There’s only one rule to live by in The Culling: be the last one standing. Beyond that anything goes. As soon as you’re free, seek out weapons and hunt down the other 15 contestants, or seek out refuge and let the others do the work for you. But you only have 25 minutes and if the other contestants don’t get you, the island will.

Upon the conclusion of my very first game in The Culling, I went straight back in for another. Since that time, I’ve spent nearly 72 hours on the island, obsessing over winning every game. Some games I meet up with another player right away and wind up on the losing end of a fistfight. Other times I work my way around the island preparing for the finale. The best games are the ones I win; the worst are the ones where it comes down to me and one other person, when I’ve done everything I can to prepare for this final dance in the center of the island and they pull out a gun and shoot me dead; Raiders of the Lost Ark-style.

Survival games have always fascinated me, especially ones with player-versus-player (PvP) combat. It goes back to my days playing EverQuest on Rallos Zek, the legendary game’s only PvP server. In the earliest days of the game, Rallos Zek was also anything goes. You had to watch your back at all times because another player could pop out of nowhere and attack you.

Sometimes they wanted your valuables. Other times they wanted to cause you grief. I remember seeing people quit the server because they couldn’t take the repeated defeats, being subjected to repeated killings and corpse camping (you had to run back to your body naked to collect your belongings and your killer could simply wait for you there). It may sound ridiculous but the fear and anxiety that came with the potential of being killed by someone else created a survival experience that kept me coming back. The Culling excels at creating a similar experience.

I hate losing so I do whatever it takes to be the last drawing breath on the island. Other players have different objectives based on what they want out of the game. Josh VanVeld, Director of Operations at developer Xaviant, recalled a ridiculous story of a game in which the player roleplayed a vendor in a building modeled after a supplies store. The player looted items from the lockers in the building and laid them out on the front counter. Another player understood the act and took an item from the counter, replacing it with one of their own, completing the transaction.

As the game wound down and the toxic gas was released to force the players to the center of the island, it came down to just the vendor and the customer. “The vendor tried to run off into the gas to commit suicide so he wouldn’t actually have to fight because he was a pacifist. The other guy threw a weapon and killed the vendor to deny him the suicide,” VanVeld said. This type of creative gameplay rarely emerges from competitive-focused games, as he pointed out.

One of the most memorable (and bizarre) moments I’ve experienced in-game was stumbling on a man with no equipment and dressed in nothing but his underwear. There’s no telling how long he’d been there. When I first entered the building, I witnessed one player killing off another and I took advantage of the opportunity to finish the winner off. He was carrying a man tracker, which points out nearby players. That’s how I found the naked man, hiding in an alcove, arms up in a defensive position.

I wasn’t sure if he was even at his keyboard because he was standing completely still, but I didn’t want to wait for him to come back. As soon as I initiated combat, he sprang into action, swinging with his fists. I killed him easily but I laughed for a long time because there’s no telling how long he’d standing in that one spot, stark naked, with his guard up. What would he have done after everyone was dead and the building was clear? Would he have come out? Would he have waited until the end of the game and tried to steal a win in nothing but his underwear?

“Designers love the idea of providing players with a toolbox and things happen that they never imagined could,” VanVeld said. “It’s happening already even though The Culling is still very young.”

The Culling is similar to other survival games, like DayZ or H1Z1, which have been around longer, but unlike those it was designed to be competitive first. “We saw survival games spinning off battle royale modes,” VanVeld said.

The Culling is out now in “early access” mode, meaning you can buy and play it but it’s not complete. Like most early access games, The Culling is experiencing growing pains. Combat isn’t always perfect, which is why gaining an advantage by using traps to slow or poison opponents or picking them off with ranged or explosive weapons is far more effective. It’s far from perfect, but EverQuest’s PvP combat wasn’t perfect either and I was still drawn to it on a daily basis for years.

“We don’t need to fix the core experience. We need to polish it, balance it, refine it, and grow it,” VanVeld said.

Improvise, adapt, and overcome. That’s the key to winning in The Culling. I lose a lot more than I win, but there are the times when everything falls into place and I emerge the sole survivor. The fear and anxiety washes away, turning into relief and exaltation. Having spent nearly 72 hours on the island, I can’t get enough of the emotional roller coaster that comes packed in every 25-minute game.

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