A Brief History Of Survival Games

As part of our government mandated Survival Week, I’ve taken a look into the long history of survival gaming, charting the genre from its origins to its present day obligation. Let’s dive in!

It bears repeating that the very first Survival Game was released in 1878, by pioneer developers Pickering’s Gaming Emporium. Being created at a time before anyone had ever had to survive anything in real life, looking back on Where’s My Pouch now, some of its ideas seem a little out there! You began as a lone gentleman, sat inside his study, and everything seemed tickety-boo. Until you reached for your pipe, and realised there was absolutely no tobacco to be found!

Ringing the bell for the boy brought no response, and perhaps where the real panic kicked in, a glance at the clock showed it was 11.15pm, and no one had brought you elevenses. Players would, at this point, likely venture to arise from their armchair and begin bellowing, but find it was to no avail. Those brave enough to poke their heads out of the study door would quickly discover the rugs unswept, pictures crooked, and rivers of lava running deep below the precariously balanced corridor remnants.

This brought on a spate of copycat games, the likes of Pantry Palava, I’m Sure I Had My Pocket Watch This Morning, and Who’s That Now?! But none saw any of the same success, and the genre quickly faded for a good few years.

It was in 1901 that a developer once again braved the market with an attempt to see the player struggle against hope. King Edward VII attempted to reverse the negative portrayal of videogames his mother had given toward the end of her reign, by creating gaming studio His Majesty’s Entertaining Pursuits.

With Alfred “Alferd” Packer so recently released from prison for cannibalism in the American colonies, the studio attempted to create a game based on his misadventures in the mountains of Colorado. Called Well-Fed Alfred, the premise was to see how long you and five companions could survive hunting for gold in the snowy wilderness of the Rocky Mountains, without resorting to eating anyone.

However, Well-Fed Alfred quickly ran into trouble, with headlines proclaiming disgust.

The massive PR disaster saw HMEP getting into severe financial trouble, and eventually being bought by EA who used the team to create annual entries in their ongoing Boer War series.

Of course, by the 1950s this was all long forgotten, and survival games were perhaps the most common genre of gaming. Massive hits like Perchance Was That A Wolf?, The Cotswolds, and Life Without Butter, saw the British development scene do roaringly well. While success stories from across the pond included Flee, Bison! and the Mark Twain inspired Jelly Party.

This heyday couldn’t last however, and the 1960s saw the genre significantly fall from grace. Some put this down to a saturation of the market with churned mobile titles like Survive This If You Must and It’s Probably Snowing Too Much, while others blamed the dirty hippies. Whatever the cause, it seemed the survival game had entered its own game of trying to survive but not being able to survive very well at the survival of a genre that had become unpopular.

No one would make a survival game again until as late as 1988, when brave outlier team Crop Top Games, backed by Bruno Brookes, announced the development of Deserted Treehouse. And I hardly need finish that story! The clean-up lasted months, but what a time it was for everyone involved.

As the 80s turned into the 90s, survival gaming once again became part of the landscape. We even saw a version of Well-Fed Alfred released, completed by a team comprised of former members of both Red Stain Vitriol and Jeepers! and ghosts of two of the original development team. An attempt to stir up promotional controversy was mostly unsuccessful, due to the much more commonplace acceptance of cannibalism by then, but the game went on to see moderate sales, and of course received the fondly remembered sequel, What Shall I Do With All These Bones?

Few remember, but it wasn’t until as late as 1998 that the creation of a survival game was obligatory for all registered game development studios. From then on, until today, when receiving your license to develop, it became required to release at least one survival game – whether survival horror, survival simulation, etc – within the next three years.

Some now argue this rule is draconian but they very quickly disappear, and of course we think it’s a splendid rule and welcome it into our lives with open arms and suitable deference. Hurrah for the survival game law!

What a heady, twisty-turny journey its been for survival gaming. Obviously this article isn’t allowed to go into further detail, but hopefully it’s revealed a few surprises, and helped distract you from the endless drums.

22 Comments

  1. Premium User Badge

    Lexx87 says:

    That was silly

    (In the best of ways of course!)

    • slerbal says:

      You are right, the remake of Well Fed Alfred was indeed very silly. It lost all of the original’s charm. I always felt it was nothing more than a cash in.

      • Premium User Badge

        distantlurker says:

        Dumbed down for console monkeys.

        Story of our short, cannibalistic lives :(

        • RedViv says:

          At least the original got a very highly acclaimed adaptation into a moving opera, proving its superiority and the relevance of stories that have only ever been made famous via the medium of computerised games.

        • Bugamn says:

          A shame. Anyone up to discuss it over dinner?

    • Morte66 says:

      I wonder what will come next? We’ve had zombies, and survival. Perhaps a wave of strategy-with-personality games riffing off CK2? That wouldn’t be so bad.

      • statistx says:

        say no more and look towards Double Fine’s “Massive Chalice”.
        It’s a little CK2-light-y and even tosses in some Xcom styled fights.

      • krevvie says:

        I realize nobody will probably read this, but I want CK2 personality/strategy game mechanics in so many more genres I can barely stand it. It’s like once you see it, you can’t believe it hasn’t been done more often. How has nobody made a Mafia/Godfather type game without that? Or a Battletech (or Mechlords; Sim-Tex 4 lyfe) great-houses-style struggle? So many possibilities out there.

  2. RQH says:

    I remember my father used to play Where’s My Pouch secretively after us little ones were meant to be in bed. So of course we would sneak into his study and play it when he was not around. I remember it being very crude but no less frightening for it. We never could figure out how to get past the snake pit in the downstairs foyer.

    • dylnuge says:

      That snake pit is one of the harder moments in any video game of history. They just don’t make modern games like they did back in the Gilded Age.

  3. caff says:

    I’ll admit I laughed when I scrolled into Bruno Brookes’ face.

  4. daimonahte says:

    Hang on, you were supposed to try and AVOID resorting to cannibalism in WFA?
    Gosh, is my face red.

  5. LexxieJ says:

    Christ, talk about sloppy journalism. Everyone knows that Where’s My Pouch was actually first released in 1877, and only came out in the colonies in 1878.

    Poor show!

  6. Cardinal says:

    Disappointed you didn’t cover Resident Weevil

  7. redredredguy says:

    “Government mandated Survival Week” sounds alternately fun and horrifying.

  8. Shadowcat says:

    Bravo!

  9. Crusoe says:

    Has there really been no mention at all of Project Zomboid this week, or have I somehow missed it? Played it online with my flatmate on a PvE server yesterday for six hours, and it was a fantastic experience.

    C’mon.

  10. Poppis says:

    What movie/show is the first picture from?

  11. geldonyetich says:

    It’s said that the victors define history. If this article was not a victory, it was at the very least a favorable draw.