Minecraft, Fallout 4, Don’t Starve, The Flame in the Flood, Ark: Survival Evolved, Far Cry Primal, the Solus Project, and a veritable smorgasbord of other titles, both major and obscure, are giving players the chance to prove their virtual mettle in a world far removed from our modern lives of luxury and convenience.
Survival—on the very primitive level—has become the object of our gaming obsession in recent years, and it’s just getting bigger. This trend begs the question of why are we—collectively—so in need of entertainment that basically requires us to pretend to work and perform mundane tasks—hunting, building, and “crafting” everything from clothes to tools to houses.
Are we subconsciously clamoring for a return to our primitive hunter-gatherer roots, or merely so subjugated to the idea that the apocalypse is impending we need to start practicing for it now (even in a merely virtual way)? The vast success of games like Fallout 4 and the sheer number of other games in this ever-growing genre suggests we are consumed with the idea of the end of the world, even if we don’t really believe in it.
Apocalyptic fiction tends to come in waves, especially during periods of dissatisfaction and given the state of the US, much of Europe, and, well, everywhere else, that definitely seems to apply now. The difference between dealing with feelings of isolation and fear now and in the past is that, instead of, say, building a bomb shelter or banning flights to Cuba, we simply allow ourselves to get sucked into virtual worlds.
It’s a safer alternative to be sure (and much cheaper than stockpiling canned goods), but the fact remains that humans have always been obsessed with the end of the world.
Not all these games focus on the apocalypse. Some, like Minecraft, ARK, and Far Cry Primal, are purely centered on a sandbox world where players have to learn basic, mundane skills merely to survive. Somehow, gathering sticks and flint to learn how to make fire has become an integral part of gameplay. Hunting animals for their meat and skin to clothe your character is a genuine challenge in these games, and crafting basic tools out of wood and stone is an early game goal.
Survivalist games have essentially made hard labor into entertainment. If Minecraft is the “gateway drug” for this genre, then games like H1Z1, Don’t Starve, and The Flame in the Flood are the next steps up in the addiction. H1Z1 throws players into a zombie apocalypse where even basic needs are an immense hardship and other human players are far more dangerous than the walking dead. Moving away from Earth, ARK, the Solus Project (available on PC and the Xbox One now), and the upcoming Rokh take the sci-fi approach.
Solus places the player as a lone astronaut stuck on an alien world where survival requires building everything from the scraps of their spacecraft and whatever resources they can find, while discovering the secrets of an alien culture. Rokh is the perfect game for those who saw The Martian and wished they could get stuck on Mars. It makes meticulous use of NASA map data to create a huge swath of the red planet for players to learn to survive on. Rokh is a massive multiplayer game (like World of Warcraft), so again, other players will likely still be the greatest danger to survival. Much like the dinosaur-infused alien world of ARK, Rokh will be heavily reliant on players grouping together to form factions.
Other games, like The Flame in the Flood, take a much more intimate and quiet approach to humanity’s final days. Alone on a raft against a great and seemingly endless river in an overgrown and ever more wild America, you stop at islands to seek out supplies, craft items, get fresh water and food, and occasionally trade with the few other survivors. Don’t Starve takes a similar approach, but adds a far more aggressive level of opposition, since monstrous dangers can be lurking at every turn, especially at night, so the art of fire maintenance is a prime skill.
Even mobile games aren’t left out, thanks to The Abandoned, a zombie apocalypse game that crams all the survival and crafting mechanisms of PC and console games onto your phone’s screen. While a touch screen is far from the ideal interface for intense survival against a nightmarish landscape, The Abandoned does a commendable job of giving mobile gamers a sandbox world worth trying to tame.
For a more personalized hell, there’s Sheltered. Here, the focus isn’t simply on learning to keep yourself alive, but your whole family. Much like This War of Mine and its expansion, “The Little Ones” (both of which deal with survival during a modern war), Sheltered’s goal is to get players emotionally attached to the characters they’re protecting. Adding kids into the mix is a risky venture, and these games deal with the touchy subject in different ways.
As the main provider in Sheltered, you have to make decisions that affect your whole family and the game is heavy on life-or-death situations that carry deep consequences. Taking into account not just hunger, health, and thirst, but actual mental states, Sheltered is marketed as a “post-apocalyptic disaster management game” and survival is a much more complex matter than in most games of this sort.
For a lot of these games, there’s no real ending. They become marathon endurance runs for players who are playing merely to test how far they can go and how well they can do it. There’s a level of obsession in the fan base of many of these games that borders on scary—Fallout 4 players routinely shackle themselves with personal rules, such as starting over entirely if they die.
For the rest of us, however, games centered on the apocalypse and survival hold a kind of cathartic release, letting us play with our fears and fascinations of the end without the awful long-term consequences.
Jason D'Aprile has been covering games and entertainment for the last three decades across a variety of platforms, many of which are now extinct. In addition to covering gaming (both obscure and otherwise), he also writes a bit of the odd fiction and tries hard to avoid social media.
RELATED: Gamer Next Door’s Adventures in Virtual Reality at E3 2016