In early 2012, a mod for Arma II called DayZ was released. Two-and-a-half years later, its odd mixture of multiplayer, horror, and a need for players to keep themselves fed and watered, has given rise to the survival genre.
Let’s celebrate that genre.
Take a look at the most popular games on Steam right now and the list is littered with survival games: Don’t Starve, Unturned, Rust, 7 Days To Die, The Forest, and Life Is Feudal to name a few. The last year has also seen the release of The Long Dark, Eidolon, Salt, Unturned, and The Stomping Land, to name a few more.
DayZ didn’t create the genre – Minecraft came out in 2010 with some similar ideas, Wurm Online had many similar mechanics before that, and the first version of UnReal World was released over twenty years ago. The elements that make up the survival genre have existed for a long time. But DayZ seemed to be the moment when the genre took root; the right game at the right time, capitalising on trends and technology.
Here’s what Jim wrote in his second post about the game, in May 2012.
This unfinished modification is more interesting than 90% of games that will land in the same year. It is a game that – for many people – represents this kind of experience we were promised. An open-world, persistent, zombie game, where survival is the goal, and where each encounter with another real human being is a moment of terrible tension. What’s astonishing about this unassuming zombie mod is that it manages to take what is most interesting about MMOs – persistence, co-operation, risk of genuine loss in PvP – and add them to a multi-server FPS. Not just any FPS, either, but the monstrously deep simulation provided by master soldier sim, Arma 2. It’s unflinchingly bleak. It offers freedom, while threatening destruction. The stories that result from it are enthralling.
The kind of experience we were promised: videogame stories as something more than occasionally interactive movies; multiplayer games as more than capture the flag or paintball, with added gibs.
DayZ – and survival games – feel obvious precisely because they’re such a logical extension of everything videogames have been building towards over the past decade. They’re like Son Of Videogames – a second generation design, and as fine an example of the medium’s growth as violence-free walking sims.
Jim identifies the persistence, co-operation and risk of PvP in MMOs, but you can draw a line from the survival genre in almost any direction and hit an idea that seems to be borrowed from elsewhere. Half-Life’s environmental storytelling leads to the way setting is used to pull you around the world of survival games, say, or the difficulty and permadeath of the already-resurgent roguelikes.
They’re games with a naturalistic design, beyond the emphasis on nature in their setting. They tend to have no cutscenes. They’re not filled with quest markers. You’re not arbitrarily collecting one hundred baubles to unlock some achievement. This makes them forward-thinking, but they’re still distinctly videogame-y – you’d lose important parts of them in the translation to either film or board games.
You are still, of course, collecting lots of things, by punching trees and punching dirt and punching animals, but survival mechanics have an odd way of justifying a lot of traditionally abstract, bullshit-ish game mechanics, or of making technological fanciness relevant to actual mechanics.
For me, that’s most obvious in the way that they engage you with a landscape. PC games are about terrain, and I love stumbling across some fertile land or bustling city, and I feel frustrated when that environment is slowly revealed through play to be nothing more than a soundstage. Collectables are a traditional motivation to explore, but the need to eat – to find some life-giving berries – binds you to a place, pulls you from A to B more purposefully than a fetch quest, makes your decisions meaningful, and makes a single bush as exciting a discovery as any unique, handcrafted art asset.
After a number of stumbling starts in DayZ’s mod, I eventually broke through its fiddly installation, shoddy servers and empty worlds, and lost myself in the world of Chernarus. I still remember each of my deaths, but one stands out in the charnel house of memory. I’d survived for nine hours but a series of misfortunes had left me with only one loud rifle, two bullets, and no food. My best chance of finding something to eat nearby was inside a power station; the problem was that it would be swarming with zombies, and any gunfire would only attract more.
It was while lying in some bushes on a hill above the station, considering my options, that I saw another player in the field in front of me. They had a better weapon, a larger backpack, and were moving towards the station.
I came out of the bushes and walked down towards the person. I don’t know what was going through my mind – I didn’t have voice comms at that point, but I typed hello. This person said hello back, pointed their weapon at me, circled around, deemed me unthreatening and turned away to start back towards the power station.
I was starving to death. I had no chance of getting inside that power station. But I did have two bullets. We were far enough away from the zombies here that I could…
Until now, I’d never killed any other player in the game. Oh well. I raised my gun and fired into this other player’s back. I ran over to where they’d fallen to ruffle through their backpack.
As I crouched, something hit me. A bullet. I was bleeding, badly. I looked down the hill, but I couldn’t see anything – just some bushes. Another shot, only this time the bullet pinged into the field in front of me. I turned and ran, breaking for the bushes I’d been hiding in earlier, back at the top of the hill. I reached them just in time to pass out from blood loss.
Over the last month of planning this week’s content, we’ve been talking a lot in the RPS chatroom about what a survival game actually is. The best rule of thumb we’ve come up with is: you should be able to die through inaction. Find a safe space away from any monster, walk away from the computer and come back sometime later and you should find your character having passed away from starvation, dehydration, exposure or some other downward ticking meter.
Is The Sims a survival game? Maybe.
That moment of slow expiration on a cold hillside belonged to me because it wasn’t scripted by a designer, but it was shaped by systems crafted by a designer. That’s survival games.
I made a meaningful decision and was met by meaningful consequences. Both were depicted with physics and flavour resembling life, and not with stats and floating damage numbers. That’s survival games.
That power station looked like all the other power stations in Chernarus, but I’ll recognise its unique placement if I ever see it again. That Arma-derived world isn’t procedural, but its artistic limitations no matter when space and place can be imbued with player significance. That’s survival games.
It’s too easy to say that we know them when we see them, but survival games are post-genre in the best possible way: they borrow from everything and so are strictly defined by very little. There are survival games that are top-down and 2D, like Don’t Starve. There are survival games that are plainly realistic, with no enemies but the elements. There are survival games set in the distant past and the far future.
And we’ll be writing about a lot of them over the next week. The last five years have been marked by a staggering diversification in the types of experiences you can have in PC games. Survival games are an important part of that, so let’s have fun picking at them, celebrating them, and talking about them.
You can read more Survival Week articles over here.