Game Swap: UnReal World

Game Swap is a new series in which one person recommends another a game they might like. This week, Adam suggests that Alec plays wilderness survival roguelike UnReal World [official site], still in active development after a quarter of a century.

Adam: Everyone enjoys roguelikes these days, or at least they refer to some of the things they enjoy as roguelikes. There was a time when I felt protective of the term, initially not acknowledging anything as a roguelike unless it had ascii graphics, then allowing graphical tilesets but drawing the line at interfaces that didn’t use every key on the board at least twice, and then, eventually, accepting that, hey, maybe Metroidvanias are roguelikes too.

I still go back to the first roguelikes I played though and they’re still among my favourite games. Unreal World particularly is closest to my heart.

The original Rogue was never one of my favourites, but Nethack, Ancient Domains of Mystery and Stone Soup never leave my hard drive. Then there’s my new favourites Cogmind and Golden Krone Hotel. And Alphaman still lingers for some reason, probably because it was one of my first. And you can kill mutant Elvis with a raygun.

More than any of the dungeon-crawlers and baddie-killers, I love the life sims that have sprung out of the roguelike soup. Dwarf Fortress is the most famous – a game that simulates creation and centuries of history before you even start to play – but RimWorld takes up more of my time these days, thanks in part to its friendlier interface.

I will always come back to Unreal World, though. You only control a single character, but there’s a whole generated world to discover. It’s far from a traditional roguelike, set in the open air rather than in dungeons, and based in north Europe during the Iron Age. It is, primarily, a survival game. That’s a genre in and of itself these days and Unreal World does share some DNA with The Long Dark, my latest love, but nothing compares to the complexity and detail of Sami Maaranen’s game, which has been receiving updates for nearly a quarter of a century.

I recommend it to people all the time, never sure if they’ll get lost in it or be lost by its complicated interface and harsh demands. I’d hoped that Alec would appreciate its enormity, even if he didn’t feel compelled to spend a lifetime out in the cold.

Alec:. My reaction when Unreal World came up wasn’t horror, but there was a sort of grim resignation. Oh, of course he’s going to give me something that’s incredibly hard work.

I knew roughly what it was already, and with it a sense that it would be almost aggressively obtuse. I don’t mind difficulty or having to figure mechanics out for myself, but I’m highly/over-sensitive to having my time wasted. There is a certain school of games which seems consciously opposed to user interface accessibility – that not kowtowing to the mouse’n’tooltip crowd (i.e. 99% of humanity) somehow makes them infinitely more noble. I think it’s holier-than-thou snobbery.

Of course, UnReal World has the excellent excuse that it’s been in development since 1992, a land before time when it comes to UI standardisation, but hell, if they can stick in new terrain generators and update it for modern operating systems and continually patch it for all that time, they could sure as hell update the interface and controls too. But that would be cowardice and selling out, right? Fie.

But, I know, all this reflects on me as much as it does UnReal World. I’m getting older and more time-starved, so the mere thought of having to slowly teach myself something that differs from the norm is probably more unappealing than it should be.

I am nonetheless keen to fix a blindspot, I’m increasingly taken with roleplaying games that broadly sidestep the fantastical, and I’m only filled with admiration for a game that’s been so single-minded in its focus for so long. I just hope its archaic, stubborn nature doesn’t keep me from getting to the good stuff.

Adam: Let’s talk interface first. I used to argue long and hard about the need for the big complicated interface in games like this. If (Q)uaff was the way I had to drink a healing potion but (q)uit would dump me back to DOS without saving, SO BE IT. That was never so much because I didn’t question the complexity, I think it was more to do with the way playing games on a PC was back then. If I had to edit my autoexec.bat and config.sys to jiggle memory allocations so that X-COM would run, then writing out the keybindings for a game that seemed infinitely more complicated than the other RPGs in my life seemed perfectly reasonable.

And I did used to do that, write out all the keybindings. What a time to be alive.

I’ve lost my patience with the millions of inputs approach to UI though. Having never designed a UI in my life, I’m confident in saying that there’s nothing in Unreal World that wouldn’t fit in nested menus rather than on lower case and upper case keys, spread all over the place. It’s not just a learning problem, it’s that if things are hidden in the interface, or buried, then they might as well not exist. If you don’t know how to skin a man and eat him, then perhaps you never will.

Have you done any cannibalism yet?

Alec: I didn’t do much 90s rogueing so, while I’m familiar with the control tropes from revisiting a few subsequently and obviously doing the mandatory Dwarf Fortress stint a few years ago, it simply isn’t second nature in the way I’m guessing it is for you. It feels as though someone’s swapped everything around for some twisted joke, rather than the straight-to-the-metal directness I imagine that veterans/die-hards feel it is.

UI whingeing

I don’t mind a hotkey in and of itself, and indeed there are standards I demand from any game in that regard, but it’s that a button does something completely different depending on whether you’ve got capslock on or not that really killed me to start with. Granted, this was over-complicated further by the fact that my screenshotting app is bound to capslock, but even so, it just feels arbitrary cruelty to, for instance, have Drink Water and Quit bound to the same bloody button.

I’ve got the rudiments under my belt now, and even though I’m still ritually hitting the wrong buttons or becoming confused about, say, the rather pointless splitting into completely different menus for building lumber-based products and turning felled trees into different sorts of lumber, I no longer feel as though someone switched my car’s steering wheel for a keytar.

There is very obviously a very smart and magnificently possibility-packed game here, and I do feel sadness that it’s effectively deterring a huge amount of people from playing it in favour of what, from the outside, feels like zealous adherence to an imagined purity.

No cannibalism yet, but winter has only just begun. Given that my character tends to exhaust himself or near-freeze to death trying to catch even a single fish, it does rather seem as though clubbing and eating the next wandering traveller I meet is all but a forgone conclusion.

Adam: A lot of the appeal, for me, is the setting – historical rather than fantastical. You touched on that earlier and it’s one of the things I hoped you’d enjoy. At the same time, I’ve been playing it for so long that I find it hard to say why I was drawn to it initially. Essentially, it’s a game about doing relatively mundane things. A camping simulator. I think part of what I enjoy about that is the small details that make me think about my character and his/her actions in a way that I don’t when I’m just bumping into monsters to make experience points fall out, but partly it’s just the change of pace.

Even though surviving is hard, there is a plateau that you reach and from there you can actually start living it up a little. Hunting and trading and even building your own cabin and creating a little farm, with livestock and pets. Do you reckon you’ll stick with it and see if you can make a home?

Alec: I’d certainly like to, but I suspect life will get in the way. Also I just bought a second hand copy of FFXV because I’m so exhausted by childcare that drooling at something from the couch is the only thing I can manage to do in the evenings at the moment. UnReal World is hard work – not in a punishing way, but it’s a lot of effort for minor achievements.

Definitely digging the setting – I like a bit of Norsery at the best of times, and the extremely buttoned-down approach here entirely speaks to my tastes. I spent the first hour or two having a bit of a wobble about whether there was something bigger I should be doing, if I should be voyaging further out or looking for trouble, before settling into a happier groove of, as you say, camping.

Night in the woods

I had my little shelter and a little fire, setup near a river which yielded fish reasonably reliably, and I began to make some inroads into setting up a more permanent home. The sheer work it was obviously going to take became a bit galling however, so I did end up travelling elsewhere, finding a couple of villages and helping a lost guy reach safety (he taught me some herbalism to say thanks). I was very taken with the quiet amiability of it, that in the main people just calmly co-exist, all getting on with their own subsistence. Though I suspect things may kick off more in the depths of Winter, when survival is a more significant factor.

In terms of the interface, I’ve come around a little to the idea that the hard work of it is thematically appropriate. Where something like The Forest, with which this has a certain amount in common, makes the act of chopping down a tree a simple matter of hammering the mouse button a few times, this really wants to make it clear that, as in life, tree-felling is long, involved, exhausting work. As such, navigating all these keyboard commands to chop down a tree, chop the fallen trunks into blocks and boards then haul it all ‘home’ makes every single act of lumberjackery feel like a significant achievement. I’m all for that kind of escapism, even if I wish the menus weren’t quite so horrid.

There’s real mood here too. Clearly the old-fashioned appearance presented an initial shock to the system, but once I was past that I really felt the loneliness and the cold, believed entirely that this was a vast and wild world. It has flavour and it has spirit, in spades.

Adam: There’s a karma system, which I think is still hidden (and some players dispute the existence of, or at least did back in the day), and it’s that rather than the onset of winter that can have the most dramatic impact on your wellbeing. At least in my experience. Actually, that’s not entirely true because winter is a terrible time, but the world becomes less friendly if you act like a dick. That goes for killing people, making sacrifices and doing other unpleasant things. Like the cannibalism.

There are occasional messages that pop up that seem to relate to that, either telling you that the world feels tranquil or that the forest seems hostile. Stuff like that. What I find really interesting is that I’ve never seen definite confirmation as to what that means – people reckon it might make fishing and hunting trickier, or that injuries fester for longer, or that you’re more likely to meet hostile humans. Others reckon it’s all confirmation bias.

A little bit of low fantasy

The game does have this spiritual element to it though. You can perform rituals and improve your chances of having a successful hunt, or of making a fire. I like that. It’s both a way of giving players something to do, to manipulate the odds directly, and a way to teach a little about this little pocket of semi-fictional history.

It’s the superstitions about karma that I enjoy the most though. It’s kind of amazing to me that a game can exist and be in a state of change for so long – twenty four years! – and have a little belief system spring up around its mechanics. I’m sure someone has pulled the code apart, dug through its entrails and found the numbers that prove or disprove it all, and analyse precisely how it works, but I don’t want to know. There’s a mystery behind the mundanity of wood-cutting and fishing.

I’m not going to use this as another reason to defend the interface, but I do think some of the mystery is found in between all of those key presses. It’s true that if doing something necessary or entertaining is hard work, that is Not Good, but it’s also kind of brilliant when the pieces fall into place and you find something you never knew was possible.

Alec: I don’t disagree in principle, I just feel that the particular way it is done here is more a pain in the dangly bits than it needs to achieve that effect. Stuff like the lower case/upper case split, how some stuff is in the skills menu and some stuff has its own key – a sort of flab. Then again, if the alternative is Minecraft style guess the recipe structures, I’d probably be sighing too. Impossible to please, me.

I mentioned The Forest earlier, and I am fascinated by how much of UnReal World is in modern survivo-craft games. Quite possibly entirely unconsciously. But, essentially, this feels like the roots of the 21st century tree-punching game, yet its relative complexity and slow-down ensures that its basic acts of logging, hauling and building feel truly essential to the experience rather than numbing grind within an otherwise high-speed game.

If my life was slightly different, I’d definitely be up for long nights in UnReal World’s woods, gnawing on hard-won fishbones. I’m very glad that I know it now, and I think more people should know it too. I hope the dev isn’t entirely closed to doing more things to make that happen.

Adam: I totally agree on the proto-survival game thing. And it makes me hope that Steam will one day be flooded with more accessible versions of Dwarf Fortress’ big daft splendid box of tricks as well.

There’s positivity here, tempered by very fair criticism of the interface and the demands Unreal World makes on your time. But let’s hear it: Hit or Miss (Pip went with Hit-ish for her instalment of Game Swap earlier in the week so I’ll allow such shenanigans)?


Alec: Oh, hit. No qualms there. It knows exactly what it wants to be and works so hard to share that essential fantasy with the player that even an issue as significant as Nightmare Interface Designed By DOS Snobs Who Believe That Right Mouse Buttons Are A Betrayal Of The One True Way Of PC Gaming cannot truly undermine that. My hope is that UnReal World is still in active development when the time comes for me to retire, and then I shall happily sink long months of my fading life into it.

Adam: Give it another twenty four years and it might have a decent interface as well.


  1. Baines says:

    I used to argue long and hard about the need for the big complicated interface in games like this.

    I was arguing on the opposing side twenty years ago, so maybe I argued against you at some point. I understand the power user argument, that every action on its own key was more efficient for seasoned/skilled players.

    But it went far beyond that. It wasn’t just the power user argument; it was a flat out aversion to change. People argued against contextual actions because they wanted to keep their weird and often useless edge cases. People argued that reducing the number of keys would itself force games to become more simplified, first ignoring the possibility of and next arguing against action menus. Some people stated seriously the belief that mouse controls should automatically disqualify a game from being considered a Roguelike.

    Mind, before that people argued about numberpad movement.

    • teije says:

      It’s a common conflation that complex UI = complex game. Some have the very odd notion that creating a user-friendly UI is tantamount to “dumbing down” the game for the consolized masses. You often run across this kind of attitude on the Paradox forums.

      Related note, been enjoying Caves of Qud lately (despite it’s awful UI :). An intriguing little rogue-like, set in a far future post-apo setting. Gets a major update every week, and immensely fun mutation system.

      • Premium User Badge

        Waltorious says:

        Caves of Qud is fantastic. I wrote about it a few times on my own blog, although I have not had a chance to play it recently (and therefore have not experienced the latest additions):

        link to

      • ButteringSundays says:

        For all the hand-wringing I see from gamers about bad UI there seems to be little consensus about what actually constitutes it.

        I always see people proclaiming that Dwarf Fortress would be so much more popular, if only you could navigate 5 pull-down menus instead of hitting two logically consistent hotkeys! The UI would be so much simpler!

        The thing with UI is that there are always trade-offs. But in my humble opinion the UI for Unreal World, Qud and yes, even DF! Work really well. Yes, they take a whole 5 minutes to learn (the hotkeys that is), but the payoff is that every single thing you do is quicker and easier. What I’d give for a hotkey UI for Prison Architect, for example, rather than having to go through all those tile menus trying to work out what pile of Flash cartoon is a bed and what pile is a cabinet. The mouse is a fantastic device, but it doesn’t excel in all areas. (RE: UW) Whacking the corresponding letter with the option I’ve chosen is far quicker and easier than navigating to it using a mouse – a mouse I’m probably not even anywhere near. They’re games you play with your keyboard, so why would you want to switch devices to navigate a menu?

        If you only intend to play a game for an hour, then the UI needs are wholly different than if you intend to sink 200 hours into it. And nobody is picking up Unreal World, Qud or DF for a quick bite – so increasing the dextral workload to save having to remember that [b] means build is kind of pointless.

        (I’ll speak nothing of the DF military interface, as that’s an entirely different subject all together – and I will concede that it has it’s quirks)

        • ButteringSundays says:

          This is also the first time I’ve seen anyone complain about the Qud UI, incidentally. But I guess it uses similar mechanics to the others, so it’s hardly a left-field complaint. I still don’t get it, though.

        • ButteringSundays says:

          *I will concede that it has it’s quirks

          I wanted to expand on this a little as my main comment fails to address one thing that I do consider very poor UI in DF, and something that I gather most people would agree on. And that’s inconsistent move/scroll behaviour. Sometimes it’s HJKL, sometimes +/-, sometimes arrow keys – it’s madness, frankly.

          I’m totally down with a hotkey interface, but consistency is key.

        • Marr says:

          The problem with hotkeys is that to a newbie, they present the game’s verbs as an undifferentiated wall of text with no contextual clues as to what’s intended to be used where, and which four buttons are actually relevant to the first hour of play. It’s so much easier to learn a new game world if you can just point at things and be presented only with the two or three different actions relevant to that item.

  2. Premium User Badge

    Drib says:

    Tried this, bounced right off. And I’ve played hundreds of hours of dwarf fort.

    But Unreal world is one of those deals that sorta seems neat, but I just can’t get into it. I bit like Eve Online, in a sort of way.

  3. racccoon says:

    Hilarious photo bombs

  4. JB says:

    I do love me some UrW. I think “It has flavour and it has spirit, in spades.” sums it up best for me. I’m so glad it exists.

    • Shiloh says:

      Yep, agreed, great game, it’s one I come back to over and over again.

      I bought a life membership a good while ago now and I’ve never regretted it. Hyvää työtä Sami!

  5. MajorLag says:

    “There is a certain school of games which seems consciously opposed to user interface accessibility – that not kowtowing to the mouse’n’tooltip crowd (i.e. 99% of humanity) somehow makes them infinitely more noble. I think it’s holier-than-thou snobbery”

    Yes, possibly that’s the case, but consider this: UI programming is kind of a pain in the ass. Game programming is already kind of a pain in the ass but it has its own kind of fun when you finally get things working the way you want and get to play around with it. UI programming is just consistently tedious work.

    This is also the reason so many fantastically useful Ope Source projects have no or crappy UI, I suspect.