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

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From probiotics to poetry: how Rachel Kelly keeps depression at bay

Kelly describes herself as a people-pleaser and yet 12 years ago she fled her own Christmas party, crushed by a deep depression. Now she's written 52 Small Steps to Happiness.

Rachel Kelly describes herself as a people-pleaser and yet 12 years ago she fled her own Christmas party, crushed by a deep depression. Hours later, she returned to her home in Notting Hill, west London, where her husband helped her to bed. The party continued downstairs – the Camerons and Osbornes were present, joined by the family’s other high-flying friends. “The struggle was over,” she wrote in her 2014 memoir, Black Rainbow. “I had tried and I had lost.”

Kelly’s suffering came as a surprise to many. A journalist at the Times, with a successful husband, beautiful house and healthy children, she had achieved everything she had wanted. But her mental health declined after the birth of her second child in 1997 and it took years of medication and therapy to recover.

Kelly’s latest book, Walking on Sunshine: 52 Small Steps to Happiness, describes the strategies that have helped her stay “calm and well” ever since. Drawing equally from science and art, each chapter (one for every week of the year) offers salves for both body and mind, from probiotics to poetry.

When we met one recent evening at a café near her home, Kelly barely remembered to drink her water, so eager was she to share her experiences. She hopes that her new book will be for “those of us who, at times, find life stressful, or who wish to try to feel a little steadier”. It’s the kind of book she wishes she had read before becoming ill. “I’m a believer in prevention rather than cure,” she said. “I do a lot of work in schools, where we have a massive problem with teenage mental health. What makes me feel so exhilarated is that there really are things you can do.”

Having seen depression from both sides, as a sufferer and a campaigner, she is acutely aware of the stigma that mental illness still carries, particularly among people working in middle-class jobs. “If you’re unemployed or facing real social deprivation, there’s an expectation that you might get depressed. But in that middle cohort – of lawyers, bankers, doctors – there’s a lot of pressure, yet it’s hard to admit you might be suffering.”

Challenging such stigmas is vital. The head of the charity Mind estimates that 75 per cent of people with mental health problems do not receive any treatment. The number of those who do has continued to rise: the NHS issued roughly 53 million prescriptions for antidepressants in 2013, an increase of a quarter in three years. In some cases “antidepressants can be life savers”, Kelly told me. For others, “it’s empowering to take responsibility for what you can do yourself”. In her own case, she found that useful strategies came not only from professionals but from family, friends, readers and those who took part in the workshops she runs. She has found the words of poets helpful. It was a poem, “Love (III)”, by the 17th-century clergyman George Herbert, that she credits with kick-starting her recovery: “Love bade me welcome. Yet my soul drew back.”

Pointing to work being done by the Royal College of Music and a new charity, ReLit, which promotes the use of imaginative literature in treating stress and anxiety, Kelly is hopeful that the bonds between well-being and the arts will grow.

“The NHS rightly has to be evidence-based,” she said, “but I’m absolutely certain that the arts have an important part to play in mental health and we’re beginning to see the research that proves it.” Though Kelly spoke cheerfully about her experiences, her present life is not without anxiety. Like anyone, she worries about the future. “I suppose if I wish for something, it’s for my children to avoid what I went through,” she said. “You wouldn’t wish depression on anyone.”

India Bourke is the New Statesman's editorial assistant.

This article first appeared in the 19 November 2015 issue of the New Statesman, The age of terror