Looking over reviews of recent Steam sandbox hit Citadel: Forged With Fire, I was struck by a repeated refrain: Finally, reviewers cheered, a game that eschews survival “busywork” like hunger, thirst, and stamina. It’s true that in many so-called survival games, survival is tedious. But survival is about more than just food and shelter, and games aren’t fully exploring what could be done with the idea.
Survival mechanics have been relegated to the backseat of their own genre, especially in recent times. Let’s look at the new survival hits that started tearing up the Steam charts this week and last. We’ve got the bleakly post-apocalyptic Next Day: Survival, the fantasy-based Dark and Light, and the distinctly Ark-like (but with fantasy trappings) Citadel. What sets them apart is not their unique or involved survival elements, but rather their settings and surrounding elements. Dark and Light and Citadel both have magic and all sorts of strange creatures to battle and tame, while Next Day is a bit more survival-oriented, but largely stands out due to its faction system, NPCs, and combat.
In those games, finding what you need to keep from keeling over isn’t a particularly difficult or involved process. Food and drink are plentiful, and your biggest threats aren’t cold or disease, but rather creatures and other players. Reaching a point where you’re self-sustainable doesn’t take long, and it’s not very exciting or rewarding. It’s just A Thing You Have To Do. Accomplishment comes not from (cue the Bee Gees) staying alive, but from the adrenaline rush of combat, or building a perfect recreation of that cozy lair you saw on Tiny House Hunters.
Survival mechanics provide flavor rather than sustenance, and the structure of them—find food and drink to keep some meters topped off, collect materials to advance through straightforward crafting trees—is similar across multiple games. It’s evident even in the language people use to describe survival games. When categorizing them, they specifically mention dinosaurs and magic and, in Next Day’s case, sad Eastern European NPCs strumming on out-of-tune acoustic guitars, but the actual act of (cue the Bee Gees again) staying alive is nondescriptly referred to as “survival elements.” It’s shorthand—a catch-all—because everybody already knows what they’re in for. It’s why Citadel is able to, for the most part, toss them to the wayside and remain enjoyable. Its developers didn’t tear out a backbone. They just removed a rib, a wisdom tooth, or maybe a coccyx.
Survival mechanics have stagnated as they’ve been copy-pasted between countless games. They don’t just have to be about crafting, base-building, and combat. What makes survival distinctly interesting is that, at its heart, it’s about routine. Ordinarily, creating a routine implies predictability or even boredom, but the best survival games make us realize that we take routine for granted in our comfy day-to-day lives. They make each additional element of your in-game routine, each new thing you can reliably do without taxing yourself to the brink, a hard-won triumph. There’s all sorts of still-untapped potential within that framework.
For example, there’s the mental side of things. People don’t do super well when they’re deprived of food and slapped around by Mother Nature, after all. Don’t Starve forced players to monitor their sanity on top of everything else. The system was complex, factoring in everything from rain and darkness to the specific sorts of food you ate, and a mentally-addled character would suffer from vision problems, hear strange whispers, and eventually weather attacks from shadowy creatures.
It turned your character into more than just a body. He or she was human, and the human element—more than loot or cool bases—is what gives survival potential to be emotionally involving. How do people bend and break when exposed to desperate situations? Who do they turn into? One of my favorite games of all time, Lone Survivor, made those questions the central focus, using light survival mechanics to tell a narrative about the importance of self-care in trying times or—if you gave into frustration and tried to brute force your way through—guilt, despair, and self-harm. Games like This War Of Mine and Impact Winter have added multiple characters to the mix, creating situations in which morale drops lead to bickering, dramatic exits, and even suicide, in some cases. It’s gripping stuff, and I really want to see more survival games explore it.
Then there’s the environment. In a lot of survival games, environment matters, but not very much. Temperature might fluctuate, requiring you to build a fire or wear different clothes, but you’ll still have trees to punch down and your basic needs met. In contrast to that, there are games like The Long Dark and Astroneer, which are truly about their environments. In The Long Dark, the purgatory-white wilderness colors every decision you make. Sure, there’s cold to account for, but also the ease with which you can get lost, and the amount of time it takes to perform even the simplest, most routine tasks in a harsh tundra.
In Astroneer, you’re on a distant, uncharted planet, at the mercy of your access to the most precious resource of all: air. The place is vast and foreboding not because a dragon or a spiky dog thing might leap out and gobble you up like in other games, but because you don’t belong there. Stumble off the wrong cliff and you’ll lose access to your vein-like network of air tethers. Suddenly you’re lost and on a painfully strict time limit. And while many survival games ultimately succumb to colonial empowerment fantasy tropes, you never truly conquer the environments of The Long Dark and Astroneer. Rather, you learn to live in an uncomfortable symbiosis with them. Your fear evolves into respect and, eventually, a fucked-up sort of love. I want more of that from survival games. More singular environments, more focus, more fear.
Lastly, too few games put the minutiae of survival under the microscope. Many survival games offer you crafting trees that you progress through with the ultimate goal of building The Biggest And Best Stuff. Tools that rarely break, powerful weapons, impregnable defensive structures. It can be fun, but it doesn’t take a ton of brainpower. What I want to see out of survival crafting is more games that encourage clever improvisation. Survival, after all, is about working within the limits of the resources that you have. Naked And Afraid might be a trashy reality TV show (that I adore), but it’s incredible to watch people fashion traps out of twigs, leaves, and their own hair. Is it ideal? Of course not. But pushed to their limits, people have to get creative.
One game that aspires to this is Neo Scavenger, a sadly underrated post-apocalyptic survival game. Through lattices of interlocking systems, it lets (and in some cases, forces) players think on their toes. In Riley’s recent article about it, he used clean water as an example. To purify it, you can just use purification tablets, but if you don’t have any, boiling it is another option—assuming you have a container, something to burn, and a means of creating a spark. You either work within strict limits or exceed them by being clever.
These are just a few examples of the directions in which “survival” game mechanics can go, and there are so many more. You’ll notice that most of the games I mentioned are either single-player or co-op—as opposed to multiplayer sandboxes—and I’m really interested to see how the aforementioned elements could alter predictable multiplayer sandbox dynamics. It’s depressing, then, to watch the most popular entries in the genre eschew that in favor of adding dragons, or otherwise backing away from survival elements that actually involve (play me off, Bee Gees) staying alive.
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