A still from ARK: Survival Evolved.
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ARK: Survival Evolved and the evolution of survival games

The survival game has climbed out of the primordial soup and after some tough times skittering around between rock pools the population has exploded.

Standing on a beach on one of ARK: Survival Evolved’s official servers, outside my modest but growing wooden shack, flanked by a pair of giant tame tortoises named Bowser and Shelly, it occurred to me that this might be what evolution looks like. Not the giant tortoise things as whatever they used to be has evolved into a terrapin and terrapins are not nearly as good – rather this was evolution of a game genre. The survival game has climbed out of the primordial soup and after some tough times skittering around between rock pools the population has exploded. Amid this population explosion sits ARK: Survival Evolved, a survival game set on a dinosaur infested island and the current leader of the survival game pack.

I remember those simpler days of 2013, before the great survival game deluge. I remember thinking that survival games were a rare and fascinating thing, not so much a genre in their own right, but a recurring set of game elements and themes that cropped up in a diverse array of titles and stayed largely under the radar. I remember thinking to myself, “I wish there were more survival games.”

Well, now there are more survival games, so very, very many more survival games. But the journey of the survival genre has not been a comfortable one. The fittest have survived and passed on their ideas to newer specimens, the weak, the weird, the non-functioning, these have fallen by the wayside.

In the survival game genre such casualties are commonplace, which is understandable given the somewhat slapdash approach common to games in this genre. One of the biggest problems with the survival genre is quality control, specifically the lack of it. Survival games are notoriously buggy and unfinished yet this is accepted as a trait of the genre. After all these years Day Z still remains on Early Access, as does Rust which appeared in late 2013. Some games, such as The Stomping Land, have simply died out in production. That this is a genre that has grown huge on PC in the last two years yet none of its leading titles has actually been finished tells us much about the experimental nature of it all.

The problem with a genre full of unfinished games is that a game can be released on Early Access, become hugely popular but ultimately be played out with its audience long before it is feature complete. This is a strange way to go about making games: essentially selling the idea of what a game could be. This feels in some ways akin to the way that MMORPG games operate, launching in a barebones state and expanding with new features and content after release. The differences are that an MMORPG would still be expected to be complete to at least a basic level on launch and also few of these survival games have a means to generate revenue to fund extended development beyond their initial sales.

However, this fast and loose approach that is so common in the genre has paid dividends in some ways. For example the games are becoming creatively much more diverse in order to try to find their own niches in the market. A genre that at first seemed doomed to being a shambling horde of mediocre multiplayer zombie games has expanded in all sorts of directions. Games such as The Long Dark and The Forest have eschewed multiplayer in order to pursue more solitary experiences with an emphasis on atmosphere. Subnautica and Stranded Deep meanwhile moved their focus from dry land to the sea.

Then of course, there is ARK: Survival Evolved. ARK is a game that exhibits much of what has made the survival genre very popular, while mitigating many of its worst excesses.

The first and most striking thing about ARK: Survival Evolved is the sense of spectacle that it creates with its visuals. By aiming to create not only a large open world, but also to populate it with such huge creatures the developers have shown immense ambition. One thing we can say, looking back on games like Skyrim, Shadow of the Colossus and the God of War series is that giant creatures are really hard to integrate into a game world unless you script them heavily. By having dinosaurs just ambling about ARK is trying something that very few developers have ever attempted. It doesn’t take long playing ARK to see why this is. As good as the game can look in some circumstances at times it can look akin to an old stop motion monster movie. This doesn’t hurt the game too badly though it does undermine the immersion.

The setting and the visuals are not the only elements where we can see how ARK has advanced over its forebears, its mechanics are a significant step up on most similar games too. The game has a fleshed out crafting system and its survival systems are quite advanced too, with characters requiring not just food and water but also shelter from the elements to survive. ARK also sports a levelling system which serves to ease players into the games different elements gradually but which can be speeded up for experienced players who don’t want to hang around.

One of the most significant features of ARK: Survival Evolved is the creature taming. You can tame dinosaurs, even flying or swimming ones, and eventually ride them around. This is such a spectacularly good idea that I’m surprised that even games that don’t usually feature dinosaurs haven’t included it on general principle. Everything from FIFA to Gone Home could benefit from dinosaur riding. The taming mechanics in ARK are a little weird though, you stun the animal and then nurse it back to health and it becomes your friend. The latter half of that seems fair enough, but the creature forgetting that it was you who beat it senseless in the first place seems a bit strange. As with the levelling system this process feel needlessly time consuming but like the levelling system it can be speeded up.

Something that ARK also gets right is its multiplayer. The game has clearly defined player versus player (PvP) and player versus environment (PvE) servers, which means that if you want to compete with other players you can, but if you just want to live relatively peacefully in an online version of the town of Bedrock you can do that too. The online element of survival games has always been tricky because this is a genre that lends itself both to kindness and cruelty in its players. Day Z would not have been such an interesting game without its human interactions, but those same interactions are what kept a lot of players away. By offering two different types of server ARK effectively caters to everybody, albeit perhaps in a slightly watered down way.

The survival game genre has come a long way in the last two years and even if has been a little rough and ready in how it has done so it is hard to argue with results. Sure plenty of gamers have had their fingers burned down the line, either by games that turned out to be complete rubbish or that died out unexpectedly amid their development, but that goes with the territory when you spend money on unfinished games. Of course it could be good to see a survival game actually reach completion, even maybe see one released as a full and finished game in the first place. But what matters is that if you like survival games then the chances are you’ll be able to find one to suit you.

Phil Hartup is a freelance journalist with an interest in video gaming and culture

Universal
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Laid in America: how two YouTubers made a mainstream sex-comedy for children

Caspar Lee and KSI's new movie is officially rated 15, but digital downloading means their young audiences have easy access. 

It’s not that expectations are high when it comes to YouTube movies. Despite being released by Universal Studios, vloggers Caspar Lee and KSI’s latest feature film Laid In America always looked set to be cheap and cheerful rather than a cultural blockbuster. It’s just that the opening scene of the movie – in which KSI humps a blow-up sex doll doggy style while forcing its head down on Caspar Lee’s crotch, before ejaculating into his own boxers – jars a little when you consider the relative age of the pair’s fan bases.

Caspar Lee is a 22-year-old South African YouTuber whose prank videos and vlogs have earnt him 6.79 million subscribers. KSI – real name Olajide Olatunji – is a year older and has double the influence, with 14.64 million people subscribed to his video gaming channel. Although YouTube doesn’t allow the public to see the demographics of any particular YouTuber’s audience, videos of Olatunji and Lee’s meet-and-greets with fans reveal that the former is idolised by teenage boys and the latter beloved of pre-teen and teenage girls. Search “Caspar Lee book review” on YouTube and the first non-branded result shows a very young girl waxing lyrical about the star.

KSI and a 13-year-old fan, via kalabza1973

Despite Laid in America’s Red Band trailer and raunchy premise – of two English students in America desperately trying to lose their virginity, à la American pie – it seems the filmmakers, Bad Weather Films and The Fun Group, are aware of the pair’s audiences. The movie premieres tonight at the O2 in London and is then available for digital download only. This isn’t a reflection on the limited influence of YouTubers – whose transformation of the publishing industry alone shows they could easily sell out cinemas – but a savvy business decision that allows children to watch a film that has been rated 15 by the British Board of Film Classification. Rather than trying to sneak into a cinema, kids can affectively undo 104 years of film classification history with just a few clicks.

It’s not that it’s particularly shocking that 12-year-olds can easily watch this gross-out comedy complete with the requisite sex party, dwarf in a cage, plethora of swear words, and obligatory “That… was… awesome!”. No, the most offensive thing about the film (aside from KSI’s abysmal acting) isn’t the sex, it’s the sexism.

“Tabitha is a complete BLOB,” says Duncan (Olatunji) when Jack (Lee) asks why, if he’s so desperate to lose his virginity, he doesn’t sleep with the girl who keeps passing him love notes. “You know that girl that you’d never have sex with and then the night is coming to an end and you run out of options? … Basic Last Option Bae. BLOB.”

The credentials that make Tabitha a BLOB, appear to be – to the naked eye – that she is not tall, she is a normal weight, and she doesn’t wear concealer under her eyes. Heather Cowles, the actress who plays her, is in fact so attractive that you almost wish they’d gone down the old-fashioned fat-suit and fake-acne line. When a preteen girl who idolises YouTubers so much that she sets them as her profile picture watches them mock and deride what is essentially a normal looking girl, how will they feel?

Caspar Lee with fans at a book signing via Getty

There are a multitude of similar instances in the movie. “Did you get a chance to experience any American girls?” asks Jack and Duncan’s headmaster in one of the opening scenes of the film, as headmasters are wont to do. When the duo reveal they are both virgins, the principal acts shocked. “No girls? Not even fat girls?” he says.

None of this would be particularly damaging to the normal, adult audiences of similar Hollywood comedies. But YouTubers have an incredible influence over their fans, so much so that brands are willing to pay between £20,000 and £50,000 for them to recommend a single product in their videos. It seems a shame that this influence will be used to increase the insecurities of young girls and reinforce, yet again, that Sex Is Everything to young boys.

The attitudes to women in the film are beyond outdated. To begin with, Duncan and Jack need to “find hot girls” in order to be allowed into cool-kid Tucker Jones’ party. From this point on, women are a commodity. “The more money we appear to have, the hotter girls we’ll get,” says one of the stars – god, don’t ask me which – when the pair try out a dating app. Next we see them ride a Boober (like an Uber, but with two complimentary large-chested girls), leave a woman passed out in her lingerie after she hits her head, and be rewarded with sex for – and truly, romance is dying, dying, dead as I write this – telling a girl’s ex-boyfriend that she’s “not a bitch”.

But surely, surely, in 2016 this is all redeemed by a heartfelt message about how actually, losing your virginity and “getting” hot girls isn’t everything? No such luck. The ending of the film is basically softcore porn, though the final shot features Jack and Duncan riding a Segway shouting: “We go in your country and take your women!” They saw. They conquered. They came. 

It's not yet apparent whether the film will be a commercial success, though the pair think that if it is, other studios will also begin making download-only films. "I guess the studios will be like, 'Oh this worked, let's try this' and follow," KSI told the BBC. If this is the case, hopefully more consideration will be put into making movies with a positive message for YouTubers' young audiences. 

 

Amelia Tait is a technology and digital culture writer at the New Statesman.