For a while, back in the late 2010s, you couldn't seem to move online, for the sheer number of early access survival games lying around the place. A good few of them were brilliant; many, many more were not. More still were overlooked for high levels of jank in their early days, but have since grown into beautiful things thanks to regular updates. How, then, can you pick out the gems from this big pile of survival game detritus? Easy; we've made a list of 24 of the best. It's not exhaustive, but it'll certainly give you enough fishing, crafting and wolf-avoiding to keep you busy for a good while.
It's worth noting that we're being pretty broad with our definition of "survival", here, as we wanted to offer something slightly different from a big list of first person wilderness games where a) you get hungry and b) stuff clips through walls all the time. There are games on this list, in fact, which have barely anything in common with each other, beyond the fact that the player must, y'know, survive.
That's obviously a pretty key concept to a lot of PC games, admittedly. But we've chosen a set which, at their very hearts, feel like they're about keeping yourself - or others - alive in the face of a hostile universe. Whether that hostility takes the form of extreme weather, horrid beasts, or the accumulation of noxious waste gases in an asteroid colony, is entirely dependent on your personal tastes. So go ahead - choose your poison:
Alternatively, if you're exhausted from prising a wolf's mouth from your neck, you might want to watch the splendid video version of this list instead. In fact, it's right here:
Best survival games
The links below will each send you down the pipes to the entry you're after, or you can scroll through the post and have a little sniff at them all. And if you get to the end with nothing but a sense of bilious fury that we ommitted the best survival game of all time from the list, rest assured that it's right there at position 25. Write your own entry for it in the comments below, and we'll consider it for inclusion in future reivsions. Now, into the wild:
- Among Trees
- UnReal World
- Cataclysm: Dark Days Ahead
- No Man's Sky
- 7 Days To Die
- Oxygen Not Included
- Project Zomboid
- The Forest
- This War Of Mine
- Don't Starve
- Neo Scavenger
- The Long Dark
24. Among Trees
Relaxation might not be what you associate with games in which you'll die by standing around too much, but Among Trees manages it. You're dropped in a beautiful forest, in which you can barely move for bumping into cute bunnies and woodpeckers, and then set about exploring. You scavenge for food to eat, but you quickly transition from stuffing raw mushrooms in your mouth to building a wee greenhouse next to your growing cabin. It's survival as Henry David Thoreau imagined it, rather than Bear Grylls.
There are literal bears, though, among the game's few threats. There are also difficulty settings, that let you fill your boots with poison mushrooms if you wish. It remains a beautiful forest to explore either way, and well worth a visit even in its current early access state.
23. UnReal World
The first release of Finnish survival roguelike UnReal World didn't contain all of the seeds that would make it one of the world's greatest and most distinctive survival games. By the mid-nineties, solo developer Sami Maaranen had discovered the formula that would allow the game to endure for more than two decades. Still in development, with regular updates adding major features as well as applying tweaks, UnReal World is a game about survival in harsh, realistic conditions. It's a survival game that existed before the flood of early access craft ‘em ups, and it offers a more complete and compelling vision than anything else in the genre. The cost is complexity, an old-fashioned interface, and basic graphics, but the rewards are well worth the effort.
22. Cataclysm: Dark Days Ahead
Sin called it a roguelike you could play for the rest of your life, and "UnReal World set in a near future" where everything has gone wrong. You start by generating a world, then assign stats to a character, and then head off to survive. That might mean hiding in abandoned buildings, scavenging for food, and repairing machinery with the mechanics skills you gave yourself at the start of the game. It might mean becoming a rollerblading wunderkind, wiping out zombies with a slingshot, and designing your own bicycle from scratch using the game's modular vehicle design system.
Whatever kind of person you become, the systems at your fingertips are absurdly detailed. C:DDA has variety and depth, and if you can overcome its ASCII graphics or simple tilesets, you will be rewarded with years and years of stories to tell.
21. No Man's Sky
It's easy to oversell the idea that No Man's Sky was a flop on release and has only clawed its way back to respectability in the years of updates since. Closer to the truth would be to say that it did a great job of providing a certain kind of experience at launch (and sold loads in the process), and now it provides a more varied set of experiences. From the beginning to now, one of those experiences has been survival. If you want to play No Man's Sky on a set of hostile worlds, scrabbling to get enough resources to build shelter or to fuel the next desperate jump across the galaxy, you can do that. It will now reward you with prettier and more varied planets, giant sandworms, mechs to pilot, pals to partner with, and much more. There are still better survival games on this list - 20 of them, in fact - but few of them can match No Man's Sky for scale and polish.
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, and chances are that you'll end up a snack for wild animals before you've had a chance to put a little base together.
Once you're able to protect yourself, though, 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.
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. Playing one of three healers, your goal 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. There’s a consequence to everything you do in Pathologic, though it's not always apparent. 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.
18. 7 Days To Die
At first glance, 7 Days To Die seems like just another zombie game, the intersection at which Minecraft somehow inexplicably collides with the likes of DayZ. But to dismiss it based on its crude graphics and misshapen landscapes would be to greatly underestimate this muddy-looking craft 'em up, as it's probably the closest thing we've ever had to an interactive zombie movie. The zombies are proper Romero-style meatbags - their slow, shuffling corpses barely registering your presence as you venture further and further afield with each new scavenging trip.
It's all designed to lull you into a false sense of security. You think, "Yeah, those traps will do the trick" when you hunker down at night. The the game throws a swarm at you and all hell breaks loose. It's classic zombie movie mistakes 101. You should have known better, and yet you fall into their trap every single damn time. Ultimately, 7 Days To Die knows how to apply just the right amount of pressure to keep you on your toes - provided it doesn't chew them off in your sleep first, of course.
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 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.
Kenshi is lots of different things to lots of different people, but this strategic building survival RPG is all about finding your niche and making it work. Where many survival games run out of purpose as soon as you stabilise your food supply, Kenshi opens more possibilities. Whether it's establishing a sustainable farm where you can recruit people to defend it, or becoming a skilled enough thief to supply your needs, Kenshi is a sumptuous bounty that feeds all kinds of play styles.
Its world doesn't fit itself around your needs and wants, but it's not particularly set against you, either. After all, the most common 'bandits' are often just bands of starving people fighting for scraps of food. It all gives our humble camp a sense of ambition beyond pure self-interest. This land could provide for people, we think. If we can protect it, maybe we could start to change things. And before we know it, we have a team of recruits running a factory in our absence while we lead our tiny founding trio out into the world, camping out under twin moons, fending off unfamiliar animals, and accidentally offending a powerful faction of religious bigots. Welp, we guess we have enemies now, gang. Best head back home and figure out how to survive this, too.
It's very easy to wander off the beaten track in Starbound, as the sheer number of diversions and items you can chase is almost overwhelming. Eventually, though, you'll realise just how far you've come. You'll look back on the time when you placed your very first forge in your very first mud hut with a twinkle in your eye, for now you've got bigger fish to fry. You're building huge space stations now and terraforming entire planets, fighting in space and building huge sci-fi cities.
It takes a while to get there, of course, but there’s so much to do in between. You might happen upon a huge anchor on a random planet, 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. We must confess that we typically play on the casual difficulty. It means you don’t have to worry about hunger, and there are no additional penalties for death. 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.
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. To achieve this, your people 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, and if that means enacting an emergency shift law to force workers to stay at their post for 24 hours to net you the coal you need to last another day, so be it. Your workers won’t be too pleased, but you'll have to weather that potential disaster further 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.
13. Oxygen Not Included
There's something origami-like about how a game of Oxygen Not Included expands and unfolds over time, transforming from something so initially simple into a masterpiece of engineering with enormous depth and complexity.
Beginning your journey in the centre of a 2D asteroid with just three simple-minded clones (called dupes) at your beck and call, you must dig out some semblance of a base, cobble together some sources of food and oxygen to stop yourself dying within the first couple of days. Then it's all about expanding outwards further and further in the hopes of finding solutions that are slightly more renewable, all while trying to keep your unbelievably suicidal dupes from fulfilling their greatest desires.
There's no hand-holding in Oxygen Not Included, which can be what prevents a lot of people from gleaning what's so wonderful about it. At times it can feel like you're spinning half a dozen plates at the same time, each of which have a chance of spontaneously bursting into flames every few seconds. And that's an intimidating feeling. But spend enough time taking care of your little dupe-farm and you'll begin to understand the language of pipes and plumbing, ladders and bladders, pollution and prostitution (okay, we made that last one up, but there's probably a mod out there somewhere).
12. Project Zomboid
A 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.
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.
While other survival games pit you against a bleak, often zombie-ridden hellscape, Raft casts you out to sea. Trapped all alone (or with a bunch of friends if you play in co-op) on your titular pile of wooden planks with no land as far as the eye can see, Raft is a bit like the video game equivalent of The Life of Pi.
Except instead of trying to stay alive with a hungry tiger as your marooned next door neighbour, it's the sharks you've got to worry about in this early access briny survival sim, as they'll chomp chomp chomp their way through practically anything they can fit into their toothy maws - including that rickety raft of yours.
Fortunately, Raft isn't just about defending your newfound home from the terrors of the deep. While hunger and thirst levels must be perpetually topped up, Raft also lets you indulge your slightly sillier side, giving you the scope to craft multi-storey palaces if you so wish, replete with shark head trophies and any other bits and bobs you find floating in the ocean. And goodness is there a lot of flotsam swimming about in Raft. Whatever happened to the wider world out there, you'll find a lot of it's ended up in the sea.
9. The Forest
Years after it first appeared on early access, we still vividly remember our first encounter with The Forest’s tribe of mutant cannibals. We’d just finished building a shelter when we saw one of them, standing motionless, staring at us. And then they vanished. We 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. We were lost and frantic and, finally, unconscious. When we woke up, we were 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. 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.
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 have 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. 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 pick-axe.
Playing Astroneer makes us incredibly happy. Survival should be hard, 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 is 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, 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, 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.
6. This War Of Mine
Between this and Frostpunk, it's clear that 11 bit Studios clearly have a knack for creating bleak, yet tense 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.
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 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 we felt completely responsible for the well-being of Boris, Katia and the rest of our survivors.
5. Don’t Starve
Keeping your 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’s a race to get home before it gets dark, too, building 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.
4. Neo Scavenger
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.
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. 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.
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.
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, spiralling 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, we’ve become pretty familiar with failure, but we’re still not tired of starting over again and again. There are just so many wildly different paths to take. We’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 mindbogglingly open, and even after poring countless hours into it, we’ve only scraped the surface.
2. The Long Dark
The Long Dark’s vast, snow-blanketed wilderness is a harsh and uncompromising place. Its episodic story mode, Wintermute, serves as a gentle introduction to its harsh, yet beautiful world, but it's the game's survival mode that's the true, 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.
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?
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.
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.