Survival Games Versus Pottering About

This post was originally published as part of the RPS Supporter program

I’m playing a lot of Subnautica [official site] at the moment, spending hours beneath the waves, doing the floaty equivalent of pottering and gardening.

I think the reason I’m having so much fun, despite being historically infuriated by survival games, is that one mode allows you to ditch the hunger and thirst constraints. I’m still surviving in that I worry about my oxygen and my health and I like how that guides and paces my exploration. There are constraints to navigate but not the constant irritant of hunger and thirst as it tends to manifest in this tranch of gaming.

I think my biggest issue with food and drink in survival games (and this is a general point rather than a specific one as I refuse to play Subnautica in anything other than my beloved Freedom mode) is how narrow it makes your scope of activity.

I’m one of life’s potterers. I love tinkering and tweaking and honing in on little details and being amazed or enthralled by things. In survival games, thirst and hunger tend to cut across that. There’s no space to wander and to enjoy or stretch out into the space because you tend to be scrambling around looking for wells and streams and sources of nutrition.

I get that you’re supposed to be SURVIVING and that you’re probably in a wilderness or a post-apocalyptic mess of a place so you would be stressed and desperate. That’s fine. But it’s not what I enjoy about gaming so I tend to shy away, even if I would enjoy some of the aspects of the experience enormously.

I also find that there’s a strange tension that this weird fake cyber body’s demands introduces. If I’m exploring and surviving I tend to be in first person mode, trying to make the experience as close to “me” as possible. But then there’s this constant pull of a thirst and a hunger that seems, so often, completely out of kilter with what I think a body would actually need in that reality.

I end up half playing the game as a survivor and half playing as the mother of a newborn, meeting incessant demands to be fed and watered as other heavily armed newborns (or AI wolves or whatever) prowl nearby. I don’t think I’ve ever found a game where that hunger or thirst system felt right. It’s always this weird mechanical layer that I can’t seem to integrate into my play experience.

But perhaps it’s because I potter. I would probably die from pottering after the apocalypse.

[FYI, during our Survival Week I wrote another supporter post about this topic, but that was about the deceit of survival game bodies, in case you’re interested]


  1. caff says:


    It’s true though, the mechanics of survival games are a bit ridic. The Long Dark gets it right more so than most.

    • jonahcutter says:

      The Long Dark actually is one of the most mechanical of the survival genre. And it’s one of the things that turns me off to what is otherwise a great game. You constantly watch a literal calorie counter in that game.

      It’s great for min/max type of gameplay. But it badly blows the immersion.

      • anHorse says:

        I’d argue that Long Dark works because it’s a genuine survival game where you’re struggling to survive

        Most survival games are closer to treehouse building games with hunting and the like present as a sort of side activity necessary because of the food gauge but it’s not actually engaging gameplay.

        I found Long Dark absolutely engaging because hunger was an absolute threat and I was always on the brink of death

        • jonahcutter says:

          I agree, Long Dark is a great survival game.

          But I find immersion in its incredible atmosphere and solid gameplay badly undercut by things like the calorie counter and plethora of search bar watching. Its mechanics are very… mechanical. Glaringly so, considering how well done the artistic and atmosphere design is.

    • communisthamster says:

      I would say Don’t Starve strikes the perfect balance point of all the player resources, making it feel like a good struggle to keep going on all counts rather than just occasionally nagging you to refill your bars, Far-Cry-2-Malaria style.

  2. jythanatos says:

    Yeah. I agree. I play this in Freedom mode as well. I find the constant demand of food and drink to be a negative for me. I’d rather just be enjoying all of the other aspects of the game. When a game feels more like work than fun, I turn it off. So I love that I can play without Thirst and Hunger.

    • jythanatos says:

      I think that is why I don’t really like Civ type games(but I keep on buying them when I see a good review). Too much busywork for me to really enjoy. Whenever I play those types of games, I turn it to Easy, and just play around with the systems.

  3. GameCat says:

    Meh, just because most of games handle hunger and thirst as binary “if these bars goes down to zero, you’re dead” it doesn’t mean it couldn’t be a good game mechanic.

    For example, I’m still waiting for RPG where I need to stock on food and drinks before venturing to another city or wilderness. Will you bring a ton of food for safe journey, but you will not be able to take all the found junk with you or maybe you will just get a little and hunt some deer or rabbit on your way?

  4. itchyeyes says:

    I actually quite like the survival mode in Subnautica. Food/Water are obviously an immediate demand in the early game, and I could see how people could get turned off by it if they expected it to remain at that level throughout the game. But Several mid-game technologies substantially free you up. It becomes less about making sure you have food/water available, and more about how the resource cost to maintain the facilities that produce your food/water balances against your current game priorities.

    For example, the Water Filtration Machine pretty much solves all water needs as soon as you discover it. But it also sucks down a lot of power, which is difficult to generate deep down until you discover Nuclear or Thermal generators. So it turns what would be an annoying gameplay mechanic into an interesting challenge with multiple solutions (for example you can: keep making trips back to the surface for water, rush for better power technology, or construct elaborate power supply systems for deeper bases)

    • CyberSaber says:

      I actually find no reason to ever build a deep base except for boredom or the ‘because I can’ factor. There is no real gameplay reason to do so. The seamoth makes getting whatever resources you need trivial, and travel times trivial as well. The items you need in bulk (quartz, titanium) are all found around the safe shallows. All other items you can get more than enough just in your inventory and maybe the storage upgrades.

    • Gaminggumper says:

      Even in the early game simply making a habitat with airbags/peepers resolves both fairly quickly. It slows your early progression while you get setup, but once crafted food is a non issue.

  5. Day0ne says:

    my post apotterlyptic pace always involves a nice sit down in a tattered armchair. Bethesda have my back on that one.

  6. AliasRY says:

    I just realised that this is probably the biggest issue that has stopped me from enjoying the Sims. Huh.

  7. vorador says:

    Currently playing The Solus Project. Interesting that this one has no base building, so you have to scavenge, find shelter and survive while exploring an alien world. The game also is pretty flexible, so you can go from full hardcore survival to directly cheating, and everything in between.

    It also has VR support, but since i lack a headset i haven’t been able to test it.

    • TheSplund says:

      The Solus Project is rather good and you don’t feel like the survical element is forced, it just fits naturally – too many survival games seem to me to be extravangant Tamagotchi’s

  8. Velleic says:

    Pottering > survival for me – I play Minecraft in Peaceful mode. Though I didn’t find hunger too bad, more those mean baddies who murder me when I’m trying to explore. I definitely don’t miss hunger now it’s turned off, though.
    I prefer exploring every last little corner to making a mad dash back home because I’m out of food.

  9. Sleepery says:

    I’ve never understood the radical implementation of food and water requirements in survival games. It’s completely immersion breaking in a genre that’s usually trying to be as immersive as possible.

    Nothing like a quickly ticking deathclock to put me right off.

  10. geldonyetich says:

    Later versions of Subnautica somewhat diminish the difficulty of feeding yourself with base upgrades. One generates bottles of drinking water (and the separated salt). There is also a larger aquarium that you can breed fish in, essentially assuring an unlimited food source. If that wasn’t enough, there’s also planter pots that you can plant fruit-bearing bushes and trees in. But I guess if you’d rather write off that bother completely, that’s fine too.

  11. Mr Propellerhead says:

    “… doing the floaty equivalent of pottering and gardening.”

    Sputtering and gargling?

  12. FreshHands says:

    Ok, basically everyone has said it before – but opinion, away!

    Survival games and their eating/drinking/whatever mechanics suck big udder. I mean, honestly, who told them that’s the way to do it?

    Although a live-action show on a lonely island would be hilarious.

  13. Pinballhouse says:

    The hunger/thirst in Subnautica isn’t really that bad once you know how to produce your own food and water. Simply build a large aquarium and put 2 of the same fish in there, they’ll breed and you’ll have an endless supply of food to cook and eat, fill tummy up before heading out. Bulid more than 1 water filtration machine for water, before you know it you’ll end up with storage full of bottles. Sure when you first play subnautica the water/food issue can be frustrating, but only because new players don’t really know the ins and outs of the game. I see no fun in freedom mode, you need something to keep you on your toes and make it challenging.

  14. zubrim says:

    I play resembles a landing on Mars 20 .. any year. Only instead of the red desert of water, a minimum of resources to survive. And further the knowledge and ingenuity to save and ulutsheno colony. in the future, which will start the expansion of humanity over longer horizons. Because the issue of food, air and water is the most urgent!

  15. VileKiller says:

    As a game reviewer, you should probably avoid playing games in a cheat mode that might not be around in the next patch. It colors your experience to a point where you can’t really give honest advice on a game, because you haven’t “really” played it.

    But, way to fight the female gamer stereotype.