The tiresome dietary politics of Don’t Starve

Don't StarveLately I’ve been playing a very good indie game with an intriguingly direct name: Don’t Starve.

The idea is simple: you play a character who wakes up one day in a sprawling, randomly-generated countryside. You have no map, no tools, and no food. Your challenge is to keep that character alive for as long as you can. This probably sounds pretty grim, but the mood is lightened by a playful, cartoony visual style which adds some whimsy.

As you might expect with a game called Don’t Starve, figuring out how to obtain enough food to keep your character alive is a huge part of the gameplay. When you start all you can do is pick berries and seeds up off the ground, but as time goes on you learn how to make tools, which can be used to grow food, hunt, and cook.

If you’ve read my semi-satisfied review of Minecraft, another popular indie game, you’ll know that my biggest gripe with that game was how little direction it gave you. Don’t Starve feels like a reaction to that complaint; it has a lot of the good things Minecraft has (exploration, crafting, etc.), but the stronger emphasis on what I called in that piece “the survival game” makes it feel less muddled. All the other “games” are subsidiary to that one — you explore to find new sources of food; you craft to build things that give you access to a more nourishing diet. This makes Don’t Starve more of a game and less of a toybox, which I like.

But while there is a lot to like about Don’t Starve, there is one thing about it that I don’t like: the game (or, more accurately, its makers) insist on injecting tedious dietary politics into the gameplay.

You probably know at least a few people who are vegetarians or vegans. (Maybe you are one yourself!) And of those, you probably know at least one who is evangelical on the subject; someone who’s not just looking to fix their own diet, but to fix everyone else’s diet, too. So when you’re out with a bunch of people and one of them orders meat, the Veggie Evangelist starts a sermon.

Don’t Starve is kind of like that person. It is an unrepentant Veggie Evangelist.

In a game about where the overriding objective is to not starve, you’d think any kind of edible food would be good. But Don’t Starve feels very strongly that some foods (vegetables) are good, and others (meats) are bad. And it sets up the rules of its world to reward you if you think the same — and to punish you if you don’t.

Consider. In Don’t Starve, there are three measurements of your character’s overall health and wellness. First is Hunger: how close your character is to starvation. Second is Health: his or her overall physical well-being. And third is Sanity: their mental health. These three measurements interact in many ways; for instance, eating a poisonous red mushroom might decrease your Hunger, which is good, but also decrease your Health, which is bad. A big part of the game is learning how to keep these three measurements in balance, since having any one of them tip over ends the game.

In this model, by Don’t Starve‘s rules, vegetables have a lot to commend them. Gathering them generally costs nothing in any of the three measurements, and since they are abundant and can be farmed, they are easy to gather. They’re generally safe to eat: almost all of them reduce your Hunger with no negative side effects; some also increase your Health as well. Picking up a veggie is a decision the game consistently rewards.

Meat, on the other hand, is a different matter entirely. Just the act of gathering meat comes with a significant cost — killing an animal eating meat reduces your Sanity (!). Beyond that, killing even the smallest animals can be a challenge; they fight back, damaging your Health, and it’s not hard to get killed by even a spider or a frog if you’re not careful. And if you’re successful, you rapidly discover that some animals when killed don’t yield plain old meat; they yield “monster meat,” which knocks both your Health and your Sanity down again if you eat it. (Cooking the monster meat can reduce the damage, but not remove it entirely.)

The game’s interface takes this theme even further: if you capture an animal with a trap, you can’t kill it, you have to murder it. That’s the label you have to click: “murder.” Which is hard to read as anything other than a political statement.

It doesn’t end there, though. See, it turns out that there’s actually a fourth measurement the game is tracking behind the scenes, where you can’t see it. That measurement is called “Naughtiness,” and it tracks only one thing: how many “innocent” animals you have “murdered.” Don’t Starve considers any animal that is not actively aggressive towards you — every rabbit, every pig, every bird — to be “innocent,” so killing any of them bumps up your Naughtiness score. And once that score gets high enough, the game summons a creature called “the Krampus.” The Krampus’ mission is to steal your possessions, which it goes about with great gusto. And it’s very strong to boot, so if you attack it to try and keep it from running off with all the stuff you have laboriously gathered and crafted, it can easily kill you.

Putting all of these issues together quickly teaches the player that the “right” way to play the game is to play it as a vegetarian. Meat is difficult and dangerous; veggies are safe and easy. So unless you want to deal with a bunch of potentially character-killing complications, you stick with the veggies.

Now, my point here is not to make a claim one way or the other about the relative ethics of meat-eating versus vegetarianism/veganism. (Though to make my own biases clear, I will tell you that I personally eat meat.) It’s to say that this all feels weirdly dissonant from the game’s overall theme of survival.

When you’re starving, you don’t think much about whether food that appears before you is ethically sourced or not. Starving people will eat just about anything — even their dead comrades. And we don’t judge them negatively for doing so. We put a high enough value on human life that if keeping yourself alive requires you to eat things that otherwise would shock the conscience, we’re not going to second-guess you if you eat them. Survival is the first rule of life.

But here we have a game about survival, a game called Don’t Starve, that cares about more than whether or not you are able to keep yourself from starving. It cares about whether or not you can keep yourself from starving in a way it finds morally acceptable. And if you try to take another path to survival than the one the developers want you to, it will throw huge roadblocks in your way to stop you. And we’re not even talking about extreme things like cannibalism here — we’re talking about killing a rabbit for its meat.

I dunno about you, but if I was trapped and starving in an unfamiliar land, and a rabbit hopped by, I would kill that rabbit and eat it with no moral or ethical compunctions whatsoever, because I want to stay alive. And I bet you would, too, if the alternative was privation and death.

It can be compelling to draw lines and cast judgments about which foods are moral and which aren’t from the comfort of a home with a fully stocked refrigerator. These arguments tend to be less compelling when you’re lost and starving.

Which seems like a strange thing for a game called Don’t Starve to not understand.

UPDATE (June 9): A lively discussion of this post is happening over at Rock, Paper, Shotgun; several RPS readers pointed out that you don’t lose Sanity if you kill an animal, only if you eat its meat. I’ve corrected the paragraph above that contained the error.



June 9, 2013
7:17 am

This is way overdrawn. I’ve played this game extensively. I had multiple runs over 60 days long and I always lived off of rabbits and never got punished for that in any way. Surviving a winter without killing rabbits (or any other animals) is near impossible. Vegetables don’t grow in the winter and berries grow very slowly.
First of all – killing (or murdering) animals DOES NOT decrease your sanity. I also think the word ‘murder’ is put in there for irony. Made me laugh the first time I saw it.
Second of all – meat is a very important part of the game. Meatballs is an easiest dish to make and restores the most hunger. ‘Meat Effigy’ let’s you respawn after death and requires meat to create. Meat jerky is one of the easiest ways to restore health. Meat lets you befriend the Pig-men so they help you in fights.
Third of all – vegetables are NOT that easy to obtain. At first there is a lot of carrots and berries around, but carrots don’t grow back by themselves and berries grow back pretty slowly. Creating a farm is sometimes quite a challenge if you don’t have any Beefaloes or Pig-men in the vicinity of your camp.
And last – As far as I know, for every minute you don’t kill an innocent animal you lose the same amount of Naughtiness you get for killing one. So unless you go around murdering everything in sight You should be fine. I’m yet to encounter this Krampus, 30 h into playing the game. For at least 20 I had no idea he exists.
Stop looking for hidden political messages everywhere and enjoy the game. If the game really is a statement I dare you to make a playthrough where you don’t eat any meat for 40 days from the start. Good luck.


June 9, 2013
7:30 am

Oh, I forgot – only eating RAW meat decreases your sanity. All it takes is too cook it and you get no penalty.


June 9, 2013
10:22 am

Well that’s bollocks. Go to the forums, go back to the game’s earlier development. Every piece of “morality” was a reaction to players’ survival strategies to make the game more difficult.

Krampus was added to deter people from killing animals, that damned turkey was added to deter people from living solely off of berries. It’s not that they think eating berries is immoral for instance.

And, I mean, look at the style of the game. The word “murder” is comedic, not political.

Basically: calm the fuck down. It’s a game, not a lesson.


June 9, 2013
10:37 am

@ Sigh & Pirate Eat shit and die, maybe that would fit your dietary habbits.


June 9, 2013
11:53 am

By playing a game you relinquish some form of control. In order to succeed at the game, you must abide by the rules set by the creator, not your own personal code(s) of conduct. If not, there are negative consequences. It doesn’t matter what you think or feel- In the game, you play by its rules. I could be playing a game and say, “I don’t particularly care to dodge these incoming attacks, it’s not my style”. I would die, naturally. It wouldn’t be fair for me to complain about this. The rules are in place and I did not follow them.


June 9, 2013
11:53 am

Haha, you have fanbois here ! This is gonna be fun 🙂


June 9, 2013
1:18 pm

Cook your meat and you won’t lose sanity. You can also put live animals directly into the fire to avoid the “murder” text. I do wish there was a better way to heal than eating though, because sometimes I want to heal while already full and don’t want to waste my food supplies.


June 9, 2013
1:20 pm

If you were with this game since it opened its alpha to players, you’d realize all of this is untrue.

Every negative in the game is a balancing mechanism, used in reaction to abuses by the playerbase during development. The Krampus is in the game because people were farming animals too easily.

It’s the same reason a turkey pops out when you farm berries. It’s why bees attack you when you grab honey. It’s why crops don’t grow in the winter. Everything is designed to move your attention to a variety of food sources, not just one single food source abused forever. The game is designed to be challenging.

And I’m sure it’s futile to point this out to someone who sees political conspiracy everywhere he looks, but the reason it says “murder” is because it’s funny.


June 9, 2013
1:53 pm

In point of fact, eating a diet consisting solely of rabbit (or other lean meat) is actually problematic, and could could actually be modeled as a decrease in Sanity.

Basically, rabbits don’t have much fat on them and your body needs at least some fat and carbohydrates to function properly.


June 9, 2013
2:03 pm

Perhaps a better title for this post:

“A reactionary take on the phantom dietary politics of Don’t Starve.”

I think you really stretched to clutch at that those veggie-politics straws. Alas, all you managed to catch was dusty chaff.

There is real, actual paradoxical greenwashing and nonsensical vegan politics in this world of ours, but one must blatantly jettison fairness and charity and adopt an equally-nonsensical absolutism opposite the PETA-types to see such naive politics in Don’t Starve. What an absurd overreaction!

I say that as somebody who commonly overreacts to things (see e.g. this comment of mine) and who has hunted and is pro-meat and anti-veganism. I’m not just wildly flinging accusations; I genuinely sympathize with blowing things out of proportion and I feel like that’s exactly what you’ve done here.

Like veggies, I have an appreciation of sustainability and a desire to recognize and compassionately adapt to the sentience and suffering of other species. I do not, however, believe we ought to dietarily stunt ourselves in an absolutist quest to eliminate human-caused suffering.

Despite this, I didn’t feel the urge to read political machination into a survivalist video game which (if we must engage in politicization) clearly features more pro-meat ideology than anything resembling a coherent veggie/vegan narrative. I plant a little garden each year and I sometimes eat broccoli. Conclusion: I’m a vegan! Har-dee-har, har. I also bought a quarter beef earlier in the year, for goodness’ sake! Context!

Let’s take these two sentences for consideration:

I dunno about you, but if I was trapped and starving in an unfamiliar land, and a rabbit hopped by, I would kill that rabbit and eat it with no moral or ethical compunctions whatsoever, because I want to stay alive. And I bet you would, too, if the alternative was privation and death.

No, actually, I wouldn’t kill & eat a rabbit “with no moral or ethical compunctions whatsoever” because that would make me a hideous, unthinking, inhuman beast. I would have rafts of moralistic feelings about killing a rabbit; I would not, for instance, simply stun the creature with a thrown rock and then gorge on its pulsating viscera as it remained cognizant. I would feel compassion; I would smash its brain with a rock or something to end its suffering as best I could.

If “I” was driven mad by hunger, then what remained of “me” could easily feast on a rabbit as it still drew breath and felt pain, but whatever remained of “me” wouldn’t constitute the “me” who’s typing to you right now, would it? I’d have become like a lion or a fox! Indeed, “going mad” is rather synonymous with “losing oneself”, is it not? For what is a human without its mind and all the abstraction and moralism that goes with it?

… just another animal.

I don’t think you’re “just another animal”, my good sir. I think there’s something that sets us apart from other species, and that is our advanced moralistic tendency. I hope you possess some of that moralism, because I think psychopaths are scary…


June 9, 2013
2:15 pm

Are you the idiot who wears the shirts that say “For every animal you don’t eat, I’ll eat three!”? Because you really seem like that kind of a person.


June 9, 2013
2:16 pm

And what you should really be going after is how gold is infinite in the game so clearly the developers are making a deep economic statement that gold backed currencies are just as meaningless as any other currency.


June 9, 2013
3:31 pm

I don’t know any sermonising vegans, but I do know a hell of a lot of carnivores who ask us lots of questions about food while we’re eating. 😉

Jason Lefkowitz

June 9, 2013
3:58 pm

Are you the idiot who wears the shirts that say “For every animal you don’t eat, I’ll eat three!”? Because you really seem like that kind of a person.

If you’re willing to be more than a drive-by commenter, there’s more than ten years of writing here that you can peruse to discover that I am not a raving yahoo.

There’s even a “Best Of” category you can use to jump right to the longest/most in-depth stuff, which presumably is the best to use to judge what I’m on about in general. (Though I need to pull in the bigger pieces from 2012 to that list.)


June 9, 2013
6:26 pm

Sigh. Almost the whole basis for this article is misinformed. Despite the update, it’s not even simply eating meat that lowers sanity. It’s eating raw meat. That makes sense. And the whole monster meat thing is a function of the fantasy world you’re in. Is it also bad that spiders want to hurt you, when in real life they’re helpful creatures that eat bugs? Must be some sort of anti-spider agenda going on.


June 9, 2013
9:27 pm

To be honest, this game was designed to be “hard” from the beginning, the developers didn’t want the game mechanics to be exploited in any way to make it easier. Berry bushes have to be fertilized every few cycles and grow way too slow to be a sustainable food source.
Farms to grow vegetables cost a substantial amount of resources and again, grow way too slow, and you can’s stockpile foods because they rot.

I’d say meat eating would be the most favoured way of surviving, it is fast and the naughtyness meter goes down after a while of no commiting any of those acts.

I think you’re thinking too deep about the diets of Wilson, the game world is designed to be hard, and not by any chance only eating vegetables makes it easier


June 9, 2013
9:31 pm

also, to quote the wiki: …”Naughtiness will also decay by 1 every minute if no naughty actions are performed…”

Given krampus spawns the first time with 30 naughtiness, and killing a rabbit gives you 1 naughtiness, you must have been mass genociding rabbits in order to krampus to be a bother. Given you don’t plan to mass murder pigs or beefalos.


June 9, 2013
9:32 pm

It’s been said multiple times, but seems to have been completely ignored: you only lose sanity for eating raw meat. Cooked meat doesn’t hurt your sanity at all.


June 9, 2013
9:43 pm

Yeah, first comments said it all, but just to add to the voice: your article is really wrong, mainly because:

* It is almost impossible to live of vegetables during the winter
* Monster meat can be eaten if you cook only one of them in the crock pot
* Meatballs dish has a super high efficiency
* You don’t lose sanity by eating meat, you lose sanity by eating raw meat (thinking about it, might make more sense to lose health)
* Turkey for berries and bees for honey doesn’t make a statement against eating berries and honey. It is just a way to balance difficult, putting obstacles on the way. So naughtiness is one of those systems.


August 26, 2013
2:55 am

You are such a noob. If you cook meat you don’t lose sanity and don’t you realise Krampus is part of the game’s humour?


September 17, 2013
1:28 pm


Oh wait no this sucked. Have you been playing a different game or something? This seems like a rant made from a guy who played the game for five minutes. Who is also an idiot. Who kicks babies for fun.


September 17, 2013
1:32 pm

“An island in a sea of stupid!” In other words the epicenter of retard community! Your IQ must be this low to enter!

Seriously though. I lol’d. Then I read it again. Then I saw the rest of your shit. Then I lol’d again. You think you’re the fuckin god amongst men aren’t you? 😛


December 7, 2013
11:52 am

I see most everyone else covered this already but your assessment is wrong.

The penalties for meat in this game are very slim if done correctly. My playstyle rewards me with a lot of meat and very little penalty.

The game provides lots of avenues of acquiring meat with no naughtiness penalty. You can insight fights between creatures and pick up the meat in the aftermath. You can trap spiders and use the crockpot to remove any negative effects from eating monster meat.

In fact, towards the end of a winter cycle (especially if you don’t have an ice box yet) you’re depending almost entirely on meat since veggies don’t grow in the winter and are probably spoiled if you had any stockpiled at the start.