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A Brief History Of Survival Games

1878 - 2014 RIP

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 always bears repeating that the very first Survival Game was released in 1878, by pioneer developers, Pickering’s Gaming Emporium. Having been created at a time before anyone had had to survive 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, everything seeming 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 11.15am, 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 the 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. 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.

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About the Author
John Walker avatar

John Walker


Once one of the original co-founders of Rock Paper Shotgun, they killed me out of jealousy. I now run buried-treasure.org

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