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I want more games to redefine what 'survival' means

Mainly so I can be good at survival games

I think we can generally agree that one of the main functions of video games is wish fulfillment. They let you believe you might not only be a powerful and competent person, but also the most powerful and competent person in the universe (and if that is not the case, why do Bethesda games even exist?). And, that being the case, survival games occupy a strange twilight world for me. I really wish I was good at them, because I really like the idea of most survival games.

I can barely survive my actual life when that includes sitting in a nice warm flat eating roasted, salted cashews from a bag that was sealed by a huge and complex robot the size of a warehouse, that was created specifically for the bagging and sealing of roasted, salted cashews. So pretending that I would, if I got stranded on an island or survived an apocalypse, be at all capable of doing anything other than lie down and wait for death to come to me is pure power fantasy. Except, I am very bad at most survival games.

Don't Starve, a survival game where I have never not starved.

I cannot even succeed at the fantasy of survival. They confront me with my own feelings of inadequacy. Thus, like a red-faced 15-year-old boy confronted by teenage girls, survival games are objects of both unattainable desire and impotent rage.

I desperately want to stand on the moutaintop of a one-woman civilisation I have built with my two hands, the foundations made from combining chewed up mushrooms and rowan twigs and the summit a wonderous log-cabin mansion with attendant automated pig farm, surrounded by impassable fortifications to hold back a tide of ravenous bears. But I am not capable of the combination of time management, analytical thinking and derring-do that success in strategy games requires, so I usually turn the game off in a fit of self-disgust after about an hour - or the third time I die from sepsis, whichever comes sooner.

But there is a light at the end of the proverbial tunnel for me, because there are a bunch of survival games around that are sort of redefining what "survival" might mean.

The Trebhum, the herd of willy-shaped creatures you control in The Eternal Cylinder

The Eternal Cylinder, which is out later this year and is three penises in a trenchcoat pretending to be a normal survival game, has some of the usual gubbins like having to eat and drink and watch out for areas that are too cold, but there's no gradual building up of a safe home. You're constantly running away from a big horrible rolling pin (so the pace is in some ways similar to The Flame In The Flood). Survival is just the survival of one of your little tribe of critters, and the passing on of the knowledge you have accrued; there is no list of tasks to be performed every day in order to cling, limpet-like, to the safety you have gradually carved out.

There's also Among Trees. Among Trees does have a list of tasks, but they are things like 'go to the river and collect driftwood' or 'hike to the place where the cattails grow' or 'water the beetroots in my greenhouse'. Among Trees is about living in absolute peace in a forest, rather than constantly being stressed that you might die of thirst if you don't find a radioactive puddle in the next five minutes. There are occasionally bears, I admit, but if you're a big coward like me you can turn the bears off, and then you just have to remember to not eat the poisonous mushrooms.

And today I played a bit of Cozy Grove. It is a misnomer because it plainly isn't a grove, it is an island haunted by strange cuboid bear ghosts, but I suppose that isn't as catchy as a title. I'm also sort of cheating describing it as a survival game because as far as I can tell you're in literally no danger of dying and it self-describes as a life-sim. But it feels like a nice kind of survival game.

The reason Cozy Grove (which is indeed very cozy) feels like a survival game is that the island starts off all grey and washed out, and then by helping the different ghosts they turn a whole bit of the island all nice and colourful again. It's like those magic pictures aimed at children too small to be trusted with loads of coloured paints, where all you need is water and suddenly the paper blooms all over with primary colour.

I am still very early on but I already have a pet ghost bird who likes the rustic table and chair decorations I built for my camp. I have been rewarded with scout badges for fishing and building and talking to the ghosts. I am gradually reclaiming and taming the Cosy Grove, and I am restoring the memories of the ghosts, who were sad lonely spook-clouds until I, a Spirit Scout, turned up. And I put it to you that words and indeed meaning are meaningless, so I'm allowed to redefine "survival" a little bit. And I think developers should have a crack at redefining it more often. For my specific benefit.

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In this article

Among Trees


Cozy Grove

Video Game

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The Eternal Cylinder

PS4, Xbox One, PC

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About the Author
Alice Bell avatar

Alice Bell

Deputy Editor

Small person powered by tea and books; RPS's dep ed since 2018. Send her etymological facts and cool horror or puzzle games.