Staying Alive: in praise of survival games

Sometimes, the "trying not to die" element of a video game is the best part.

The Bush Tucker Man was a hero of mine as a kid. There he was surviving in the wilds of Australia, arguably the most hostile place in the world, crawling with poisonous spiders, giant mutant pigs, armies of vicious bandits and bitter cricketers.

It was The Bush Tucker Man that came to mind most strongly when I first started to play STALKER: Shadows of Chernobyl. There was a story to STALKER, there was a plot, but for me it was always about roaming the countryside, such as it was, nosing around and trying not to die. The AI system that governed wandering monsters and characters would mean that something interesting could happen organically, such as a bandit raid on a neutral group of Stalkers, or mobs of mutants might wander into each other. Periodically radioactive storms called blowouts would force everybody into cover and bring more mutants out of their holes. The day and night cycle also changed the game, being out at night, often without anything better than very grainy night vision gear, or worse just a torch, was rarely a good plan.

STALKER was a game that carried two significant problems from the get go. Firstly the developers fell quite a way short of their own lofty ambitions with the game. They had wanted a huge area for the player to romp around in at leisure, instead they had to settle for a succession of quite modest areas with each fenced in and connected via entry and exit points. Secondly the game was quite a trammelled experience, with rumours circulating that the publishers had demanded that it be softened in order to be commercially viable. Whether these rumours were true or not didn’t really matter because the game was not difficult to mod and the systems to make it as unforgiving and bleak as it really should have been were easily tailored for just this set up. The vanilla build of STALKER fell a long way short of its potential, but with a customised build the game became a cult classic.

When modified by players the STALKER series really came to life as wilderness survival games. The routine of searching bodies, checking weapons for rounds in the magazines, looting what could be sold, stashing what could be used, munching what could be munched, became more rewarding than bumbling around through the story.

In many ways the spiritual successor to the survivalist side of STALKER is the Arma mod Day Z. This is perhaps the definitive hardcore survival game by virtue of the fact that your prey is the most dangerous creature of all, Arma players. Existing now for both Arma 2 and Arma 3 this game sees the players confronting the threats of zombies, starvation and dehydration, all while in effect taking part in a colossal persistent death match game. Some people will tell you that Day Z isn’t a colossal death match, but they are probably only saying that so they can lure you out into the open in order to kill you and steal everything you own.

Mainstream games developers have never really embraced wilderness survival as a game mechanic. It was hinted at in the recent Tomb Raider, but after one meal of venison young Lara was good to go for the rest of the story. Fallout: New Vegas was one exception as this contained an optional hardcore mode, which included requirements for food and water, the consumption of which would almost always lead to an increased level of radiation in the character which would then have to be treated. This was a system that really had to be modified before it had any bite to it, but like the STALKER games the newer Fallout games have been easy to mod.

This repurposing of existing games via modifications is perhaps as much a part of the mind-set of the survival game player as the game itself. In much the same way as Ray Mears can change a small patch of forest into a third rate ship of the line with just his pen knife and saliva, games can be changed to suit the player if they are willing to put the effort in.

The lack of mainstream support for survival mechanics in games has not meant that survival games do not exist outside of mods however and indie games have stepped up to fill the breach. Don’t Starve has the player as a castaway style character, trying to stay fed, warm and sane alone in a world that is largely hostile but which can be tamed. Though there are monsters and a certain amount of violence is somewhat inevitable if a predator decides to munch you down, Don’t Starve is a very cerebral game, involving exploration, resource management and planning rather than the ability to stab things with alacrity.

Other indie games such as Sir, You Are Being Hunted and Shelter also deal with the problems of survival in the wilderness. One has you surviving in a very British looking world being pursued by unthinking killing machines dressed in tweed intent on shooting you for no good reason and the other one is about badgers. I think that’s the right way round anyway.

Although this simple idea of avoiding death is almost as old as gaming itself it is the way that survival games approach it that cements their appeal. Survival games are not inherently more difficult than ordinary games, Minecraft for instance is a survival game in many respects but it is not actually difficult to survive in it. What survival games do require however is a level of engagement from the player beyond the simple ability to shoot and dodge; they are a game type that requires planning, patience and improvisation. With this planning comes freedom: the freedom to make choices and the responsibility of dealing with the consequences. The narrative writes itself as the player shapes the game world and their place within it. These are the hallmarks of a more mature type of game, which perhaps is why we have yet to see this style really break into the mainstream yet.

This is okay though, really. Not everything that is good has to be popular, not every style has to become the norm, to be bastardised and absorbed into the next big franchise. Survival games will likely remain a niche, albeit perhaps a bigger one than developers give it credit for.

An abandoned industrial facility in STALKER: Shadows of Chernobyl.

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

ANDREY BORODULIN/AFP/GETTY IMAGES
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Letter from Donetsk: ice cream, bustling bars and missiles in eastern Ukraine

In Donetsk, which has been under the control of Russian backed rebels since April 2014, the propaganda has a hermetic, relentless feel to it.

Eighty-eight year-old Nadya Moroz stares through the taped-up window of her flat in Donetsk, blown in by persistent bombing. She wonders why she abandoned her peaceful village for a “better life” in Donetsk with her daughter, just months before war erupted in spring 2014.

Nadya is no stranger to upheaval. She was captured by the Nazis when she was 15 and sent to shovel coal in a mine in Alsace, in eastern France. When the region was liberated by the Americans, she narrowly missed a plane taking refugees to the US, and so returned empty-handed to Ukraine. She never thought that she would see fighting again.

Now she and her daughter Irina shuffle around their dilapidated flat in the front-line district of Tekstilshchik. Both physically impaired, they seldom venture out.

The highlight of the women’s day is the television series Posledniy Yanychar (“The Last Janissary”), about an Ottoman slave soldier and his dangerous love for a free Cossack girl.

They leave the dog-walking to Irina’s daughter, Galya, who comes back just in time. We turn on the TV a few minutes before two o’clock to watch a news report on Channel One, the Russian state broadcaster. It shows a montage of unnerving images: Nato tanks racing in formation across a plain, goose-stepping troops of Pravy Sektor (a right-wing Ukrainian militia) and several implicit warnings that a Western invasion is nigh. I wonder how my hosts can remain so impassive in the face of such blatant propaganda.

In Donetsk, which has been under the control of Russian-backed rebels since April 2014, the propaganda has a hermetic, relentless feel to it. If the TV doesn’t get you, the print media, radio and street hoardings will. Take a walk in the empty central district of the city and you have the creeping sense of being transported back to what it must have been like in the 1940s. Posters of Stalin, with his martial gaze and pomaded moustache, were taboo for decades even under the Soviets but now they grace the near-empty boulevards. Images of veterans of the 1941-45 war are ubiquitous, breast pockets ablaze with medals. Even the checkpoints bear the graffiti: “To Berlin!” It’s all inching closer to a theme-park re-enactment of the Soviet glory years, a weird meeting of propaganda and nostalgia.

So completely is the Donetsk People’s Republic (DPR) in thrall to Russia that even its parliament has passed over its new flag for the tricolour of the Russian Federation, which flutters atop the building. “At least now that the municipal departments have become ministries, everyone has been promoted,” says Galya, wryly. “We’ve got to have something to be pleased about.”

The war in the Donbas – the eastern region of Ukraine that includes Donetsk and Luhansk – can be traced to the street demonstrations of 2013-14. The former president Viktor Yanukovych, a close ally of Vladimir Putin, had refused to sign an agreement that would have heralded closer integration with the EU. In late 2013, protests against his corrupt rule began in Maidan Nezalezhnosti (“Independence Square”) in Kyiv, as well as other cities. In early 2014 Yanukovych’s security forces fired on the crowds in the capital, causing dozens of fatalities, before he fled.

Putin acted swiftly, annexing Crimea and engineering a series of “anti-Maidans” across the east and south of Ukraine, bussing in “volunteers” and thugs to help shore up resistance to the new authority in Kyiv. The Russian-backed rebels consolidated their power base in Donetsk and Luhansk, where they established two “independent” republics, the DPR and its co-statelet, the Luhansk People’s Republic (LPR). Kyiv moved to recover the lost territories, sparking a full-scale war that raged in late 2014 and early 2015.

Despite the so-called “peace” that arrived in autumn 2015 and the beguiling feeling that a certain normality has returned – the prams, the ice creams in the park, the bustling bars – missiles still fly and small-arms fire frequently breaks out. You can’t forget the conflict for long.

One reminder is the large number of dogs roaming the streets, set free when their owners left. Even those with homes have suffered. A Yorkshire terrier in the flat next door to mine started collecting food from its bowl when the war began and storing it in hiding places around the flat. Now, whenever the shelling starts, he goes to his caches and binge-eats in a sort of atavistic canine survival ritual.

Pet shops are another indicator of the state of a society. Master Zoo in the city centre has an overabundance of tropical fish tanks (too clunky to evacuate) and no dogs. In their absence, the kennels have been filled with life-size plastic hounds under a sign strictly forbidding photography, for reasons unknown. I had to share my rented room with a pet chinchilla called Shunya. These furry Andean rodents, fragile to transport but conveniently low-maintenance, had become increasingly fashionable before the war. The city must still be full of them.

The bombing generally began “after the weekends, before holidays, Ukraine’s national days and before major agreements”, Galya had said. A new round of peace talks was about to start, and I should have my emergency bag at the ready. I shuddered back up to the ninth floor of my pitch-dark Tekstilshchik tower block. Shunya was sitting quiet and unruffled in his cage, never betraying any signs of stress. Free from Russian television, we girded ourselves for the night ahead.

This article first appeared in the 05 February 2015 issue of the New Statesman, Putin's war