Eat. Fight. Die. Why have survival games suddenly become self-sufficient?
What is behind the surge of games with subsistence at their core, led by the gruelling DayZ?
Survival games have made a name for themselves recently. Even two years ago, there was little notion of a discrete survival genre – a term that still takes some chewing over. Today, the Steam charts seethe with such games, most of which pupate at length in Early Access. A sentiment you’ll hear repeated is that DayZ and its ilk have represented bold risks, something unprecedented that publishers chasing bankable cinematic experiences have ignored to their cost. But this has all been done before: games in which a core objective is subsistence cropped up throughout the ’90s, with titles such as Robinson’s Requiem and Stranded Kids being marketed instead as simulations and adventure games. Konami – which made and published the latter, plus its spiritual sequel, Lost In Blue – isn’t exactly an arthouse studio.
It’s not the first time we’ve seen a narrow idea fixate the industry either, but the sudden resurgence of an old and only moderately popular concept under new branding is perplexing. Doubly so when you take the components of survival in turn: gathering, eating, drinking and sleeping. People are clustering around half-finished post-societal simulations in which they attempt to do what they achieve each day: live. The longer you play a game such as DayZ, H1Z1 or Rust, the more you can be said to be performing adequately.
Something must have provided the impetus for an old and psychologically curious idea to acquire its own genre label. Not that there’s agreement on what that genre entails, of course – some games, such as 11 Bit Studios’ This War Of Mine, have been branded survival much to the surprise of their developers. ‘Survival’ has become a term applied not as part of marketing campaigns but by popular accord, signifying Early Access investments in unforgiving life sims and linking the likes of DayZ and Rust by their ultimate objective.
The similarities run deeper than that, though. First, all survival games demand oversight of needs integral to human existence, typically battling the primary trio of hunger, thirst and tiredness – sex drive remains, mercifully, unsimulated. Second, the protagonist’s attributes, such as strength, stamina and fragility, more closely approximate those of real humans. Third, all survival games punish negligence with loss, either of items accrued or progress made. Fourth, no survival game is linear. You are forced to make choices about resource management based on limited information.
Not one of these rules is unique to survival. This ‘new’ genre is a patchwork of design trends dating back as far as games themselves. It is, after all, only the GUI and our suspension of disbelief that transform the raw maths of computing into health, thirst or body heat. And food was a staple of Ultima back in 1981, but the first to market its variables as survival elements imagined that those numbers were bullets.
When it was released in 1996, Resident Evil proclaimed the invention of survival horror in loud, drawnout wails. The characters, despite being members of the Special Tactics And Rescue Service, were china dolls compared to the leads of other flagship releases that year, such as Tomb Raider, Quake and Duke Nukem 3D. But the Spencer Estate was designed to be faced at a disadvantage in strength, knowledge and resources.
In being strictly limited, Resident Evil’s rationed ammo is synonymous with DayZ’s tactical bacon or Rust’s anti-rad meds. The mundanity of the object is irrelevant: each reinforces player frailty and grounds your experience in something closer to reality than Croft’s bottomless pistols. However, the protagonists in Resident Evil are still heroes facing outlandish evil, with their own developer-prescribed destinies to fulfil, whereas modern-day survival takes itself more seriously and player choice is essential. Where has the desire to play in grounded sandboxes come from?
An unfulfilled lust for player agency in place of scripted action was demonstrated in 2012, when industry veterans such as Brian Fargo and Jordan Weisman used Kickstarter to fund RPGs in the vein of Baldur’s Gate, games in which player choice had drastic impact on the story and your survival. The public responded with millions of dollars. It was an appeal to nostalgia first, an admission that forcing brutal decisions on the player (upon which survival games hinge) wasn’t new, but it was still better than what riskaverse publishers were willing to serve up. Commodore Amiga titles featured survival, Resident Evil marketed itself as survival, and Wasteland offered post-apocalyptic player choice in 1988, but the fashion of the ’00s was to favour high-design, scripted action rather than chance you missing something. The campaigns of Call Of Duty 4: Modern Warfare, Uncharted, Gears Of War, and even the hallowed Half-Life 2 each tell exactly one story: the one intended by their designers. As Fargo
says on Wasteland 2’ s Kickstarter page, “We have tried to pitch this game multiple times to publishers, but they’ve balked. They don’t think there’s any interest in a solid, old-school type of game.” It’s telling that Sony Online Entertainment, now Daybreak Game Company, set to work on H1Z1 after DayZ had proved itself lucrative.
There’s also the matter of zombies: 28 Days Later arrived in 2002, Shaun Of The Dead in 2004, and 28 Weeks Later and I Am Legend in 2007. In addition to popular nostalgia for gaming forms gone by, film was enduring a fashion of its own, which cross-contaminated media with startling virility. Amid renewed interest in player choice, worlds wiped of civilisation proved a ready arena for ‘what ifs’ regarding human behaviour; they were settings to explore shades of grey, as opposed to the superhero staple of then-blockbuster gaming.
Resource management as the riposte to power trips, a very fashionable interest in worlds gone to hell, and democratic systems through which to realise these worlds: this was the environment in which the fundaments of ’90s survival could be brought back together and thrive.
This is a popular renaissance, so it’s fitting that fans were the first to combine these elements in modern games. A few days after Stalker: Call Of Pripyat was released in 2009, when he was less than a fifth of the way through the game as shipped, Nicolai
Aarøe began to change it. The resulting mod has garnered a reputation as one of the most expansive community contributions to any game. Its contributor list has some 75 names, who together have overhauled the game’s visuals, AI, physics, economy, food and gear with one aim: to make it harder to survive. Misery is an apt name for this harsh ‘full concept’ modification.
“I was really looking forward to Call Of Pripyat,” Aarøe says, “but… I was very disappointed. I don’t want to have my health regenerate whenever I eat a sausage! I don’t want to have the constant struggle of deciding what ammo I need to toss because there is ammunition lying around everywhere.”
After an immediate visual overhaul – the irradiated Chernobyl Exclusion Zone proving too cheery – Aarøe’s priority alterations began to echo the design choices of
Resident Evil. The player is humanised, situated in the middle of the food chain and made vulnerable to attack, mirroring real flesh and blood. Misery demands your attention, and when your eyes slip from the screen or you come up one calorie short, it kills you.
For this reason, many revile Misery, and it’s not hard to see that being sniped by AI across miles of murky heath might feel unfair. Perhaps it’s no surprise that Misery 1.0 was a solo project – who but Aarøe, with his military background, could find unrelenting struggle rewarding? Yet as of December 2014, Misery had been downloaded more than 600,000 times among a potential audience only as large as Call Of Pripyat’s playerbase. The spark for Misery 2.0, which weighs in larger than the original game’s files, came not from Aarøe, but the legion of modders who showered him with contributions, despite the initial project having been put to bed. The hunger for a back-to-basics challenge – “living on a stone, as we say in Denmark” – gnaws at an audience larger than any gaming marketplace in 2009 could have suggested.
“In modern society,” Aarøe says, “the only thing that we can really consider a struggle is keeping a balance between your work life and your private life. You need this escape, to be really tested in a survival environment to see how you would fare. We’re moving away from the Superman idea and towards the concept that we see in The Road, for example: this guy who just has one handgun and one bullet, and he could actually spend it on himself rather than an opponent. It is this harsh environment that I find so very appealing.”
Pre- DayZ, and before the masses rallied again around the computer RPG, scepticism surrounded the profitability of games in which the player is not only allowed but expected to fail, shackling survival to modders whose only investment was time. Though in 2008 Bethesda
dabbled in environmental threats with Fallout 3’ s radiation hotspots, the danger was static and overcome simply by being willing to buy or scavenge enough drugs to see you through. In Skyrim’s frozen north, you can swim among icebergs without even getting goosebumps – unless, that is, you install D David ‘Chesko’ Pierce’s hypothermia, camping and survival mod, Frostfall.
“Bethesda makes great games, and if it weren’t for them, we wouldn’t be making the mods that we’re making today,” Pierce says. “But they have this pattern where they like to design mechanics that become obsolete once you reach a certain level. I wanted to design something that cut across skill levels, cut across character levels and still remained relevant.”
In Pierce’s eyes, Frostfall is the solution to a design problem, not a new hurdle for masochists. It aims to expand the fantasy, to give meaning to storms and hunting and do justice to the masterful visual wilderness of Skyrim. When the environment rises against you, each journey becomes an adventure. On its completion, Frostfall 3.0 will be modular, splitting off camping, hypothermia and basic needs to allow its adopters fine control over the struggle of subsistence.
“Most players want an immersive experience,” Pierce tells us. “They don’t want a realistic experience. They’re two different things. In an immersive experience, you’re delivering an experience as you would like it to be. This is the Hollywood version of reality; it’s reality plus. There are other things that you don’t want to care about. It would be realistic to make a game like this where you have to worry about peeing. It wouldn’t necessarily be fun, it wouldn’t be immersive, but it [would be] realistic.”
Immersion has another name among psychologists: presence. It’s an area of particular attention in nascent media psychology, because unpicking the human brain’s ability to suspend disbelief when confronted with the worlds of film, television and games suggests new ways to engage audiences and forge more believable – if not necessarily realistic – media.
Werner Wirth’s 2007 paper Running Head: Spatial Presence Theory attempts to unify fractured presence theories from a field where the subject matter is evolving quickly. His team proposes that sitting down to play the likes of Skyrim prompts your brain to start constructing a model (technically termed a ‘spatial situation model’) of the fantasy land built from observations and your assumptions. Your brain then makes various checks against this model. If its hypotheses are not rudely punctured – by the game rejecting your interaction, or clipping through a rock, say – your mind can entertain the belief that you’re trotting about High Hrothgar doing unspeakable things to dragons, AKA a state of ‘spatial presence’. These are the same systems by which the brain accepts that real life is indeed real.
To maintain this mental model, a game must command your attention. In this instance, sensory depth (the volume of information you have to process) trumps sensory breadth (the number of channels by which information is conveyed, which is typically just audio and visual streams for games). In games where you’re required to scan the landscape and stay alert for food sources or descending blizzards, your attention becomes locked to the virtual world, at least until more pressing sensations interrupt because you haven’t drained your bladder in six hours. However, fatigue in the face of information overload is a risk, and perhaps this is why Misery dropouts jettison themselves from Aarøe’s militaristically precise Pripyat.
In the theory, the internal consistency of information is more important than how true to life it is. To use Pierce’s example, no survival game yet requires you to nip behind a bush every few hours to relieve yourself, and your brain accepts the world nonetheless. Come across a chunk of obviously missing terrain, however, and the delicate model you’ve built in your head implodes.
Other factors in creating spatial presence are your willingness to suspend disbelief and ability to fill the blanks with real-life experience. Fewer gaps are better, but where they do exist, the less of a leap required, the less risk there is of being snapped back to reality. So, according to this model, survival is uniquely immersive: it demands constant attention and, far from being a deterrent, the familiar nature of subsistence tasks means there’s less work for your brain to do in convincing you that the disaster scenario you now inhabit is more than the sum of its pixels.
Based on what we know about the brain, it seems more odd that survival and its enchanting psychology remained in the custody of modders for so long. However, it may be precisely that open, have-a-go approach that enabled these ideas to escape obscurity and achieve critical genre-forming mass. When Steam opened the way to self-publishing with Greenlight and Early Access, democratising development still further in the same year as Fargo’s Kickstarter success, community figures again took the lead. Although he’s now moved on from making DayZ in order to found his own studio, RocketWerkz,
Dean ‘Rocket’ Hall understands the realities of bringing an unproven fan project to market.
“I can’t say who they are,” Hall says, “but I was about to do a press conference and I asked someone backstage, who was working on quite a famous game also very known for modding, about [survival mechanics]. And they said to me that they initially looked [into] doing it, but they just couldn’t. Publisher-wise, it was a huge risk. Before DayZ came out, imagine you pitched DayZ to a publisher. They’d say you were crazy! And, in fact, I did have people say, ‘You’re totally crazy for doing that.’”
The cultural juggernaut that is Minecraft will have smashed the resistance of many creditors to open games in which player choice is paramount. Even at its most basic, the game hands the player a toolbox and tells them not to die. Hall, however, is sceptical of the mileage in truly directionless survival.
“If I play Minecraft, and I’m building stuff, why am I building it? There’s no risk! I don’t know why so many
“BEFORE DAYZ CAME OUT, IMAG INE YOU PITCHED DAYZ TO A PUBLISHER. THEY’D SAY YOU WERE CRAZY!”
“GAMES IN GENERAL DON’T NEED TO OFFER ESCAPISM ENTIRELY. WHY CAN’T THEY COMMENT ON REALITY?”
other people can just play those games, because I can’t. I need a reason! If I’m trying to survive, I think it’s so much more powerful if you have context. If you look at DayZ, the reason is you’re competing with everyone else. Multiplayer kind of gives you context built in.”
Competition isn’t always compulsion enough, however, and nearly all modern survival games conceal a damp psychological squib several hours in. The release of dopamine in the brain is what keeps us eating, having sex, developing skills and playing games. Humans get high on winning. Animals of all sorts change their behaviour in response to success and failure, though, as Burrhus Skinner’s operant conditioning shows: if an action results in reinforcement or punishment, we alter the form, frequency or strength of the behaviour as a result.
Jamie Madigan’s ‘Gold Rush’ ( E276) elaborated on the addictive effects of brain chemistry in the context of random loot drops, wherein reward defies prediction just enough to keep your neurons unloading dopamine. Every survival game trains you thus. Search each shack you pass and you might just come across some canned peaches. Congratulations, have a hit.
It’s the way these random discoveries are assigned value by the mind that makes survival games both peculiar and troublesome. In an MMOG, new pieces of gear can offer concrete improvement and every loot drop is exciting because it might make you even better able to achieve character-improving loot drops in future. This is positive reinforcement, the game delivering rewarding stimuli on the performance of certain behaviour. In theory, the loop can be sustained indefinitely; it’s the reason World Of
Warcraft expansions slap bigger, more enticing numbers on everything. Canned peaches present no longterm solutions, but stave off failure, and so the hit of finding them is bolstered by avoiding punishment in the form of the removal of rewarding stimuli. In other words, because you have peaches, the game won’t take away all your stuff.
It’s a formidable psychological loop, which enables survival games to provoke a rush from ostensibly boring tasks. But it’s unsustainable. As you gather more resources, the threat dissipates, leaving your mental model to meekly deflate. For games in which the sole objective is to exist, there is a critical mass of supplies beyond which starvation or want are irrelevant. You become untouchable, and as the potential for punishment diminishes, the dopamine flow that reinforces resource gathering dries up.
“I do think it’s a flaw in the formula,” Hall says. “If I can’t lose, it destroys my immersion. I’m just this vacuum cleaner collecting stuff! I hope I can figure out how to design against that. It’s a problem I have with a lot of survival games, including my own, and I believe the answer is context. I need to make you care about what’s happening beyond survival.”
Context to make us care was 11 Bit Studios’ starting point for This War Of Mine, which presents itself as an anti-war war game and invites you to live out the horrors endured by civilians in conflict. It’s one of desperately few games in which war lacks heroes and clear moral victors, challenging your will to live out a siege at the expense of your humanity. Strip out the bleak story, however, and you can see familiar cogs turning: This War Of Mine conforms to our survival rules.
“It was a game about war and about civilians,” says design director Michal Drozdowski, “so the whole survival thing actually came after thinking about the subject [matter] and thinking about what the people during a war have to struggle with. It’s a very natural thing that people in war have to survive.”
“We were convinced that we should not be thinking of the game as a specific example of the survival genre,” says senior writer Pawel Miechowski. What This War Of Mine achieves is akin to how
Frostfall casts survival as a solution to a problem: its subsistence mechanics work to reinforce a theme, as opposed to being the theme. This provides the internal consistency that enables the mental models of spatial presence theory to become our temporary reality.
“When you start to play this game, there is, for me, this really hard truth behind it,” art director Przemek
Marszal says. “Every one of us has this natural survival instinct. For example, my brother was so convinced that this was really true, and he was so truly sad that this can happen, that I think the game connected with this will to survive. You go into This War Of Mine and you believe in it. Games in general don’t need to offer escapism entirely. Why can’t they comment on reality?”
Last long enough without buckling under the weight of your atrocities in This War Of Mine and you’ll see a ceasefire. This is survival with a purpose, survival to convey a message, survival with defined limits supported for the duration by the threat of heart-rending negative punishment. Every corpse frisked and friend lost messes with your brain chemistry.
Listening to Hall speak of a need to contextualise survival after rummaging in its innards for years is like hearing the tide, having surged to its high point on the shore, begin to suck and rush backwards. Survival as a genre is a curio, dredged up alongside old-school RPGs thanks to a fateful conjunction of crowdfunding, Steam Greenlight and the whims of fashion. It’s telling that its prior existence is a mystery to many of the primal thrill seekers hungry to test their mastery over the wilds. Only now, after two years of experimentation with this family of psychoactive mechanics, are the limitations of survival for its own sake becoming clear. Rather than submit to another period of obscurity, though, survival mechanics and their open community heritage are providing clear reference for games hoping to immerse players in the darker side of human behaviour. The Steam crowd is applying the survival brand ever more freely, incorporating games with stories, messages and definite ends, and so it seems that this patchwork genre is a long way from finished.
The Frostfall (left) and Misery (above) mods both increase difficulty in the name of immersion. DayZ (below) is tough, too, but it emphasises social dynamics and competition
FROM TOP Dean Hall, creator of DayZ; Misery lead Nicolai Aarøe; David Pierce, the indie dev who made Frostfall
ThisWarOfMine (top) is built on survival mechanics, but StrandedDeep (above) is a more prototypical example. Resident Evil sold survival as a theme nearly 20 years ago
FROM TOP 11 Bit’s Michal Drozdowski, Przemek Marszal and Pawel Miechowski. All had senior roles on ThisWarOfMine