steal all your shit. It’s interesting to see that sort of punishment written into the game – I don’t think there’s necessarily any sort of ecological agenda, I just think the people who make Don’t Starve hate you.

The most reliable option, arguably, is option number three: the built environment. Basically this entails building farms (which requires poop, which requires finding a Beefalo herd), and then planting seeds and waiting for crops to grow. This option becomes more difficult in winter, because birds don’t leave seeds lying around for you to pick up, but if you’re organised you can get a bird in a birdcage and feed it fruit, resulting in a steady supply of pooped out seeds.

All three of these options require a stable farming area – a home base, if you like – that limits you to one particular area. That’s interesting again, in terms of human expansion, because it models the difference between hunter-gatherer type players, who are relatively nomadic, and agricultural type players, who would settle down in a particular patch. I’m not entirely sure what to make of all this, other than to point out that it’s there, and that the game encourages the agricultural approach insofar as it guarantees you a food source (at least as much as anything is ever guaranteed in this tricksy little survival game). It’s possible that this instils the concepts of stewardship and renewability in players, but I wouldn’t go overboard on the significance of that fact. The difficulty of the game certainly encourages a sense of pride in any sort of sustainable lifestyle – if you’re living, and you’ve got a system to keep you alive in the longer term, you’re doing really well in Don’t Starve!

I think the main thing to understand is that there’s a great deal of potential here for a more pointed commentary on the relationship between humans and the planet. Environmentalism has been described as arguably the biggest challenge facing humanity in the 21st century, and that’s not something to take lightly. We are seriously talking about the future of the entire human race – not to mention the huge list of animals affected by our actions. You can see how something like Don’t Starve could evolve out into a fascinating little game – one where you guide civilisation into a sustainable relationship with the planet, and if you can’t get the balance right the planet dies and you all starve. The potential is there – again, it’s just a question of where video games and video game designers set their aim. If they want to be important, challenging texts that push us to think about the world we live in, well, that would be cool. I’d like that very much.



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