Tension in Gaming
So a game I’ve bought during Steam Sale that’s sucked up my time is Don’t Starve, an indie craft-o-matic roguelike sort of game with a strongly emergent set of mechanisms.
In a nutshell; you’re teleported to a hostile worldscape with only your wits and ability to assemble basic things. From those basic things, you can assemble bigger and better things, Minecraft or Terraria-esque. The key to the game is the name, Don’t Starve; in this environment you are expected to eat, craft, and defend yourself.
To this end, you’re left to your own devices in a remarkably huge world. Berries and carrots provide easy, immediate food, with more complex cuisine being the result of one’s crafting machinations. Farms allow a regular supply of food; a shovel allows one to transplant bushes and create an orchard.
I’m strongly reminded of NetHack, a game I have both loved and hated for over 20 years. It is unrepentantly hostile, yet full of amazing stories. The mechanics easy to learn, with a single misstep spelling disaster, and a good start making all the difference between an early death and a fighting chance at survival.
Subsistence is Hard
What this game really drives home is how hard subsistence living is. Time spent collecting necessary crafting resources is time not spent collecting food. Even once you’ve managed to create an orchard, not paying enough attention can result in a turkey infestation, costing precious berries.
Without easy sources of manure, it’s impossible to set up farms. Trapping can easily exhaust your local supply of rabbits, and I haven’t yet figured out how to breed them. Finding enough to eat and foraging for craft supplies? This is hard work!
Winter looms as well, with its snows and unpleasant reminder of the hostility of the world, how soon there’ll be nothing left to eat.
Willingness to Try
For me, Don’t Starve falls into the same camp as Cart Life; it’s good, I want to keep playing it, but there’s an overwhelming anxiety when I try. I know my minion will starve, go insane, or both. I know that I’ll get eaten by wolves or stung to death by bees.
By the same token, I didn’t even make my court date to keep custody of my daughter in Cart Life. Instead, I was overwhelmed by customers and unable to do anything about it; I lost custody for a day’s take of $40.
These games are brutal in their responsiveness to choice, where making one choice always means you don’t make another, and those repercussions get felt. It’s going to get worse, and winning becomes about not losing for another day.
But it’s so full of emergence; when I’m lucky enough to catch the turkey stealing my berries, eating roast drumstick that evening. More harshly, when I misclick and attack my pig village and they (understandably!) retaliate, nearly killing me.
Winter will come, and when I left my farms were growing, allowing me to survive for another day. I won’t live to see winter, I suspect; I don’t know how to harvest bees and I’m injured from the pigs.
I don’t feel comfortable going back, I don’t feel safe trying to survive. I’m going to need an icebox; how do I get one? I’m going to need more food, more stable supplies.
Winning is not dying for another day.