Lenses Analysis of Don’t Starve

Hm, do you ever get the feeling that you’re being watched…?

We’ve just covered several lenses in the Game Design lectures, and I am incredibly curious to analyze a game based on some the lenses covered in Jesse Schell’s book: “The Art of Game Design“! To provide a greater depth of perspective, I will base my analysis not just from my playthrough but a friend, Chua’s as well. Without further ado, here’s the game: Don’t Starve. Let’s not forget the lenses too:

  1. The Lens of Curiosity
  2. The Lens of Punishment
  3. The Lens of Visible Progress

The Lens of Curiosity

This is perhaps one of the most crucial lenses that Don’t Starve is based on. Both my friend and I had had many questions at the start which motivated us to continue playing the game. We had the overall question of: “How do we beat the game?” However, the type of intermediary questions we asked differed. I wanted to know more about the world and the rules of survival, which led me to ask, “What does this item do, exactly?”. On the other hand, Chua appreciated the game’s combat and action-oriented aspects. Hence,  his question was more inclined to: “How do I become stronger?”. Both these questions were most likely somewhere in both of our minds, but it was interesting to see that we prioritize them differently based on the type of enjoyment we derive from the game.

Run Forrest run!

The game had an overall goal of survival, but the means of achieving it were designed to cater to different playstyles. The game could simply be exploration and survival against nature, but that would result in zero interest from action-seeking players such as Chua. Being able to satisfy the curiosity of different types of players is thus important when trying to appeal to a wider audience. If we are motivated to seek the answers that make the game fun for us, we will play the game.

The Lens of Punishment

The hallmark of any great game is the delicate balance between punishment and reward. However, that is tricky. Some players welcome brutal challenges, others just get pissed off. I’m the former (I played Dark Souls). Don’t Starve substantially punishes you for performing incorrect actions, either by draining one of your stats or, in some cases, certain death. It is clear that the game wants you to learn through death. Personally, dying repeatedly did not deter me from playing the game because the deaths were justified — I screwed up.

Chua, however, was not at all pleased. He felt that his deaths were unjustified and was annoyed at the game for killing him all the time. To make matters worse, Don’t Starve offers few direct clues as to why you died. Needless to say, his frustration at the game soon outgrew his satisfaction from playing it.

At least I hit 55 days.

For players who want an easy and straightforward gameplay, Don’t Starve can come across as an unforgiving and frustrating game. Simply lowering the difficulty isn’t wise as some appreciate the challenge. If we compare this game with Dark Souls, the deaths in the former game can sometimes be attributed to an unknown or misunderstood game mechanic — your screen flashes red —and you die. However, dying in Dark Souls follow after a distinct visual display of an attack. Players are thus more receptive to try again as they know what to avoid the next time. It’s just not a pleasant feeling to waste hours knowing that an unknown entity is blocking your progression.


The Lens of Visible Progress

Being able to visually gauge one’s progression is tantamount for any player who invests long hours in a game. The main visual displays of progression in Don’s Starve are base structures, seasonal changes, and environmental scars. As someone who appreciates exploration and building stuff, I derive much satisfaction from watching the permanent visual impact of my actions.

In terms of combat, however, there is little indicator of progress. There is no level-up system, no progress bar for killing monsters, and corpses disappear after a while. For Chua, the game felt stagnant and repetitive due to the lack of his own definition of progression. The game isn’t designed based on combat. Killing monsters simply serve as a means to get more resources.

Great base, better beard.

The progression system and feedback show how the game should be played. They tell the players that they’re doing it right or wrong. Being able to show progression in various aspects of the game is beneficial in retaining players’ interests. Games today often have an “Achievement” or statistics section that lists information about the player’s action. Adding such a feature is trivial in proportion to the motivation that it gives to the players. To many players, getting a 100% is a huge deal. This just shows how important it is to implement visual indicators of a player’s progress not just for the main gameplay, but for the other game mechanics as well.


It is interesting to see how I can break a game down to see how they fare in each of the lenses. With just three lenses, I am able to analyze the game from different perspectives and see possible weaknesses of a game. Imagine how detailed it would be with a hundred lenses!

3 Replies to “Lenses Analysis of Don’t Starve”

  1. I think you did a great job breaking down this game. I love “Don’t Starve”, but I think when you look at it through the lenses you chose, you bring out some interesting flaws I hadn’t considered. Specifically, I think the lens of punishment brings up some interesting points about the game. Where does a game like “Don’t Starve” different, yet similar to a game like “Dark Souls”? Which is the “right” way to do things?

  2. Having a game analyzed by a hundred lenses will definitely be an eye opening experience about how a detailed game analysis can help us understand the strengths and weaknesses of a game. I can relate directly to the three lenses while playing any game. I like being curious about what I would encounter next in a game. I have played games that remain the same throughout the game, and I personally find it really boring and eventually stop playing it. Regarding punishment in games, I would prefer getting a bonus when I do something right instead of getting punished repeatedly when I do something wrong. And lastly, I like seeing the progress that I have made in a game for me to analyze how well I am doing in it. As I am just one of the many players for any game, if the lenses can help me understand how well the game fits my gameplay style, I am sure that if each player is asked to analyze their experience for each lens, then the game has a tendency to be developed for almost all the different kinds of players.

  3. I have played this game before and I loved it. Your explaination about the game through the lenses was a great perspective. The Lens of Curiousity was nicely explained as many elements of the game are super wierd and really do bring out the curiousity in one’s mind. The Lens of Punishment was something I never thought about this game. Compare this with Dark Souls, this one seems a bit more forgiving but both the games have different perspectives and in my opinion, both of them are rightly done. Its interesting, how both of the games are really well made and show us how one lens can be used in multiple perspectives. The last lens you talked about, visual progress was well implemented. Just like any survival game out there, this one does it pretty well. Overall, great article with great perspectives I had never considered before.

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