Subnautica, The Long Dark, Don’t Starve

At the end of my video on No Man’s Sky, I mentioned three games that you could purchase that do parts of that game much better. Quite a few people wanted to know more about them, so I thought it might be worth some time to give a brief overview of those three games: Subnautica, The Long Dark, and Don’t Starve.

If you watch my videos for lengthy game reviews and critiques, then you might want to skip this video. These are three games that I would like to do an in-depth review on one day—each with their own video devoted to just that—but this video will function more as an introduction to the core ideas in each game to help you decide if you would enjoy them or not. They’ll be light on spoilers for that reason.

Two of them are in Early Access which is also why I’m not doing direct reviews. Those will come after they’re officially released.

Let’s start with Subnautica because it’s the closest on this list to No Man’s Sky. It’s a sci-fi game. You’re exploring an alien world. You have futuristic technology to help you. You even start the game in the same way: waking up after crashing onto a planet.

The best way I can describe this game is that it really tries to make you feel like you’re stranded on an alien world. You are always alone. Your escape pod has a voiced computer interface that occasionally warns you of things, but it has little personality. Nor does it offer you anything solid in the way of direction. You’re left on your own to decide how to survive, and how to sustain yourself on this foreign planet.

To further support this idea of an immersive experience—there’s little in the way of intrusive UI prompts, or tutorial guidance. If you find an interesting landmark while exploring the planet, then it’s up to you to decide to craft a beacon and leave it there so you can have a marker leading you back. If you’re afraid of getting lost as you search some underwater caves, then you can make a dive reel that you can follow to get back to the surface when you’re done. Same goes for following signals that your pod can receive—which you then track through your suit. The impression I get is that the developers wanted it to feel like if your character took their dive mask off, then these UI overlays would vanish with them.

This is the key reason why I think Subnautica is a game that a lot of people would enjoy if they give themselves over to it, and commit to a decent time investment. The planet you land on has several different biomes—each with its own distinct look, and different creatures to find. Many of them hostile. You’re guided to move through them all—not by some mission or a series of objectives—but by following your crafting tech tree and wanting to find new resources and tools. Each area has its own rewards: both in objects to scan to unlock new crafting options, and the different types of materials you can gather to create them.

In this sense, the game is like a slowly expanding circle from your starting location. Each new technology gives you new options—whether that’s being able to move through the oceans much faster, or have a small submarine to act as a mobile pocket of air for you to replenish your oxygen supply while deep underwater, or a laser cutter to open sealed doors to salvage more technology from the wrecked chunks of the larger ship that crashed onto the planet.

You aren’t collecting things in order to make it easier for you to collect things. You’re hunting down new options that unlock more variety and new ways to explore. Eventually leading to you plunging deeper into the ocean—not just farther away from your escape pod.

If you allow yourself to engage with the game, and don’t look at wikis or guides or anything, then you are in for many hours of learning and figuring things out for yourself. Which areas have creatures that will try to kill you. What things look intimidating but end up being benign. What plants are useful to create batteries or computer circuits. The game rewards experimentation AND exploration and, with the latest content update, finally has enough meat in its tech tree to justify that.

Let’s talk a bit about that—updates to the game, and that it’s in Early Access. I played this game a few months ago for about 20 hours. And I liked it well enough, but mostly for the potential that I hoped would be realized when the game was finished. The most recent updates brought another layer of tech to find, and enough new things that the game finally adheres to the golden rule of Early Access games—only buy them if you’d be happy with the amount of content CURRENTLY available, and not on the promise of future stuff. Of course the game is still unfinished and could be fantastic when it reaches final release—but played today I think there’s enough here to justify the cost. It’s already pretty good.

However, it still is in Early Access. Which means it’s poorly optimized. The game looks great but there’s a lot of pop-in, especially after you get your first submarine and start zipping through the ocean at a much higher speed than your slow starting swim. Subnautica has never crashed on me but I might have gotten lucky. Some areas are clearly missing things, and there’s the lack of a real endgame which, judging by the roadmap that the developer’s graciously keep updated, involves finding a way to rescue yourself from the planet. There might even be a larger story to discover about what happened to the other survivors of the crash.

I was surprised to learn when I first played that the game doesn’t use a randomly generated world. The precise point at which your escape pod lands is different, but the underwater regions and islands in the world are always in the same place. As is the wreckage of the giant ship that you escape from at the beginning. I was further surprised to learn that, despite having a hunger and thirst meter, that the game quickly becomes less about survival and more about exploration. You have to catch fish to process them into food and water at the beginning, but this feeds into the player amassing more options. When you start base building and acquiring new technology, keeping yourself fed and hydrated becomes less of a burden. You have new, exciting challenges to try to overcome. And new upgrades to search for instead of worrying about keeping yourself alive. But even here you have options and variety—whether to grow your own underwater or interior gardens, or keep an aquarium to make your own fish farm and—maybe I’m venturing too far into spoilers here. I don’t want to show too much.

I really like this game. And I’m looking forward to the final release. It really achieves its goal of giving you an alien world to explore and study, and does so with a more creative setting—there’s a lot that’s added by being underwater. More ways to explore and different kinds of vehicles to build. There’s a moment I had while playing—when two vehicles I had built interacted in a certain way—that surprised me so much that I’m still impressed months later. Even if it may be a simple thing in retrospect.

And that’s without saying how terrifying this game can be if you allow yourself to be sucked in. If you play on hardcore mode, or even if you don’t save a lot. There are a lot of sounds that will bombard you as you play, especially if you’re wearing headphones. It can be really unsettling at first—hearing some crab squid thing crackle like it’s laughing at you as it swims by. Or the groaning of some giant alien whale. Then there’s the darkness of the depths and not knowing what might be waiting below you. Or what might have slithered above you while you’re gathering materials from the seabed.

And the constant worry that you might be running out of air and about to drown.

The Long Dark drops you into the middle of a harsh environment and keeps survival at the front and center of the experience. Unlike Subnautica, this game doesn’t let up. You are kept constantly hungry, thirsty, cold, tired, and scraping by with ever-dwindling resources. It’s a niche game and, the older I get and the more games I play, the more I think of that label as a good thing. Some people will love this game enough to lose themselves to it for weeks. Others will play it for 20 minutes, die, and then never play it again.

In No Man’s Sky, building a defense against the hostile environment of an alien planet would only amount to crafting an inventory upgrade. It was like slapping a superpowered sticker on to your armor that magically made you resist heat or cold or radiation. In The Long Dark, you have to find, equip, and maintain individual pieces of clothes to keep you warm. They even have separate stats to shield you from the wind. You have to keep track of quite a few different resources that you need to juggle as you travel like a nomad between frozen regions of the Canadian wilderness. Some great calamity has happened here and you are the lone survivor. If you’ve ever read The Road by Cormac McCarthy and thought, hey some of this could be an interesting game, then The Long Dark is for you. Except it’s wild animals that want to kill you instead of roaming raiders.

The reason why I say some people can judge this game within the first 20 minutes or so is that there is no goal currently in the game. All you need to do is survive. It’s overwhelmingly likely when you start your first character that you will walk around for a bit and not realize that you’ve already begun freezing to death. You’ll enter into a mad scramble to find some sort of shelter and become increasingly desperate as you race through fields of snow and trees that are more white than green. Then you’ll find a cabin or a trailer, and light your first fire, and already you have experienced the core gameplay loop in The Long Dark. You venture out. Get exposed. Try to scavenge what supplies you can. And then hope that you come across a place to warm up and sleep before you die.

And I imagine that some people watching this right now have just fallen in love with the game. Because it’s the closest that I’ve seen to an uncompromising take on a survival game. There’s no zombies. No monsters. No pvp—no other players to show up and mess with you. It’s just you, the wilderness, and a continuing string of decisions on how you think it’s best to survive until you make enough bad calls that you die. And death is permanent which adds a layer of tension and fear to the game that surprised me. When it’s dark it’s often DARK, and the game lives up to its name.

In its current iteration, the game is purely focused on this one type of thing: survive. There’s a level of tedium here with how slowly the player character can move, and how light sources are important indoors or at night, or how methodical you have to be about searching each area for resources. In short, the game steers close enough to being realistic that some people won’t like it. For the same reason that others will love it.

Gameplay depth comes from repeated playthroughs rather than one character. With something similar to Dwarf Fortress where losing is fun. In this case it’s more like losing is intense and a learning experience. That some food can be spoiled and poison you. That you need to carefully choose what items to carry around, because as you get tired your maximum carryweight is reduced. That you need water on top of food—and it needs to be melted from snow, and then boiled in addition to that so it’s safe to drink. That means you need to be able to start a fire, which might not always be possible if there’s no stove or fireplace inside your shelter, or if too intense a snowstorm is raging outside. The game is as much about preparation and patience, as is it about being perceptive about your surroundings.

There’s crafting and some light skill-based character growth. You can fish, cook, mend clothes, among other things. The longer you survive the better your character will become at it all. But so will you, the player sitting outside the game, as you learn the layout of each area. Resources and items that spawn are randomized for each session but the places themselves are the same. So you’ll learn even in the absence of the game holding your hand—things like important landmarks and where to find shelter in some areas. It’s the video game equivalent of a trial by fire—or a trial by ice, I guess—with the end result being an accomplished survivalist who spawns into the world confident about what to do… on the 8th or so time that you restart.

There is a story mode that’s planned. Like Subnautica, The Long Dark is still in early access. And, again, like Subnautica, the developers have been open about their plans for the game. I get the impression that The Long Dark has become a much bigger project than they intended and, instead of failing like many other early access developers have when they realize that, they’re trying to live up to that potential.

The concept here appealed to me so much that I bought the game when it was first available—making it by far and away the earliest I have ever bought a game in the Early Access program. Back then there was only one region. I don’t think there was any crafting. The UI was a mess, and the game eventually devolved into a “dodge the wolf simulator”. Now there are multiple regions and so much more to see and find. I hadn’t played it again until recently and, if you’re a part of the niche that this game is catering to—or if you want to take the icy plunge and see if you COULD belong to it—then there’s now a lot of game here for the price.

For those on the fence, who might want more of an objective, then I suggest waiting for the final release and story mode. Challenge modes are also starting to appear in the game that offer more variety. As with Subnautica, it’s my intention to give the game a full review after it’s released.

For those who are going to try it, the one piece of advice that I’ll give is one that I wish I had known on my first few characters. You don’t need to have a fire nearby every time you sleep indoors. Your collected body heat in a bed or your sleeping bag is enough to warm you up, as long as you’re inside and shielded from the wind. And that’s the only tip I’ll give.

So immediately you can see that Don’t Starve is a lot different than the other two games in this video. So much so that you might question its inclusion, especially given that this list was meant to be alternatives to pieces of No Man’s Sky.

Don’t Starve is similar to Subnautica and The Long Dark in ways that might surprise you. But the primary way it’s different isn’t its art style or its third person perspective—it’s that Don’t Starve is a video game first and foremost.

Subnautica and The Long Dark were clearly made with an intended EXPERIENCE as their end goal. What would it be like to be stranded in the middle of an ocean on an alien world? What would it be like to be lost in the Canadian wilderness in a situation that’s a heart beat from hopeless? Game systems have been built around these concepts. Whereas Don’t Starve is a bunch of game systems first. From the survival games that I’ve played—and I haven’t played them all—this makes Don’t Starve somewhat unique.

The game is compartmentalized into a series of days. The longterm goal is given to you by the game’s title: Don’t Starve. Don’t die. Find something to eat. And that simple premise sticks with you as you play. Fire plays an important role in this game—both for light and for heat. In a way the player functions in the same way as this fire. You constantly need fuel. Your hunger grows quickly enough that it’s always in the back of your mind.

The day cycle brings a steady march of variety, along with the even larger cycle of the four seasons. Darkness means death in this game—a monster that you are never able to see will appear and kill you if you spend more than a few seconds without a light source. Nights are so totally dark that you will spend them huddled around your campfire, or rushing half-blind as you hold a torch. Usually it’s the former though.

This is one of the mechanics that pushes the player toward making a home base. That and the science machines that you use to unlock new crafting options. This goes doubly so in winter, when it becomes so cold that, unless you’re experienced and prepared, you won’t be able to go too far from your camp without freezing to death. Your permanent campfire and your collection of gadgets, chests, and traps will become a familiar sight.

The final moments of each day end in darkness. Then the sun rises. And you might start buying into the game’s title more than you expected—because you start asking yourself “What are we going to eat today?” You collect a list of rules. Don’t Starve. Don’t freeze. Don’t get caught in the dark.

It’s in this way that the game is similar to The Long Dark. Because, especially at the beginning, you are going to die. A lot. Losing is fun and informative and this game is harsh enough to teach you its lessons with death rather than tutorial boxes. The first time I made it to winter I celebrated. Then I promptly ran out of firewood and froze to death. So I learned to stockpile resources.

But once you overcome these initial hurdles, Don’t Starve becomes closer to Subnautica. There are a lot of options available for keeping yourself fed—both you and your fire pit. Food is never something that you forget about but it can become a solved enough problem that you can focus on other things that the game has to offer. New crafting tools and structures give you new options and toys to play with. And exploring the world—and the extra underground layer, of which I won’t show to avoid spoiling it—holds many surprises. Each season brings its own set of challenges—both in creature types and in resources to find while they’re still available. So there’s enough cycling variety that you have something new to do each day—which also keeps you cycling through different short-term goals that you set for each individual day, with longer projects spanning across multiple seasons that you think about and plan for gradually.

And that’s the best way to show how Don’t Starve shares something in common with both of the previous games. Because there’s a lot here to learn if you give yourself over to the game and allow yourself to sink into it. And to not rely on wikis or guides to find out how things work. A simple example being one of the first things you’ll use to get meat in the early game: rabbit traps. You can put these in the fields where the rabbits spawn and hope they get caught. And even though it appears mundane, you can learn how to better set the traps over the rabbit holes. Or to bait them with carrots. Or, as I learned when I was desperate for food, to chase the rabbits into the trap to trigger it early instead of waiting around.

There’s a lot of that kind of stuff in this game. Interactions between animals, monsters, and the tools and structures you can craft. There’s so much of it, in fact, that I’d wager even after playing the game for fifty hours that you would be shocked to find how much you missed if you went and checked the wiki afterwards. Even food recipes reward experimentation, and it’s for that reason that I recommend playing with pen and paper to keep track of the best combinations.

It’s a very dense game. I haven’t even mentioned how you have to manage your sanity as well as hunger, health, and warmth. You and your character both begin to see things as you slowly go crazy—or rapidly go crazy if you spend too much time in the dark. Sometimes the noises are just to creep you out. Sometimes they mean real danger is coming. It feeds into the horrific undercurrent that lurks under the surface of the cute, charming, but twisted presentation. Both in the art style and the music.

It’s a game with a lot of character, and uses its randomly generated world—not as a key selling point to drum up interest and claim to have infinite replayability—but as a tool to keep each game you start just a little unfamiliar, even long after you’ve learned what all the biomes mean. Different hero choices also matter—one is a robot who can eat spoiled food, another can only eat meat. They have different strengths and weaknesses, and can act as additional challenges later on.

Don’t Starve has perma-death. And with all the things that want to kill you, that means there’s always at least a little tension driving you as you play—it ends up being a good thing, since the times that I die are when I become complacent and forget how fragile you can be. You can construct extra lives for yourself—meat effigies that give you another chance instead of hitting gameover and forcing a restart. The genius drawback of them is that your maximum health is reduced for each effigy you’ve built, so you can’t make endless amounts of them to bypass the death system. This also means that death is never so soulcrushing to make you play in boring safe ways, because you can create these effigies and justify taking risks by trying new things.

((I’ve had more moments of terror playing this game than any actual horror game. When night falls and I thought I had a torch made—and then I realize that, not only was I wrong, but that I don’t have enough sticks to make one. So now I’m racing back to camp in the last few seconds of light and hoping I get there in time.

Or hearing the growls of an incoming wolf attack, when I thought I had more time to set up traps and now I know it’s too late.)) NOTE: THESE TWO PARAGRAPHS WERE CUT FROM THE VIDEO.

It’s the game I’ve played the most out of these three. It’s one of my favorite releases of the past few years. Again, it’s not for everyone, but if it IS for you, then I think it’s a game you’ll love. It recently got another expansion which I haven’t had a chance to play yet, so I have no idea if it’s good or not. If you do give it a shot then the one bit of advice I will give is about the controls. Hold down space bar to auto-interact with things—pick up items, swing your pickax, chop down trees. And hold down F in the same way to auto-attack enemies. Having to click on everything can be awkward so I recommend using these hotkeys. It also makes it a lot easier to dart away from enemy attacks after you hit them

Oh, and the game has worm holes. Just like No Man’s Sky. Only they don’t break all of your stuff after you go through them.

I hope you all enjoyed this more general look at a few games that some of you might like. Some of you might hate. And some of you might love. I was planning to do a review of my own channel for this video slot, but that didn’t feel like a good thing to do after my subscriber count just doubled in the space of a week. Your first video after that shouldn’t be “Hey let’s talk about myself for 10 minutes.” It should be more stuff about video games.

I might still do that review at the end of the year. One of the questions I was going to ask you all in it was what do you want my next big project to be. The choices were between Mass Effect and The Witcher series. Looking at each game in the trilogy. I did a preliminary twitter poll on it recently and The Witcher won. Barely.

The reason I can’t decide is that there are good reasons to do both. On the one hand, I really want to play Witcher 3. I haven’t been able to get to it because it’s a huge game and I couldn’t justify the time it would take the play it. On the other hand, Mass Effect Andromeda comes out early in 2017 and I think having a video series on the first three games could be received well leading up to release—as well as laying the foundation for an informed look at Andromeda.

I can’t decide. And honestly, sometimes I’m just wrong about this sort of thing. I thought the videos on Uncharted 4 were going to do really well and they sort of… didn’t. I thought No Man’s Sky was going to be a video only my current subscribers would watch and look how that turned out. So you guys can decide for me. Which would you rather see? There should be a link below in the description or in a comment I’ll make on the video.

I’ll do both eventually. It’s not a one or the other forever type of thing. But I doubt I have time to do both before Andromeda is released.

And that’s that. Thank you for watching. Furi should be up next.

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