The Philosophy of Survival Games: An Existential Approach to Don’t Starve
I’ve been looking for poop for two days. On the first day, I couldn’t find any savanna, which is the only place where poop is found. Then, on the second day, I found some savanna but it was just grass and bunnies for a long time until I recognized the familiar sound of a herd of “beefalo” and the sound of flies who hover around the beefalo poop, which I am so happy to have found because it means I have a better chance to survive.
The game is Don’t Starve, created in 2013 by Canadian indie developer Klei. It is part of the growing “survival game” genre. Most survival games are indies but elements of the genre have seeped into AAA games like Red Dead Redemption 2 and Fallout 76. However, those AAA games only have light bits of the survival genre. In what I consider a “pure” survival game, three elements must be present:
1. You must maintain ever-diminishing stats for your character or they die. These stats often include hunger, thirst, warmth, and even sanity.
2. The world is procedurally generated. Every time you start a game of Don’t Starve, an algorithm creates a world that nobody else has ever explored. You don’t know where resources are and must explore the unknown.
3. Permadeath. You have one save file, constantly being saved over while you play. There’s no going back and trying something different out. And if your character dies, then the save file gets deleted. Make it count.
Back to the poop. When you first start a game of Don’t Starve, you can get the food you need from foraging for berries and carrots, but eventually you are going to need to create a base and start farming. To do that, you need a steady and nearby source of poop for fertilizer. So, before building my base, I must seek and find the poop. But, regardless of if I find it or not, the game is always going to end in death. The longest I’ve stayed alive is 46 days. (A day in Don’t Starve is eight minutes in real-time.) I survived a harsh winter and had a good base going with lots of resources, but then a monster came by and I died. So why play such a game? Is it really just masochism? Yes. Yes, it is. But, for me, it’s also a practice in existentialism.
An article in Pop Matters by G Christopher Williams compares another survival game, The Flame in the Flood, to the literary genre of naturalism. The parallels are certainly there: the way that the environment is hostile, the deterministic nature of elements in the game that you have zero control over, and how it lends itself to thinking in Darwinian terms of survival of the fittest. There’s something nihilistic about a game that pits you against nature and in which you will never “win” but just stave off death for one more day. But how we respond to the nihilistic conditions is what makes such games existential.
At the very beginning of a game of Don’t Starve you’re dropped into a world where you don’t know which way to go. Again, it’s procedurally generated, so just because there were lots of stone and berries north the last time you played, that means nothing this time. Choosing a direction is a Kierkegaardian leap of faith. You hope to find the resources you need for survival but there’s no evidence that you will. Oftentimes, you walk along a path only to find a dead-end (the ocean, which the game doesn’t allow you to traverse). You have to double-back and hope that the next direction you travel has what you need. This may seem like a silly parlor game, a skill of chance where no skill is required, but what drives me is the feeling of joy I experience when the random number generator (or “RNGesus” to keep it religious for Kierkegaard) grants me what I seek. When you do happen upon good resources, then the game of skill really begins.
Once you’ve found a good spot, maybe near a road for a faster walk speed, by a forest for a good source of firewood and lumber for furniture, and of course a nearby poop source, you begin building your base. You’re putting down roots. You’re staking a claim. Below is a picture of part of my base after a quite successful run of 40 days.
I have drying racks for beef jerky so that I can build up stores of food that don’t rot quickly. I have chests to store my piles of rock and wood and grass that is necessary to build things like drying racks, weapons, winter clothes, and everything else I need. It’s not pictured, but off-screen I even have advanced infrastructure like lightning rods that keep my beautiful farms from burning down when a random storm brings lightning down on my base. Things are good. Except, the more roots you build, the more tension this creates in me. It’s a mild frustration when I die a few minutes into a game because some spider caught me off guard. When you’re on day 40, you’ve invested hours into building your base and undoubtedly survived a couple close scrapes, maybe with a spider. The stakes are higher and the adrenaline in your body reflects that. But, there simply is no way you’re going to survive forever. Even if you avoid the numerous monsters who come for you, entropy will get you in the end.
You can take steps to delay your food rotting. You can turn meat into jerky, cook it into more hardy recipes, or even refrigerate it if you can find the rare resources to make an ice box. However, this never eliminates rot; it only slows it down. Resources are limited too. You can plant new trees but you’re always going to need an axe to cut the trees to create fuel for the nightly fire. You have no choice; you have to keep a fire going every night or a monster will kill you in quick order in the pitch-dark. Your axe degrades with every chop, and the quarries that supply you with the materials to make an axe will deplete. In fact, everything you do in the game is merely delaying the inevitable entropy encoded into the game. So why play it at all? Though Albert Camus never played a video game, he may have an answer for us.
In his essay “The Myth of Sisyphus,” Camus writes about the absurdity of Sisyphus’ eternal punishment: to push a rock up a hill only to see it roll back down before he ever got it to the top. However, Camus’ conclusion was that Sisyphus knew what we all either didn’t know or tried our best to ignore out of fear: everyone’s life’s work is meaningless. Faced with this reality, we have a choice: suicide or embracing the absurdity of life. Sisyphus knows what he does is meaningless, but he does it anyway because…why not? The most quoted line from Camus’ essay is: “One must imagine Sisyphus happy.” One must imagine the player of Don’t Starve happy too. Another great example of the survival genre, The Long Dark, (also from a Canadian developer because apparently our neighbors to the north know a thing or two about survival) has a story mode but the survival mode has this description: “The non-narrative exploration-survival experience where day-to-day survival is the only objective and death is the only ending. Play your own story.” What is more existential than that? You are never going to beat the game. The goal isn’t completion like when you beat the last level of Super Mario Bros. It isn’t closure like when you finish the rich story of The Last of Us. You are making your own story and it will end in death, but you play it because—despite its meaninglessness—it’s your meaninglessness.
One might point to games like Pac-Man and Tetris, where you play as long as you can with no official end. The chaos of faster pieces or even the corruption of the code in the case of Pac-Man’s 256th level will prevent you from going forever, so what makes the survival genre different? The lack of abstraction. Granted, in the case of Don’t Starve, the aesthetic is cartoonish, like an Edward Gorey illustration, but you aren’t chomping dots or flipping tetrominoes. You’re dealing with things you deal with in your actual life: hunger, the desire for stability, the hope that the future holds what you seek. These games create a fertile ground for us to explore some of the deepest questions of our existence, our ephemerality, and our ability to have ambitions in the face of inevitable doom. In fact, it’s because of that inevitability that we are free to do as we please, even if what we please is to find poop.