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The Starbound Permadeath Diaries

Starbound may lack a permadeath mode but it certainly didn't stop Cassandra from pretending there is one.

Starbound is terrifying.

It took forty hours to come to this epiphany but Starbound is a candy-coated nightmare realm straight from the pit of Cthulhu's dreams. I've seen lizards with two mouths and no eyes and faceless birds piled high with eyeballs and I've fought squat, smiling squads of tooth-like critters in the heart of a frozen planet. Chucklefish's procedurally generated, sidescrolling sci-fi sandbox is a cruel, treacherous place where death is a nasty, rent-hiking landlord.

And to prove it, I'm going to attempt permadeath playthroughs. The rules I've set for myself are simple: six races, six opportunities to eke out sustainable living on some hostile planet somewhere. If a character survives until the dawn of her third day, she will be treated as a success story and a point in Starbound's favour.

Batwell the Randomly Generated Human Female

She came, she saw, she died.

I start with a human female because homo sapiens are first in the racial line-up. Her looks are randomly generated so as to minimize any sort of emotional attachment; the poor girl might be dead in a few hours. The RNG gives me a name too: Batwell. Bat well. That's an auspicious name, right? The game launches.

I empty the ship's repository of starter equipment - Matter Manipulator, seeds, torches, torchlight - and head off to planet proper. Almost immediately after, worry hits. The world Batwell is parked over isn't very friendly-looking. It's green and foreboding. The tree line is made up of twisted, vine-like things rather than anything proper-looking. There's a weird miasma in the air which I suspect may be connected to the lakes of poison dotting the land.

On the bright side, however, Batwell does end up landing between a pair of be-tongued toxic chests. They make a face at her as we ransack their insides: 100 pixels, a blueprint and a medkit. After ransacking the chests, I go back to trying to figure out what to do. The starting area is fenced in by ominous pools of toxic waste too wide to scale. If Batwell is going to do something with her life, we're going to have to move out of here. With some amount of trepidation, I make her veer towards the slightly smaller body of undrinkable water. I break off a few pieces of dirt from the ground to try to pave over the noxious goo. It almost works. As Batwell run across the makeshift bridge, I realize too late I've missed a square. Batwell plummets inside and immediately takes damage. A bird-like thing with fifty eyeballs nested on the top of its skull shows up, possibly drawn by the splashing. I make Batwell whip around, broken broadsword unsheathed, ready to put up a fight. It vomits a cone of flames and --

Dead. That was quick.

Current score: 0/6

Meatfeathers the Randomly Generated Avian

I thought I taw a Cthulhuian monstrosity! I did! I did!

The next candidate the RNG spits out at me is a spritely white Avian named Meatfeathers. For some reason, it's hard to imagine her stooped and crowded with little grand-chicks. I wonder why. Without preamble, we go through the standard routine of grabbing equipment and beaming down to terra firma.

In comparison to Batwell's home planet, Meatfeathers' world looks considerably more hospitable. The sky is blue, the trees wonderfully mundane-looking. Resources are in copious supply here, so much so that I can feel the noose of self-doubt slackening. Would Meatfeathers rise above her ominous name?

We go to work. Trees and cobblestone are processed, transformed into stone tools and workbenches and camp fire. It's uncomfortable labour. Right beside Meatfeathers, a pair of limp-wristed orange bipeds with beehive fins and suspicious grins are bumbling around in a cavern, seemingly oblivious to her presence. As a precautionary measure, I dig a hobbit hole into the mountain side. Best not to be caught -- OH GOD. ONE GOT OUT. OH GOD, IT'S HITTING ME.

Zap.

Meatfeathers is immediately teleported back to her ship's nurturing cavity. No point risking certain death. I spread our day's efforts across the floor: a camp fire here, a work bench there and a bed in the corner to rest a weary avian head. So far, so good. This is already turning out better than my time with Batwell who apparently couldn't hit the ball let alone score a home run. Eventually, Meatfeathers' health is restored to full and, now armed with confidence and a hunting bow, I set her back on the trail. She beams down and disaster hits almost immediately. The once unoccupied space is now rife with a crowd of pink, flamingo-like things. Hello, poultry friends. You won't hurt an extended family member, right?

No? Nope. Apparently not. The flock begins vomiting blood at me and apparently, blood hurts. I imagine it must be boiling, acidic blood. Like Xenomorph blood. Why else is this blood so bloody hazardous? I spin Meatfeathers around in circles. She shoots. More blood comes pouring down. Meatfeathers explodes in a cloud of pixels.

Goddamnit.

Rest in blood-gravy, Meatfeathers.

Current score: 0/6

Large Banana the Randomly Generated Apex

It's not much but it's home.

The Apex are probably my least favorite race in Starbound. As such, I wasn't terribly bothered when character generation rolled me a red-haired chimp named Large Banana. She would do. I quickly blitz through the now-familiar pattern of grabbing the requisite tools, migrating planetside and panicking as my simian friend is beamed onto the surface. She lands. Nothing immediately lurches forward to kill her. So far, so good. Initial assessment quickly reveals that Large Banana's world is not dissimilar from the one the late Meatfeathers once inhabited: rich in resources, poor in local fauna.

I have Large Banana whip out her even larger sword. Nothing wrong about caution. Moments after I decide to arm Large Banana, a lizard with a teddy bear's head ambles up to the edge of my screen. Nope. Not going there. I move Large Banana in the opposite direction and into view of what appears to be an abandoned sewage system. It's an appalling stretch, piled with barrels of toxic waste and suspicious-looking pools of green. The only item of interest inside it is a scuffed-up chest.

An internal debate instantly roars to life. Do I go down? Do I risk Large Banana being comprised by my god-awful platforming skills? What are the chances that that beaten chest, percauriously balanced above a pool of toxic waste, is going to contain anything worthwhile?

Greed eventually wins and Large Banana is unceremoniously rushed into the gaping, goo-lined pipe. I start tiling over the greenish fluid and soon enough, the subterranean space is plunged into darkness. Hmm. Looks like that stuff was radioactive. No matter. In no time at all, we reach the chest and pillage its contents. It proves surprisingly bountiful -- torches, pixels, recipes and a smattering of seeds. Emboldened by the detour, I turn back to the task at hand: survival. The first thought is scandalous one. Should I set up camp in the sewers? On one hand, it's a beautifully defensible location. On the other hand, it has toxic waste. I stare at my monkey. Red-haired. Bushy-bearded. Vapidly arrogant. Large Banana.

Sure, why not?

So, I set up a basecamp, furnishing the innards of the sewers with a bed, a hearth, a work bench and a camp fire. The section where the chest was once located is paved over, the soil tilled and populated with banana seeds. The day slowly dwindles into night and a gibbous moon rises. I put Large Banana to bed. Sleep. Ssh. No tears, only dreams now. Ignore the crawling, hungry albino monstrosities throwing themselves at the wall a few pixels away.

It's weirdly mortifying to see how well Large Banana have done. In spite of my initial distaste and her predecessors' short-lived histories, the Apex is surviving. The only concern currently is starvation, something that could potentially be waylaid if the bananas ripen before her stomach acids eat through the lining of her torso. We actually could do this.

The moment dawn breaks, I send her deeper into the mountain. If Large Banana dies, let it be in a fit of poetry. Let her die as the tape worm burrowing through the intestinal tract of this planet. Let her die hungrily gnawing at this world's resources even as her own body gnaws through her. It'd be fitting. Together, we wind through the soil, harvesting coal and copper, eager to disguise Large Banana's hunger pangs under the beat of the pickaxe. As Large Banana edges closer towards the surface, a duck-billed critter makes itself known. I can't tell if it can detect my Apex but it feels like it. The thing flings itself against the soil, again and again, furiously crashing into the dirt. Large Banana's hunger bar dips further.

A plan comes together.

I chisel away a block of dirt, small enough to allow for an arrow but not a rampaging alien monster. I fire a bolt. It doesn't connect. The monster sidesteps absent-mindedly. Infuriated, I start planting cobblestone around it in an attempt to fence it in. A few false starts later, the plans works. The beast gives an experimental twitch before vomiting a orb of black energy at me, only to have the sphere impact harmlessly on the earth. I shoot. My quarry doesn't submit easily but it does go down, producing a piece of leather. It's not the slab of meat I was hoping it'd be but the success adds to my optimism. If Large Banana dies now, at least she would have died an accomplished ape.

I lead her home.

The unexpected sight of my banana trees, now fully grown and heavy with fruit, brings an frisson of pure joy. The fierce triumph that follows is intoxicating. Large Banana is not going to die. One day, perhaps, but not today. Not yet. I let her gorge on the bread before leading her towards the plantation. Another tier is added to our farm, another banana eaten. Large Banana ends up working late into the night, sleep exchanged for long hours spent smelting over our new stone hearth. Wood is still a problem. Sooner or later, we'll have to venture out to gather lumber. Tonight, though, there's baking bread and copper ore to deal with.

The morning breaks. It's glorious.

Current score: 1/6

In the next installment, a Floran, a Hylotl and a Glitch will be walking into a permadeath game...

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