Video game genres sometimes come and go like a flash in the pan, but a particular strain of relatively new titles that’s not going anywhere is survival games.
The genre has become quite popular in the last few years; a cursory glance at Steam reveals dozens of open-world games that are all about just trying not to die in the woods.
Of course, the overwhelming majority of these games remain unfinished (which is no coincidence, given that they become popular at about the same time that Steam’s Early Access program came about). Trying to stay alive in the wilderness would be a curious pastime for any person in real life; what makes trying to do it in a video game so appealing?
The first and most obvious reason why players love survival games is the same reason they love all difficult games: the challenge. From the heyday of brutally difficult arcade games until now, gamers have always gravitated toward the chance to prove themselves.
A lot of players like to see how they’d do in a difficult situation; until the last few years, those challenges almost exclusively involved overwhelming waves of foes or difficult dungeons. Now, they also encompasses trying to start fires in subarctic Canada or preventing a shark from making off with Wilson the volleyball.
There are lots of survival games that try to offer up a meaningful challenge, but only a few do it well, and they wouldn’t be so popular if they weren’t so fun. There is a genuine thrill to being inserted into a digital wilderness and trying to balance hunger, thirst, and not getting a limb torn off by an enterprising wolf.
Sure, it can be difficult if not frustrating to get the hang of such a challenge, but getting the hang of it is in itself rewarding.
Another reason that players have come to love survival games is that the best ones offer up a meaningful world and atmosphere. ARK: Survival Evolved is a small child’s fantasy about attempting to coexist with dinosaurs, while The Long Dark gives off a thoughtful post-apocalyptic vibe.
These charming worlds have become as much of a reason for players to get immersed into survival games as, well, survival. Charm certainly hasn’t hurt either ARK or The Long Dark’s sales numbers.
The first survival games to crop up on Steam weren’t hard to understand: just keep the player character’s hunger, thirst, and sleep meters topped off and all’s good in the wilderness. Most survival games also featured adverse forces like uncompromising weather or wild animals.
This simple setup was enough to sate survival players’ hunger for a good long while; Early Access survival games skated to unimaginable financial heights off of eating coconuts on islands (hey; if that can sell a vacation, it can sure sell a game).
Fast forward a few years later to 2017, and audiences’ tastes have changed. Consumers are no longer interested in simply surviving for the sake of the challenge; many of them want a compelling story or to feel like they’re doing more than babysitting a hunger meter.
For a survival game to cross the gap from monitoring meters to providing that meaningful experience is no small task, but a few titles have managed to do it. The Long Dark crossed that chasm by introducing show-not-tell storytelling to its world’s environments and an atmosphere built on solid sound design. ARK: Survival Evolved emphasized player cooperation, creating the potential for deep (and funny) multiplayer storytelling.
Survival games that haven’t yet achieved that stage of evolution have started to suffer. Players are no longer interested in simply keeping meters full; they want a more compelling, creative reason to do that than simply avoiding a game over screen.
A lot of survival games on Steam have also suffered because, frankly, they’re either terrible or have been in Early Access for too long (or both). Incorporating story and atmosphere into a survival game is not a guarantor of success, but that’s where the genre’s most successful titles have gone, and where the successful go, so too do keen aspirants.
Ultimately, it’s a good thing for survival games to push players to do more than just nurse a health meter. The challenge of trying not to die in a harsh landscape makes for a great storytelling tool, one that more and more developers are thankfully taking advantage of.
Games like The Long Dark are meaningful for both providing that challenge and building upon it in a creative way. That’s the way this genre seems to be going, and there’s never been a better reason to get into it.