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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Peculiar Ground by Lucy Hughes-Hallett asks how we shape history and how much is beyond our control

In Wychwood, a great house in Oxfordshire, the wealthy build walls around themselves to keep out ugliness, poverty, political change. Or at least they try to. 

The great cutting heads of the Crossrail tunnel-boring machines were engines of the future drilling into the past. The whole railway project entailed a crawl back into history as archaeologists worked hand in hand with engineers, preserving – as far as possible – the ancient treasures they discovered along the way. One of the most striking finds, relics of which are now on display at the Museum of London Docklands, was a batch of skeletons, unearthed near Liverpool Street Station, in which the bacteria responsible for the Great Plague of 1665 were identified for the first time. Past and present are never truly separable.

Lucy Hughes-Hallett’s ambitious first novel ends in 1665 in the aftermath of that plague, and it, too, dances between past and present, history and modernity. Like those skeletons buried for centuries beneath Bishopsgate, it is rooted in the ground. The eponymous “peculiar ground” is Wychwood, a great house in Oxfordshire, a place where the wealthy can build walls around themselves to keep out ugliness, poverty, political change. Or at least that is what they believe they can do; it doesn’t spoil the intricacies of this novel to say that, in the end, they will not succeed.

It is a timely idea. No doubt Hughes-Hallett was working on her novel long before a certain presidential candidate announced that he would build a great wall, but this present-day undiplomatic reality can never be far from the reader’s mind, and nor will the questions of Britain’s connection to or breakage with our European neighbours. Hughes-Hallett’s last book, a biography of Gabriele d’Annunzio, “the John the Baptist of fascism”, won a slew of awards when it was published four years ago and demonstrated the author’s skill in weaving together the forces of culture and politics.

Peculiar Ground does not confine itself to a single wall. Like Tom Stoppard’s classic play Arcadia, it sets up a communication between centuries in the grounds at Wychwood. In the 17th century, John Norris is a landscape-maker, transforming natural countryside into artifice on behalf of the Earl of Woldingham, who has returned home from the depredations of the English Civil War. In the 20th century a new cast of characters inhabits Wychwood, but there are powerful resonances of the past in this place, not least because those who look after the estate – foresters, gardeners, overseers – appear to be essentially the same people. It is a kind of manifestation of what has been called the Stone Tape theory, after a 1972 television play by Nigel Kneale in which places carry an ineradicable echo of their history, causing ghostly lives to manifest themselves through the years.

But the new story in Peculiar Ground broadens, heading over to Germany as it is divided between East and West in 1961, and again as that division falls away in 1989. Characters’ lives cannot be divorced from their historical context. The English breakage of the civil war echoes through Europe’s fractures during the Cold War. The novel asks how much human actors shape history and how much is beyond their control.

At times these larger questions can overwhelm the narrative. As the book progresses we dance between a succession of many voices, and there are moments when their individual stories are less compelling than the political or historical situations that surround them. But perhaps that is the point. Nell, the daughter of the land agent who manages Wychwood in the 20th century, grows up to work in prison reform and ­observes those who live in confinement. “An enclosed community is toxic,” she says. “It festers. It stagnates. The wrong people thrive there. The sort of people who actually like being walled in.”

The inhabitants of this peculiar ground cannot see what is coming. The novel’s modern chapters end before the 21st century, but the future is foreshadowed in the person of Selim Malik, who finds himself hiding out at Wychwood in 1989 after he becomes involved in the publication of an unnamed author’s notorious book. “The story you’re all so worked up about is over,” he says to a journalist writing about the supposed end of the Cold War. “The story I’m part of is the one you need to think about.”

A little heavy handed, maybe – but we know Selim is right. No doubt, however, Wychwood will endure. The landscape of this novel – its grounds and waters and walls – is magically and movingly evoked, and remains in the imagination long after the reader passes beyond its gates. 

Erica Wagner’s “Chief Engineer: the Man Who Built the Brooklyn Bridge” is published by Bloomsbury

Erica Wagner is a New Statesman contributing writer and a judge of the 2014 Man Booker Prize. A former literary editor of the Times, her books include Ariel's Gift: Ted Hughes, Sylvia Plath and the Story of “Birthday Letters” and Seizure.

This article first appeared in the 25 May 2017 issue of the New Statesman, Why Islamic State targets Britain

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