Don't Starve Together and friendship via chaos

Can Brandon and Grayson stick together? No. No, they cannot

Don’t Starve Together, per its name, is a game best played together. Which is what Brandon and I did. Which is also why we chose to write about this cooperative roguelike survival game in the only way that made sense to us: together. Okay, asynchronously together, on Discord, but still.

Grayson: Let’s start with the basics: What made you text me to play Don’t Starve Together together, and why are we talking about playing Don’t Starve Together together together? (If you thought I wasn’t going to start this with a groan-worthy, repetition-based joke, you don’t know me very well.)

Brandon: *ignores the question and goes off to play at a carnival for birds*

I just finished three enormous open world games in a row, so I wanted to get back into something a little more constrained as a palate cleanser. I loved the original Don’t Starve back in the day, but I’ve never had someone willing to play the multiplayer version of it with me. I figured you might be up for it, given that you’re always looking for new games. I also haven’t really played any multiplayer games in forever. Turns out I was right that you would be up for following me into permadeath chaos. How has Don’t Starve Together been fitting into the games you’ve been playing lately?

Grayson: You do love going off to carnivals for birds. That’s, like, your thing.

I think Don’t Starve Together was a complete change for me. I don’t tend to play a lot of these survival-type games, where the goal is to see how far you can go in each run, but, to your point, I love any opportunity to try something new. Similarly to you, I hadn’t played anything multiplayer in a while. It’s been a lot of solitary and often expansive experiences, so it was nice to jump into something that was 1) social, 2) smaller in scale (at least on a run-by-run level), and 3) collaborative. Well, it would be collaborative, if we could stick together. Which, you know. We didn’t do a lot of. Despite the title. “Together.” Which brings us back to your whole bird carnival philosophy. Can we talk about your chaotic side for a second?

Brandon: Go on. Are you telling me that the guy who played as a mime, wore a moleskin face mask, and who accidentally caused a forest fire right next to our base reads as chaotic?

Grayson: Yes, that is exactly what I’m telling you. But let’s be clear: this is coming from the guy who pissed off a giant tree spirit and made you Google what to do while it chased me around.

Brandon: I think that’s what I love about Don’t Starve. Survival games make you work for order in an unordered world. To get past surviving and start thriving you have to have everything planned just so. But Don’t Starve really is that kind of game in only the most basic way. More than other survival games, it seems to delight in injecting chaos at every turn. You’re still trying to collect, craft, and organize yourself, but the game seems to outright mock the activity. Just when you get a friendly herd of Beefalo in your corner, they go into heat, kill you, and you’re back to square one.

Grayson: I think you’re right. And whether it’s this game or really any game with a “make order out of chaos” bent to it, I find in myself always tending toward finding the “productive” route. I often want to stamp out the chaos rather than embrace it. Your brand of “what if we just went to the deadly swamp anyway” energy is just the thing to cure me of that. That’s been another thing that I’ve found fun about this game: it’s kind of a personality machine. Because the toolset is so limited, you really get a sense of people’s perspective through how they approach the central verb of the game, which is, of course, trying not to starve. You and I were both given the same objective and means, and yet nearly immediately our approaches differed. Alongside this, it’s made me reflect on how much our friendship has been forged in settings like this. We’ve gotten to know each other more or less exclusively through games. Well, games, memes, and group chats. But initially, and I might argue principally, we knew and know each other through play.

Brandon: That’s interesting. I’m very much an order muppet in life, so I suppose when given the chance in a game I leap at the chance to try on the chaos muppet lifestyle. And you’re right—I still joke about how I didn’t actually know what your voice sounded like for years because you always did voices in Dungeons & Dragons. Over the years I’ve had a handful of online gaming friends, though nothing as enduring as our friendship. Makes me wonder though: can you ever really know someone if you know them primarily through the lens of TTRPG and survival games? If you want, I can pull you up on video chat while I send work emails so you can see the real me.

Grayson: How dare you reveal that I do voices in D&D. That’s private, need-to-know information.

No, but seriously, I do think we’ve gotten to know each other well, even if it’s skewed or affected by each game, in the sense that we see each other “at play,” which, in my nonprofessional, creative-writerly opinion, is a very informative state of being. Don’t Starve Together is especially funny in this regard, because the stakes are so high. For example: if I see a wormhole, I am going to go through it. I think it took me until our fifth of sixth run to realize that doing so hurt my character’s sanity meter. But the thing about me is, I’m a wormhole guy. That’s my thing. It does seem like my worser tendencies are keeping us from advancing to the deeper portions of the game, though, which I think you’ve seen some of. Do you think we’re missing anything by being chaos demons and playing at the bird carnival instead of stockpiling jerky for the winter or whatever responsible thing it is we’re supposed to be doing?

Brandon: The stakes are high, but it feels a little like Dark Souls in the early phases to me. Oh no, I died again… because a walrus family decided that they wanted to hunt the most dangerous game of all: me, wearing a feather crown and brandishing a bug net. The game’s quirky sense of humor is infectious even as it murders you. It encourages you to chase down wormholes for new discoveries, punishes you for it, and then laughs about it with you. I think I mentioned while we were playing that I don’t think I ever got much further than we are at now. We’re in the middle of our first winter, and I think I just barely made it out of winter once before I died. So there certainly are things that we’re supposed to be doing to advance the story and advance the main series of objectives (never defined by the game), but I think it just depends on how you approach such things. Are you there for the journey or for the destination, Grayson? Personally, I adore survival games right up until the point where you have to power game and min-max in order to win. That’s where I check out, which I think is why I’ve always enjoyed the beginning phases of Don’t Starve but never felt bothered to see any one game through to the end.

Grayson: I’m the same way when it comes to avoiding min-maxing in these games. Once I sense that I have to do something a certain way in a game that used to be about doing whatever, however, I lose that sense of discovery, and with it, my interest. So, yeah, I’m a journey guy. I think the comparison to the early portions of Dark Souls games is apt. For me, those are always, always the funniest parts, where you don’t have any sense of mastery and are just getting gooned by every system the game throws at you. Being in the dark with respect to a game’s internal logic can actually be a really fun place, paradoxically. You’re in a more reactionary mode than doing anything preplanned, which brings us back to the whole “chaos in games versus planning in life” thing from earlier. All this being said, I think my main problem with games like this is I kind of just stop playing them cold turkey at a certain point. Which I guess isn’t really a problem, but, like, there’s never any sense of finality. Even writing this with you, I find myself wondering whether I saw what I was “supposed” to see. But I don’t think that mentality works for a game like this.

[Editorial note: spoilers, such as they are, follow.]

Brandon: Well, in Don’t Starve, there is actually a story that feels relevant, a definitive ending and progression. An ill-defined goal, too: you are meant search for a big scary door and, upon entering it, you get dumped back into a new procedurally world to do it all over again with harder constraints. And then after doing that you construct a teleporter and do it again. And again. Five times total before you really get to the end.

Then you find Maxwell, the one responsible for sucking you into this world. Except he’s chained to a throne by shadowy hands and seems as much a prisoner as you are. When you free him, those same hands rise from the ground and bind you to the throne in his place. And the final message from the game is “The cycle begins anew! Will Wilson ever escape?” All while creepy carnival music plays. That’s exactly where the opening cinematic for Don’t Starve Together picks up, with the canonical protagonist from the first game bound to the throne. In that video, he is released but thrown back into the same procedurally generated world. A narrative progression takes place through the various expansions to the game, but, really, the gist is that the surviving playable characters just keep hopping from bad to worse. So to answer your question— yes. There is more to see. But it’s more of the same. Just one big ol’ ouroboros. The definitive ending is the definitive beginning for the next run.

Grayson: Oh wow. That is. Far more than I expected there to be. To be honest, I’m kind of okay with missing all that and just chasing after you while you take on what I consider to be objectionable levels of risk with respect to spider combat. Which is to say: you free to play soon?

Brandon: I’m already at the carnival.