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The 20 best survival games on PC

Live, die, repeat

We’ve been battered by wave after wave of survival romps since Minecraft popularised the genre, with its deadly nights and groaning zombies, almost a decade ago. In its wake, we’ve been introduced to a cavalcade of punishing, persistent environments intent on putting us in an early grave.

The masochistic impulse to put ourselves through the wringer for entertainment has spread to RPGs, management games, cosmic sandboxes and more than a few horror games, so even if you don’t fancy punching rocks and trees while wandering around in the wilderness, you might still find a survival game to tickle your fancy.

With that in mind, this greatest hits list is quite broad and includes plenty of hybrids, though I’ve drawn the line at Amnesia-style survival horror. A few early access games have also made the cut, though only those that could halt development today and still be worth playing.

You can change pages using the previous/next buttons above and below the text on each page, or by using your keyboard’s arrow keys.

20. Rust

Getting started in Rust can be a bit of a pain in the arse. After waking up naked and clueless, you’ll spend hours smashing rocks and chopping down trees like a Stone Age drone. If you’re lucky, you’ll go unnoticed for long enough to put a little base together, but chances are that you’ll become a snack for wild animals or a target for other players long before that.

Playing solo, the vast majority of your interactions with other players will be aggressive, belying the fact that forging alliances and cooperating is the best way to protect yourself. Working together, players can create fortified towns, surrounding them with automated turrets and traps, and from there try to dominate the server.

Once you’re able to protect yourself, Rust’s appeal becomes more apparent. A gathering expedition is a lot more exciting when there’s a chance you’re going to get in a shootout with packs of other players. The competition creates predators and prey, which can lead to highly imbalanced fights, but that makes it all the more satisfying when you start fighting back and winning.

What else should I be playing if I like this? If you want to start more survival games with your genitals out, there’s Conan Exiles.

Read more: Rust review.

19. Ark: Survival Evolved

As you begin your new life by punching the bark off trees and picking plants, you might be forgiven for thinking Ark: Survival Evolved was a pretty typical survival game. Then you start taming dinosaurs.

Have you ever wanted your very own T-Rex friend? Ark lets you live out that dream, allowing you to turn the king of the dinosaurs into your pet, along with all sorts of other dinos, big and small. They’ll protect you, let you ride them, and it turns out they’re great for storing all your junk. Imagine the possibilities: your tribe is attacking an enemy base, but it’s heavily fortified, so what do you do? Jump on your pterodactyls, of course, using them to drop all of you on the other side of the walls.

The taming system is robust enough to hang the whole game on, but Ark also flings in loads of other diversions, from intimidating world bosses to special events. You can be a homebody, establishing a village and farms with the flexible building tools, or you can strike out into the wilderness in search of adventure, hunting for special engrams that will allow you to craft the flashiest gear.

All of this does rely on careful managing of various meters, whether your own food, water and stamina, or the umpteen skills you need to learn to unlock new levels and be able to build this or tame that. It can be grindy, particularly if you’re playing it solo, but if you’re working together with friends the same system assures a steady stream of new stuff to unlock.

Notes: Of course there’s a battle royale version.

What else should I be playing if I like this? The Isle might scratch your dino survival itch.

Read more: Ark: Survival Evolved review, Brendan finding Ark’s players surprisingly friendly, how accurate are Ark Survival Evolved’s dinosaurs?

18. Frostpunk

It’s hard to feel proud of a decision in Frostpunk. With the world frozen over and the last dregs of humanity huddled around a titanic furnace, you’ve got one overarching goal: keep them alive. So when one of your citizens has an accident and would rather die than have an amputation, do you interfere? Population growth, when it happens at all, is glacial, so even one death can be a serious blow.

To keep people alive, they need warmth and food, but that’s easier said than done. It’s not enough to plonk down the right buildings and start sending your citizens out into the wilderness to hunt for resources. You need to nurture a society that can weather an ice age. If you’ve run out of coal, you can use the emergency shift law to force workers to stay at their post for 24 hours, netting you the coal you need to last another day. Your workers won’t be too pleased, however, and you might just be setting yourself up for an even bigger disaster down the road.

Trying to find a balance, keeping people content and alive, takes a lot of fine-tuning, but that’s the heart of Frostpunk. Even when a revolt is brewing and the frost is encroaching, there’s always a chance that moving some workers around or enacting a new law might save you. Even if things look like they’re going your way, you’re really teetering on a knife’s edge, and it might only take the sudden appearance of some refugees to shatter the delicate ecosystem of your city.

What else should I be playing if I like this? If harsh management games with crappy weather float your boat, check out Banished.

Read more: Jeff Freezos: a diary of Frostpunk doom.

17. Minecraft

Minecraft is best known for the creative endeavours it’s inspired, like building all of Middle-Earth, but there’s a survival game in there too, full of deadly nights and Creepers waiting to blow up everything you’ve worked so hard to create. Hunger, thirst and death accompany you as you dig underground and explore infinite, procedural worlds full of monsters and dungeons.

A brilliant crafting system means that you have a great deal of freedom when it comes to how you survive. You might build automated systems and sprawling mines, becoming an industrial powerhouse; or maybe you’ll choose the simple life, rearing animals and growing crops. All the resources you generate from your mines and farms can be turned into handy items, or you can sell them in NPC villages.

All the mods and game modes mean that you can essentially build your own survival game, or you can focus on something else, like building a flying pirate ship with a bunch of mates. And if you fancy an additional challenge, there’s a hardcore survival mode that deletes the entire world when you die. It’s not for the faint of heart.

Notes: Minecraft is going dungeon crawling in 2019.

What else should I be playing if I like this? Infiniminer started the whole blocky craze.

Read more: Should kids be taught in schools using Minecraft?, The Living Minecraft.

16. DayZ (early access)

After almost six years in early access and frequent delays, everyone seems to have cooled quite a lot on this survival sandbox. Even Dean Hall has moved on from DayZ. It will soon be moving into beta, after years of teasing, but the shine has worn off a little bit, especially now that there are just so many survival games out in the wild.

It remains, however, a great survival game, at least when it’s not falling apart at the seams. If you’ve grown tired of the gathering and crafting loop that dominates the survival genre, DayZ might feel like a breath of fresh air. There’s crafting, sure, but it doesn’t drive the game. Rummaging around in the detritus of civilisation for food and gear is what you’ll mostly be doing, punctuated with tense encounters with other players.

When players buy into the post-apocalyptic world and get their roleplay on, that’s when DayZ lights up. That’s what made it such an early success: all the stories of being held up at gunpoint by other players, and all the fleeting alliances and subsequent betrayals. The one that sticks with me the most was from one of the first times I played. A sniper trapped me inside a police station, and for the better part of an hour, they toyed with me. I died of dehydration.

You’ll notice I haven’t mentioned zombies.

Notes: DayZ started life as a massively popular Arma mod, which also served as the foundation for Brendan “Playerunknown” Greene’s first battle royale mod.

What else should I be playing if I like this? Scum takes DayZ’s physical simulation and runs with it, giving you a realistic metabolism to manage, teeth that can get knocked out and (most importantly) the ability to poop.

Read more: Every Death You Take: Perma-Permadeath in DayZ.

15. Project Zomboid (early access)

Another zombie survival game that seems reluctant to leave early access, Project Zomboid is an isometric sandbox that drops you in a town and tasks you with simply not dying, which is easier said than done when hundreds of zombies are waiting to make a snack out of your brain.

Project Zomboid’s obsessively detailed simulation deserves top billing. Take vehicles, for instance; they’re a recent addition, and they pretty much function like real cars. You can lock them, break into them, hotwire them, fiddle with the thermostat, muck around with the radio, strip them for parts – everything’s taken into account. There are practical reasons for all this granular detail, so you’ll benefit from temperature controls during extreme weather while smashing a window to break into a car will make it less secure if zombies attack.

This simulation extends to the natural world, as well, so it takes into account precipitation levels, snowfall and temperature, and then the world reacts accordingly, physically changing and putting new demands on players. It’s all tremendously ambitious, and the long development time makes more sense when you see what’s been added over the years.

What else should I be playing if I like this? There’s no dearth of zombie games, but if you’re wanting to be up to your neck in animated corpses, you’ll be wanting to play Dead Rising.

Read more: Forever Undead: Dean Hall And Indie Stone Talk Zombies.

14. The Forest

Years after it first appeared on early access, I still vividly remember my first encounter with The Forest’s tribe of mutant cannibals. I’d just finished building a shelter when I saw one of them, standing motionless, staring at me. And then they vanished. I panicked, of course, and ran deeper into the forest. They dashed between trees, silently, and it was impossible to tell how many of them there were. There could have been two or three, or a whole army of them. I was lost and frantic and, finally, unconscious. When I woke up, I was in their larder, surrounded by meat. Human meat.

The Forest is a stressful, terrifying nightmare. At night it’s even worse. That’s when the cannibals get bolder. If you see their torches flickering in the distance, you’ll know you need to find somewhere to hide. You’re not entirely helpless, though. You can surround your base with traps and fortifications, taunting the cannibals to try their luck.

The developers made some tweaks to the encounters before it left early access, so dealing with the cannibals is now easier to start with. They’re unsure what to make of you, spying from a distance and sneaking around your camp. Eventually, they start launching attacks, however, and before long you’ll be fighting for your life against bands of bloodthirsty mutants. They’re ferocious, but they’re clever, too, working together to take you down, and protecting their injured. These aren’t mindless monsters, but rather a whole society that’s determined to turn you into dinner.

Notes: The Forest is a prime example of the ‘I’ve lost my son but I don’t really care’ genre of games.

What else should I be playing if I like this? You might fancy trying your luck against the Amazon in Green Hell.

Read more: The Forest review.

13. State of Decay

State of Decay is my all-time favourite zombie survival romp, despite the fact that it’s held together by chewing gum and sellotape. It’s a rough diamond of an open-world game, putting you in charge of a group of survivors amid an undead apocalypse. It’s like the greatest hits of zombie disasters, full of safe house sieges and bands of survivors fighting off shambling corpses.

The dynamic world is constantly coughing up desperate scenarios that might cost you one of your buddies. A quick excursion into town could devolve into a heart-pounding fight as the shop you’re looting suddenly becomes surrounded by a sea of zombies. They’re attracted by noise and activity, and a previously empty area can fill up surprisingly quickly. You’ve always got to be ready to flee.

State of Decay’s best anecdotes are the product of emergent disasters, not the rubbish scripted missions. I couldn’t tell you a single thing about any of the characters the plot introduces, but I can tell you about Allison. She was just a random survivor, one of many I encountered, but she was memorable for having the worst luck of anyone I’d ever met. Every time she ventured out of the safe house, she’d get into trouble, requiring me to drop what I was doing and mount a rescue. She was like a magnet for zombies, and keeping her alive just became part of my routine. I’d select a few houses to explore, then I’d make sure I had time to drag Allison out of her latest mess. Sometimes I’d just be driving down the road, and there she’d be, getting mauled on the pavement. Classic Allison.

Notes: The Breakdown DLC gets rid of the story, turning State of Decay into an endless, increasingly tricky sandbox. The Year One Survival Edition remasters State of Decay and includes all of the DLC.

What else should I be playing if I like this? Maybe State of Decay 2, though Brendan wasn’t very impressed.

Read more: Have you played… State of Decay?

12. Darkwood

Darkwood is so thick with dread that you almost have to wade through the forest. It’s a top-down, 2D horror affair that limits your field of view and then fills the shadows with things from your nightmares. You’re never getting the full picture, and any number of bone-chilling creatures could be lurking just out of reach of your torch.

When the sun is up, you can go outside and explore, scavenging for resources, but when night falls, you’ve got to get back to the comparative safety of your cabin and prepare for the worst. Board up windows, move furniture around, set traps underneath windows and next to doors, and then wait. At first, it’s just noises – scratching at the walls, knocking, banging – but it won’t stay that way. Eventually, your barricades will be smashed into splinters.

The forest is surreal and always changing, moving further and further away from reality, so you’ll always feel like you’re on the back foot. You can’t trust the Darkwood, or the people who dwell within it.

What else should I be playing if I like this? Try the bewildering, unsettling Lone Survivor.

Read more: How killing permadeath in Darkwood led deeper into the forest.

11. Astroneer (early access)

Playing Astroneer makes me incredibly happy. Survival should be hard, according to most survival games, but Astroneer is built on a wild new idea: what if it actually wasn’t hard at all. Madness! The only thing you need to worry about it oxygen, but as long as you’re hooked up to a base or a vehicle, you’ll never run out, and you can keep topping up your own supply. With that taken care off, you can start expanding quickly, going on long expeditions into gorgeous alien frontiers. Rather than a rugged survivalist, you’re a scientist, studying new worlds and developing research outposts.

By jumping straight into advanced technology, you get to play around with rockets and construct factories while, in another survival game, you’d still be putting together your first log cabin. Before long, you’ll be flitting off to new worlds and moons, searching for more resources and scientific curiosities. Even without the struggle, Astroneer has plenty of momentum.

It’s a lovely co-op game, too. It can be lonely, planet-hopping, so it’s nice to have company, and that extra pair of hands means you can bring more back with you from expeditions and start embarking on more ambitious research and construction projects earlier. Since it’s entirely cooperative, absent even the subtle competitive streak of Don’t Starve, it’s not the type of survival game that will test friendships or devolve into arguments over who was meant to bring the spare battery.

What else should I be playing if I like this? Space Engineers is a good source of cosmic co-op shenanigans.

Read more: How Astroneer makes crafting fun.

10. This War of Mine

Between this and Frostpunk, it’s clear that 11 bit studios clearly has a knack for creating tense, miserable survival management games. This War of Mine is set during a fictional war, tasking you with looking after a small group of survivors stuck inside a besieged city.

During the day, survivors have to stay indoors, and that’s when you manage your hideout, choosing how to spend precious, fleeting resources. There are so many demands, but so few problems you can solve at once. Invariably you’ll be worrying about medicine, food, fuel and repairs, but you’ve also got to watch out for the mental health of your survivors.

When the sun goes down, you can choose a survivor to send out into the darkness, to search for supplies in the ruined city. Terrible things happen out there. Your survivor might have to commit horrific acts to get the medicine and food their friends need, returning to the base covered in emotional scars. Guilt and shame can weigh on survivors, making them lose their appetite and even their will to live.

This War of Mine isn’t remotely pleasant, then. It doesn’t glorify war or the ability to survive one; it tells harrowing stories and forces players to wrestle with the ethics of survival. With its more intimate perspective, it’s also quite a bit more effective than Frostpunk. It’s not easy to care about 100 faceless randos, but I felt completely responsible for the wellbeing of Boris, Katia and the rest of my survivors.

Notes: This War of Mine’s The Little Ones DLC adds kids to the game, with 10% of each purchase donated to War Child.

What else should I be playing if I like this? Sheltered hits some of the same notes, but you’re looking after a family in the post-apocalypse.

Read more: This War of Mine review.

9. Sunless Sea

The unterzee, Sunless Sea’s cavern-bound ocean, can make you rich. With a stalwart crew and reliable steamship, you can cut through the murky, underground world, discovering new ports, smuggling opportunities and quests. But simply getting from A to B is a bit of an undertaking. Sure, you can hug the eastern coast for a while, staying close to lands and towns, but eventually you’ll need to set off into the unknown of the open sea.

Your ship needs fuel to move, while your crew needs supplies to survive. Along with morale, they are the most important of Sunless Sea’s resources, at least when it comes to survival. If you run out of supplies, your crew will be forced to take drastic measures. It can all go a bit Donner Party. A crew with low morale, meanwhile, might stage a mutiny, or start to lose their grip on reality, throwing themselves overboard. Sharks, giant crabs and pirates prowl the water, but it’s the less tangible things you’ve really got to worry about. You’ll see all sorts of strange things as you drift further away from civilisation, and the harder it is to explain them, the closer to madness your crew will get.

Survival is just one of many tools in Sunless Sea’s storytelling arsenal, and spinning yarns is its raison d’être. Failbetter spent years developing Fallen London, a gothic browser game, before embarking on Sunless Sea, and all that experience writing about this universe has benefited the nautical sandbox immensely. As weird as the unterzee gets, it’s completely convincing and supported by some remarkable worldbuilding. You can arbitrate a war between intelligent rats and guinea pigs, and if that doesn’t make you want to jump in your steamship, I don’t know what will.

Notes: The Zubmariner DLC unpleasantravel beneath the unterzee, and not surprisingly, there are some deeply unpleseant things lurking down in the dark.

What else should I be playing if I like this? Cosmic follow-up Sunless Skies is still in early access but looks very promising.

Read more: Sunless Sea review.

8. Terraria

Your first instinct might be to conflate Terraria with a 2D Minecraft, what with all the mining and crafting, but Terraria pinches just as much from action games and RPGs, sending you below the surface of its randomly-generated worlds to kill monsters and snatch loot. And because every dungeon worth its salt has a village full of people ready to help adventuring heroes, you can build one yourself. With shelter, NPC chums and workstations, you’ll be able to make increasingly more ambitious expeditions.

Since it launched all the way back in 2011, Re-Logic has lavished Terraria with updates, so there are a bewildering number of magical weapons and handy tools you’re able to craft, and plenty of monsters to test them against. The further into it you get, the more wild it becomes. When you get your first grappling hook, suddenly the world opens up, but eventually you’ll be flitting around on hoverboards or flying with the aid of a magical cloak.

You could lose yourself for days in the Wiki, reading up on how to get rocket boots or guns made out of sharks, but the joy of discovering things for yourself is also a huge part of Terraria’s appeal. It’s full of surprises, and you never really know what you’re going to find when you start chipping away at a cave wall with your pickaxe.

Notes: A Terraria spin-off was in the works, Terraria: Otherworld, but Re-Logic shelved it.

What else should I be playing if I like this? Direct your pickaxe towards Steamworld Dig 2.

Read more: John’s adventures as a Smurf in Terraria.

7. Starbound

It takes me an agonisingly long time to get anywhere in Starbound because, like a magpie, I’m constantly being drawn away from my objective by yet another shiny thing. The sheer number of diversions and items you can crash is almost overwhelming. Sure, you’ll start with the familiar stuff first, like mining ore so you can make a shitty sword, but further down the line you’ll be constructing space stations and terraforming worlds.

When you’ve just placed your very first forge in your very first mud hut, it can be hard to imagine that one day you’ll be fighting in space and building huge sci-fi cities, and it certainly takes a lot of time to get there. But there’s so much to do in between! There’s a whole galaxy to explore and an overwhelming amount of things to discover. You might be wandering around on a random planet when you happen across a huge anchor, and above it, a flying pirate ship. Digging underground, you can encounter everything from ancient temples dedicated to eldritch gods, to research labs populated by ape scientists. It’s a pretty lively place.

I confess that I typically play on the casual difficulty. It means you don’t have to worry about hunger, and there are no additional penalties for death. I prefer exploring without having to make sure I always have some meat in my pocket. Hunger can drive a survival game, but Starbound doesn’t have the scarcity to make starvation a meaningful problem. It’s just a nuisance. Even without hunger, there are other survival concerns. Acid rain, extreme temperatures, hostile aliens – there’s no dearth of ways to die.

What else should I be playing if I like this? Oxygen Not Included is a very different kind of space survival game, but if you like the idea of running space stations and colonies, it might be your cup of tea.

Read more: Has Starbound been improved by its updates?

6. Pathologic

To say Pathologic is unlike any other survival game is a little bit redundant, as it’s unlike any other game, regardless of genre. It’s a survival RPG that’s laced with psychological horror. Your goal, playing one of three healers, is to uncover the source of a plague that’s slowly killing an otherworldly town, and you only have twelve days to do it.

The town has its own rhythm and schedule, and events will occur whether you’re there to participate or not. As the plague spreads, the town’s inhabitants can start dying off, leaving them unable to provide you with information or help on your quest. Avenues are constantly being closed off, while others won’t open at all unless you’re playing as a specific character. And you won’t learn anything at all if you get sick or become malnourished.

Survival games are typically wilderness survival affairs, but not Pathologic. The town creates all these different ways for you to get by. You might, for instance, hit up some of the locals and try to find something to barter with; alternatively, you could choose to engage in less scrupulous activities, robbing and stealing to survive. And for everything, there’s a consequence, though not always overt. You can increase your reputation by easing the pain of the ill, but those might be resources you need later, or for yourself. The whole game is a gloomy, ethical conundrum.

Notes: Pathologic got the HD remaster treatment a while back, and there’s a proper remake – reboot? reimaginaing? – in the works, called Pathologic 2.

What else should I be playing if I like this? There isn’t anything really like Paralogic, but Ice-Pick Lodge’s other games, The Void and Knock Knock, are the closest.

Read more: Quinns’ three-part dissection of Pathologic.

5. Don’t Starve

Keeping you belly full is a persistent concern in Don’t Starve, but running out of nutritious grub is far from the only threat facing any survivors unlucky enough to get trapped in this gothic wilderness. Killer bees, territorial pig men and giant, one-eyed birds can all send you to an early grave, but other dangers are less tangible. Even your own mind can become an enemy, summoning shadowy hallucinations whose attacks are all too real.

You’ve got to push through it all, venturing out into the sanity-reducing wilderness to hunt for resources to feed your science and alchemy machines. It starts off rather conventionally – search for food, gather resources, build simple tools – but eventually you’ll be making effigies out of meat and establishing pig men villages. And it’s a race, to get home before it gets dark, and to build up before the world becomes even more dangerous. Every step you take away from the safety of your campfire or base puts you more at risk, but the call of adventure is alluring.

It’s such a great disaster generator, too. I won’t soon forget my first encounter with a Treeguard, one of Don’t Starve’s boss monsters. I needed some wood, so I was merrily chopping down trees, only for one of them to spring to life and start battering me. I did the only logical thing: I set fire to it with my torch. That’s what you get for being dumb enough to be made of wood. Unfortunately, that just pissed the Treeguard off, so I bravely ran away. As it chased me, the fire spread, and before long the forest had been replaced by an inferno. And that’s how I became a pile of ash.

Notes: Don’t Starve’s brilliant co-op, Don’t Starve Together, takes some of the pressure off, but also throws in new wrinkles, like competition over food. Since finishing its stint in early access, it’s now free with the base game.

What else should I be playing if I like this? If you don’t mind getting a bit wet, check out The Flame in the Flood.

Read more: Don’t Starve review.

4. Neo Scavenger

Neo Scavenger never arbitrarily makes you better. Killing lots mutants won’t give you experience, and it won’t suddenly give you a trait that makes you a more effective mutant-murderer. Instead, through failure and success, you’ll learn the best way of dealing with whatever crisis you come across. Every fleeting life is an opportunity to experiment and practise, even though you know it will probably be cut short in an unexpected way. But then it stops being unexpected, and next time you’ll be prepared.

It’s the best kind of permadeath. Starting again is exciting because it’s a chance to test out a new character build, mixing and matching different abilities and flaws. Certain locations are fixed, but the map does get reconfigured when you start a new life, so won’t be constantly repeating the same journeys.

There’s more than a hint of Fallout in Neo Scavenger’s wasteland, especially if you survive for long enough for the story to start unfurling, but where Fallout is a post-apocalyptic power fantasy, Neo Scavenger never passes up an opportunity to remind you how vulnerable you are. This is a game where a little scratch can ultimately kill you. It’s merciless, but only if you look at each abrupt life as a failure, instead of what they really are: self-contained fables.

What else should I be playing if I like this? Neo Scavenger is pretty singular, but if you like hexes and exploration, Renowned Explorers will keep you busy.

Read more: Five times Graham died in Neo Scavenger.

3. Rimworld (early access)

Rimworld’s stranded colonists have a lot to contend with: wild animals, raider attacks, diseases, drug addiction and even their fellow colonists. It’s a harsh place, and keeping them alive takes a lot of work. Out of this adversity comes an infinite supply of emergent stories. One of my colonies failed when the best hunter snapped after a nasty divorce and turned on his friends, while another turned to cannibalism after a harsh winter, kidnapping people and turning them into dinner. I didn’t say they were nice stories.

The elaborate simulation means that surviving amounts to more than just keeping colonists well-fed. If one of your colonists gets into a big fight with their partner, spiraling into a depression and refusing to eat, it won’t matter if you’ve got a freezer full of food. And what if that colonist is also the only doctor? Now, if someone gets badly injured, which is bound to happen, they might not be able to get the medical aid they so desperately require. Everything from stress to unseasonably hot weather can spell doom for your colony.

Not surprisingly, I’ve become pretty familiar with failure, yet I’ve still not tired of starting over again and again. There are just so many wildly different paths to take. I’ve built colonies inside mountains, nurtured villages of farmers, led a band of raiders and tried to get rich by starting a trading company. It’s mind-bogglingly open, and even after poring countless hours into the early access version, I’ve only scraped the surface.

What else should I be playing if I like this? Oxygen Not Included – it doesn’t have violent raids, but it does have a lot of pee.

Read more: Brendan’s Rimworld diary.

2. Subnautica

Survival games don’t come more alien than Subnautica, or less hospitable to human life. Stuck on an underwater planet, you must delve below the waves to find food and resources, eventually constructing you very own underwater bases and submersible vehicles.

3D movement and a lack of oxygen make even the mundane act of gathering bits of scrap a tense adventure. Danger can come from any direction, and if you stay underwater for too long, you’ll get a nasty reminder that you’re the alien on this world, dying as you gasp for air. Vehicles, air pumps and oxygen tanks allow you to stay under for longer, however, and the more familiar you become with the world, the more the ocean starts to become home.

Entering a new area, you’ve got to quickly figure out if the giant fish that’s heading straight towards is you going to turn you into a light snack, and how you’re going to survive if it tries. Massive forests of kelp, labyrinthine underwater caves, infinite voids that contain creatures the size of small islands – every biome feels like its own little world. You’re more Jacques Cousteau than Bear Grylls, cataloguing the denizens of the ocean and trying to unlock its mysteries.

While there’s constant pressure to eat, drink and, obviously, breathe, Subnautica is also an uncommonly relaxing survival game. Despite myriad threats lurking in the water, it’s predominantly about the peaceful, thoughtful exploration of a stunning alien world.

What else should I be playing if I like this? If you want to try surviving on top of the waves instead of beneath them, take a gander at Raft.

Read more: Subnautica is the ultimate gaming safe place.

1. The Long Dark

I was cold, hungry and utterly lost, so the power station that appeared as I reached a gap in the forest was like a beacon of hope. I was sure I could find resources inside, and if nothing else it was shelter. I ventured inside. It was dark, but I was just able to see enough to begin eagerly looting the place. I found warm clothes, tough boots and the jackpot: a medicine cabinet. Before I could open it, death leapt out of the shadows. The wolf had its jaws around me before I could ask, “Is that a wolf?” And that was the end of me.

The Long Dark’s vast, snow-blanketed wilderness is a harsh and uncompromising place, even without all the ravenous wolves. The survival mode is an open-ended test of your mettle, dropping you into a freezing world and then leaving you to find your own way. You’ve got to find shelter, and then venture out to find supplies, all while trying to keep your calorie intake up and your body warm. Getting ready to leave the shelter feels like planning a wilderness expedition. My forays out into the cold always start with me standing beside the fire, packing my bags and going over the route in my head.

You have to worry about your basic human needs and very little else, but that’s actually a pretty big job. You’ve got to work out your diet, how far you can travel on a full stomach, exactly how much time you’ll have before it gets dark and the temperature plummets, and then there are the contingency plans for things like blizzards – you’re not popping out for a quick drink.

There are lots of fascinating interpretations of the survival genre in this list, but The Long Dark sticks to the fundamentals and works magic with them. Instead of filling journeys from A to B with enemies, competing players and more junk than you could possibly know what to do with, The Long Dark fills them with atmosphere. Hikes are fraught with tension, as you keep an ear out for wolf howls and pray that the wind doesn’t pick up. There’s still occasionally time to play the part of tourist, however. The map is a starkly beautiful slice of Canadian wilderness, so who could be blamed for taking a break from scavenging to snap a few shots?

Notes: An episodic story mode, Wintermute, adds some context to the struggle for survival. The first two episodes have already been released, and three more are in development.

What else should I be playing if I like this? Though not a survival game, Firewatch feels a lot like The Long Dark. Both games are profoundly beautiful and exceptionally isolating; most of the time it’s just you and the trees.

Read more: Weather watching in The Long Dark.

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Fraser Brown

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Premature Evaluation caretaker. Likes strategy games almost as much as he likes labradoodles.

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