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

Show Hide image

Women on the edge: new films Jackie and Christine are character studies of haunted women

With their claustrophobic close-ups and desolate wide shots, both films are stunning portraits of life on the brink.

Jacqueline Kennedy and Christine Chubbuck may not have had much in common in real life – the former briefly the US first lady, the latter a put-upon television news reporter in the early 1970s in Sarasota, Florida – but two new films named after them are cut resolutely from the same cloth. Jackie and Christine are character studies of haunted women in which the claustrophobic close-up and the desolate wide shot are the predominant forms of address.

Both films hinge on fatal gunshots to the head and both seek to express cinematically a state of mind that is internal: grief and loss in Jackie, which is set mainly in the hours and days after the assassination of President John F Kennedy; depression and paranoia in Christine. In this area, they rely heavily not only on hypnotically controlled performances from their lead actors but on music that describes the psychological contours of distress.

Even before we see anything in Jackie, we hear plunging chords like a string section falling down a lift shaft. This is the unmistakable work of the abrasive art rocker Mica Levi. Her score in Jackie closes in on the ears just as the tight compositions by the cinematographer Stéphane Fontaine exclude the majority of the outside world. The Chilean director Pablo Larraín knows a thing or two about sustaining intensity, as viewers of his earlier work, including his Pinochet-era trilogy (Tony Manero, Post Mortem and No), will attest. Though this is his first English-language film, there is no hint of any softening. The picture will frustrate anyone hoping for a panoramic historical drama, with Larraín and the screenwriter Noah Oppenheim irising intently in on Jackie, played with brittle calm by Natalie Portman, and finding the nation’s woes reflected in her face.

Bit-players come and go as the film jumbles up the past and present, the personal and political. A journalist (Billy Crudup), nameless but based on Theodore White, arrives to interview the widow. Her social secretary, Nancy Tuckerman (Greta Gerwig), urges her on with cheerleading smiles during the shooting of a stiff promotional film intended to present her warmly to the public. Her brother-in-law Bobby (Peter Sarsgaard) hovers anxiously nearby as she negotiates the chasm between private grief and public composure. For all the bustle around her, the film insists on Jackie’s aloneness and Portman gives a performance in which there is as much tantalisingly concealed as fearlessly exposed.

A different sort of unravelling occurs in Christine. Antonio Campos’s film begins by showing Christine Chubbuck (Rebecca Hall) seated next to a large box marked “fragile” as she interviews on camera an empty chair in which she imagines Richard Nixon to be sitting. She asks of the invisible president: “Is it paranoia if everyone is indeed coming after you?” It’s a good question and one that she doesn’t have the self-awareness to ask herself. Pressured by her editor to chase juicy stories, she goes to sleep each night with a police scanner blaring in her ears. She pleads with a local cop for stories about the darker side of Sarasota, scarcely comprehending that the real darkness lies primarily within her.

For all the shots of TV monitors displaying multiple images of Christine in this beige 1970s hell, the film doesn’t blame the sensationalist nature of the media for her fractured state. Nor does it attribute her downfall entirely to the era’s sexism. Yet both of those things exacerbated problems that Chubbuck already had. She is rigid and off-putting, all severe straight lines, from her haircut and eyebrows to the crossed arms and tight, unsmiling lips that make it difficult for anyone to get close to her. That the film does break through is down to Hall, who illuminates the pain that Christine can’t express, and to the score by Danny Bensi and Saunder Jurriaans. It’s perky enough on the surface but there are cellos sawing away sadly underneath. If you listen hard enough, they’re crying: “Help.” 

Ryan Gilbey is the New Statesman's film critic. He is also the author of It Don't Worry Me (Faber), about 1970s US cinema, and a study of Groundhog Day in the "Modern Classics" series (BFI Publishing). He was named reviewer of the year in the 2007 Press Gazette awards.

This article first appeared in the 19 January 2017 issue of the New Statesman, The Trump era