Survival games are by far my favourite genre in gaming. I can whittle away hours upon hours taming dinosaurs in Ark: Survival Evolved, building shelters in The Forest, recreating my house in Minecraft, feeding my cubs in Shelter and running away from wolves in The Long Dark. Maybe it’s because, unlike a set narrative or structured mission, these things are endless. More than a building simulator and more than a FPS, a great survival game takes elements from across the entire gaming spectrum to bring you an alternative reality, one in which, much like actual reality, your goal is to stay alive. Here’s what I think makes for an exciting survival experience:
Challenge is arguably the most important ingredient in any survival game. That’s why it’s called a ‘survival’ game and not a ‘getting by’ game. You should be consistently facing a range of challenges that threaten your survival, be it hostile terrain, lack of food and water, harsh weather, mutant cannibals, dinosaurs, wildlife, other players, or Creepers. A good survival game, in my opinion, doesn’t put one challenge above all others, but delicately combines them to keep you on your toes at all times. The challenge of keeping a character alive in a merciless environment, with a multitude of threats to their survival, is what keeps a player playing. This isn’t The Sims; I don’t want to build a nice house and live in it until I die of old age. I want to look death in the face. I want to be scraping by. That’s how I prove my worth as a survivor!
Progression is a tricky one. I’ve played games that have very little progression but still entertain me, like The Long Dark, for example. Maybe I haven’t played it quite enough yet, but I feel like progression is minimal here. After a few hours of playing, I don’t feel like I’m any better equipped to deal with the environment than I was when I started. My knowledge of the game has improved, and my supplies have grown, but there’s minimal leveling up involved. While my character might slightly improve her fire-making skills, she isn’t learning much else, and there aren’t any obvious progression milestones. This doesn’t make it a bad survival game - it actually makes it feel much more realistic - but I do feel it needs more emphasis on the progression and personalisation of character.
On the other hand, Ark: Survival Evolved is everything that a survival game does right with progression. You wake up on a beach with nothing, no tools, no clothes, no food, and barely enough HP to survive a Dilophosaurus attack. Hit a tree, throw some wood, thatch, and stone together to make a primitive pickaxe, and you’ll have gained a few levels. Now you have the choice of which stat you want to level up, including health, stamina, melee damage, weight, oxygen, movement speed, crafting speed, and more. With the RPG-style leveling up comes the engram points, spent on learning new objects to further advance and complicate the game. Now that you’ve made a pickaxe, you can increase your HP, learn the campfire engram, and get some meat cooking. Hey look, you just levelled up again! In a few days, you’ll go from primitive, almost-naked wildling fighting off Dilos and eating wild berries to stay alive, to a sniper-wielding, Rex-riding tank, living in a highly-defended fortress and ruling the lands. That’s progression.
My favourite part of any survival game is the building and crafting. Minecraft has taken building in a sandbox survival game to a whole new level. There are entire communities of dedicated Minecraft players who just build, and what they build is out-right amazing. Entire cities from the fictional worlds of Game of Thrones and Lord of the Rings have been lovingly built in this procedurally-generated, three-dimensional, block-by-block world. Teams have come together to build true-to-life monuments, inch-by-inch recreations of their houses or bedrooms, and real life cities that include traffic lights and road networks. There’s no limitation on what you can build in Minecraft because the crafting is so simple. You add blocks to blocks until you get what looks like the city of Chicago.
Not all survival games offer a building and crafting element. Don’t Starve requires a lot of harvesting materials and crafting weapons, but you won’t be building any safe houses. Similarly, The Long Dark allows the player to craft clothes, put together fires, and cook food - the basics of survival. It doesn’t allow you to build a hut for shelter, or place structures to come back to. Rather, you’re limited to the pre-built houses and cabins that you find scattered across the map (which sadly all look the same). I would have countless more hours on this game if I could put together my own shelter, but the game is still in early-access and the devs are pretty good at listening to their player base, so I’ll give it some more time.
The Forest would be virtually unplayable without the crafting and base building element. You’re a survivor of a plane crash running from mutant cannibals in a forest that they dominate. The first thing I do when starting a new save on this game is rush to find a place where I can set up camp, because I just know that as soon as night falls, those cannibals are going to be hunting me down. There’s very little pre-built shelter in this game, so I need to get a weapon and I need to get walls up, fast.
Picturing an average survival game might trigger an image of a person stranded alone on a desert island, with no one to talk to but the coconuts in their backpack and the sharks that linger in the shallows, but a survival game doesn’t have to be played alone. I completed The Forest in co-op mode with a friend of mine, and it made for a great survival experience. We screamed when cannibals jumped us in dark caves, we stood guard when the the other was crafting arrows in the open, and we shared the grind of collecting wood to build the base. I’m doubtful I would have finished the game alone - mostly because it’s too damn frightening - but having someone to share that experience with kept me going.
Rust and Ark are great examples of how a community makes a game. Just like most people, I started out learning Ark on single player, but it took a while to get to grips with the game and the fun wore off after around two months, so I stopped playing. Some time later, I came back, and this time I attempted to join one of the official servers, but it was too difficult and nobody seemed interested in helping me learn the game, so I left again. That’s when I learnt about unofficial servers, and I found a Reddit post advertising a friendly server with strict no-griefing rules and modified rates to make the game more enjoyable. I joined, and the rest is history. That was over a year ago now, and I still play on that same server, with more or less the same group of people. It’s the main reason why I have 722 hours of gameplay on record - because I love the people I play with. Bringing down a Giganotosaurus is quite a task on your own. Play this game with friends.
Concept and immersion go hand in hand. What is the context and how well do the mechanics of the game lend to it? Most survival games, if done correctly, can (and should, in my opinion) be played as a sandbox game, but having a structured story helps to cement your concept. Ark doesn’t have a story beyond the short animation of your character waking up naked on a beach, looking at their arm, and seeing some kind of ingrained chip. The rest is completely down to you. There’s no set path, no missions, nothing you’re supposed to do to finish the game.
On the other end of the spectrum is The Forest. It has a story, it has cut-scenes, it has progression in the form of advancing through the game to find your missing son and uncover the reason for your plane crash. It has a beginning and an end. But regardless of the story, the environment, the mechanics, and the stunning visuals all lend to the concept: you’re a lone survivor of a plane crash, hunted by cannibals in a forest.
Survival games don’t need a story to be successful. DayZ is one of those games where there is nothing to do beyond survive and explore, but the concept is solid - everything about the game tells you that your only goal is to survive and explore. Survival games also don’t necessarily need a whole lot of progression, or any form of community. Many survival games offer no building opportunities whatsoever (remember the original release of No Man’s Sky?) but they do need challenge. Even The Sims has challenge. In fact, The Sims has fantastic building and progression too, and the community is kind of huge... wait, is The Sims the best survival game ever made?